To the Collector Belong the Spoils: Modernism and the Art of Appropriation
by Annie Pfeifer
To the Collector Belong the Spoils rethinks collecting as an artistic, revolutionary, and appropriative modernist practice that flourishes beyond institutions like museums or archives. Through a constellation of three author-collectors—Henry James, Walter Benjamin, and Carl Einstein—Annie Pfeifer examines the relationship between literary modernism and twentieth-century practices of collecting objects. From James's paper hoarding to Einstein's mania for African art and Benjamin's obsession with old Russian toys, she shows how these authors' literary techniques of compiling, gleaning, and reassembling constitute a modernist style of collecting which that reimagines the relationship between author and text, source and medium. Placing Benjamin and Einstein in surprising conversation with James sharpens the contours of collecting as aesthetic and political praxis underpinned by dangerous passions. An apt figure for modernity, the collector is caught between preservation and transformation, order and chaos, the past and the future.
Positing a shadow history of modernism rooted in collection, citation, and paraphrase, To the Collector Belong the Spoils traces the movement's artistic innovation to its preoccupation with appropriating and rewriting the past. By despoiling and decontextualizing the work of others, these three authors engaged in a form of creative plunder that evokes collecting's long history in the spoils of war and conquest. As Pfeifer demonstrates, more than an archive or taxonomy, modernist collecting practices became a radical, creative endeavor—the artist as collector, the collector as artist.
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About the Author
Annie Pfeifer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Germanic Languages at Columbia University. Her research and teaching interests focus on 19th- and 20th-century German literature and culture, literary and political theory, the Frankfurt School, aesthetics, visual and material culture, and most recently, the intersection of modernism and fascism. She has published articles in The New German Critique, German Life and Letters, and the peer-reviewed volumes Que(e)rying Consent and Iran and the West.
About the Speakers
Claudia Breger is the Villard Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and the Department Chair. Her research focuses on twentieth- and twenty-first-century culture, with emphases on film and theater; literary, media, and cultural theory; and the intersections of gender, sexuality, and race.
Andreas Huyssen is the Villard Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he served as founding director of the Center for Comparative Literature and Society. He is also a founding editor of New German Critique (1974-). His many publications include After the Great Divide (1986), Present Pasts (2003), William Kentridge, Nalini Malani: The Shadowplay as Medium of Memory (2013) and Miniature Metropolis: Literature in an Age of Photography and Film (2015).
Kristina C. Mendicino is an Associate Professor of German Studies and the Chair of German Studies at Brown University. She works on German literature and philosophy from the eighteenth through the twentieth century, as well as Ancient Greek poetry, drama, and philosophy. Her interests include the rhetoric of prophecy in German Idealism and Romanticism, translation, poetic and philosophical articulations of temporality, and choreography.
Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at at Columbia University. He is the author of Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture (1993), Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence (2012), and, most recently, The Beneficiary (2017). His works are mainly in the areas of nineteenth and twentieth-century fiction, literary and cultural theory, and postcolonial studies.