[14 August 2008]
What was once evanescent has now become material. Over the past two centuries, almost every aspect of human experience has been embodied in objects, and in America we live in a vast sea of disposable but stunningly, stubbornly gross things. Whereas once we moved our bodies and wore out our shoes, now the car is ubiquitous, the objectification of motion. Whereas once we made music, now we own it. There is hardly an experience, an emotion, a sensibility, an identity, or a desire that is not somehow enmeshed in the relentless necromancy of the commodity, pulled down to earth and given a concrete form: cereal boxes and ticket stubs, pharmaceutical company coffee mugs and branded water bottles.
This relationship to objects is historically unprecedented, and its reality and effects have hardly been noticed. If anything, our relationship to this world of objects is relentless appetite coupled to absolute incomprehension. Perhaps this is why George Romero’s shopping mall zombies are such a compelling image to us still: they crave without consciousness. While artists like Joseph Cornell and Jeff Koons have taken up the ubiquity of the object, somehow the very subliminity of their works does less to reveal the everyday than transcend it. They seem to say to us that if we just knew how, we could unlock a door to the hidden shang-ra-la these purchases promised us in the first place. In his new book Collections of Nothing, William Davies King does not transcend the material in some ecstatic flight, he reaches out and pulls us into the very stuff of our world—ordinary, ubiquitous things.
King is a prodigious collector of the ordinary, and his book is the story of how he amassed not only 8,000 books and almost half as many records, but approximately three tons of much stranger and more troubling evidence from a lifetime of consumption—he estimates that he has now perhaps 75,000 objects. Such ordinary stuff is represented right on the very book itself. The cover for Collections of Nothing presents us with 14 swatches. They run from dramatic blue plaids to rich brown weaves and textured tan hatches. On first glance I took them for tasteful playing cards that middle class Contract Bridge fanatics so often have in their well-kept homes. Yet what stares at us from the cover is not the banal and ordinary backs of playing cards, but the disturbingly, unconscious, and ubiquitous object, which I confess to not even recognizing. I was simply shocked when King introduces us to these swatches:
So, because I would like to be welcome, welcome reader, I might begin by showing you my collection of envelope linings. It seems that many people fear that if they send a check or some other document through the mail, it will surely be noticed by a nosy postal inspector or a larcenous neighbor, and so an assortment of envelopes is available, lined with some dense pattern to prevent anyone from holding it up to the sun and reading the contents. Those are envelope linings, and I have a very large binder containing two-inch by three-inch cuts from such envelopes…there are currently over eight hundred distinct envelope linings in the collection. No one covets what I have (I have found no Web site for envelope linings), but when people look at this collection I know that I have something rare and extraordinary, even eyeopening.
No, no one covets such a collection, but not one of us understands it either, and we can’t understand because we are quite simply unaware of the very super-abundance through which we swim like creatures unconscious of their very sea.
In The System of Objects (1968) philosopher Jean Baudrillard turns his attention to the sudden glut of consumer culture infesting every space, domestic and public, with objects: “How is the ‘language’ of ‘objects’ spoken?” he asks. Baudrillard’s futurist gaze turns upon new gadgets and plastic furniture, polyester clothes and hi-fi, a whole world of things that are substantial and ironically even collectible, and he concludes that “objects now are by no means meant to be owned and used but solely to be produced and bought.” But along with all those things Baurdrillard theorizes, consider all the things in which those things arrived—boxes, packaging, labeling and the like—that are no-things and that we buy simply so we can throw them away. Perhaps the trajectory of the 20th-century is best represented by those artists who intuited that the real fate of objects was not to congeal into ownership but to flow through our lives.
Novelist Don DeLillo’s masterpiece Underworld gets this, rubbing our noses in repressed disposables. About the unimaginably large Fresh Kills he writes, “it was science fiction and prehistory, garbage arriving twenty-four hours a day, hundreds of workers, vehicles with metal rollers compacting the trash.” Looking at the vast accumulation of trash, DeLillo “imagined he was watching the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza—only this was twenty-five times bigger, with tanker trucks spraying perfumed water on the approach roads.” DeLillo isn’t alone to intuit that it is what we cast off that defines the century. Even the mystical optimist Jack Kerouac was fascinated by it, and the whole Beat movement played constantly with the idea of turning into the detritus of our culture. Indeed, towards the end of On the Road, the most striking image is not of freedom on highways under Western skies, but being swept out of a grind-house with the trash:
All the cigarette butts, the bottles, the matchbooks, the come and the gone were swept up in this pile. Had they taken me with it, Dean would never have seen me again. He would have had to roam the entire United States and look in every garbage pail from coast to coast before he found me embryonically convoluted among the rubbishes of my life, his life, and the life of everybody concerned and not concerned. What would I have said to him from my rubbish womb?
