The title of this post comes from a new book titled Contemporary Collecting—Objects, Practices, and the Fate of Things, published by Scarecrow Press, Inc., edited by Kevin M. Moist and David Banash. Its 277 pages contain 13 chapters divided into 4 groups: “Collecting in a Virtual World”; “Changing Relationships with Things”; “Collecting and Identity, Personal and Political”; Collecting Practices and Cultural Hierarchies.”
Chapter 4, titled “Virtual Life and the Value of Objects: Nostalgia, Distinction, and Collecting in the Twenty-First Century”, was written by David Banash, professor of English at Western Illinois University. Professor Banash kindly agreed to answer a few questions exclusively for Blackwing Pages.
While doing research for this chapter of your book, was your attention drawn to wood-cased pencils (and by extension to the Blackwing 602) due to any personal interest in pencils, or was it a topic you began to research from scratch?
Indeed I did have a longstanding interest in the material culture of everyday life, and pencils in particular. I have woefully poor handwriting, and so pencils have always been a necessity in my work. For years I had used Mirado Black Warriors, which were still of very good quality until a few years ago. After Sanford took them over, the quality really just plummeted in several stages, and it was extraordinarily frustrating. At that point, I began to search for replacements, and I really discovered the world of pencils and began to learn about them, and to search for vintage makes and buy them. I kept reading and researching, and of course Henry Petroski’s book The Pencil had a huge impact on me. So many changes in our culture can be seen through such a humble object, and at the same time that humble object is so important to a huge number of people who really shaped the culture. The pencil can become what Walter Benjamin called a “dialectical image” that reveals the contradictory forces and social antagonisms that create the meaning of our culture. So, I was always using pencils in the most practical sense, but as a cultural critic, I was always fascinated by their many meanings and history.
In this chapter, you examine “the difference between practices of collecting that remove things from use and practices of consumption that destroy through use.” Apart from the discontinuation of a consumable product, have you identified any other conditions that influence, or perhaps herald, the switch from consuming to collecting?
There are many theorists of collecting, and what is common to all of them is the insight that objects are not just about use. Objects become a way that we produce and quite literally conserve meaning in our lives. There have always been collectors, and even, as you rightly point out, many people do not identify themselves as collectors, nonetheless the keep, maintain, and develop a surprising number of collections in their lives. In my recent work, I’ve been interested by how the virtual world is driving a new relationship to material objects. In essence, as more of life and its meanings is articulated through screens, material objects have taken on new meanings, especially as a kind of feeling of authenticity or durability. This has been particularly true of vinyl records, for instance.
You state in your conclusion: “Given the rise of virtual environments and the cheapening of material everyday life objects, some consumers are turning to reproductions of a lost ordinary that supports a profoundly emotional and embodied experience, though that experience now is really the commodity being sold, and the object is, in some sense, a kind of self-conscious prop that enables it .” [Emphasis mine.] Do you find that the same holds true for both consumable and non-consumable items? In other words would you suggest that for a collector of, say, period musical instruments, a reproduction of an instrument irretrievably lost to history might likewise serve as “a kind of self-conscious prop”, simply because there is no other option available?
This is a very difficult question, and I do not want to dismiss the role of use and practice. In your example, for instance, the musician who must turn to a reproduction because the the older instrument is on longer available might in fact just be seeking a sound. However, most of the companies that produce vintage instruments, clothes, pencils, cars, etc. are marketing them as something much more. What they say they are selling is not just a technology, an object, but a different, more authentic relationship that is grounded in a nostalgic sense of the past. They aren’t wrong about this, even though it isn’t the whole story. Objects are loaded with meaning by the culture, by individuals, and by the histories in which they are caught up. When we buy a reproduction of a Fender guitar or a Blackwing, there is always more than function and practice at stake because those brands have deep historical roots that are always bringing the weight of that history along. Often, though not always, I do think that what we buy is our relation to that history, and the object then is really just the prop, or even better, the promise, of that history. It is through the object that of all those potential meanings are made available to us. In Contemporary Collecting, my real objection to this is that in the past, these objects, particularly pencils and jeans, were cheap and quotidian, and their meanings were widely available. What is so disturbing in the contemporary moment is the price that companies are demanding for access to these objects, essentially limiting them to people with enough disposable income to afford it.
Below is an excerpt from Contemporary Collecting, which discusses the Blackwing 602 (including a mention of this site). For readers who are interested in learning more about this engaging and fascinating book about collecting and culture, here is a link to Amazon. (NB: Blackwing Pages does not receive any compensation for referrals or purchases of this book.)
Thanks to David Banash for sharing his thoughts, and to Scarecrow Press, Inc. for sending a copy of Contemporary Collecting.