Building a Better Me

5.3 / On Collecting

Building a Better Me

By Christina Catherine Martinez February 6, 2014

“Woe to the collector with a complete collection.”

—Tibor Fischer, The Collector Collector1

1. He loved it, he said, he really did, but it had to go: It didn’t fit within the larger framework. This is grand talk for a shirt, but my partner is in the slow, plodding throes of building the perfect wardrobe, which, to him, means that every single item can be paired with any other item. He says perfect modularity means not having to think about getting dressed in the morning. I say that actually attaining such a wardrobe would rob him of the leisure time spent devising a strategy for attaining it in the first place.

The amassing and fine-tuning of not just objects, but knowledge, is truly the work of the collector.

2. I happen to be in the middle of Tibor Fischer’s The Collector Collector, a bildungsroman about a sentient piece of ancient pottery, narrated by the object himself. (The object’s competitive streak and flowery, intricate descriptions of female bodies suggest the hetero-masculine pronoun.) He flashes back through favorite and least-favorite owners in his long and varied life from the vantage point of a young art dealer’s crappy NYC apartment. Like all collectors, he catalogs his “possessions”—past owners, but more generally, people—into distinct types. Since 843 B.C., our narrator has logged two hundred and twenty styles of bosoms, two thousand types of belly buttons, dozens of types of jerks, a hundred varieties of liars, etc., each with a name or number that he immediately calls to the forefront of his mind upon recognition. Poetically, he catalogs even the ostensibly indeterminate facts of our existence. (To date, he recognizes ninety-two types of surprise.) The amassing and fine-tuning of not just objects, but knowledge, is truly the work of the collector.

Unsurprisingly, our narrator’s favorite possessor of all time—a 19th-century Estonian noblewoman— also happens to be a collector of people: specifically, mad poets, who spend their days not so much writing poetry as engaging in maniacal pathologies that are tangentially related to the practice of writing poetry. If her charges are writers at all, they are terrible ones. The very fact that they are dysfunctional is what makes them collectible. The greatest danger to her collection’s integrity is the near admission of a poet who was not really mad. Individually, they're worthless as poets, but together are rather perfect in their uniform uselessness. Damaged objects become oddly desirable in the aggregate.2 Likewise, the collector's specialized knowledge must fill the hole left behind by the object’s non-functionality. Crucially, this knowledge is never perfected; it is too caked with the fetor of love.

Aurora Crispin, A Selection of Everything, 2012; installation view, Important Projects, Oakland. Courtesy of Important Projects. Photo: Important Projects.

3. In 2005, Aurora Crispin set out to photograph every single one of her possessions, from boots to books to dust bunnies. There is a sweetness to the impossibility of her mission, even as the photos of the things themselves suggest some vague finality, like memento mori of an ever-receding present. Some things are photographed separately, some in random groups. The lighting is subdued and slightly beatific. The objects sit unperturbed in the middle of a white, seamless background like unlikely recipients of some newfound fame, rubbing their eyes in the glare of a flashbulb. There is a flaccid hair elastic, the kind with a ball at each end that guys never seem to understand how to work. Elsewhere is a used, and surprisingly beautiful, lavender-colored Kleenex, its corners splayed out azalea-like around a tight center knot concealing the dark heart of booger. The project’s title, A Selection of Everything, invites us to follow the logical thread surrounding the banality of such an arbitrary collection; anything is a selection of everything.

Crispin’s project removes the motivational cathexis at the heart of collecting, leaving in its place the question of the roles of objects in our lives beyond their quotidian usefulness (e.g., holding hair up and depositing snot). We are conditioned to lust after the special edition, the mint condition, the limited-time-only, objects as special as we'd like to think we are, objects on which to hang the abstract notions of what we sheepishly call our real selves. It says something that I never got into the practical habit of carrying packs of tissue in my bag, and it maybe says something more that I buy said tissues—impulsively, intermittently— only when they’re laden with a funny print. I don't want them for blowing my nose; I want them to attest to my personality. This logic is so stupid that I may as well just take a picture of the tissue in question. It will last longer.

4. On a mild November day in Los Angeles, a package from Japan arrived at the offices of Classic Fountain Pens Inc. in West Hollywood. Inside was a handcrafted fountain pen, finished with layers of inky black Urushi lacquer and smooth as a bullet. The pen was inlaid with gold, worked and etched to depict two frolicking dogs. The relief is so large and detailed that it wraps around the barrel of the pen, making the dog’s tails nearly touch their open, smiling mouths. The man who was soon to own this pen paid nearly $3,000 to have it custom-made with the portraits of his two pets, one of whom was already dying when the order was placed, and had passed by the time the pen was ready several months later. The deceased companion is noted by his eye color (black) in contrast to that of his playmate’s (red); a gold inlay of a dove on the cap represents his spirit. I try my best to feel the amity of this thing, bridging the divides of one man's seemingly disparate loves. I don’t really get it, but as the heavy lacquer warms in my hand, I am almost—almost—moved to tears.

The function collectible objects play beyond being merely collectable is always in flux.

5. A collection is an arrangement of language and objects toward a social purpose. Every collection of things needs a corresponding collection of people orbiting it. Think about the bidding fever that infects auctions; your desire inflames mine: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another."3

6. The function collectible objects play beyond being merely collectable is always in flux. It’s largely a matter of whether the person acting upon the object at any given moment is part of the constellation of knowledge that surrounds it: its various types and iterations, its unique place within some hierarchy of value understood by the selected few. For example, the first-order capacity of a vintage Rolex Oyster Perpetual with a black leather band is to tell time. Its second-order capacities include: adding flourish to an already-firm handshake, flexing a bit of taste in the face of those who opt for the flashier solid-gold chain link band, and, perhaps most crucially, marking oneself as recognizable to anyone who can appreciate the second-order capacities of such an instrument.

A certain milestone in the advancement of a civilization can be said to take place when the knowledge of objects reaches a level of sophistication such that the knowledge itself becomes a mark of culture. The internet has accelerated this process, democratizing the dissemination of exactly the sort of specialized knowledge endemic to any type of collecting. With enough strut, an hour or two of strategic Googling can pass as full baptism in the fount of say, 19th-century patent medicine bottles. (Did you know the patents actually referred to the shapes of the bottles, not their contents?) Centuries earlier, Denis Diderot aimed to remove specialized knowledge from the sole control of guilds, and others who might hoard information, with his first Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers in 1751; a democratic and revolutionary gesture.

You can of course collect encyclopedias, too.

Screen shot of a Tumblr dedicated to "bookshelf porn." Courtesy of the author.

7. In no item do the two traits of collected objects—usefulness, first, and value, second—overlap so cleanly as with clothing. Clothing offers up information about the owner while covering nakedness. A body needs protection from the elements, but there is a reason few are eager to run around in those identical silver unitards so often trotted out in utopian visions of the future. Everyone, by necessity, collects clothing, so what does it mean to say you are a collector of clothes—why is it perceived as redundant, frivolous? How do magazine articles exhorting women to purge anything they haven't worn in six months exist on the same planet as primers on the artful acquisition of fountain pens and old medicine bottles? Obscure collections are charming, but proving one's dedication to fashion is a pyrrhic victory: The depth of your devotion reveals the shallowness of your character. "Serious" clothing collectors—think of Vogue Sittings Editor Hamish Bowles and his historically significant, museum-quality archive of important couture pieces—are serious because they do not actually wear the things they collect. Although certain collectors may wear their possessions, the essential non-functionality of such clothing, like Odile's mad poets, is what makes them worthy collectibles.

I collect clothes. I kind of always have. But I like to wear them, so I have often been ill-garbed for just about any occasion, choosing instead to bear the burden of my taste. Now I can “curate” an online mood board from home in the relative comfort of a kimono and slippers. (I'm no animal, after all.) I used to divert rivers of molten vitriol toward my best friend's girlfriend because she had a fur vault. Now, when I can’t have the things I want, sharing images of those things among a similarly preoccupied community of fellow online collectors (more commonly called “fashion bloggers”) is a fine substitute for actual ownership. The early days of the web simply mobilized collectors on message boards and chat rooms; they were places to learn more, sure, but there was a minimum requirement of knowledge for entry. Sites like Pinterest and Tumblr not only facilitate the amassing of cultural capital via the expression of one's personal taste, they also eliminate the precondition of specialized knowledge needed to belong to a community of likeminded connoisseurs. The stuff is already out there—digitally— for you to collect, to heart, to like, to re-pin (or discard, just as easily). A digital image can be as abandoned as any poorly cared-for object. When you unlike something on Tumblr, the heart icon that represents your former allegiance literally breaks, turns gray, fades away, and “dies.”

Screen shot of the author's Etsy favorites. Courtesy of the author.

8. Barthes’s The Fashion System (1981) articulated the shared language, the constellation of words and images that the fashion industry at large must perpetuate in order to perpetuate itself.4 But now, thanks to this thing called the Fashion Blog and this social-media-enabled space called the Fashion Blogosphere, there is a multiplicity of fashion systems. They are dynamic and revisionist, and we are making them up as we go along, flipping the object the bird when we can afford to have it. Clothes now say more about us than ever, and we don’t even have to own a particular garment to claim ownership of it. Isn’t it so much easier—and affordable—to curate a collection of digital images that telegraph your knowledge as opposed to a clunky throng of stuff? On a blog, images are corralled as objects and projected out as concepts. Mini fashion systems are born and die every day, like stars.   

9. Collecting is the work of fencing off some discernible patch of belonging amid the wild landscape of existence, to lay down what Fischer calls “a strip of index" across "the diaspora of being.”5 Walter Benjamin didn’t believe collected objects came alive in the care of their owner; rather, “It is he who lives in them.”6 They certainly do their part in articulating something ineffable on our behalf, even if the connection is forged through the miasma of cyberspace. The Benjaminian aura has been replaced by the glow of the screen. And who am I to question the rarified nature of this new intimacy? I bask in it all the time.


  1. Tibor Fischer, The Collector Collector (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company), 57.
  2. This accounts for the strange magic behind Andy Warhol's Shot Marilyns. Despite Warhol’s approval of stray splatters, off-registration screens, and other “mistakes” accumulated in the production process, it was performance artist Dorothy Podber shooting a bullet into the silkscreens that truly marked them as individual and irrevocably unique objects in space and time. Podber’s subsequent banishment from the Factory wasn’t because of property damage (surely, the canvases could easily be screened again).  By shooting the paintings, Podber had made them something other than popular: she made them special.
  3. Proverbs 27:17, New International Version.
  4. See Roland Barthes, The Fashion System (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).
  5. Tibor Fischer, The Collector Collector (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company), 57.
  6. Walter Benjamin, "Unpacking My Library," in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 67.

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