Kerouac’s hymn to making a heroic self turns again and again to the cast-offs and trash that seem to both constitute and undo that self, and perhaps that too is the story of our moment, our profoundly generative irony. Perhaps from his rubbish womb Sal Paradise would have said something very close to what King has to tell us: “down near the bottom is nothing, is art. Once in a while, in some ways subtly always, by collecting nothing, I make it, big and high and holy.
Says King of his passion for nothing, “My collecting continues to be oppressive to others and myself,” and perhaps this is because like Sal, it both makes and undoes a self, and as readers we cannot help but see him as a mystical synecdoche for consumer culture, a microcosm reflecting the making and unmaking of our American selves. Rather than rare books, figurines, master works or kitsch, King collects what most of us throw away: cereal boxes, the labels of bottled waters, metal objects flattened by cars, bottle caps, labels from tuna fish cans, and cat food cans, and canned soups, cigar bands, matchboxes, cellophane wrapped coupons, skeleton keys, business cards, postcards, envelopes, trademarks, expired library cards, expired and promotional credit cards, plu fruit labels, all “collections of nothing.” In an unimaginable contingency, he would be our man: “We require a Triscuits box from 1986, a complete box! Citizens who can fulfill this demand should report to…”
Of course, in America almost all lives are now collections, but of things that one is expected to collect. King observes that “middle-class life is itself a collection: a spouse, a house, a brace of children, a suitable car, a respectable career, cuddly pets, photos of grinning relatives, toys for all ages and hours, coffee and coffee pots, coffee cups and spoons, coffee tables and coffee table books about coffee and about coffee tables.” One is reminded of those very first capitalists, the Dutch merchants of the 17th century who were so fond of having the old masters paint them amongst their domestic accumulations, and yet those collections were luxurious or permanent: pheasants and crystal, wine and silver, art, and of course the homes themselves. While such objects are still with us, treasured and valued, what King collects is what he constantly thinks of as the vast objectified nothing of modern life: “what made my chicken scratch into collecting was the fact that there was a category I was trying to fill, and that category should cohere. It could be called “Things That Are No Things, or Nothing”. It is all the packaging, the disposable, the cast-off flood that he has dammed up, his own magnificently organized Fresh Kills.
Photo (partial) by ©Edward Burtynsky
There is a vast psychoanalytic literature on collecting, but it all comes to more or less the same conclusion: wrestling with objects, saving and ordering them, is a way to cope with flux, doubt, and the twin gods of sex and death. Rather than touching another, we can touch our objects, and like a demiurge we can save them from death, plucking them from oblivion and endowing them, and us, with meaning for a future. Pleasure and immortality animate collecting, even though there is always something a little creepy and abject about collections and collectors themselves. King’s thoughtful and sometimes harrowing account of his practices tease apart just these imperatives, and through his objects he allows us to glimpse the fascinatingly tangled history of his family and his education, the particular matrix of objects and desire that make King so like us, and so different.
King writes movingly of a childhood in middle-class suburban Ohio, and gives us a vivid portrait of a child in a troubled but smart and demanding family. There is trauma here though, and the most harrowing moments come when he writes candidly about his sister, Cindy, confined first to a wheelchair, and later, to schizophrenia: “the widely shared impulse to collect comes partly from a wound we feel deep inside this richest, most materialistic of all societies, and partly from a wound that many of us feel in our personal histories.” King feels both sides of this wound, and as his family wrestles with trauma, the young King turned to objects and archeology, digging through a defunct suburban incinerator: “My boyhood was not in ruins exactly, but certain things had broken, others were burning, and much had gotten buried. I needed to dig deep in that ash pit, and I still do. I look for something warm.”
But King’s family history runs parallel to the blossoming wounds of postwar America. Sent away to Boarding school at Phillips Academy, Andover, King found that “It was 1968, and the Vietnam war was rattling, protests loud and long, hair growing everywhere, and legal and illegal, moral and immoral smoke in the air. My innocence was already casting an eye on Canada.” At Andover, middle-class King also confronted a culture of aristocratic distinctions. His peers revel in postwar consumer culture and sophistication. Somewhat aloof from them, he spent his time gleaning: “Sure enough, when I looked, pieces of metal were there for the taking…remove the rust and the grease from almost any twisted piece of steel, and there will be a touching story of form deformed. My room gradually filled up.” King makes a sensitive connection to his education, his peers, and his metal objects with this elegiac catalog worthy of Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm:
With a rag I would polish them, while doing my homework or listening to the radio, during class, chapel, and indoctrination (they advised us not to smoke, to buy low and sell high, to bow to the powerful but not to ourselves). Even an old gas cap, crushed on the road, would take on a certain luster when polished and become a tasty by-product of highway beautification. Railroad spikes, pliers, spigots, stopcocks, saws—I probably had half a ton of these things. They were my Rossignol skies, my Bass Weejuns, my Pioneer amp, my Jack Kramer tennis racket, my subscription to Esquire. Though I understood very well why I should, I did not in fact have an MGB secretly garaged in town, no Brooks Brothers shirts or Sperry Topsiders, no perfect smile of cheekbone high but I had this.
