Guilty feelings, collected thoughts

ON COLLECTING: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition by Susan Pearce, Routledge pounds 40

EUROPEANS say it with things, announces Susan Pearce, professor of museum studies at the University of Leicester, without a hint of disapproval. Phew! Does that mean we can stop feeling guilty about our possessions?

On Collecting is an unattractive but uncompromising title. It is, as it happens, precisely what the book is about. It is also playfully ironic, a provocation to the majority of us whose understanding of materialism has been moulded by psychologists, economists and politicians - Freud and Marx to the fore. Could such a book find a home, one wonders, other than under the shabby raincoats of anal-retentive collectors of stamps, butterflies and fossils?

Professor Pearce comes to grips with Freudian anality as early as page seven. Following a review of post-Freudian texts that helped to put collecting in bad odour (eg "All collectors are anal-erotics, Jones 1950"), she concludes that "anal retention is best taken with a dose of salts."

Then - and here is solace for collectors, whether of classic Porsches or vintage jeans - she questions "why in intellectual inquiry material culture was not deemed worthy of investigation in its own right until recent decades". Classic economists, she points out, have rationalised acquisition but ignored the processes of consumption and possession, "which helps to account for the feelings of guilt and unhappiness which material goods often arouse in us".

The key word is "culture". In the wake of Marx and Freud, the Eighties have seen psychological and economic theories of materialism superseded by a fresh appreciation of the richness of material culture put forward by such newcomers as the French social theorist, Jean Baudrillard.

His brand of new materialist would find little of cultural significance in the unthinking accumulation of toothpaste and shampoo in the private sanctum of your bathroom (though economists and consumer psychologists might be enthralled by it). By contrast, the china bowls, candlesticks and clock that you choose to display on your mantelpiece would be latched upon as a cultural statement, part of the language we use to construct a social identity for ourselves.

This "huge investment of social capital", says Professor Pearce, is quintessentially European. Her social history of collecting starts with the treasure hoards of medieval kings. Their sumptuous gifts to followers and between rival kings were a sacramental ritual. And the bequest of hoards to first-born alone was a major determinant of the European pattern of kinship.

Capitalism created "a social world of goods" in which even Romanticism took material form, in the "cabinets of curiosities" of the rich. They contained anything from dinosaur eggs to saints' relics. Collections such as the Pitt-Rivers museum in Oxford and the Great Exhibition of 1851 were also deliberate constructs - culture palaces of Victorian values.

Times change. Today, both public and private collections can be subversive. There are public collections devoted to labour history and ethnic minorities. In the United States there are 50,000 private collectors of Nazi memorabilia.

Such is the politics of collecting. Even collectors of printed lavatory paper, according to Professor Pearce, are making "important assertions about the 'ordinary' material world and our relationship to it". She quotes a rather sneaky American study in 1961 which put 22 "anally-connotive" words matched with a similar list of "neutral" words to 15 stamp collectors and 15 controls. The results purported to support the "anal character concept" of collectors.

Her own research at Leicester University has come up with a more remarkable conclusion: collectors are normal.

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power