Thanksgiving Is Ruined
May 12, 2009
from un collecteur to uncollector
Novelist Joshua Cohen uses a new review of a few books about or by J. Zorn as a springboard into a wonderful digression about an estimable career -- a career we might call "international garbage man":
[Walter Benjamin] was the first to consider seriously the activities of the Collector, whom he established as an emblematic urban personality, flâneuring through a rush hour's undifferentiated mass in desperate search of only one thing -- whatever other people miss. This person used to be Benjamin himself, and it used to be Marcel Proust, who collated and rewrote easily ignored, easily forgotten observations and overheard remarks into a novel that provided the deepest possible literary engagement with the surface reality of his time.
The above makes some insightful linkages that tempt one
["one" = an arguably ludicrous & tiresome pedant, like TiR]to go back to the sources to test their support. Cohen also seems to invite us to wonder: Why did those two individuals collect things, back then? Why do "we" collect, if we do, now? How have the motivations of the collector changed, if at all, between then and now?
Thus, on Proust as a connoisseur of the overheard, we find in Swann's Way, early on
Beneath the everyday incidents, the commonplace thoughts and hackneyed words, I could hear, or overhear, an intonation, a rhythmic utterance fine and strange.
& on MP's possible self-identity as a collector, the narrator of Time Regained characterizes his method like this:
In the same way, a collector who is shown the wing of an altar screen, remembers the church or museum or private collection in which the others are dispersed (as also, by following sale-catalogues or searching among dealers in antiques, he finally discovers the twin object to the one he possesses which makes them a pair and thus can mentally reconstitute the predella and the entire altar-piece).
In what we know as the Arcades Project, WB kerplunks the preceding "altar-piece" bit into his section H, the "collector" section, and nudges the analytical ball further along to wonder about the whys of the collector, in his day:
What is decisive in collecting is that the object is detached from all its original functions in order to enter into the closest conceivable relation to things of all the same kind. This relation is the diametric opposite of any utility . . .
Well, not exactly, on that last point: WB elsewhere in the same section explains that "one may start" from an even earlier start -- the "start of the start"? We are told that we can "deduce" the following consequence
[t]he positive countertype to the collector -- which also, insofar as it entails the liberation of things from the drudgery of being useful, represents the consummation of the collector
from the premise below:
Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it –- when it exists for us as capital.
That last, capital-related connection above sounds a chord with a note that rings familiar to contemporary, übercynical ears. Nowadays, maybe we
[or "we," or TiR, or us in our most exhausted & pessimistic moods, etc.best "understand" collecting when there's money to be made at it. We automatically ask: Can the collection be sold as a commodity? If not, can you at least compile your narration of how you amassed your collection, then sell that? OK, then the collection makes sense. That's healthy.
[TiR could digress here into wondering about a dystopian future in which sickness or health come to be defined exclusively in terms of whether the attribute contributes to the agent's fitness for competition in the marketplace.]
However, to the increased extent to which a collection will be entirely unmarketable to anyone ever, then collecting it appears to us as hoarding behavior, and pathological, unhygenic and incomprehensible. Nowadays,
[or at TiR's lower, and more crabbed, claustrophobic and overly analytical moments]unless we catch ourselves in mid-thought, we tend mechanically to relegate any attitude or activity that betrays a lack of cynicism and calculation to the realm of the foolish, the just plain weird, or even the inhuman -- or TiR fears that everyone else has begun to see things this way, and can smell our sickness in not yet having gotten on board.
So TiR has an increasingly hard time wrapping its ever narrowing, one inch mind around why Proust or Benjamin collected the "trash" they did (as Cohen would have it), especially if the trash could not be converted foreseeably at some point into a sellable commodity and someone else's treasure. To bridge several decades of historical distance becomes an increasingly unreachable imaginative stretch -- all the more so when only four months ago can seem like incomprehensibly weird ancient history.
Were MP and WB special? Or were they typical, but fortunate enough to be collectors during a now bygone era of a generally less market-minded and commodity-obsessed collector environment?
Though TWA, for one, writing in the USA in the mid-40s, thought he detected a general shift to a new model of greed and, with it, a new kind of collector:
There are two kinds of greed. One is the archaic kind, the passion which begrudges nothing to oneself and others. . . . It comes to fruition in the miser. . . . The miser is related to the collector, the manic one or the great lover. . . . Now and then one still runs across them as curiosities in the local section of the newspaper.
