Read an Excerpt
Cupboards of Curiosity
Women, Recollection, and Film History
By Amelie Hastie
Duke University Press Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
material histories, Colleen Moore's dollhouse, and ephemeral recollection
Objects that decorate my house have a history; they aren't just there to look pretty.—ISABELLA ROSSELLINI, Some of Me
The objects in our lives, as distinct from the way we make use of them at a given moment, represent something much more, something profoundly related to subjectivity: for while the object is a resistant material body, it is also, simultaneously, a mental realm over which I hold sway, a thing whose meaning is governed by myself alone. It is all my own, the object of my passion.—JEAN BAUDRILLARD, "The System of Collecting"
To offer a definition of the collector and the collection and the importance of each to this project, I want to begin with an image. This image articulates at once a number of issues central to my study of silent star Colleen Moore and other figures having to do with collections and collectibles, loss and recovery, the historian and her or his subject of inquiry. It is a photograph of Moore taken around 1927, surely as a publicity shot, which is part of a collection of photographs now housed at the library of the Academy of Motion Pictures archives in Los Angeles. It is not a still from a film but an image apparently taken in her own home; in a sense, it is part of a series promoting a film in production (one of the series shows her reading a script for a contemporaneous film). More than that, as a publicity shot and with the objects it includes, this photograph seems to be promoting Moore herself as a star. The image is of Moore eating from a box of chocolates as she lounges in her home. On closer inspection, we can see that the chocolates themselves bear Moore's signature, metaphorically and literally. These chocolates are wedded to Moore's image: the box has her picture on it, the interior includes a poem ascribed to her, and one piece of chocolate actually has her signature embossed on it. As such, they were clearly collectibles produced for consumption—along with Moore's image itself. But here, of course, is the problem: How long can one actually "collect" the chocolates? By definition they won't last: they will be eaten, or they will go bad. One could, then, make a metaphorical link between the chocolates and the star: they are produced for consumption, and they can't last. In this way, they are the perfect sign of the seeming ephemerality of Moore's star image.
But this is where the photograph comes in. This picture is one of approximately two hundred that were rediscovered about fifteen years ago in Moore's former residence by the recent owners, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Stack. One story is that they were found in a wall when the new residents were redoing the place. The Stacks donated them to the academy, and they are now part of a fairly substantial collection of photographs of Moore at the library, mixed in with ones donated from other sources. All basically similar, most are 8 x 10 (though some run larger) and appear to be professionally shot. Many were clearly taken at Moore's home (they show her cooking, showing off her garden, lounging at home, displaying collectibles, and so forth); others, especially the substantial number of head shots and fashion photos, were clearly taken in a studio. Few, however, are credited, and none in the Stack collection has any explanation. But all document Moore as a star (and all that stardom entails, from making her perform "ordinary life" to displaying her as glamorous).
The fact that these photographs were discovered in Moore's former home invites a couple of ways of thinking about Moore's own role in their very re-collection. First, they were obviously originally part of Moore's own collection (or potentially that of her first husband, John McCormick, as he was largely responsible for many of her promotional strategies). Thus left in the house as a collection of sorts, we might consider these photographs as predicting a moment of rediscovery at some point in the future, as they surely offer clues to Moore's history of stardom. Moreover, the subsequent moments of discovery—after that by the new tenants in her home, and therefore by the historian in the library (the archivist or the visiting scholar or fan)—invite a pleasure in themselves, which I will discuss by way of the collector, the collection, and the moment of recollection.
In all of these ways—pointing to ephemerality, collectibility, rediscovery, and the multiple layers of a star's image in history—this photograph opens up many of the primary points that I argue throughout this work. This image and its subsequent recollection present Colleen Moore in a dual role: as historical object of inquiry and as a historian herself. And there is no doubt about it: Colleen Moore was a collector. She amassed, stored, and invested in everything from miniatures to money to the ephemera of film fame. She produced or contributed to a significant number of histories of Hollywood in the teens and twenties: her autobiography, entitled Silent Star (1968); thirty-six scrapbooks kept in the Special Collections Library at the Motion Picture Archives, as well as the substantial photograph collection housed there; Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's 1980 Hollywood documentary series (in which Brooks also briefly appears); a collection of unpublished oral histories of William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon estate; the advice manual How Women Can Make Money in the Stock Market (1969); the companion to her collection of miniatures, Colleen Moore's Doll House (published shortly after the other two volumes); and even, I would maintain, the collection of miniatures, the dollhouse itself, as well as other collectibles produced during her heyday as a star.