And so King takes us through the moments of his life, his coming-of-age, his development as a would-be performance artist, and later a professor of Theater with a middle-class life of his own. Throughout, changes in his personal life and the culture itself are marked in his prodigious, inventive, and disturbing practices of collecting. For a time after graduation, King worked as an assistant in the Special Collections departments for Yale’s libraries, and also as a part-time janitor. Both jobs are more or less about putting things back into their places, ordering the effluvia of life. It was at this time that King had his real eureka: “Then it began, the first real collection of my adult life. One day I started to save the labels of all the food products I consumed—cereal, soup, candy, beer.” Into carefully organized folders they go. Some of the most remarkable moments in the book are when King actually makes lists of all the varieties of tuna fish or bottled water he has labels for—the lists, fascinatingly and frighteningly, go on for pages.
Of course, at first he had only a few scavenged binders to fill with the modest consumption of a graduate student. The remarkable thing is simply that he never gave up collecting, and found himself wrestling with the weight of his commitment: “My collection is a picture of middle-aged me. To collect is to predicate middle age. The novice collector has that gnawing desire but only a few paltry things, then more and more as the years go by . . . cyclonic, the midcareer collector becomes a solitary force of nature, with familiar things all whirling in the air.” The lyricism here is self-conscious but compelling, and just as King seems to have flirted with the life of an artist from his youth only to find himself a collector and a scholar, it is his collection that now reaches a critical mass, becoming art. One wishes the book were far more heavily and luxuriously illustrated as he describes just how the quotidian is whirling around him in a series of fascinating orders. For instance, King found an old, mechanical address book and “saw it as an organizer of tiny emblems, an alphabetical incorporated world,” and so it became a vast directory of trademarks, and “by the end the gadget bulged, and I needed a dog collar to keep it closed,” he writes.
In an incomplete stamp collection from his childhood, he now pastes in only those commercial squares that direct us to “Place Stamp Here”. He has drawers of three-by-five cards, each presenting oddments, “like the color bar found on packaging” or “the admonitory words ‘Not for Passover Use’ from a matzo carton”, or more simply “the red rose from a Red Rose tea bag”. These, King tells us, form “ a serial collage, viewable in any sequence.” For many years, King had a blank laboratory notebook, and then suddenly “I knew that I wanted to fill the book with the diminutive illustrations you find in dictionaries, those skimpy, anonymous imagettes, so obsequiously not Art.”
Photo of William Davies King by Brianna Cash
King estimates he spent 350 hours cutting and pasting to make that particular collection-collage. He has no illusions about the kind of beauty that his works have, he doesn’t seem to aspire to the beauty assemblage artists so desire in their found objects: “There is little inherent beauty in these bits and pieces. Instead there is often an echo of an aggravating, noisy, cluttered world, a jabbering world of commercial imperative, money on the barrelhead, or bureaucratic bog-down.” Rather than making us see a world of beauty, King makes us simply see the world of consumer capital, our world of disposable objects.
Walter Benjamin writes that the invention of cinema fundamentally altered our consciousness, bringing into focus minute aspects of the world one would never see without the camera, its close-ups and slow motion pans disclosing our optical unconscious. In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” he writes that “by close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film on the one hand extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action.” Benjamin suggests that the power of the camera to bring our world into focus dramatically alters our perception of it, most often by slowing things down or getting us much closer to them, and King’s fascinating habit of collecting does, I think, something much the same.
King is one of the few people who have taken the time to really look at our world of disposable objects. His practice of collecting has slowed him down and shifted him into a new mode of consciousness, and he thus allows us something like a close-up, slow-motion pan across all the objects that we so quickly turn away from that they never really register with us as the things that they are. King’s altered consciousness is not a gateway into some other world, but a blinding illumination of our everyday unconscious.
David Banash is a Professor of English at Western Illinois University, where he teaches courses in contemporary literature, film, and popular culture. He is the author of Collage Culture: Readymades, Meaning, and the Age of Consumption (Rodopi) and co-editor of Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices, and the Fate of Things (Scarecrow).