Did one of the creators of Toy Story 2 have a bad experience on eBay? The new Disney film articulates a provocative and long-overdue critique of what is possibly the worst thing about the Internet: Its tendency to turn everything in meatspace–first editions, Beanie Babies, unopened cans of New Coke–into a “collectible.” In the movie, Sheriff Woody, the cowboy action figure (voice supplied by Tom Hanks), turns out to be a valuable relic of the late 1950s; he is stolen by an unsavory collector/toy-store owner named Al (Wayne Knight) and sold to a museum in Japan. The other toys from Andy’s room–Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), et al.–arrive to rescue Woody before he’s shipped overseas. But Woody is by then uncertain whether he prefers a necessarily short shelf life as a child’s toy to immortality as a museum piece. The dilemma is fairly complex. Being Andy’s toy = being an Uncle Tom. You devote yourself to the Man (well, the Child) and for your troubles end up being outgrown and cast aside. Existentially, though, it’s more satisfying than being an artifact. Being a museum piece = reveling in group identity. That’s because Woody would be joined in Japan by various Woody accessories of which he was previously unaware–a horse named Bullseye, a female sidekick named Jessie (Joan Cusack), a prospector named Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammar) who’s never even been out of the box. But are toys really meant to be gazed at behind glass? In the end, the filmmakers fudge on the ethnic-identity question (Woody chooses to be Andy’s toy and gets the Woody accessories to come with him), but reject unequivocally the creepy culture of collectibles.
I don’t recall seeing any computers in Toy Story 2, and of course the movie was made with computers. Furthermore, Steve Jobs, the chairman of Pixar, the animation studio that made both Toy Story movies, is quite obviously very fond of computers. Still, what force in our culture is driving the growing obsession with collectibles? What technology is globalizing the collectibles market–is making it possible for, say, a museum in Japan to obtain cast-off vintage toys from the United States? The Web! (Pedants will observe that in the movie, the evil toy thief Al actually conducts his communications with the foreign buyers via cell phone and fax machine, but that’s just because the filmmakers don’t want to be too overt in challenging the mightiest phenomenon in capitalism today.)
In a sprightly New York Times essay last year about collecting, Michael Kimmelman noted that in Germany during the 16th century there proliferated Kunst- und Wunderkammern, “art and wonder cabinets” containing curiosities of all kinds:
Wonderment came to be perceived as a kind of middle state between ignorance and knowledge, and wonder cabinets were theaters of the marvelous, museums of accumulated curiosities, proving God’s ingenuity. They contained whatever was the biggest, the smallest, the rarest, the most exquisite, the most bizarre, the most grotesque.Art, astrolabes, armor–man-made wonders–were cheek by jowl with monkeys’ teeth and pathological anomalies like human horns. A German doctor named Lorenz Hoffman had a typical Kunst- und Wunderkammer: he owned paintings by Durer and Cranach, a skeleton of a newborn, two dozen miniature spoons hidden within a cherry pit, an armband made of elks’ hoofs, mummies and various rare musical instruments.
Broadly speaking, the Internet is itself a kind of Kunst- und Wunderkammern, but it is also very efficient at helping people fill whatever non-virtual wonder cabinets they have lying around the house. This is in many ways a blessing. Chatterbox is delighted that used-book sites like Bibliofind and Alibris and Advanced Book Exchange and Powell’s Books make it possible to retrieve almost any out-of-print book one might want–usually for less than one would pay to buy it in paperback. But Chatterbox is always surprised to see the wares presented in such artifact-y fashion. On searching Bibliofind for Pappy Chatterbox’s first novel, All the Right Answers, for instance, Chatterbox learns that Book Mail, a used bookstore in Costa Mesa, Calif., is ready to sell it to for $9, provided the buyer doesn’t take offense that it has “writing on front fly.” Why would Chatterbox care about a little writing on the front flyleaf? Pappy Chatterbox’s second novel, The Man Who Stole the Mona Lisa, can be had for $35 from Poe’s Cousin in White Plains, N.Y. It’s priced that high because it’s a first edition and wrapped in plastic. But Jeez, Chatterbox can get a fresh hardcover (it’s still in print) for a mere $22.95. The point, after all, is to read the thing, not hang it on the wall. Indeed, first editions in pristine condition ought to be less valuable than most books, because it’s almost impossible to use them for their intended purpose–i.e., read them. Who wants to crack the binding of a museum piece? Sheriff Woody would understand. The Internet doesn’t.