Saturday, 26 May 2018

The Collection

Strictly speaking, I am not reviewing the following book:

Stewart, S., On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).

It only looks like it.

What I do want to talk about is the view of collections expressed in the book. Wargamers, aside from everything else, are collectors.  We have to admit it. We might even be hoarders, some of us. I really will get around to painting that army. Someday. Most of us, I imagine, have been there, thought that, however little our nearest and dearest might believe us.

Stewart argues that there is a difference between a collection and a souvenir. A souvenir is designed to transport us back to the place it signifies. She quotes Marx (which is not quite the alarm bell that might have been a few decades ago). The souvenir is a commodity made by labour. The souvenir spans the gap between the produced object and the origin. It reconstitutes the scene of acquisition.

The collection (or strictly, the objects in the collection) further alienate from production. We collect, but we do not ‘earn’ the item in the way that we obtain a souvenir, by actually visiting somewhere. As collectors we are consumers. The objects in a collection, therefore, signify money. Collected objects, such as coins or old bottles, are abstracted from their original use.

There is thus a difference between craft and mass production. A craft is a pre-industrial mode of production. The collection replaces craft activity in late modernity, Stewart suggests. A collection is a consumer activity. It links a pre-industrial aesthetic – that of the hand-made and one off – with a consumer society mode of production, that is mass-production, and mode of acquisition. We collect the ready-made.

The quality of a single collected object is negligible. What is important is the relation of an item in the collection to the others. In a coin collection each item matters, but in relation to the other coins. The value of a collection is not the sum of its parts, but the overall aesthetic, which is given by the position of the object and its manipulation within the collection.

So far, so abstract, I concede. But how does this apply to a collection of wargame figures?

Well, the last point I think can be agreed. A single wargame figure (as opposed to a model not intended to be used for a game) has very little use or value outside its army. The value of the single cavalry trooper is negligible without the rest of the squad, regiment or whatever. Even if the wargame is to be played at the lowest level of skirmish, the single figure is of comparatively little use.

What of the value (for the wargamer) of the model? Well, I suppose that this might vary. I recall from the old DBM-list (which was a fairly scary place for a newly returning wargamer) there was, on occasion, great glee or massive despair when new versions of the rules were released which made this or that troop type better or worse than before. Did the value of the soldiers change?

I suspect the answer is ‘sort of’. The intrinsic value might not have varied, but the use within the collection, the army, might have done. However, this must be limited by the fact that the troop type is still required, or at least permitted, in the army. The particular value of the troops might have changed, but their overall use value has not.

We could, I suppose, argue over whether wargame figure production is a craft or mass production. I have to say I could argue it either way. It seems to depend on whether you think spinning a mould of 24 figures or so is sufficiently ‘mass’ for mass production. Of course, I know that some wargamers cast their own figures or even make their own moulds, but this is not behaviour I see at many wargame shows. So far as the consumer goes, in many cases, the receipt of, say, 144 identical infantrymen counts as mass consumption, if not strictly mass production.

However, that said, a craft element is to be found in a wargame collection. Many wargamers paint their own figures, make the terrain and so on. Some, admittedly, do not, but the majority, I’d say, do their own painting of at least some of their figures. This, surely, is a craft, a throwback to a pre-industrial way of proceeding. Interestingly, I recall that a lot of model railway figures come pre-painted, which might cast a different light on the craft of making model railways. But I digress.

Stewart argues that the combination of pre-industrial content and post-industrial form is a contradiction in a collection. Forming the collection is aesthetic consumption. Creating the collection is functional consumption. The collection ‘marks out the space of the ornament and the superfluous’ (p. 166). Further, she suggests that purchasing a collection all at once is not acceptable.

So, is a wargame army a contradiction? I think that some of us, at least, would feel a little uncomfortable (for want of a better word) if someone bought a pre-painted, ready-made army. How, after all, can you love them if you have not painted or based them? Part of the discomfort might be along the lines of worrying that our fellow wargamer might simply be a munchkin (to borrow a role-playing term) and have simply bought the powerful army. Not necessarily, I will concede, but there is something about it which does not make us altogether happy.

Is a wargame army superfluous, an ornament? In all likelihood it is. We do not strictly speaking need wargame figures to survive. Their resale value is fairly negligible. These days the lead content of figures has dropped to the extent that a wargame collection (or collection of collections) would probably be of little use in a nuclear holocaust. Wargames are a product of late modernity, of a consumer society and of the emergence of a moneyed class with leisure time.   

The collection of wargame soldiers is something which can never have an end. So the next time you feel guilty at having acquired another load of figures what it is doubtful that you will ever paint (let alone play a wargame with) just remember that you are doing your bit for the post-industrial economy.


  1. Interesting limitation of the term Souvenir to only objects made to be sold as such. I have one or 2 such but my favourite souvenirs are all of a different sort, a rock off the beach at Dieppe, a patch off one of my old uniforms, a grandfather's cap badge, a favourite figure kept to remind of a loved wargame army now gone for what ever reason.

    I think buying whole pre-painted armies is becoming more common than it has been since the days of HG Wells when most armies were bought commercially pre-painted though not necessarily all at once. Certainly buying 2nd hand painted units and hiring people to paint armies has become rather common, the ads by several specialist companies are not hard to find and ebay, flea markets and bring & buys are full.

    Having entered the hobby in the middle when painting your own was part of it, it took a while for me to adjust. I remember a guilty feeling when buying my first adult painted Britain's and putting them on a table and when selling my first wargame army that I had no room for during one of life's downs but all of that is behind me now. They maybe be craft, art or industrial output but wargames could be played with pieces of paper, rocks and twigs representing units or even with computer graphics so I have to conclude that the armies may be collectible items for some or craft or souvenirs of past games and friends as well as game pieces but they are not essential to wargaming, merely an enhancement that makes it worthwhile to some and are irrelevant to others.

    1. I suspect that no definition of a souvenir (or collection) is going to be fully satisfactory. There will always be exceptions - I think what the author is objecting to is the pseudo-craft of some of them.

      Buying and selling painted models is becoming more widespread, as is paying someone to paint them for you. I guess this is a product of the time poor, money rich wargamer (in relative terms, anyway).

      A wargame can be played with anything, but I think there is an aesthetic pleasure in handling figures designed and crafted for the task. I'm not sure I could define it any more tightly than that, but I think it does exist. It works for me, anyway, otherwise I wouldn't spend so long painting them.

  2. I have always subscribed to the view that if you have one of something it is an ornament, add a second and you have a pair,but add a third and you have a collection!

    In this rather haphazard way I collect toy soldiers and sometimes play with them

    1. I guess collections can be haphazard as well as worked out. But with three you have relations (possibly different relations) between the objects and so, yes, you have a collection. So, we collect toy soldiers, and sometimes animate them in stories...

  3. I am 'guilty' of purchasing two armies and having them painted for me, but I believe I've not really done anything wrong, wargames wise.
    Firstly, the original creators of hobby wargaming, Robert Louis Stevenson and HG Wells, simply bought pre-painted children's toy soldiers and devised games with which to play with them. The toys/models are not themselves the wargame, just pieces with which to play.
    Secondly, I know from bitter past experience that:
    a) I am neither a good, nor a quick, painter, so someone else with talents I don't possess will complete my troops to a higher standard and in less time than I could do.
    b) I don't actually enjoy painting, especially the need to production-line paint lots of identical line infantry, for example, so know I would become bored and probably never complete the project.
    c) I can afford to use a painting service by selling off books, boardgames and other stuff that I'm not going to use again, which clears space and delivers the sold items to people who will enjoy and use them.
    d) I'm helping someone earn an honest living by using their talent and skill - and I'm using a painter in the UK, not exploiting cheap labour overseas.
    e) I don't regard military modelling/painting as an inherent part of wargaming, whilst accepting that many choose to combine the two activities and enjoy doing so.

    I would rather spend my wargaming time reading, researching, devising scenarios and rules and actually playing games.

    I don't regard my toy soldier armies as a 'collection' just as the pieces of a chess set are not a collection; I do have a collection of books on my favourite periods of military history and wargaming.

    1. Well, I hope I never intimated that buying pre-painted armies or paying to have them painted is in any sense 'wrong', just that the craft element of the collection of soldiers is thereby shifted elsewhere.

      I'm not sure that discussing the meaning of 'collection' is terribly helpful either - a toy soldier army is, in some senses a collection; in other senses it is not. Try this:
      Place you army on the table, and ask 'how many things are on the table?' There are various answers:
      One- the army
      N - the number of bases
      M - the number of figures
      And so on all the way down the the number of atoms.

      Some of these things are collections...