Monday, January 2, 2012


The New York Times recently posted a web page, "Why We Collect Stuff," featuring various experts weighing in on the phenomenon of collecting. While purportedly a "debate," the positions aren't really about collecting, or its history, or its complex role in broader realms of audiencing and the arts, but rather about the fine line between collecting and hoarding. Unfortunately, as a whole, it reads a lot like media analyses in the 1980s which sensationally--and wrongly, in my opinion--portrayed fandom as amusing on the surface but always ready to tip over into stalking and murder. (John Hinckley and Mark David Chapman were, in this analytical frame, simply extreme versions of any Trekkie or teenybopper). Why assert, as do several of the Times debaters, that collecting is all well and good in a quick opening sentence and then outline in lengthy detail how it can become a problem? Why connect collecting and hoarding at all?

I expect better from the Times. The narrowness of the debate stems, perhaps, from the fact that several of the debaters are psychologists specializing in compulsion disorders. Few elaborate very deeply on material culture and its long-standing role in creating meaning, memory, and identity for individuals and communities. And few acknowledge the growing academic work on collecting, which suggests that it is not a single behavior, good or bad, but rather an analytical category pointing to a range of human practices that articulate people's relationships with the material world. Where were the curators, anthropologists, and historians? They would have provided definitions of relics, souvenirs, exhibits, artifacts, and collectibles; shown how such items can be made meaningful through accumulation, association, interpretation, gifting, narrative; and situated collecting into wider contexts of imperialism, commericialization, ritual, and the modern self.  

At any rate, check it out, if you want. But do so knowing that there is better analysis and research out there, including the work of Walter Benjamin, Jean Baudrillard, Susan M. Pearce, Susan Stewart, John Elsner, Seth C. Bruggeman, Leonard J. Davis, Daniela Bleichmar and Peter C. Mancall.

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