As a savvy businesswoman, Moore appeared to see history itself as a kind of business: one makes investments and watches them come to fruition. Or perhaps she understood the historian's role as like a detective's and so left clues to her own celebrity that would later be rediscovered if necessary. Indeed, I would argue that Moore's particular acts of collecting anticipated and therefore attempted to preserve against a future loss in history. She never squandered her money—as did many of her contemporaries in Hollywood—and she attempted also to save her own position in history as one of the biggest box office stars in the 1920s. Yet, although she seemed to anticipate it and attempted to forestall it, her relative disappearance from history did eventually come—even if that loss itself, too, was ephemeral.
With Moore as a central case study, read alongside a number of other celebrities who were involved in similar archival projects, I define the collector who has a peculiar temporal and affective relation to the production of history. She collects objects and materials of the present so that her history may be retrieved and guarded in a future time. This is an affective investment: it signifies a love for oneself, a love for one's past (her family, her memories, her work), and a fear of loss. I pursue this definition and phenomenon of the collector by looking at a variety of collections kept by or about Moore and other stars. To inquire into the function of collecting, I turn to several different sorts of objects: a variety of star scrapbooks, a collection of oral histories concerning the Hearst Castle, Colleen Moore's dollhouse, and a series of collectibles mostly related to Moore. Although Colleen Moore acts as the central figure in this study, I set her works in relation to other stars' collections, thus showcasing how this chapter, like the project as a whole, is a kind of re/collection itself.
INVESTING IN HISTORY
Much contemporary writing in cultural studies that concerns nostalgia, souvenirs, and collecting turns to Susan Stewart's groundbreaking work On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Stewart mines a variety of texts and objects to explore their temporal and epistemological structure as well as their function as commodities. Given her focus, On Longing potentially has much to bear on my own objects of study. However, though it is unquestionably an elegiac work that has inspired many further investigations, Stewart's text is ultimately an incomplete exegesis on collecting, in large part because of the rigid distinctions she marks between the souvenir and the collection. I briefly trace these points here, drawing also on Walter Benjamin's own theory of collecting in his essay "Unpacking My Library," as well as several essays included in The Cultures of Collecting (some of which themselves draw on the works of Stewart and Benjamin, as well as Jean Baudrillard and Sigmund Freud), to move beyond Stewart's text and thus offer another theory of the collection that we might read alongside her foundational interpretation. As a test case of sorts, I then look to celebrity scrapbooks to redefine the collection as a memorializing and historicizing text.
In On Longing, Stewart claims that the scrapbook "must properly be seen as [a] souvenir rather than as [a] collection." She distinguishes between the two in regard to what she sees as their respective relationships with the past. "The souvenir," she writes, "is not simply an object appearing out of context, an object from the past incongruously surviving in the present; rather, its function is to envelop the present within the past." This definition seems implicitly to link the souvenir with acts of remembering (which is, of course, highly justified, considering the origin of the term): the souvenir, Stewart argues, allows one to return to the past via the object and, seemingly, the memories it invokes. Its relationship to the past is in part predicated on its function as a private object and those narratives associated with private memory. The souvenir exemplifies the "capacity of objects to serve as traces of authentic experience." Incomplete, as it is only a sample or metonym of an experience because it is essentially tied to nostalgia, the souvenir is necessarily "supplemented by a narrative discourse." Although the souvenir is tied to this authentic experience, Stewart notes that it "moves history into private time." She thus rightfully points out that the souvenir marks a private yet "partial" lived experience, so that the souvenir itself must be supplemented by narrative.
On the other hand, claims Stewart, the collection exists out of time, either historical or private:
The collection offers example rather than sample, metaphor rather than metonymy. The collection does not displace attention to the past; rather, the past is at the service of the collection, for whereas the souvenir lends authenticity to the past, the past lends authenticity to the collection. The collection seeks a form of self-enclosure which is possible because of its ahistoricism. The collection replaces history with classification, with order beyond the realm of temporality. In the collection, time is not something to be restored to an origin; rather, all time is made simultaneous or synchronous within the collection's world.
Certainly this definition is in part accurate. Collections are often defined by a form of classification that might overtake their historicizing, temporal, or private qualities. Jean Baudrillard, on whose work Stewart in part draws, notes that in a collection, "all objects become equivalents of one another." This equivalency is in part what sets the collection out of time, as Stewart argues. Given this emphasis on classification over historicization, Stewart suggests that the souvenir and the collection are mutually exclusive textual objects. She even marks certain forms of collections, such as the scrapbook, as souvenirs instead, to maintain this clear distinction. In her essay "Collecting Paris," Naomi Schor duplicates this logic, also drawing on the work of Baudrillard in her reading of Benjamin's essay on book collecting.
