Love Objects

Archiving Narratives of Romance

Objects: Every object touched by the loved being’s body becomes part of that body, and the subject eagerly attaches himself to it

Sometimes the metonymic object is a presence (engendering joy); sometimes it is an absence (engendering distress). What does my reading of it depend on? – If I believe myself about to be gratified, the object will be favorable; if I see myself as abandoned, it will be sinister.

– Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse

Project Scope

Synopsis

The impetus for this fieldwork stemmed directly from encounters I have every day with objects that defy my personal categorization, what I would like to call love objects. I define love objects as those material things acquired within a romantic relationship – and the rest of the definition I leave up to the informant. I am particularly interested in what happens to these objects once the romantic relationship is understood to end. How are they reincorporated into personal material lives, if they are at all? The status of these objects post-romance are what I investigated.

Research Approach

I spent four months meeting participants in a public place or in their homes and having conversations that lasted several hours while taking photographs of their objects. In what follows I present a brief portraits of some of those participants, how they narrate the life of their love objects, and provide documentation of where the objects have ended up. My approach is a visual one, and I analyze how the act of seeing the object affects the person and in turn affects the trajectory of the objects.

Visible Collections

Andrew

Andrew is a single sixty-five year old psychoanalyst, but for thirty years of his life he was a traveling business man and married. The objects he elected as ‘love objects’ were several Turkish carpets he and his wife had purchased in the early 80s when they were still married and living in Istanbul. For Andrew, objects do not play a central role in recalling memories, he is accustom to loss and has learned not to attached himself to material possessions. Andrew recalls:

“Event based complexes of memories with the look of stuff in it, including objects, is what gives power to the objects, rather than objects giving power to the memory, and for me memory is far more key”

Andrew also explains that a 30 year marriage is simply too long to have certain possessions that objectify the relationship or symbolize his romance with his wife:

“It was 30 years with my wife but 30 years is too complex and too enormous a thing, you can’t hold it all in your mind, and it also composed of enormous number of stages […] and to say that there is one relationship that one object symbolizes is not true, there are chunks of my life essentially punctuated by location”

These carpets stand out as an anomaly among all the other possessions he and his ex-wife divided between themselves, owing to the fact that the three years spent in Turkey were among some of his most pleasant memories; his ex-wife’s art experienced a boost, they had a large network of friends and family, and absolutely loved the country, the list goes on. Each rug that was purchased came with hand-knit wool mittens provided by the merchant – so small they could not be worn even by an infant — as a kind of charm or token.

The carpets and mitten were in fact the only possessions they argued over during their divorce, and are not just a symbol of Turkey or his wife but a reference to a very particular period in his marriage, a period that saw both him and his wife at their happiest. The carpets, which had as their origin the market and thus a commodity setting became valuable possessions endowed with personal and familial meaning.

Johanna

Johanna, a twenty year old student, has unique behavior as collector of objects post relationship. Unlike the majority of the people I interviewed, Johanna accumulates clothing from her past relationships and continues to wear and present these items after the relationship has ended. ‘Accumulates’ is somewhat of an understatement, as Johanna confesses that she has stolen quite a few things from ex-boyfriends, including shirts, hats, shoes and pants, only to tell them after the fact. Each clothing item comes with its own narrative, and Johanna recalls in a very jovial and excited way how she wore an ex-boyfriends pants home one morning because she didn’t want to wear the dress she came in, or how she snuck a baseball cap into her suitcase prior to leaving her summer camp boyfriend.

When I met Johanna she was wearing a plaid shirt from one ex boyfriend and states that most of her personal fashion sense comes from acquiring others’ clothing items. In one case she purchased the same pair of shoes as a childhood crush and proceeded to write on them after seeing her crush do the same. For Johanna a narrative of romance needn’t be sustained and she makes a hobby out of collecting things from her past partners and crushes.

Invisible Archives

Natalie

Natalie is a twenty-seven year old fashion student in London who had separated from her boyfriend, Lou, only three months prior to my speaking with her. With the break-up so recent and fresh in her mind, she still had quite a few objects from the relationship and has been negotiating what exactly to do with them; these include a jumper, a pair of socks, a toy block she found in a nursery, a rock from a vacation, and etc. She states that she frequently thinks about wearing his jumper when it is cold out but then:

I stop because as soon as I see it I realize it has an energy, and it has these associations where I think ‘if I wear this am I going to be thinking about him more today?’

Vision is the sense that stops Natalie from wearing the jumper and sees her thinking of him. She thinks about who she was in the relationship with him, and how she cannot be that person anymore, and in the end always decides not to wear the jumper.

“It depends where I’m at in relation to him … sometimes I need to distance myself from him and when I wear them it feels like I’m clinging to him … if I wore it, it would be like nostalgic indulgence”

Natalie had collected a small yellow cube, a child’s block from a nursery inside the Buddhist retreat camp in France where she met Lou. On each side of the block was a symbol the represented something essential to her in the relationship. Natalie says that the cube represented a ‘romantic fantasy’ to her, that she thought it was a sign that her and Lou were meant for each other, but Lou never shared this feeling for the object.

Charlotte

Charlotte’s last relationship lasted roughly three years and she had just separated from her ex-boyfriend Daniel only a month prior to speaking to me. Over three years Charlotte accumulated quite a lot of objects and not just in one place but both in her hometown Belgrade, and her current residence in London. A week after the breakup she went around her room with a big box and took everything out that reminded her of him, surprised to find that there were still things left in her room at all. Charlotte admits to being a big collector, having amassed everything from umbrella straws to flyers for parties, so she had much to gather and hide. Of particular interest is a plush zebra that Daniel had given to Charlotte. She states that she took the zebra everywhere she went:

“I would never put it in luggage, I don’t really care if my luggage gets lost, because its just clothes, and even the important stuff, its replaceable, but the plush zebra wasn’t”

After the breakup Charlotte moved the toy away from its special place, as the thing that manages to remain outside of her luggage, to a shelf with other not so special toys – it’s the movement of the plush that she hopes will initiate a change in the pain she feels. After having to clean up her room of love objects in Belgrade, she returned to London only to do it all over again. A cup with the same zebra on it gifted to her by Daniel was the first thing to go, which she hid in her suitcase:

“I didn’t even look at it when I put it in there, I just opened the suitcase a little at the top and put it in and closed it and did not think about it anymore”

Exposition

Susan Stewart’s On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (1993) offers one way of considering what both Johanna and Andrew are doing as collectors of love objects. Unlike the souvenir, the collection is authenticated by the past, but is also ahistorical in the sense that it does not create a nostalgic longing for something gone. Instead of objects within the collection working as metonyms for a separated whole, the collection recontextualizes the objects within it into a new whole (151-2). Stewart is careful to point out that collecting must be differentiated from accumulation. Andrew and Johanna are the only two cases in which objects from love relationships remain visible and on display.

Andrew’s carpets would fetch quite a price in the market today as he explained to me he was very careful to purchase the ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ thing. Since separating from his wife he has acquired new carpets from other places that are displayed throughout his home, adding to the collection of Turkish carpets. While at first it may seem that Johanna is only accumulating souvenirs, as the clothing items can be clearly understood to be metonymic pieces from the person, she made it a point to say her “sense of fashion comes from other people” and in this way her “sense of style” is a cohesive collection — the whole a thing unto itself and not just made up of its parts. How are we to think about the objects that Natalie and Charlotte now hide?

Returning to Stewart, she claims “we do not need or desire souvenirs of events that are repeatable […] rather we need and desire souvenirs of events that are reportable, events whose materiality has escaped us, events that thereby exist only through the invention of narrative” (p. 135). This definition of souvenir giving rise to a narrative is an apt description for the hidden love objects. Those hidden objects were representations of experience through narrative, however, now that the narrative of a romantic relationship can no longer exist in the present and will not exist in the future, the object is somehow falsified – an emblem of discontinuity between the past and present.

The objects can no longer remain souvenirs nor can they can be reincorporated into commodity exchange. Charlotte does not sell or throw away her stuffed zebra toy, but puts it on a shelf with other toys that do not hold as much personal value. Natalie can’t very well sell a toy block separated from the rest, but it is now useless to recuperate the narrative of a romantic relationship, so it goes into a bag with other small objects and is placed in a shelf. The materiality of the object ‘disturbs’ and ‘disrupts’ post-relationship because it can no longer be part of making the past the present, or future.

But what is the impetus for hiding the objects from view, instead of collecting and displayed them in the way that Andrew and Johanna?  In Alfred Gell’s Art and Agency (1998) he argues for a distributed agency, claiming that signifiers and their signified object are not just linked symbolically but are connected through movement and affect. Social agents are “present, not just in our singular bodies, but in everything in our surroundings which bears witness to our existence, our attributes, our agency” (p. 103). Material objects are both “sources of and targets for social agency” (p. 96). This idea is made clear by Natalie when I asked her if she would remain in contact with Lou:

“Time apart from them is the only thing that turns your reality into a memory and then you can sort of put it away like close the lid on the story – because right now its in a box, because we broke up – like all the stuff, whatever two people created – this third person right in front of your face – but eventually that kind of dissolves and becomes this compartmentalized chapter of your life”.

Natalie describes her material possessions left by Lou as constituting another person – the relationship personified by objects.

Where is the separating line between creating a hidden archive of love objects and simply discarding them as refuse? I claim that throwing away the objects would be an attempt at erasure while holding onto them, even if in seclusion, preserves the origin myth and narrative of the relationship without requiring it continue.

James Elkins, in The Object that Stares Back (1997) conflates memory with vision, “How did I see as an infant, and what did I see? One of the reasons I cannot answer those questions is that memory is necessary for vision” (p.202). He claims that essentially (remembered) vision cannot exist without memory. If we reverse this claim can we not say then that in order to forget one might blind themselves?

Individuals may apprehend love objects as a way to experience themselves in relation to the romantic other – each act of looking sees them in a narrative of union with that other. When the romantic relationship has ended, the mechanism whereby a person experiences themselves as one part of a union shifts to the discontinuity of the individual. In order to deny the this reality, these objects are hidden from view, finding themselves in the back of closets, under beds, in boxes and bags — out of sight so that one day they might be out of mind.