I wrote an essay in response to
The collection of The working class Movement Library, established by Ruth and Eddie Frow has grown into an enchanting assortment of books, pamphlets and paraphernalia. The Frow's initial collection, of literature rather than souvenirs, is accompanied by the kind of anecdotal evidence which conflates them with the concept of the classic obsessive collector. The tales of holidays taken up with book buying, a 1937 Morris Van weighed down and a house with no room for a television are typical. While the Frows unequivocally asserted that their motives were entirely political, there is still something inherently problematic in the idea of a (to some degree) Marxist collector. Collecting has been associated with the Marxist concept of commodity fetishism, and it is with this in mind that I seek to discuss the troubling nature of objects using the collection of the W.C.M.L as a case study and point of departure.
Firstly, we must suspend knowledge of the Frows' particular passion in order to discuss the act of collecting and its relation to the object in, or commodity in general. This is in order to criticise collecting from a Marxist perspective, and then to explore how this can be bypassed or subverted by certain examples, or indeed by the nature of contemporary collecting as a particular mode of consumption. The chief sin of collecting in Marxist terms is that it is materialistic. There is pleasure in hunting out of additions to the ever-growing collection that will never be complete, and it would seem at first glance that this is absolutely in line with commodity fetishism. The value which a collector projects into the object which they desire goes far beyond the nature of the object, or the labour which achieved it. Collecting has been discussed in terms of filling a void, or acting as a method by which the subject seeks to augment their impoverished identity. Russel W. Belk in Collecting in a Consumer Society defines object fetishism thus; “In conflating the signifier with the signified, the fetish object is believed to have the power of that which it merely represents”1. With this in mind we can begin to understand the sheer power that objects have over the typical collector. Although the Frows were compiling very particular objects which are interesting in their own right, they were still undoubtedly collectors, conforming to too many of the conventions of collecting to be exempt from analysis within them.
In his discussion of the collected object's relation to materialism Belk cites consumer theorists Marsha Richins and Scott Dawson who distinguish terminal materialism, buying for the sake of having, from instrumental materialism, acquiring an object which you will then use to serve a further purpose. This distinction is essential in seeking to understand collecting, as at first it appears to be a clean-cut case of terminal materialism. However if we consider the object's destination; the collection as a whole, as well as the emotional and intellectual effects of collecting on the collector it becomes clear that it can also be seen as instrumental materialism. The object, although it is not a tool in the traditional sense, has a purpose. Indeed, collecting has often been defined as a special form of materialism or consumption, somehow more meaningful and thus justifiable in philosophical terms than others. In order to elucidate this singular characteristic of collecting against all other forms of consumption I will look to Walter Benjamin. There are is an obvious parallel between his evocative account of amassing and organising a library, and the Frows' own library, as Pil and Galia Kollectiv have eloquently interpreted this; “He is unique in celebrating the constructive, creative or even critical value of mass consumer culture as distinct from capitalism per se”2. Benjamin attached a mythical importance to the objects he collected, submerging his analysis in the creative potential of collecting. This involvement with objects on such a deep level could in fact to some degree bypass the negative connotations of commodity fetishism; “Benjamin traces a different kind of engagement with objects that the one permitted by bourgeois reason”3. In his passionate attachment to his objects, Benjamin looks to their history; the biography of an object, it's previous ownership and 'life' is an essential part of it's appeal. Thus, the treatment of an object by a collector subverts capitalist materialism, as instead of being merely transferred from the market to the home, it is saved, often from obscurity, and elevated as a part of history4. The collected object is rescued from the frenetic continuum of trade, and as such collecting confounds materialism, and so can in fact be compatible with a politically radical, anti-capitalist outlook.
Furthermore, Collecting is an action and as such must be differentiated from the static collection, we must pay heed to the activity as well as the object. An important part of the drive to collect is the pleasure in acquisition rather than ownership, which initially sets it apart from the mere purchase of status items; “besides its emphasis on possessive having, collecting also involves an emphasis on acquisitive doing”5. This doing, this action, is evidenced in the Frows' travelling, seeking out new additions to their ever growing library. Benjamin also describes travel as an meaningful aspect of collecting; “I have made my most memorable purchases on trips, as a transient”6. This emphasis on travel, the mission of collecting can be seen to relate to the interpretation of the collector as Hero. Belk proposes a scale with two differing conceptions of the collector at either end; at one tip is the pathetic lonely obsessive, unable to maintain human relationships due to their reliance on objects, and at the other, the romantic and passionate heroic collector. The Frows have definitely been cast as heroic collectors, working to preserve what would otherwise be lost, and struggling against the transience of modern media and the wastefulness of society. In conjunction with this recognition of the collector in a positive and noble light Belk proposes a paradox, that collecting can at once be possessive materialism, yet also a labour of love.
