Repackaging the Archive, Part I

December 1, 2008

Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.

Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking my Library”

From a very young age there is a discernible, if not wholly explicable, pathology in my relationship to objects, to things.  And this is, of course (or I would like to think), a common pathology.  Though there are surely earlier manifestations of this, perhaps some ur-moment which could(/can never) be located, two exemplary instances of how this pathology worked,[1] even in my pre-adolescent engagement w/ objects, should suffice, should demonstrate just how paramount was the need I had to archive, organize, collect, classify, hierarchize, and ultimately to forget the objects around me, things which, though ultimately objects of play, were always first and foremost objects of my pathological archival necessity.  In other words, toys, the ultimate object(s) of play, usually signifying a certain whimsical and youthful chaos, were for me always already—and indeed could only enact their play function for me w/ this firmly in mind—objects of the archive.  If this entry into the index serves a certain kind of purpose, serves to define the project of this here node (nothing else), serves to describe method and madness, to provide definitions for the neologisms that structure and (un)ground (abgrund) whatever textual outpouring will (is) occur(ring), then it is perhaps appropriate to begin near the beginning of a specific archival life, of life as archive, to begin w/ those first (completely un-)innocent forays into forcing my perceptions of the order of things, of the order of my objects, upon those objects themselves; in short, to begin the work of discerning the outlines and the contours of the hyperarchive through noticing certain forms of power I wrested from it at a young age.

Example 1:  The task (if it can in fact be called a task) of baseball card collecting is a well-known, if perhaps disappearing, phenomenon which the youth of this and other countries have been engaged in throughout the twentieth century.  I hardly need to say this at all.  And for my purposes here, I must admit I am far less interested in this trend socio-historically than I am in my own narcissistic engagement w/ this phenomenon.  (There is probably a wealth to be thought and written about w/r/t baseball cards and the subject of youthful [and adult] archival madness as it is expressed in a plentitude of modes, and perhaps my own story is merely the story as it would be told in many of these other instances, but I’ll leave this task to someone more informed and capable, as I have no inclination to pursue this subject w/ the rigor it would require.)   In other words, though I perhaps began collecting baseball cards for reasons which could be potentially mapped upon a constellation of cultural requirements that inscribed themselves upon the initial and subsequent act of purchasing a pack of baseball cards at the supermarket every Sunday morning,[2] describing this constellation would merely be a tautology.

The thing about baseball cards, is that they accumulate.  This is either b/c they are (or were) relatively cheap, little baubles to assuage screaming and fighting children in the long arduous traversing of aisles at the Campbell Ave. Safeway, or simply b/c that is their logic—they cannot exist singularly, they only make sense as multiple, as multiplicity.  Every year each company has to put out an entirely new line, to make room for the new players (and often teams), creating more and more special, limited, rare, flashy cards to dazzle collectors and clueless kids alike, and thus they cannot help but to proliferate.[3] Add to this the ritualized mode in which I procured baseball cards, and in no time at all, almost instantaneously, I had a “collection.”[4] I was never really interested in that age old pastime of “trading baseball cards.”  The only time I ever attempted this,[5] I was profoundly disappointed by the transaction.  I was always far more interested in the cards I had rather than the cards I didn’t have.  I quickly realized that to be able to find any of my cards, to make any sense of the sheer number of them, that I would have to organize them.[6] This quickly became one of my favorite things to do, organizing, reorganizing, developing complex and highly individualized modes for relating these objects to one another.  Weird hierarchies, psychoanalytically revealing relationships b/t players, ridiculous decisions based on the aesthetics of said individual card—all of these things transpired if merely b/c of the haptic joy I felt shuffling the little cardboard pictures in my small hands.  Soon, the dominant mode of organization solidified itself.  Each card was placed under the heading of the team the player was on.  (If players got traded, then they appeared under multiple teams.)  Then, for each team, a lineup was made out of all the possible combinations, the lineup I felt was best.  These 9 players and their corresponding multiple cards were at the beginning of the binders I soon needed to house this organizational method, the rest of the cards following in a hierarchy of amount—say if I had more Orel Hershiser cards than any other Dodger, he would come first—making up a kind of “standing reserve.”  Basically, this is how I enjoyed my cards, this is how I played w/ them: I organized, obsessively, reorganizing, scrapping entire methods when a novel and whimsical one suggested itself to me.  And I was probably doing all of this by age 7 or 8.

