“Man only lives to make his own life and those of his fellow citizens better. To advance faster and more effectively, we look at what others have done before us: We study.”

This is something Georg-Christoph Lichtenberg once said. He then went on to criticize those who read just to know what others said before them. When we read for writing, we should keep it in mind.

Be plausible, not exhaustive

This is more true for a Master thesis than a Doctoral one, but usually students are scared to death that they could forget an important reference. We imagine that the day the day of our defense someone might say: “I saw that you did not quote this tremendously important reference”. Here’s what my thesis director, Jacqueline Lichtenstein said when I brought this up one year before she retired: “This will happen anyway. But it’s not a problem. If you really haven’t read it you say “Thank you very much, I’ll definitely take it into account for my publication.” If you made an informed choice not to include it, then explain why. What’s important is that you construct your own argument, that it is believable as it stands, not that you have read everybody who had the same opinion. As Karl Kraus said: “The thought is not to the person who had it first, but to the person who has it better.” But don’t quote this in your thesis defense. I’m afraid you might come across as slightly arrogant.

Build your own building

There’s an image that helped me. It’s to consider a thesis like a building. We get some of the stones from a stone quarry and carve them. But some stones we’ll take out of other people’s buildings. These are ideas you refer to or passages you quote from other writer’s articles or books. While we need these stones, their role is to make our own building more sturdy and beautiful. To to so, we’ll need to have to work on the stones we take so they fit into our own construction.

The more elements we take out of the other’s building, the more foreign they will appear in our. Each imported stone certainly had a place in the author’s building, but – if they and their buildings are not the topic of our thesis – this place counts little for us. What counts is our own building. So we have to make sure you only take those stones that fit our construction and don’t take more.

This may seem plausible, but when we read a text there is a risk to get dragged into the authors thinking process and to feel we have to take it all. We don’t. Quite the opposite. If there are too many foreign elements, our readers will lose track of what we are getting at. It will also make us look more insecure and unoriginal.

There is a second reason, why you might want to “recontextualize” the ideas you take from others: ethics. You sure shouldn’t misrepresent their thoughts. This is right. You shouldn’t. But stick to the minimum. Don’t cut a quote so it means something different than it meant in the original context.  Don’t consciously misinterpret when you paraphrase. For the rest, think of your own construction first. As long as the general idea of your own thesis is not directly opposed to theirs there’s no reason for blame. Of course, it is even more important to be careful when you quote people in order to criticize them than when the quote is used as a piece of your own argument

N. B. As I was into the last years of my thesis, I realized that many of the most important things about writing are only said when you dig deep. So I thought I’d make them public for others who struggle with their thesis. This is my second post on academic writing. The first was on how to choose a topic for your thesis.

 

Choosing a topic for your Bachelor, Master or Ph.D thesis can be hard. I’ve done two Masters and a Ph.D and here is are a few important things I learned on the way and that your professors are unlikely to tell you. The first most important thing to know is that …

It’s not about the topic

People speak a lot about research topics. But the topic is just a very small part of what makes for a good topic. It is really about what that topic allows you to do while you work on it and after you are done. So don’t just accept a topic your professor suggests to you. Try to understand what kind of work that topic implies and see if that’s the kind of work you’d like to do for the next few months (or years). If your professor doesn’t seem supportive, choose another supervisor before it’s too late and you are stuck with having to get up to a job that’s not even a job and which you hate. Doing a thesis is not only about having the title in the end. It can and should be much more.

Thinking about what you would most like to do while you write your thesis – and what you don’t want to do – will help you not to suffer most of the time while you work on it day after day. Even if you like in principle what you need to do for the thesis, you will still sometimes not feel like doing what needs to get done. But having chosen a topic which in principle needs you to do exactly what you want to do helps a lot.

Know what you want.

You would like to meet new interesting people from a specific walk of life ?

Choose a topic which is based on qualitative research and for which you need to do interviews. Say you’d like to meet actors. Develop a topic where they are your experts. Don’t feel imprisoned by your field. Any field in the humanities will allow you to work on what you are really interested in. You are in education science? Work on how actors acquire the ability to retain long texts. You are in economics? Work on collaboration and competition between actors. Don’t forget: it’s not about the topic, but about doing the kind of stuff you want to do.

You want your topic to prepare you for your job?

Develop a topic where you need to meet the people you want to become.

Figure out if the people you want to work for (or with) in the future would be interested in the topic too. To do so you may have to talk to some of them a little bit. If you find it hard to connect to them, your topic might be the door opener – unless, of course, you want to work on contract killers, hustlers, the American president or, maybe, consultants at McKinsey. You want to do communication consulting? Work on how communication consultants position their own brand. You want to work in a gallery? Work on the way galleries try to position their artists. You get the picture. 

