Abject / Collect

… let none of the nuances or small happenings escape even though they might seem to mean nothing. And above all, classify them

There is nothing much to say: I could not pick up the paper, that’s all.
I very much like to pick up chestnuts, old rags and especially papers. It is pleasant to me to pick them up, to close my hand on them; with a little encouragement I would carry them to my mouth the way children do. Anny went into a white rage when I picked up the corners of heavy, sumptuous papers, probably soiled by excrement. In summer or the beginning of autumn, you can find remnants of sun-baked newspapers in gardens, dry and fragile as dead leaves, so yellow you might think they had been washed with picric acid. In winter, some pages are pounded to pulp; crushed, stained, they return to the earth. Others quite new when covered with ice, all white, all throbbing, are like swans about to fly, but the earth has already caught them from below. They twist and tear themselves from the mud, only to be finally flattened out a little further on. It is good to pick up all that. Sometimes I simply feel them, looking at them closely; other times I tear them to hear their drawn-out crackling, or, 
if they are damp, I light them, not without difficulty; then I wipe my muddy hands on a wall or tree trunk.
So, today, I was watching the riding boots of a cavalry officer who was leaving his barracks. As I followed them with my eyes, I saw a piece of paper lying beside a puddle. I thought the officer was going to crush the paper into the mud with his heel, but no: he straddled paper and puddle in a single step. I went up to it: it was a lined page, undoubtedly torn from a school notebook. The rain had drenched and twisted it, it was covered with blisters and swellings like a burned hand. The red line of the margin was smeared into a pink splotch; ink had run in places. The bottom of the page disappeared beneath a crust of mud. I bent down, already rejoicing at the touch of this pulp, fresh and tender, which I should roll in my fingers into greyish balls… I was unable.
I stayed bent down for a second, I read “Dictation: The White Owl,” then I straightened up, 
empty-handed. I am no longer free, I can no longer do what I will.
Objects should not touch because they are not alive. You use them, put them back in place, you live among them: they are useful, nothing more. But they touch me, it is unbearable. I am afraid of being in contact with them as though they were living beasts.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Low collection, lowly collection.
“Objects should not touch…”
“I am afraid of being in contact with them…”

If classification is an order, is that order an expulsion? We collect things in order to throw them away – visibly. To see these things rejected, ordered; collected, exiled.

We live in an anaphobic society, in the idolisation of novelty it fears repetition. A phobia of phobia, there is a continual call to face your fear. Stick a pin through the spider.

“Been there, seen that, done it.” We have all heard this refrain; it may be advertising, it may be real life, this may be someone you know: Thrill junkies, world travellers, the beautiful people (and we can collect group definitions as we horde resentments). “They”; we allow ourselves to believe, are forming into a special class of collector. Emotion turned to ephemera, sensation packaged as series of statements.
The trip.
The buzz.
The vibe.
The high.
And that special mania of the field which is tourism; the collector as eye and bowel movement, opened up onto a previously unimaginable scale. This is partially achieved by simply denying that this is tourism. People will pay for the luxury of no luxury. A series of life style statements.
A traveller.
An explorer.
Sports enthusiast.
Snow boarder.
Mountain biker.
Not the tourist thing at all, this collection of places and sensations, seem barely to class as a purchase at all.
Something money cannot buy.
I was there.
No fear.

And that is just what I am trying to find, a fear so palpable it becomes an object. An object that does not touch. Because it is not alive it should not touch. The dead object touching the living object makes an abject subject. A collation of subject and non-subject make for a suspect deviation.

But look, if you can collect then you can order, nothing need ever touch. Death. No touching, not without my say so. Only knowledge can circumnavigate a collection. At best it is perfectly solipsistic: Choose any object within the collection and from the information embedded therein, the inevitable references, reverberations, echoes and clues, we will be cast out on an adventure. Albeit and adventure within a frame. The routes are prescribed, predicted, and perfectly calibrated so that eventually, if not repeatedly, the seeker is turned around all the far corners of the collection to find, at end, beginning; the original object.

As an ego will presume it is complete, so a collection presupposes completion. It might not be complete, but that does not exclude it from the hope. Indeed, to be excluded from the hope of completion would be to destroy the collection before it has properly begun. To complete the collection would be to kill both the hope and the desire. This of course is exactly what we cannot say.

Yet how pointless; to embark upon a collection that will be killed if complete and will kill us if never completed.

Imagine; nothing from outside needed. Yet given the end, it persists. When it was meant to finish, instead it lingers. It corrupts, it seeps. The waiters hum the tune (from your collection). A melody returns while one is at one’s ablutions… Abstract.

Abstraction collection: copulation, excretion, consumption, and contamination. These are the biological regions to be vitally usurped if capitalism is to have any success at all. (One does not have to be a capitalist in order to collect.)

Is the C word a success word? Is your record collection complete? Records, vinyl records, will happily proclaim themselves as food, sex, shit; the sort of shit one finds gold in.

