Collections as methods –Convolute H

In reading on May 6, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Part of our work on this project involves gathering images of promenades and presenting them.  This seemingly uncomplicated activity runs into trouble when confronted with the legacies of decades of ‘authoritative’ social science research.  How will we select these images? How do we find them? How ‘representative’ are they?  What can they tell us about the research process and its inherent qualitative insecurity?

In putting together these collections of photos and quotations we are working within a paradigm of ‘collecting’ and using parataxical methods (see this post) to attempt to produce work that produces dialectical images – constellations of material that allow us to grasp the correspondences between our own time and the objects of history. Eagleton puts this into the context of knowledge production, helping us to understand our own use of these methods:

“A constellatory epistemology sets its face against the Cartesian or Kantian moment of subjectivity, less concerned to ‘posses’ the phenomenon than to liberate it into its own sensuous being and preserve its disparate elements in all their irreducible heterogeneity…what this method then delivers is a kind of poetic or novelistic sociology in which the whole seems to consist of nothing but a dense tessellation of graphic images; and to that extent it represents an aesthetic mode of social enquiry.” (1990: 229-330)

The tessellation of images are not chosen at random by Benjamin within this aesthetic enquiry, they are collected.  There are no limits to the pool from which these images are fished and the collector should seek to be indiscriminate in his search:

“A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.” (Benjamin 1999: 246)

Collectors are people with a ‘tactical instinct’ (ibid:64), a difficult argument to make in the academy where the death of the author has never produced the inevitable death of the researcher, and the vitality of researcher is asserted by their mastery of academic epistemologies.   In order to unpack this idea of instinct we need to work through Benjamin’s instinctive assemblage of materials and observations on collecting, found in convolute H of the Arcades Project.

Collecting for Benjamin is at once an act of separation and of union; selecting objects from a diverse field in order to place them together with objects of a similar kind (H1a, 2).  Objects brought together in this manner form collections. These collections are the fruit of the work of the collector, the individual who is able to ‘pursue and encounter’ objects and to present them in our space, not the space of their origin. Benjamin is clear (H2, 7; H2a, 1) that to present objects in this way is not to divorce them fundamentally from their functional relations, that is, their social existence and their connection to production, but on the contrary to select objects and to arrange them in a way that brings their social being into a constellation with our own.  In effect, the collected object is able to crystallise its social relations and present them to us afresh.  The collector then, “takes up the struggle against dispersion” (H4a, 1), the confusion in which the world presents itself to us, and attempts to piece together a patchwork of objects that, taken together, make order out of chaos.

“We construct here an alarm clock that rouses the kitsch of the previous century to ‘assembly’” (H1a,2)

Benjamin often describes collectors in an almost mystical language, as ‘interpreters of fate’ who can  form a ‘magic encyclopaedia, a world order’.  Equally often, Benjamin offers explanations of how this apparently mystical knowledge might be grounded in material concerns:

“We need only recall what importance a particular collector attaches not only to his object but also to its entire past, whether this concerns the origin and objective character of the thing or the details of its ostensibly external history: previous owners, price of purchase, current value and so on.” (H2,7; H2a,1)

This apparent dichotomy in Benjamin’s conception of the collector can only be resolved dialectically in the practice of assembling a collection.  In creating and maintaining the illusion of an almost theological coherence between seemingly disparate objects and historical periods, the collector must methodically and systematically go about her work, drawing on her expert knowledge within a broader emancipatory project of creating a dream-like constellation of objects and ideas in order to awaken us from the dream-like state of contemporary, phantasmagorical capitalism .  For more on this point, read this post.

For us, attempting to produce convolute-style material and to develop the methods of the Arcades Project, this analysis of collecting affirms rather than contradicts the rigorous methodologies of the contemporary social sciences, but encourages an eclecticism and aesthetic perspective in the presentation of our work.  The research ‘process’ that Benjamin describes here is closest to ethnography, in which the general changes in the perspective of the researcher allow her to continuously refine and extend her analysis.

  1. Perhaps it is that ‘tactical instinct’ that we are working towards with our own ‘collection’. I am, however, unsure how we translate that into the language of academic practice as there is a strong generic convention for certainty in our fields.

  2. It’s a minefield isn’t it? How far was Benjamin actually talking about himeself here and how far can we assume that we possess (award ourselves?) this instinct? I often talk about ‘expert knowledge’ with my students, as something that they can reasonably claim to have about a subject at the end of their studies and I wonder is this instinct is actually more akin to that?

  3. There is a sense in all this that only through collective practice (collective collection?) can we even begin to get close to any developed understanding of what we are studying.

    p.s. I shall begin claiming a range of ‘expert knowledge’ immediately…

  4. I agree that we urgently need to work towards the death of the researcher. ‘Authorship’ lingers in the expertise tinged grove of academe when its ontology has been erased by the same scholarship that our field produces.

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