Rex Butler's Baudrillard III: The Collection
July 28, 2021
My previous post concluded with the distinction between the observance of a rule with pre-determined content, and the constant renegotiation of the content of a rule, suggesting that in Baudrillard’s eyes only the latter constitutes a process of communication. (And given Baudrillard’s further commitment to the symbolically mediated structure of subjectivity, this has deep implications for human self-consciousness as such). One early place this shows up is in Baudrillard’s discussion of ‘the subjective register of objects’ in the System of Objects (Baudrillard, 1996). Butler:
[T]he most profound expression of this subjective relationship to objects […] is the collection. The important thing about the collection is not what is gathered together, its objective status in the world. Within the collection, even the most apparently functional objects, say ‘carpets’ or ‘compasses’, are understood no longer in terms of any external use they might have, but only in terms of the place they occupy inside it. […] The unity of the pieces in a collection, that is, is not to be found in the objects themselves but only in the collector, because they all stand in for or express the subjectivity of the collector. (Butler, 1999, p. 76)
In the collection the functional roles of objects are suspended and superseded by the differential relations they stand in with respect to other objects in the collection. The ordering of these differential relations—the system of rules they follow—is an expression of the collector’s subjectivity.
Baudrillard brilliantly connects this with the idea that the collection only exists, has meaning, insofar as a piece is missing from it—a piece he explicitly associates with the collector him- or her-self. […] It is this missing piece that severs the collection from external reality, the functional order of objects, by making it less than it; but it is also this missing piece that allows the collection to resemble reality, the subjectivity of the collector, in its very difference from it. (Butler, 1999, pp. 77-78)
There’s a lot going on here, but at this point fundamentally we’re just being asked to agree that this is what serious collecting is like—that the whole thrill of the collection rides on this missing piece, the rule that orders the existing objects always containing a lack that points to something beyond itself, and that grappling with this lack is in the essence of collecting.
This the meaning of the anecdote Baudrillard retells from La Bruyère concerning a connoisseur who gives up collecting because he is unable to track down the final print in his collection, and in fact is willing to swap the rest of his collection for this piece; but who, when he finally does obtain it, soon loses interest in his collection because it is now closed, self-contained, no longer requires his subjectivity to be completed. (Butler, 1999, p. 78)
The important part comes now:
All this is perhaps the true dynamic of the collection, its at once ‘satisfying’ and ‘disappointing’ quality. In one sense, a good collection is always moving away from any objective quality linking its components—this is too much like mere accumulation. The good collection instead has a difficult, hard to discern quality connecting its various parts. Ideally, it is something that can only be seen by the collector. And this is perhaps the true ‘dialectic’ of the collection. Each piece in the collection does not simply add to the ones before it, follow a pre-established rule. On the contrary, it attempts to be different from the other pieces, to sum up all that comes before it, adopt the position of the last piece in the collection—the subjectivity of the collector—that all the previous ones have in common. In other words, each additional piece in the collection seeks to draw out some new quality linking the others that has not been seen before. It adds something that at first does not seem like those others, but that in retrospect allows us to perceive a new commonality between them. It wants to show that the summing-up attempted by the previous piece was only partial, that though it was thought to end the series, to occupy a meta-position with regard to it, it is in fact only part of a larger series it does not see, is no different from the rest. (Butler, 1999, p. 78)
If the objects of the collection are like points drawn on a graph, the “objective quality linking its components” is the curve that connects them. In this analogy, ‘mere accumulation’ would be to simply extrapolate the curve further and keep drawing more dots that conform to its trajectory. But in the true collection, the new point on the graph requires a redrawing of the whole curve—in fact it is this very process of re-connecting that constitutes the practice of collecting.
But this also why the collection can never be completed. As we say, each new piece attempts to be the last piece in the collection, to be the single thing all the others have in common, to occupy the position of the subject; but insofar as it is able to do this, to be compared to those others in this way, it opens up the possibility of another piece coming after it, speaking of what it and the rest of the collection have in common. The collection as it grows gets closer to this condition of singularity, of having only one thing in common—we might also say nothing in common—but the comparison that makes this possible also makes it impossible. The very thing that allows any particular piece to occupy the position of the subject also means that subject is excluded, that the subject is what all the pieces have in common necessarily comes after it. However, we would say that the collection—the practice of collecting—is exactly an attempt to realize this, the economy of this failure. The pleasure of collecting—its at once ‘satisfying’ and ‘disappointing’ quality—is that each piece seeks to complete the collection and yet knows that it cannot, and does not even want to. (Butler, 1999, p. 79)
What struck me about this discussion is how similar it is to the structure of recollective rationality that Brandom sees as a keystone of Hegel’s developed picture (often illustrated in ASOT by the example of ‘common’ or judge-made law):
Exercising this kind of rationality is retrospectively rationally reconstructing the various applications of a concept, selecting a trajectory through the actual uses that picks out a sequence that is expressively progressive. That is one that has the form of gradual, cumulative revelation, the emergence into ever-greater explicitness, of the contours of a determinately contentful norm that is seen to have been implicit all along. (Brandom, 2019, p. 17)
But where Brandom stresses the expressively progressive character of this process–each new object in the collection ‘summing up’ the previously ones, including the previous rules that were taken to connect them—which can leave his exposition seeming Whiggish, Baudrillard stresses the critical importance of the unfinishedness of this process, the always-remaining indeterminacy which is the condition of dialectical movement itself. This focus leads Baudrillard to ask questions that don’t even come up for Brandom: if history, novelty, and subjectivity are constitutively dependent on this indeterminacy, this space in which the renegotiation of the rules can occur, then what happens when the logic of ‘mere accumulation’ is imposed as a universal constraint—when one is no longer allowed to renegotiated the rules, because one is required to set the rule at the beginning and then stick to it? And it is this question which frames Baudrillard’s thinking on power and control.
- Baudrillard, J. (1996). The System of Objects. Verso. [PDF]
- Brandom, R. (2019). A Spirit of Trust: A Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology. Harvard University Press.
- Butler, R. (1999). Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real. Sage Publications.