In his eloquent rumination on collecting, "Unpacking My Library," Benjamin emphasizes the relation between collecting and remembering. Regarding his own process of acquiring (and then re-viewing) books, he notes, "This or any other procedure is merely a dam against the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions. Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector's passion borders on the chaos of memories." He goes on, "Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property." In what appears to be drawn from an implicitly incongruous logic, Schor suggests that Benjamin's understanding of the collection expressed here is lacking because he doesn't take into account its difference from the souvenir that Stewart traces decades later. Preferring Stewart's distinctions over Benjamin's reading, Schor suggests that Benjamin bears some "confusion or failure to distinguish between what Susan Stewart has described as the souvenir and the collection, two closely linked but radically different assemblages of objects. According to Stewart, then, Benjamin's books function more as souvenirs than as parts of a collection." Again drawing on "Stewart's paradigmatic opposition," Schor continues: "Benjamin's collection is not in fact a collection, but a collection of souvenirs. His library qua souvenir overrides and very nearly cancels out its nature as a collection."
Although I agree that the sorts of distinctions Stewart makes between the souvenir and the collection are often operative, they are perhaps just as often not, particularly in the case of private collections or collections that are themselves based on private or personal forms. Indeed, Benjamin's "confusion" between the souvenir and the collection is hardly a failure: rather, he points to the explicit relationship that the collection itself may have to memory, subjectivity, and, by extension, history. Schor implies this possibility by suggesting that his collection is a "collection of souvenirs"; I would argue, contra Schor and Stewart, that such a case does not cancel out the two phenomena, but suggests instead an intimate relationship between them.
In taking advantage of Benjamin's "confusion"—he does, after all, see memories as "chaotic "—I would precisely define the kinds of collections I am looking at here (scrapbooks, oral histories, Colleen Moore's dollhouse, and various paracinematic collectibles) as having a memorializing and historicizing function. Thus, I do not see the souvenir and the collection as opposites or mutually exclusive; rather, I contest that they not only can coexist but can also inform one another. Each gives the other a new context—through memory, through narrative, through history—rather than destroys or erases the context of the other. Specifically, for instance, as with Benjamin's various books, the individual objects in a collection (we could indeed mark them as souvenirs) function to invoke memories and histories. The materiality of these collectibles comments on the historicizing function of objects: they embody both history and fantasy, and they lend a materiality to that history and fantasy. Thus, explicitly set in relationship to one another through the structure of the collection, the narrative they tell becomes richer as it builds between objects. Whereas Schor (again, drawing on Baudrillard and Stewart) sees this narrative structure as a kind of "seriality," I maintain a slightly more chaotic reading that instead allows for multiple interpretations and histories to be produced. Given this complicated narrative structure which is necessarily built on the "chaos of memories," the collection has a temporality that is not necessarily out of real time, as Stewart suggests. Rather, the collection has a precise, if complex, temporal order. Specifically, the collection is always at once an investment in the future and in history. It looks forward to a moment in the future when it will gain greater value, not just economically but historically. Any collection is thus an investment in the importance of history, whether a personal and private or an institutional history. Baudrillard himself would at least partially agree with this point; he argues that "objects in our daily lives" that we collect and therefore possess contain a "quotient of invested affect ... in no way inferior to that of any other variety of human passion."
Such investments—in history, of affect—are particularly apparent in scrapbooks. Interestingly, Stewart classifies the (generic) scrapbook not as a collection but as a souvenir. She asserts that it is a souvenir because "the whole dissolves into parts, each of which refers metonymically to a context of origin or acquisition.... In contrast, each element within the collection is representative and works in combination toward the creation of a new whole that is the context of the collection itself. The spatial whole of the collection supersedes the individual narratives that 'lie behind it.'" Yet, in the case of many celebrity scrapbooks, which function to chronicle a history, "each element" does "work in combination toward the creation of a new whole," such as a story of a star's career, her marriage, or her work off-screen. Moreover, it is through the relation between the parts (which is to say, the collected clippings contained therein) with one another and the parts with the whole that we see more specific impressions emerge than just those expressed in the singular clippings alone. Often such items are, in fact, structured as a sort of historical collage—or a collage of history—which demands a reading of their arrangement as well as of the information offered by them individually. Roger Cardinal, in fact, defines certain of artist Kurt Schwitters's collages as an "attempt to create a new whole out of disparate elements." He notes, as well, that "the collage is in fact a collection." In the case of many celebrity scrapbooks, the inverse is true. Given this, we can see how many different art and textual forms are themselves present in this particular history making: the souvenir, the collection, the collage, the book. And each form has some relation to the other: each scrapbook is a collection of souvenirs both catalogued and arrayed in a collage-like structure, yet assembled in the pages of a book.
Excerpted from Cupboards of Curiosity by Amelie Hastie. Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.