The primary reason for the organization method solidifying that I just described, was b/c of a very strange little game that made use of two die, a board w/ the bases and places for the cards over those bases, and a rubric corresponding to die roll and the players’ batting avg.  I remember making teams w/ my dad evenings, and playing out little mini-World Series’ using this game.  Basically, you chose nine players, one corresponding to each position, made a batting order, and rolled the die to see if the player got a hit, grounded-out, etc., all depending on the batting avg. on the back of each card.  The great thing about this game was that it was completely objective, that the facticity of the die rolls was unimpeachable.  So I soon found myself playing alone, creating 32 team playoffs, that I would enact for hours and sometimes days, meticulously keeping track of who won/lost, all a result or perhaps resulted in my obsessive organization.  There was essentially nothing to this game except a very simple level of math, of numbers and how these numbers interacted.  Nothing made George Brett’s over .300 avg. any better than Don Mattingly’s—they were indistinguishable from one another in terms of the game.  But the drama created by the numbers—and some have suggested that this is really at the heart of baseball itself: a certain aesthetic of numbers—was quite real.

A case in point: Otis Nixon.  Otis Nixon the real person was a journeyman player, playing for nine teams, a career .270 hitter who was an excellent base-runner (he still holds the Atlanta Braves single season mark for stolen bases, a stat that didn’t enter into this game. . .), but essentially a b-list baseball player, if that.  (He is also reported to have had a bad coke problem.)  Nixon was the absolute hero of this game, however.  For whatever serendipitous reason, Nixon, or perhaps his card, would always come through, winning the game w/ walk-off homeruns, getting a crucial hit, etc.  Of course this was all because of un coup de des, mere happenstance, but his name became meaningful to both my father and I b/c of his surrogate cardboard self and that card’s exploits in this game.  There was no reason Nixon, rather than someone else, should have received this mantle, but he did.[7] There was a running joke about “Otis!” that never ceased b/c of this, both my father and I perking up at the TV whenever his name was mentioned.

otis-nixon-21

In short, Nixon’s card became the physical embodiment of the chaotic possibilities inherent in organization, in putting that organization to work, to use.  W/o this archive, Nixon would have probably never been on my radar, he would have been merely another name in the long-list of athletes who have toiled away in general obscurity, even under the bright lights of The Show.  Somehow, even today, the phrase “Otis Nixon” cannot help but evoke the play inherent in archiving, or the archiving inherent in play.  The whole thing was sheer numbers, math, objective and quantitative meaning making—but Nixon transcended the numbers.  Even though his batting avg. may have been low in the subsequent years of my playing of this game, I always included him on my teams, b/c he always came through, did amazing, impossible things.  Like Dionysus, he leapt fully formed from the archive, destroying the banal and brutal logic of it.

I no longer have any of my cards, they were a burden when I had to liquidate my objects when moving out of my childhood home, and the guy at the card-shop said they were pretty much monetarily worthless.[8] And they were . . . worthless.  Only the entirety of them, the ridiculous archival logic which could produce meaning under the sign of “Otis Nixon” gave them any worth at all.  I never collected for the rarity of the thing—I’ve always been the type of person that would far rather play w/ the toy than leave it in its box to accumulate value—but rather for the sheer immensity that collecting produced, the grand-narrative of the object, of “Otis Nixon.”

