Nothing to Speak About
an essay by William Davies King, author of Collections of Nothing
A dozen years ago, two art historians at my university put together a large exhibition, which they called “Microcosms: A University Collects.” Their point was that universities serve as modern Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosity. Academics gain perspective on the objective world, in part by preserving its instructive examples, but analysis blends into wonder, and so the fanciful and bizarre also settle there. In various galleries, they presented marvels from around the university, including crystals from geologists, artifacts from anthropologists, scores from musicologists, butterflies and bacteria from biologists, all to demonstrate that the knowing enterprise of academia and the owning rapacity of collectors are entwined. Years later, the campus art museum has a room dedicated to this concept, a chamber of wonders, with tchatchkes among the antiquities and masterpieces among the marsupials. But I am not there.
Several months before this exhibition, someone had told them I was a collector, and so we met for lunch. Over the course of that hour, I’m sorry to report, I managed to disappear from view, to become nothing, despite the fact I am a prodigious collector. The main reasons why I failed to connect are two: (1) the things I collect, while plentiful and vast (several tons, roughly 75,000 items), are by definition valueless, and (2) I had not learned to talk the academic talk of collecting, and so I could not articulate the conceptual value of this valuelessness. As art historians, they thought as connoisseurs, yet my objects were entirely below the radar. As scholars alert to a Marxist critique of material culture, they were predisposed to be expansive in their notions of the collectible, so that birds’ nests and comic books might count, as long as the university could be shown to utilize these wonders. But I, though a collector through and through, albeit of zilch, did not register. I was worse than nada, I was nada without voice; I was worse than mute, I was the mute who held in his hands a void.
That was in 1995, a banner year for the study of collecting. Susan Pearce’s On Collecting had just come out—440 dense Routledge pages “comprehending” the European tradition of collecting, in which I (oddly) figured. I found that out in 2005, because that was when I read her book, or, rather, purchased her book and tried reading it. By then, I had also acquired a number of other academic books about collecting—Belk, Muensterberger, Baudrillard…I cannot say I became an expert in the discourse of collecting, but I made an effort. And I continued to collect.
I trace the origins of my collecting into infancy, and I have had few inactive periods since then. I became a self-identified collector over thirty years ago. And the collections grew, with little reflection on my part, until a week before the twin towers fell, when I was at a midlife crossroads. My daughters, who were precocious at 8 and 12, and who had always enjoyed and participated in the collecting, began to ask me why I did it. I had no answer, except that this…nothing was somehow there, for me.
Make no mistake about it, I was in psychotherapy, and had been for years, trying to address the tears in my delicate tissues. Psychoanalysis is a kind of recollecting that is also a collecting. Out of one’s trash, one tries to make treasure, or at least a less stinky form of trash. One accumulates memories, organizes experience, and contains the emotional shock. It’s expensive, and the value is hard to calculate for anyone other than the one undergoing the therapy. On the couch, I came to the subject of my collecting, then I wrote a book.
There, I review the history of becoming a collector, and I explore the logic of why I became a collector of nothing, whose house is full of it. I trace my collecting to problems in object attachment and disturbances in my personal history, but also to the historical fact of living in late capitalism, in which Americans exist among an ever more dazzling array of goods, where the market assignment of value performs in ever stranger ways. My collections resonate a VOID, a sudden, stop-the-check aporia.
What I collect are such things as envelope linings, “Place Stamp Here” squares, dictionary illustrations, price-look-ups, and the miscellaneous stickers that come through the junk mail. I also collect product labels, everything from cereal boxes and water bottle wraps to toothpaste tubes and the little stickers you find on bananas. Now, others collect such things as Wheaties boxes, and Robert Opie made an entire museum in England of product labels. However, those people typically go on a collector’s hunt for their prizes, and they will haunt eBay or dealers to complete their sets, whereas I never do. I only collect from what I use or find, such things as a 1980s-vintage Glamour Puss Fish and Liver Cat Food can label, in vg + condition. My cats, as I recall, did not like this brand, but I liked the label. The whole gist of my collecting is that I have paid nothing for my objects, beyond the cost of the cereal, which I eat, or the fish and liver eaten by the cats. I’ve been doing this for about thirty years, so I have a lot of nothing, and out of it has come this university press book, which is something.
So, apparently, I am an expert—in what? Or, apparently, I am an exemplar—of what? It’s an odd gap in which I find myself, both authority and specimen, yet neither the one nor the other. I come from the academic world, with its accustomed practices. I am an historian of theater and also graduate advisor of our doctoral program in theater studies. Supervising a dissertation, I guide students toward topics about which they can establish authority, which is to know all there is to know about the topic and a little bit more. I guide them to “review the literature,” to show they get the range of the discourse into which they are entering, also to be precise about what new question they propose to ask and answer. Even the narrowest of dissertations must do that work.
Have I done that work? Absolutely not, if we consider the field of “collection studies.” I wrote my book from the authority of the memoirist, which is no authority at all unless you consider me a topic. And I do not conform to the category of collector because I do not align with others in what I collect. My collecting repudiates the value of value as a measure of the collectible. Since value constitutes the collectible, on some level I do not collect. And yet, by the fact of my collecting, my objects acquire value, if only to me, and the less choice an item might be from the market’s point of view, the more precious it is to me, so if indeed I have a collection that is worthless, then I am truly rich.
That’s not the way I feel. I am either the least interesting example of the quintessential collector or the oddest exception to the most boringly ordinary collector. In any case, I am, by my own report, unqualified to make even that judgment about myself as a topic of academic discourse, because I cannot get beyond page 209 of Susan Pearce’s On Collecting. I don’t feel known by her. I don’t feel known by Belk or Baudrillard or…
Maybe that’s not unusual, because collectors, like artists, operate out of unconscious motives, and so we cannot be known to ourselves. We in academia, and especially in the humanities, have developed a range of tools for knowing the unconscious and each other, and yet I still feel I’m in a blindspot of the field.
Collectors connect owning with knowing in a way that is distinct from the way academics do. A collector of automobile bud vases, such as my distant uncle Marshall Belden, who also collected anything else to do with classic cars and Canton, Ohio, probably knew more about his topics than any ladder track professor in the world. However, Routledge is not soon to issue the definitive volume on automobile bud vases, and study of Canton memorabilia awaits even a latitudinal study. He was a crazy collector, but no more susceptible to psychoanalytic study than any other person you might meet, even though he did own a vintage fire engine or two. Not a thing he bought is beyond resale, and a good automotive bud vase will fetch a pretty penny from a collector, who will know just what he’s buying. The study of collecting must deal with such backwaters of the known. Is there such a thing as grass roots knowledge? I imagine this question comes up frequently at popular studies conferences, where scholars mingle with buffs, and academics confess to a sideline in creature features or karaoke.
Collectors might know tons about what they do and yet still not know collecting the way a scholar in the field of collecting studies does. In fact, nearly all the books you find in the “Collecting” section of a good bookstore will be price guides for hobbyists. Most of the academic books on collecting wind up in Museum or Cultural Studies, Anthropology or Psychology, Art or History. Oddly, this field does not know its subject, and its subject does not know itself. Collecting is all over the bookstore or university—in some ways, it is the bookstore or university—and yet, it also has no place. Collecting is a mode of knowing that is not generally self-reflexive in the way that university knowledge demands. UCSB gains nothing from the fact that I have the world’s largest collection of Place Stamp Here squares. They gain nothing, except for the fact that I could write that sentence and deliver it at an academic conference, but what does that guarantee, except that I have not been doing my job? My collecting degree zero begs the question of its own insubordination.
To put this another way, I am both topic and expert, but problematic in both roles because I am atypical and subversive. I disrupt clear resolution of the discourse because I disappear neither into pure example nor into transparency, in knowing the oddity I am for what it is. “An outlying case”: these words might belong on my gravestone or on the Hollinger box of my archive. Those boxes, which have become the standard, grey, acid-free tomb of the institutional collection, currently run at about twenty dollars per cubic foot of capacity. Who, I wonder, could possibly enfold me at that rate? How could I be covered, how could I be known, if my collected I, which returns little on the dollar, extends to infinity, and also to zero?
Collecting invaded my life, and now, by way of the book, it invades the world, and I predict my nothing will not prove simple to encase or unpack. It seems I will require further study, though I am my own most elusive subject, like the Cheshire cat, a glamour puss without the can, an effort without the will, nothing to speak about except for a smile. Or even that.