After Shows
A column by Erlhoff Michael
Oct 22, 2015

A new collecting frenzy is sweeping across the planet. But how did we develop this penchant for accumulating things? Is it rooted in early childhood?

It’s safe to say that never before were such masses of items being archived, in other words kept and collected, as are being stored today. And, as is evidenced by the massive spread of specialist museums, pretty much everything is deemed worthy of preservation. Take buttons, cars, cups, packaging, all kinds of machinery, clothes, shoes, handkerchiefs, computers – the list is endless. Nothing seems to get in the way of our obsession for collecting things.

Now this is all the more astonishing or indeed all the more plausible given a society with an economic system that capitalizes on permanent consumption, in other words on continuous production and the corresponding use. Buy and consume as quickly as possible – that’s the idea.

Admittedly it’s a principle that the very same people who advocate it may on occasion equally object to – in their thoughts and in a lot of what they say. When they turn the talk to green living and sustainability. Which, surprisingly, leads to the strange phenomenon of continuing just as before: the dichotomy of fierce and rapid consumption paired with the need to store things. Abundant collections and museums are the result. Some of which, dare we say it?, are just glorified garbage sites.

And yet, most collections tend to evolve from private initiatives and these usually do not go public until they have accumulated a sufficient volume of items, which gains them additional legitimization – and respect. As if the very reason that prompts us to start a collection in the first place is the wish to do something for the common good.

Let’s now take a look at private collecting initiatives by studying the trailblazing essay the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi published in 1925. In his theoretical treatise he states very precise reasons for the lust of collecting, illustrating a phenomenon from early childhood as a starting point for his analysis. Which seems to make a lot of sense: There is a possibility, he argues, that infants experience the articulation of their excrements as the first physical act of relinquishing something, and consequently as their first creative act – and thus savor the experience. It is a common phenomenon and we have all seen little children express their joy over what they have done: they rejoice. What dampens the experience for the infants is that the parents or other people taking care of them do not welcome this articulation with the same enthusiasm, indeed their response is felt to be somewhat negative as they dispose of those excrements at once and swiftly wipe away what has remained on the child’s body. We even invented a special product for this – the diaper!

A regrettable experience for small children. And once they get a little bit older, after they have disposed of their excrements on the toilet, they are evidently very happy about the act, and incredibly sad when their parents rush to flush those excrements away at once, and therefore destroy them.

Ferenczi convincingly concludes from the above that the frustration at witnessing their early personal creations disappearing down the toilet triggers the need to keep experimenting with everything associated with personal articulation – and to preserve it. Boys, he observes, like to pee in the sandpit and use the sand moistened by their own pee as a practical construction material. An act that is once again sanctioned by their parents and the outcome destroyed, if possible. The experience, as Ferenczi argues convincingly, will in later life produce avid collectors keen to compensate for their childhood losses. Maybe it is stones they cherish, and possibly money, too. After all, Donald’s Uncle Scrooge, as the most famous incarnation of someone amassing riches, passionately leaps into his pool of wealth to cleanse, refresh and purify himself.

So if we embrace the argument made by Ferenczi then it follows that the passion for collecting simply derives from early anal frustration and late revenge. It is worth considering this reasoning as it may help to explain the present boom of collecting the most random and in part completely abstruse items in order to present them in public. This holds true all the more in a society that constantly protects and cleans its children. – Note in this context that it is in particular the creatively minded, for example people from the worlds of design, architecture and art, who love to collect things. Coping with the frustration of repression on two levels at once.

Michael Erlhoff

He is an author, design theorist, corporate consultant, curator and organizer; he has been, among other things, CEO of the German Design Council, Advisory Council member of documenta 8 and Founding Dean (and until 2013 professor at) of the Köln International School of Design/KISD. Erlhoff was founder of the Raymond Loewy Foundation, is a founding member of the German Society of Design Theory and Research and as a visiting professor heads projects and workshops at universities in Tokyo, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, New York and Sydney.