In the subsequent years after I disgorged myself of the burden of that particular archive (for archives are always a form of burden), I also gave up “sports,” in an adolescent attempt to disavow the name of the father, or in a naïve punk-rock anti-dominant-culture-gesture—which of course ultimately resulted in my nostalgic rediscovery of baseball and the joy of the archive of baseball a few years later, coincidentally coinciding w/ my move to Pittsburgh and my attendance of a Pirates game.  All that archive fever rushed back, all the ironic cynical posturing disappeared in a rush of fully authentic joy over reading through the entirety of the 2005 Baseball Encyclopedia, relishing in every page and stat, in Babe Ruth’s ridiculous number b/t 1919 and 1920 (the year the ball was “juiced” [sic]), in re-watching Ken Burns’ (magnificent) Baseball, in laboriously working through DeLillo’s Underworld, dismaying that the first chapter never made a reappearance, in procuring a Ralph Branca baseball card for the sheer gravitas it signified, and still signifies, to me.

ralph-branca1

In other words, perhaps my problem w/ sports and baseball in particular was never a problem of the “game itself,” but not understanding that it was the archive of the thing I enjoyed, the collecting, categorizing, hierarchizing mode I experienced it through overflowed the reality of the thing.  It is surely not novel to suggest and point out that this is largely how we interact w/ sport: obsessing over ridiculously specific numbers,[9] creating meaning out of the relationships b/t  objectively insignificant details, all in the name of some way comprehending that which is beyond us, putting it w/in our power of understanding, firmly placing it w/in our archive.  Not to belabor the point, but is this not a clear instance of the primacy of writing, of inscription that Derrida argues is not subordinate to the spoken word in Of Grammatology, that the actual homerun is in no way more pure or meaningful, more originary than the entry of the homerun into the record book?  And does this not all only make sense under the heading of the Otis Nixon Baseball Card?  The baseball card is just another machine for living, just another sublime pathological instantiation of the reinscribing archive, and this, I am suggesting, in no way poses a limit to the possibilities of that reinscription, in no way closes off realms of experience because of their overt over-codification.

(This discussion will be continued in the next entry.)


[1] For the purposes of brevity, I will reserve the rest of this discussion, of the second example, for the next entry into the index.

 

[2] A ritual (the supermarket every Sunday, not the baseball card purchasing) that lasted until I left home.  After baseball cards, it was comic books and magazines (Sports Illustrated for Kids, Rolling Stone), and then just simply groceries.  It was a weekly bonding experience for my father and me, one which became increasingly significant as I got older and he got more and more sick.  By the time I was 16 or 17, my father was far less interested in what time I got home on a Saturday night, than if I was going to be able to wake up in time to go grocery shopping w/ him in time to catch the first football games of the day (it was Arizona, so this would have been either 10 or 11 am depending on DST).  This was also a kind of archiving, of experiencing the weekly ritual of procuring food in an ordered and consistent manner, a catalogue of consuming.  Though this is perhaps heresy, this act of grocery shopping has always made me only cerebrally and distantly able to relate to things like the description of the supermarket in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) or Allen Ginsberg’s Whitman-esque “A Supermarket in California” (1955).  I get the critique, and even the celebration and religiosity which each enact, but they have always seemed somewhat false and inconsistent w/ my own experiences.

[3] For my purposes here I am limiting my scope to baseball cards, b/c they made up the bulk of my small cardboard picture collection, but the same could also be said about (and indeed I had) football cards, basketball cards, and later in my nerditude, Magic: The Gathering cards.  Magic cards are perhaps the most insidious in their proliferation, mainly b/c they pretend to be useful, something baseball cards make no claim for, even if that didn’t prevent me from making use of them.

[4] Though I can distinctly remember receiving the entire 1988 line of Topps cards, a boon I wasn’t even aware of the magnitude of.

[5] I think I got an old Dodger third-baseman card off of Steven Eddy for some José Canseco cards, but I could be mistaken.

[6] Of course I am also suggesting a correlation between the conundrum of organizing baseball cards, and organizing other things (namely books, but also records, CDs, DVDs, files, etc.).  See Alberto Manguel’s quite interesting discussion of the conundrums of organization in The Library at Night (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008 [2006]).

[7] Which made it all the worse when he robbed Andy Van Slyke of my father’s beloved Pirates of a homerun in 1992.

[8] B/c of the very proliferation which occurred in the baseball card industry in the late ‘80s, right when I started collecting.  So many were made, that they literally, even the “rare” ones, weren’t worth the cardstock they were printed on.  I donated them to Goodwill, and hopefully someone somewhere is enjoying them to this day (and has hopefully reorganized them as well).

[9] Case in point: Bonds’ homerun mark.


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