The eternal unhappiness of collecting

by Dominic Parker

Using Jungian psychoanalysis and, in particular, his notion of archetype we can formulate a theory of collecting that is based on the need to fill the evolutionary role played by ‘foraging for berries and nuts.’ Using this analysis, it is possible to see the role of collecting and organising ‘things’ – i.e. cars, photos, coins etc. as part of our collective unconscious and thus fulfilling some primal ‘must’. Although this articulation of collection in such reductive terms is grossly inadequate as an explanation of our human need to structure the things around us, it does reveal something about the human, and, more specifically, ‘male’ psyche (the use of the term ‘male’ here does not denote the rigid boundaries of gender as currently understood in popular culture, but rather the tendency of certain minds to adhere to certain practices, in this case collecting). The purpose of this article is to take the hobby of collecting ‘things’ and to apply a post-structuralist understanding of the world in order to illuminate one aspect of the male psyche that can then be used to explain the endemic, society-wide issues of toxic-masculinity and male repression of emotions (inseparable concepts).

On they explain that the satisfaction with collecting can come ‘from experimenting with arranging, re-arranging, and classifying parts of a-big-world-out-there.’ This is a significant idea, but does not seem to be explicated, at least in any depth, in terms of our structural relationship with the world. The first part of this is to unpick our obsession with structures. This concept was most cogently elucidated by Derrida in his book, Of Grammatology, and has taken the literary, intellectual and art world by storm, as seen in Joseph Kosuth’s Clock (One and Five) 1965 art piece, purchased by the Tate in 1974. This piece demonstrates the temporal relativity of language by taking three English words (time, machination and object) and listing their various translations in Latin. Despite its wide influence, one of the main weaknesses with post-structuralism is that it has failed to provide any clear political expression in terms of our understanding of how the male psychology affects gender relations. For those who do not have a comprehensive understanding of post-structuralism, in essence it is a rejection of logocentrism, which can be loosely defined as the trust in the combination of presence and language. Derrida characterised this in terms of ‘iteration,’ which means that each time a word is ‘uttered,’ it is always used in a deferential web with other words and can thus never wholly express what we think and can therefore be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. For example, Shakespeare’s Othello can be deconstructed to reveal the internal contradictions of the text and the incoherence of it as a whole.

Once a grasp on the relativity of language and the constant movement of linguistic structures has been understood, we can start to analyse the relationship of this concept with collecting. Collecting can be conceived as an expression of desire to create a manifest structure in the world around us in order to quell our worries about our deeply complex and unstable existence within constantly changing structures. When we are unable to root ourselves we must find an expression for this desire to root. Thus a complex and isolating dialectic is created between the rationalist method of thinking, expressed by such fields as psychiatry and criminology and the underlying relativity of one’s own position in the world. Collecting is therefore the product of this dialectic and serves as some kind of ‘happy-medium’ (though we never are truly happy) or synthesis, through which we gain some micro structure to hold onto, but which is fundamentally undermined by the overwhelming reality of the lack of structure. The acknowledgement of such a lack of structure is often not understood or accepted by male brains and means that they choose to focus themselves on collecting, which can fulfil, in some limited capacity, their structural deprivation. This leads to an inertia of emotional development, as the inability to feel or express oneself becomes overwhelming and is therefore internalised, feeding into a rigid, toxic conception of themselves. This is not to say that we do not all organise our lives in order to make sense of complex, moving structures, but that collecting reflects a certain part of the male mind that thus becomes unable to acknowledge this complexity. If all expression is relative and uncontrollable, then the two stage process of admitting emotion and emotional expression becomes all the more destabilising, therefore making it preferable to channel such efforts into the pastime of collecting. This differs from merely organising in that it provides a physical collection of objects, or signified inputs, that offer a material sense of purpose and therefore occupies the space that would otherwise be occupied by emotional admittance.

This theory is by no means exhaustive in its account of what the application of post-structuralism to collecting can reveal about male psychology, but it does serve as a humble platform from which to build a more complex and evidenced based theory about the social practice of collecting. This can provide an important vantage point from which to develop an understanding of some of the disconcerting foundations of the mind that engender certain male complexes.


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