Thursday, February 5, 2009

a Leanne Shapton addendum

For those of you who don't care about reading things in the proper sequence, this is a passage I've just added to the Important Artifacts review, with no guarantees that I won't keep tweaking:

For the sake of the story, enough personal items have to be included to convey character as well as event. Some of the items do seem improbable (that is one source of the book's subtle but abundant humor); but then the auction is meant to represent all the things that are gotten rid of at the end of a painful relationship, and both parties will later regret having deaccessioned some of them so rashly.

Hence the inclusion in Shapton’s auction items of a good many small heirlooms and substantial library items along with the love notes and conversational exchanges written on theatre programs. If her fictional Doolan and Morris had been archivally inclined or pack rats, there would have been no story. (And if Shapton herself weren’t so knowing in the ways of material culture, there wouldn’t have been a story, either.)

The regular dispersion of personal and family possessions constitutes a problem for the new academic discipline of material-culture studies: between the mobility of global society (whether from war or economic migration) and the rise of eBay, the material is always getting sold or abandoned.

All this hopelessly lost stuff is precisely the pile of debris that the Angel of History contemplates with such dismay in Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (or in Laurie Anderson’s spoken-word recycling of same on Strange Angels). Only in moments of our own catastrophe do we perceive the human and physical wreckage we have left behind in the relentless march of what, according to Benjamin, we are pleased to call “progress.”

Auctions, thrift shops, and eBay complete the process by finding new owners for the detritus, covering the tracks of the crime by removing the evidence and finding a new use for what has become refuse, if not emotional toxic waste.

It is the function formerly performed by the ragpickers of Charles Baudelaire’s famous poem, a poetic analogy that Walter Benjamin recycled as productively as he did the frantic winged creature of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus..

So Shapton has given us underlying issues to think about as well as a story to piece together.

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