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Collecting people

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Tuesday, Aug 29, 2006

I found this passage from Steven Metcalf’s Slate review of the new Rohmer DVD boxed set interesting:


The most pleasant surprise of the set is La Collectionneuse, which Rohmer filmed on the cheap in the Côte d’Azure while waiting for Jean-Louis Trintignant to free up his schedule. The film is Rohmer’s sun-kissed flip-off to all the Roger Vadim clichés: a young unattainable goddess pursued by a tormented man, and all the Which is worse, capturing her or not capturing her? blah blah that accompanies the genre. Instead, Rohmer gives us Haydée, a terrifically sexy gamine who is rather too easily had. What irritates her would-be pursuers, two art-world poseurs, to the point of outright contempt is that she hasn’t cultivated herself as a mysterious object of enchantment. Having deprived them of this story line, they turn on her and call her a “collector”—that is, they project onto her their own worst qualities as dandies.


The passage suggests something of the difference between a woman whose sexuality is active, for itself, and a woman for whom the project of becoming sexy is a means to another end, a useful distinction to remember when considering controversies about pro-sex feminism and the nature of sex work. The power to be had in exploiting one’s own sexuality is different than the power that comes from becoming a sexual subject (from desire enriching one’s subjectivity and impelling one to act rather than wait).


Also, it hints at a pervasive anomaly of male sexuality: I think many men have a collecting attitude toward women, which is one of the reasons they appreciate their overt objectification—why they will collect and save every issue of Playboy, for instance, which pins down a carefully selected specimen like a butterfly each month for the reader’s bemused inspection. I wonder about the direction of causation though—whether the collecting fever comes from being accustomed to a culture in which women are objectified, or whether women are objectified to suit an inherent male passion for mastery over objects. Is it even a fair assumption to make that women are less likely to be collectors? Is the woman in Rohmer’s film actually a collectionneuse or is that merely a male misunderstanding of female jouissance? (Where are my Lacan books when I need them?)


Perhaps it is this: Collecting allows men to exempt themselves from the objectification that sex seems automatically to enact—the regression into the anonymity of physical pleasure. Integral to the passion for collecting women, I would argue, is the man’s certainty of a monetary exchange mediating the collecting. If the women in the magazine were volunteers—if they were freely pursuing their own sexual aims—the attraction of collecting them would diminish, possession of them (or their image, a proxy) would lose its value. By transforming sex from an activity into an acquisitive hobby, from a matter of doing to a matter of owning, men protect themselves from dissolving their identity in passion and instead ground it more concretely in an array of women-turned-positional goods.

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