If TWA was correct, then today's collectors are three generations further along the descent he described.
In a new work that seems to be the greatest, most recent contribution to the field of "collector studies," William Davies King suggests that uncomprehending others have often demanded him to justify his vast, beloved collections of "nothing" in terms of valuation that a market would understand:
I was surprised to discover a few years ago that Wheaties boxes have become part of the boom in sports memorabilia, and many of the older boxes have become precious. If I had my dad’s cereal boxes, my mother’s dolls, and a lunch box or two from my grade school years, I could summer in Gstaad, courtesy of those crazy collectors!
However, Davies' approach as a collector is clearly out of step with the world in which we live. He writes:
Again, the nothingness I cherish dovetails with the valuable goods discarded by others. I love it all. I love you for what you do not love, what you throw away. There's a paradox in that. I love you for your lack of love for what I love.
Cute, but where's the margin in that?
We suspect that Proust & Benjamin would join Davies, as collectors, on the scrap heap of today and its more "rational" collector model.
Cohen and Davies tempt us into wondering whether they don't point towards the reigning paradigm of wealth creation in the 21st century: the collection of tiny, individually worthless bits that others have overlooked or discarded onto the garbage heap, into an aggregate worth selling.
What qualties does it take, to make money as this new kind of collector?
One quality seems to be patience. The patience is that of the stamp collector who knows,
The stamps themselves may be of little value individually, but in combination they are keenly sought and valued accordingly.
or of the book collector who says,
[M]ost of the time now I view library sales simply as sources of books to sell as group lots. That is, books that are worthless individually (and passed over by the scan monsters) but do OK if grouped together as a collection and sold on eBay as a group lot. It tends to be more profitable for me than looking for the needle in the haystack.
Another quality might be desperation. E.g. as necessary to strip or glean bits of gold, palladium, copper and other metals from discarded computer components in the garbage dumps of Ghana or Guangdong, for aggregation and resale.
We could add to the list "imagination." However, TiR sometimes gloomily speculates that, for some (i.e., our inexcusably solipsistic self!), imagination and even thought, cognition, the thinkable, the limits of belief systems, etc. generally will threaten to become dis/replaced by "computing power," i.e., the precise flipside to the ever-expanding mountain of newly obsolete, digital-era debris just mentioned.
Our half-baked ponderings go past the accumulative logic of the fashionable "Long Tail" concept and its buidling up of the One through the infinitesimal Many, by, for example, technological coordination of the minutiae of inventory control or the marshalling of the power of countless microinvestments.
Beyond that, TiR scratches its slow, dumb head at the swirl that is systems trading, quant investing, black box models, algo trading, Fibonacci patterning, etc. and their iterative momentum, the seductiveness of an engine that promises to tirelessly compile the measurelessly small (to the unaided eye) and near-worthless, and alchemize the aggregate to build measureless riches.
[update 7/27/09:e.g.:Those small payments, spread over millions of shares, help high-speed investors profit simply by trading enormous numbers of shares, even if they buy or sell at a modest loss.
Last month, Prof. John Pfaff wishfully wrote:
If the past year has taught us anything, it is that you generally cannot aggregate worthless things into something worthwhile.
But who, really, has learned this? And, if so, how deeply (at least in the USA)?
Especially when the mindset of today's collector alchemist has on offer the stability derived from the complementary idea of reverse-alchemy, i.e., that the chopping up of a large toxic mass, and the widespread distribution (or hiding) of its smaller particles, will eliminate the toxicity. One financial commentator has defined securitization as nothing other than "the 'slicing and dicing' of risk." From "collector" to "uncollector."
Hence, a constant recycling churn: the collection of trash ==> the "cash for trash" phase ==> the redistribution of trash ==> and the garbage's eventual regathering, resale, and so on.
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. We suppose it all depends on who takes a cut at each step, in whose interests, and who gets caught holding the (plastic) bag (or living atop it).
In an uncharacteristically theory-ish moment, someone once said, "The transformation of waste is perhaps the oldest preoccupation of man."
TiR is tempted to reply: This may be so.
Moreover, there do seem to be some contemporary collectors invested in the bet that the transformational churn will be a lucrative preoccupation in the decades ahead.
However, our truest reply is: