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The Souvenir


The urge to collect objects, for individuals as well as societies, is a sign of impending death. One finds this need acutely manifested during preparalytic periods. There is also the mania for collecting—in neurology, "collectionism."

Paul Morand, “L’Avarice,” in Les sept pechés capitaux (1929)

KITSCH is dead from the moment it is born. Rodney's eternal life is contingent on that brief fatal moment that froze him forever in a transparent bubble. Yet what is left is more than an invertebrate corpse that will never rot or a crustacean that met its demise through an unnatural catastrophe: it is the demiurgic desire for immortality, the secret of creation held in the palm of one hand, the ability to gaze, unfettered, into the unknown otherness of an imprisoned creature that cannot escape in its imposed rigor mortis our voracious demands.

Rodney is a residue of what he once was: sempiternally trapped in the shock of his last agony, he pertains only to the instant when he ceased to exist, that invisible moment which eludes vision yet is somehow still present in his unanimated carcass. Rodney lives in our imagination, where we vaguely reconstruct his existence according to the predominant narrative in our minds: Rodney the warrior fighting other hermit crabs over shells or territory; Rodney in a crabby mood walking sideways in search of nourishment; Rodney the solitaire retreating to his entitled zodiacal domesticity, peacefully resting in a home he has adorned with pink anemones, all four pincers closed while both pairs of antennae keep track of the world around him. There is only one Rodney, but many of us to see in him a reflection of each of our own lives.

When looking at Rodney in his glass globe, one can indulge the rare emotion of possessing his existence, forgetting he is dead. That he looks alive, with eyes that seemingly stare back, reinforces the Utopian aspiration of life beyond death, made possible by the encounter of such disparate registers as the organic and the technical. Insofar as this illusion is maintained, Rodney fulfills the wish image's fetishistic potential: in this case, the desire to surpass death. Yet, simultaneously, the creature has ceased to exist and what we hold in our hands is nothing more than a crab's exoskeleton.

Rodney is the leftover of the urge to trap his vital anima, and his status as a fossil underlines the failure of that attempt. What we acquire when purchasing Rodney the commodity is an extant wish—ours, as participants in a culture that does not accept death and seeks to capture life at whatever cost, even that of sacrificing real life for the sake of a fleeting imaginary perception. It is in this intrinsic contradiction between a desire and the preclusion of its unfolding that the dialectics of kitsch take place, moving between an irretrievable past and a fragmented present, at home only in the certainty of its own impossibility.

According to Benjamin, there are two basic ways of perceiving events in modern time. Both are connected to memory and may be roughly distinguished as the conscious mode, which leads to reminiscence, and the unconscious mode of remembrance proper. In consciousness, events are perceived as part of a continuum of tine that is merely conventional. The shocking elements of an event are filtered out, enabling it to be lived as a memorable experience—a reminiscence—that does not disturb the delicate balance of consciousness and can be stored as a memory to recall at will. Consolidated unto a perfectly flawless version of itself, the censored event becomes a sort of "cultural fossil," the static and idealized blueprint of an experience. Although the reminiscence retains some essential attributes of the original event, it lacks a substantial part of that event's integrity, namely its transitory vehemence. However, this gap is not apparent since the reminiscence is perceived as a continuous whole and therefore capable of reliving the event by sheer repetition.

Within conscious memory, for example, the perception of Rodney automatically excludes an awareness of his death. Instead, it focuses on his life much like what goes on in museums of natural history, where fossils are simply representatives of species whose traits and habits we are asked to resurrect in our imaginations with the images and information provided. Similarly, the cultural fossil recalls an immaculate memory, continuously regenerating it in ahistorical purity without the annoying distortions brought about by the passage of time—death and decay.

Perhaps the best illustration of this fossilized, conscious perception would be not the dead but the live hermit crabs that were a fad in the 1970s. Rivaling its hundred-year-old parent, the aquarium, the hermitarium became the pet microcosm of the moment, with collectors buying shells and busily watching hermit crabs establish and abandon homes, fight over the best domiciles and generally exhibit an attitude far from reminiscent of hermit introspection and solitude. Unknowingly repeating the fashionable mid-1800s turtle strolls, some people took the tiny crustaceans for walks (there are both land and water hermits) and even made them into keyholders. The latter was, however, a risky venture, since the shell's occupant could decide to pack up and take its body elsewhere, abandoning its living quarters—and the key's owners—to their luck. These live fossils allowed the reproduction of an anthropocentric view of animal life in miniature scale, satisfying a nostalgic desire while avoiding the "dirty" complexity of an experience's full reality.

Within unconscious perception, on the other hand, there is no erasure of an experience's actual conditions, but rather the exclusion of consciousness' backbone, continuous time. The perceptual process that eventually leads to kitsch is that aspect of experience constituted by what consciousness leaves out: the intensity of the lived monent. Anachronistic by definition, the unconscious perception focuses precisely on all those distressing sensations that consciousness cannot afford to indulge. This zealous but transitory moment becomes a "remembrance,” a piercing, fragmentary recollection that can direct perception to the hidden archives of our individual memories, where experiences are stored as atemporal and mythic. Consequently, the unconscious remembrance supersedes the conscious reminiscence's evocative ability, since remembrance can leap beyond the immediate event into the associated dimension behind it, while reminiscence, trapped in its fabricated temporality, must content itself with repeating over and over a reconstructed event.