Sometimes there need only be one classification. Or rather, the binary trick; there need only be a series of coupled terms linked but forever held separate by their mutual antagonism. (It is to be fervently hoped that these terms will never actually touch.) The fixity of exclusion demands an order to which everything proceeds:

No taxonomy will ever be pleased to deal with “and”.

“And” implies an existence in two (or more) frames. The subject (and object) that can so elude fixity immediately effects a collection’s status. By the rules of collection a subject becomes an object in the collection and therefore must be placed somewhere, it must be classified as something. Frame A or frame B? There is a decision to be made and, because of “and”, this decision begins to appear arbitrary. The decision may be accompanied by a series of rationalisations and yet, because of “and”, the rationale might also be arbitrary. Rational argument becomes an additional content in the collection, it was not anticipated and, taking on the air of an improvisation, another “and” is added as this rational adage must now be rolled forward to future objects and cast back across the pre-existing collection. An osculate object so kissing slips toward being a subject. 

White owl.

It may be that this “and” is denied a classification. “And” refused is abject, and this abjection is also a classification. That replete sense of self, complete even in the striving toward completion, can no longer be anything other than lack. A refusal might therefore be a revenge for undermining the collection’s solipsistic knowledge.

To proceed by denial is hardly satisfactory however. To be conscious of the denial even less so. All the elaborate games of taste and the connoisseur may come into play but still there will be a nagging unease; something missing. Or rather, not missing at all; below mattress A and mattress B there is a pea. Uncomfortable, this tiny thing that does not belong to bed nor to bedroom and most certainly it is not appropriate for the sovereign comfort of this situation and yet it still cannot be wholly excluded. Indeed, the story demands its inclusion. This present abjection is “and” could be. Identity comes to be defined via the defect. If eventually this osculate object must become present to the collection then its intimacy insinuates a gestation period. A rearrangement is born wherein A and B is subsumed to AB which is coupled to DC while held – forever – separate.

White owl in black night.

Someone placed a clay toad in amongst the collection of frogs. It could have become a collection of amphibians but instead the toad was taken aside and smashed.

She has thousands of frogs: 
Clay frogs. 
Plaster frogs.
Metal frogs.
Stuffed cloth frogs.
Knitted frogs.
Frogs fill every available nook and cranny of her flat. Special frogs are associated with special events; a visit here, a niece there, the day such and such happened. If something particularly upsetting happens she will select certain frogs and destroy them. More than merely breaking the item, the condemned ones will be pulverised, meticulously unstitched, or melted down to a formless slag. Following this destruction her anger is purged, some bad memory or association has been cleared away, and she has created space for new frogs.

The metaphor is now Colonel Kurtz. He collects the dead. He has responded to abjection in a brutal but thorough fashion. Any confusion surrounding classification is, he believes, resolved. The enemy are dead. Traitors are dead. The dead are dead. Yet objects should not touch and he is subsumed within this collection. Living still, he touches the dead; moving still, he shifts amongst the no-longer mobile dead.

How to destroy the dead? How to clear space so as to replace the dead (“and” their associated emotion, story, memory) with more dead. The dead must make way for death and in this rain they will not stay buried. A mountain of white ash; mounds of blackened, charred remains. The dead know the dead. There is an “and” and an abjection to their intimacy. AH! Nonetheless, the Kurtz character is, we say, alive.  Nonetheless, his collection is so large that it begins to frame him, as if these burning bodies take up more space not less; as if they were getting inside of us.

You see the dead might become ornamental if the collection is not properly ordered. This is what is meant by the phrase: “He is operating beyond any reasonable control.”

The Kurtz collection positioned within the larger field reveals itself as a mere hobby. An amateur collection. The proper military classification of the dead is impressive. If the hierarchical demands are rigorous it is only because of the need to make sense of so huge a collection. Precision is required for classification: This is alive. This is dead. Body bag, tags, autopsy report perhaps but proper medical certification certainly, paperwork aplenty for without these stabilising influences the object simply cannot be admitted into the collection. Terror is not lessened specifically by bureaucracy, not tamed essentially, but it is channelled. A controlled use of alienation, taxonomy is terror sublimated.

Value slips when touched.
The warmth of a living beast.
“You put them back in place […] they are useful, nothing more.”
The horror, the horror.
A white owl in a black night and I am no longer free.

Collecting is about meaning, is it not? What else might there be?

A pen, a packet of batteries, Humbrol enamel paint tins, sausage rolls, party poppers, a clockwork toy soldier, a pencil, a tube of PrittStick, a troll, two yellow felt tips, a chocolate did, a packet of iced gems, a balloon, a plum, a pear, a banana, Rose sweets, a Mars bad, a hamburger-lookalike candy, a lipstick tube, an eyeliner, a yoghurt, a milkshake, two cartons of Ambrosia rice, some wallpaper borders and a large tin of paint from Fads.

The above named is a collection made in February 1993. Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, aged ten, allegedly stole these items prior to their abduction and murder of James Bulger, aged two.

Original first published in Inventory: losing, finding, collecting. Vol.2 No.2 1997.

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