While the above analysis can be applied to the W.C.M.L and the Frows, their literary collection is distinct from the kind which Benjamin writes about. They were actively, and a consciously seeking to document a particular history, although still acting on the emotional, passionate level of the typical collector. It would perhaps be unfair to discuss their collection purely in terms of the types which Belk focuses on, of toys, beer cans, and bottles. Although it would be equally naive not to question the Frows' collecting, for it arguably of the same essential ilk, in dealing with objects. While the literature which they originally set out to amass was sought for the information it contained or the ideals which it represented, and not the fact of its object-hood, we could posit that amid the labor of seeking and hoarding this noble cause could have evolved. The Frows themselves described their actual collecting in terms of the negative obsession to which Belk refers, as a disease. It is clear from their personal account that it had taken over their lives, in the same way it has done with so many collectors of objects deemed less important to history. Therefore,again, the Frows' example can be legitimately placed within the same category as modern collecting in general, and can be discussed in the same way, regardless of the vital nature of the objects they chose.
Thus far I have discussed the Frows' collection as if it were purely personal, existing in the home. Indeed this is how it began, but it is now public in the form of the W.C.M.L and as such it is necessary examine the way in which it can fit within the wider tradition of museums. Belk posits the concept of a museum of ideas, questioning our object-centric account of history, an idea which it is interesting to apply to the W.C.M.L. The accounts which are documented in the collection could feasibly be written-up or archived, so why is it deemed important to preserve the actual objects? Here we must refer again to Benjamin's emotional and personal account of the relationship between collector and object; undoubtedly the preservation of the objects in the W.C.M.L collection is due in large part to their biographies, the makers of political pamphlets, the people who fought for these causes. It is with this human connection that an aura has developed around the literary collection, and with the paraphernalia and souvenirs which have been donated by others the collection gains a more concrete sense of place, as in the Object Lessons exhibition where a room is created. This creation of a shared, emotive territory provokes a realisation of the way in which collecting can foster community. As Belk asserts; “the collector pursues a corrective to the alienation of the general market”7, and this point can apply to any collection, not just those with a political motive. With this in mind, returning to the concept of the museum we must ask; how can a collection maintain its legitimacy and aura in an institutional setting? Pil and Galia Kollectiv ask which is better, the public or the private display; the public museum is more use as an archive, yet collecting by its very nature subverts the utility of objects and in line with this the private collector is able to invest care in, and have a relationship with the objects. Without this human connection of care and feeling, which as we have established is an essential part of modern collecting, can the collection still be said to confound materialism? Although, the W.C.M.L whilst existing as a public library and museum can be said to pervert expectations of the Museum as an institution...
Belk criticises Museums on the grounds that what is generally displayed in them has been acquired only by the upper classes, as we display the best and most precious objects; “by virtue of primarily collecting and displaying objects that once belonged to the rich, we celebrate and pay homage to a system of status based on material wealth”.8 The W.C.M.L does not fall within Belk's generalisation, as well as elevating a history as all collections do, the W.C.M.L is specifically ennobling the history of an under-represented social class and in this way builds on the subversive nature of modern collections as they have been defined here, making an explicitly political statement. Initially in consideration of the Frows' collection I wondered; in a collection does it matter what the objects are, or just that they are objects? In the case of the W.C.M.L the radical attributes of the collection are undoubtedly important, but it is also representative of many aspects of the quintessential modern collection. When viewed in a capsule as in Object Lessons, we must not lose sight of how meaningful this particular treatment of objects is, and what it means within the context of capitalist materialism. In order to subvert capitalism perhaps there is no need to be anti-objects, instead we can treat them as repositories of human history and achievement, with historical, aesthetic and emotional over monetary value.
2Pil and Galia Kollectiv
4Point made by Pil and Galia Kollectiv
5 Belk p.140
7 Belk, p.151
8 Belk, p.156
Belk, Russel W. Collecting in a Consumer Society Routledge (1995)
Benjamin, Walter "Unpacking my Library" in Walter Benjamin: Selected writings Volume 2 1927 - 1934 Harvard (1999)
Pil and Galia Kollectiv www.kollectiv.co.uk/Benjamin Collecting.html