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Collecting people

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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