The subjective mythical time accessed by remembrances must be distinguished from the cultural fossil's evocation and mystification of something that often never really happened. More than simply being frozen in time like a vestige of an imaginary time, Rodney may be seen as a fragment of time whose artificial preservation is a constant reminder of creature mortality. What matters most for remembrance is what is already gone, that brief instant of splendor where we can envision, through a narrow sliver of our mind, the memories that underlie most daily contingency. As such, remembrance is obsessed by the transitoriness of lived moments and constituted by what ceases to be: loss and death.

Rodney's actual condition is central to this perception, although, as with all experiences, whether he becomes a reminiscence (disregarding his obvious demise) or a remembrance (focusing on the feeling of loss caused by his death) can only be determined by the onlookers’ peculiar engagement with this reified hermit crab. That in both conscious and unconscious perception experience is somehow mutilated (of intensity or continuity, respectively) accounts for their finding a common ground in longing. However, the yearning of reminiscence is nostalgic and never really leaves the past, while that of remembrance must be anchored in the present to experience the loss for which it melancholically languishes.

The lost time that unconscious remembrances attempt to bring back is the elusive "spleen” that affected many people during the nineteenth century: an existential state of pure present devoid of all past (history and mythical time) and future (hope and a potential for change). Spleen, where "time becomes palpable, the minutes covering man like snowflakes” is a typically modern phenomenon that would be unthinkable without industrialization's disruption of the continuous, usually cyclic, flow of tradition. Together with remembrance and reminiscence, spleen constitutes a mode of perceiving modernity's impact, representing that tangible feeling of ephemeral temporality that remembrance longs for and reminiscence avoids altogether. Perhaps Rodney is the best suited to evoke spleen, trapped forever in the very concrete moment of his death.

Like corpses, unconscious remembrances inherently carry the mark of passing time; theirs is a fleeting state that can only gain relative durability by way of a second death, that of commodification. When Rodney is set on a small pedestal and labeled as an "educational embedment," he enters the realm of commodities, where the remembrance will be crystallized (in Rodney's case, quite literally) into an object: the souvenir. Emptied of experiential dimension, remembrances are hardened, take second place to an extrinsic function—being educational or ornamental—and lose their singularity upon entering the market as exchangeable items. They have ceased to exist as "live" memories, becoming themselves mortal remains.

However, as souvenirs remembrances are still susceptible to diverse modes of reception, which refetishize them into a wide array of meanings, according to the consumers'—and the market's—needs. Outstanding among these is the notion that an object is capable of transcending the limits of its own signification to represent, partially or fully, the whole event that gave it birth. Souvenirs, for example, condense the supposedly founding elements of a particular situation: a certain landscape or view, a famous person, the "typical" objects of a craft or region, an important moment.

This mode of conveying meaning—representing the whole through one of its parts—invests souvenirs with a large fetishistic potential: souvenirs begin to stand in for events or situations they were contingently associated with or were supposed to represent, gaining a life of their own. For me, the corpse of a hermit crab becomes Rodney, an endearing creature whom my friends even say hello to when they visit; for a child, Rodney can be a friend; for a collector, a specimen or object; for a happy couple, a darling little crab to add to the cache of exotica that makes them feel special; for a teenager, Rodney can be seen as gore, a deadly object that fascinates because of its bleakness; for that teenager's parents, aware of this peculiar appeal, Rodney can be seen as morbid; and for the teenager's grandparents, as a sad reminder of their imminent departure.

In all these cases people look into the glass globe without really seeing it, but rather unwittingly gazing beyond it into their own unconscious—the fears and desires that wait silently until the least-expected stimulus triggers their remembrance. Souvenirs transcend the prefabricated wish image of commodities through the personal involvement of their consumers, a personalization that, no matter how clichéd, momentarily "resurrects" the dead possession. Still, the empathic capacity of souvenirs is far from the kind of "awakening" power they would require to become dialectical images and expose the wish image behind them.

The souvenir does not automatically recall the remembrance, conjuring the lived moment and from there unleashing mythical time. Like the cultural fossil, the souvenir is unable to bring back anything beyond the immediate perception that triggers the process of remembrance. Despite being centered around time (souvenir is French for remembering), the souvenir's capacity to move within the temporal dimension is limited by that second death—commodification—which attempts to restrict its significance to a specific dream image, hindering the imaginary return to mythical time that remembrances effortlessly achieve. For the latter to happen, the souvenir must wait, perhaps forever, to become part of a personal universe.
Although commodification's fatal blow is aimed more at uniqueness and use value than at temporality, it still succeeds in taking away a good chunk of the remembrance's intrinsic potential—to move us back in time—while simultaneously reinforcing remembrances' deadly quality. Commodification is like the greedy King Midas, who wanted everything he touched to turn into gold, until he realized that everything really did mean all. He almost died of starvation, unable to caress or pick up anything lest it turn into the cold metal. The souvenir is a remembrance kissed by poisoned lips, savoring the lethal touch even as it races to meet a tragic end.