Friday, January 2, 2009


Collecting—whether autographs, beer cans, baseball cards, comic books, stamps or records—is an activity that borders on the autistic. Autists, obsessed with the most obscure minutiae, are noted for their strange and unusual collections: birthdates of minor character actors of the silent film era, for instance, or even bus transfers. What distinguishes the autist collector from other collectors is the value of the collection: a collection of hundreds of bus transfers or obscure birth dates has little if any monetary value, while a record collection, in contrast, does, although the value of the latter may fluctuate wildly over the course of a decade.

Collecting of any kind is a parody of scientific endeavor. Like the scientist, the collector engages in empirical research, fieldwork, meticulous cataloguing, systematizing, and the diligent recording of exceptions, variations, and one-of-a-kind specimens. But like the stereotype of the exotic butterfly collector lost in the immensity of a vast and tangled rain forest, collectors are committed to a life of obsessive compulsion coupled with a willingness to engage without compunction in wasteful and extravagant expenditure: no sacrifice—typically of a financial kind—is too great. For the record collector, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of manufactured consumer goods (similar to the bewildering diversity of nature), dedicates himself or herself to the mastery and ownership of a discrete kind of material object. The activity borders on the autistic because its pleasure is derived from the illusion of mastery over what is essentially a vast, bewildering complexity, which is why collecting—in its excessively narrow focus—is a parody of the scientific enterprise. Record collectors gather pressings, editions, and variations with the single-mindedness of the most obsessive butterfly collector.

The goal of the collector—a mock profession in the sense that there is no income resulting from it, only a guarantee that the collection is, metaphorically, much like an investment—is the wunderkammerthe cabinet of wonders. The power of the wunderkammer is premised on being the biggest, the most complete, the strangest, the most outré—an assemblage premised on plenitude, extravagance, and—presumably because of its totality—beauty.

We ought to remember that collecting, as Theodor Adorno observed almost seventy years ago, is enabled because one can transform experience (for instance, the recognizing of a specific tune) into an object, thus making it capable of ownership.

Theodor Adorno with George Simpson, “On Popular Music,” in Studies in Philosophy and Social Science 9 (1941), pp. 17-48.
Dave Marsh and James Bernard, The New Book of Rock Lists. Fireside: 1994.
Rosamond Wolff Purcell and Stephen Jay Gould, Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors. W. W. Norton, 1992.
Lewis Shiner, Glimpses. Avon, 1993.

No comments: