David Ludwig and Cornelia Weber’s study of university collections is notable in its self-confessed narrow focus on the sciences. Their construction of the institutional collection is indubitably formed by its origin in this field and its transposition to the humanities, while casting its fair share of light on certain things, casts likewise long shadows over book-based disciplines by privileging non-literary objects and thus risks misrepresenting the material legacy of non-scientific disciplines at large while rendering it nearly impossible for literary collections to be considered such.
Ludwig and Weber describe the university collection as comprising “three-dimensional or audio-visual objects at institutions of higher education,” however we are told that consequently this definition would exclude “libraries and university archives”(2). By virtue of this reasoning, much of the Richler rooms would be divested of its status as a collection, with only the miscellany of non-literary appurtenances such as cigars, photographs, trophies, chairs, etc., being ‘concrete’ enough to qualify.
The library of books are completely elided from this notion of collection. Interestingly, though this feat of transposition results in a certain form of obfuscation – Ludwig and Weber’s concept of the university collection disavowing the materiality of the library – it simultaneously reveals a trajectory in thought around literary production which is borne out by mediatised representations of the Richler rooms that focalise on the miscellany of physical objects in preference to literary objects. Newspaper articles, photo essays, video tours, etc., all favour the account of these non-literary objects, and a fixation upon the trio of “the late novelist’s simple, rough pine desk, Smith Corona typewriter and the ashtray where his Montecristo cigars once smouldered,” is not uncommon (Bradshaw). The relationship between these objects is one of representational importance in which they create a mutually constitutive network arranged around the performance of an author. While the objects upon the desk are integral to this network, the desk as an organisational surface takes precedence in this account.
Both written and visual representations of the Richler rooms are dominated by the writer’s desk. As the most physically imposing object in the room and one which uniquely affords its own ordering surface already culturally crystallised with a certain kind of agency in literary production, the desk is the perfect instance of reification of the indexical relationship between symbolic and physical positionalities performed by the Richler rooms which collapses and erases the labour behind the arrangement of objects upon it, such that the placing of an object seems to issue from authorial intent rather than that of a research assistant. Just as the sundry effects of Richler have been placed upon the desk so too have the tangled ideas of 20th century literary labour to the extent that the desk is interpellated by a number of ideological works that its rough hewn surface conceals as rustic ‘simplicity’. More than the rows of books which encircle it, the desk draws one’s eye immediately – this canny presence further elabourated by its ubiquity in photographs of the room. A diorama performing literature, positioned centre-stage. Thinking of Jules Prown’s attempts to categorise objects, it stubbornly resists to sit still: art; adornment; applied art; device (3)?
In being positioned within a collection diorama, the visual order of display wraps up the desk and obscures its openness for writing and research outside of a network of knowledge of Mordecai Richler. While it is also subject to ideological positioning in space, the desk itself is made to reproduce this framework, becoming a sort of spatial ordering principle in which “heterogeneous bits and pieces… that would like to make off on their own are juxtaposed into a patterned network which overcomes their resistance”(Law, 381). Entoiled by the network of the author, objects positioned on the table are inhered with a sense of historical legitimacy, they are in their right place so to speak, which disparages attempts at changing the configuration of the desk surface.
Insofar as “‘knowledge’… may be seen as a product or an effect of network of heterogeneous materials,”’(Law, 381, emphasis original) the network of objects ordered by the desk produces a certain kind of knowledge grounded in the author which undermines the functions of a university collection through presenting a constantly modified arrangement of objects as being stable and petrified in time and intent – as though Richler had left it this way himself. Just as the rooms’ contents are inserted into a signifying network by virtue of their historical and nominal positioning under Richler, this not only performed upon the desk but also by it, extending this same authorial order to its own contents. The result is an artificially simplified object, whose plainness belies the processes of punctualisation in which it is complicit. The desk mobilises the ashtray, typewriter, etc. in its creation of Richler’s workspace, using their authority of position to bolster its own symbolic importance, while at the same time investing these objects with that power.
The rooms, aided by the desk installation, seem to be caught in a moment of stasis – stalled still in their originary phase as a spectacle. Four years on from the inauguration of the rooms, they are at an impasse, both in a traditional sense as in that of Lauren Berlant’s, “a stretch of time in which one moves around with a sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic, such that the activity of living demands both a wandering absorptive awareness and a hypervigilance that collects material that might help to clarify things…”(4). That is, as an assemblage which exists in the world that must continually seek to transform itself in the name of survival. And yet this survival and openness is restricted by the initial promise of the Richler diorama; the rooms though under constant modification and ordering remain delimited by their positioning under the signs of Richler, which narrows the scope of relationality afforded to the rooms as a teaching resource. It seems to me then that operating around the dramatic restaging of Richler’s workspace becomes imperative to the survival of the room as a university collection. The interest comes in using the auratically saturated diorama as a training ground of sorts for unpacking the sedimented layers of space-object relations and reinterpreting the room outside of its relation to Richler. As the rooms are open to the public only by request, the focus turns inward and use as a research and teaching resource remain their most salient characteristics.
Berlant, Lauren, Cruel Optimism, Durham; Duke University Press, 2011.
Bradshaw, James, “Mordecai Richler was here: Concordia reading room replicates writer’s office,” The Globe and Mail, 27 November 2013, consulted 20/10/2017: https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/mordecai-richler-was-here-concordia-reading-room-replicates-writers-office/article15646959/?ref=http://www.theglobeandmail.com&
Law, John, “Notes on the Theory of the Actor-Network: Ordering, Strategy and Heterogeneity,” Systems Practice, Vol. 5, No. 4, 1992, pp. 379-393.
Ludwig, David and Cornelia Weber, “A rediscovery of scientific collections as material heritage? The case of university collections in Germany,” Studies in History and the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 44, No. 4, 2013, pp. 652-659.
Prown, Jules David, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 17, No. 1, 1982, pp. 1-19.