You want to get profound knowledge on a certain topic or author ?

Pick a library-based research topic where you have to read what has been written about the subject or by (and on) the author. Whoever or whatever you want to learn about, there will be a topic that forces you to do so. Once you know who or what you burn for, you can also ask your professor to recommend possible topics to you. But if you choose people like Hegel, Marx, Keynes, Freud, Foucault or a subject like free will, power, public healthcare or war be careful to specify a very precise take on the topic. And be aware that if you work on these kinds of figures or topics, you need a high tolerance for frustration and an iron will to be exclusive. However much you work on your thesis, you will know that you have not included everything relevant.

You want to develop your own thing (or theory) ?

Pick a rather exotic topic on which very little has been published. You won’t be able to not read and quote anyone else. But you’ll be able (and forced) to creatively identify sources. There are basically three ways to address such a topic: theory transfer, theory application and bricolage.

Theory application consists in taking general, fundamental and often rather important theories and trying to apply them to the chosen topic. You might try to apply script theory from cognitive science to still images, actor-network theory from sociology to the relationship between hospital staff and doctors or between curators and galleries or apply iconology from art-history to advertisement. Whatever works!

Theory transfer consists in taking a theory which has been developed for one specific case and applying it to another. Noel Carroll wrote about how actors’ personal identities relate to the identities of their characters in movies. You might try to apply and adapt his theory to how, for example, the personal identities of university professors relate to the identities of the institutions where they teach or how nightclubs pick the DJs that perform on Saturday night.

Bricolage means to take bits and pieces from different theories and putting them together. To analyze how a single picture can tell a story, I used Paul Grice’s concept of implicature David Herman’s concept of story scripts and Jean Matter-Mandler’s research on how we spontaneously provide causal links in narrative and many more. To get there, you need to read a lot of theory and play around with it like you would with Lego to find out what fits together. You’ll also often get a chance to make your own pieces, so you can articulate two different theories. For all of these to be successful you need a certain lack of respect. You are building your own building where a part of another persons theory is simply a brick.

You should’t care what the role of the brick you choose had in the building of the other theorist. Don’t feel like you have to perfectly understand her building project, even less explain it in your thesis. It will make you and your readers lose track and patience. Just understand enough to see what place the brick can take in your building.

Know yourself

You easily get bored by a topic?

Maybe do a Bachelor, but don’t do a Ph.D. Well, or choose your topic wisely. Don’t let it have such things as the name of an author, a time period, a geographic location, a specific institution name in it. Let it be “systematic”. My own topic was perfect for me. It was about how to tell a story with one picture. Fortunately, people have tried to tell stories with pictures since pre-history. It allowed me to read narratologists, comics theorist, film theorists, philosophers, art-historians, even child book researchers and archeologists. 


Your are prone to easily get distracted and being all over the place and are scared it will kill your thesis?

I would say choose a subject that has the name of an author, a time period, a geographic location, a specific institution in it. But this is a tricky one. If you are easily distracted, you might also get bored by a topic that has one of these. It might then be better to choose a “systematic” topic – and to take the thesis as a chance to learn to control your distraction.

These things help always: Turn off all push notifications on your phone, stay off facebook, netflix, instagram. Go to the library. Seeing others work helps a lot. Disconnect from the internet if you don’t absolutely need it. But don’t waste away your day smoking cigarettes and going for coffee with your friends. If it’s to hard go to another library. Only take a break when you really cannot focus anymore. I didn’t tell you it would be easy.

You are creative?

Choose a subject where you can develop your own thing.

You are not creative?

Choose a clearly delimited topic. For example one that has the name of an author, a short time period, a geographic location, a specific institution in it.

That’s all for today. Don’t hesitate to criticize, ask questions in the comments or tell me about your own experience.

Oh, and that’s me, academically speaking: univie.academia.edu/KlausSpeidel

Abu Ghraib

May 15 2008, this was the cover of The Economist. Pictures like this one taken by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison had been exposed and were taken to show that America used torture. But there was a whole series of pictures. Why did this one make it to the cover of The Economist – and later become an icon of anti-torture-activism?

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Why, for example, didn’t this picture make it? Wouldn’t it have been better? After all it wasn’t pixelated…

I think that there are several reasons for this.

First, the first picture is isolated, it is more iconic than a picture with more contextual information (a soldier looking at his photos). Second, the pose, with the arms held higher, is more Christianic, and thus stronger. But I believe the major reason is just the presence of pixels. It makes the picture look more authentic. The better the picture quality, the less the chances that a picture is non-professional, and the higher the risk of manipulation. If there are pixels, at least in 2008, then there is a chance that the picture is authentic. The picture had quite a career, both in politics and in arts. And below you see a collection of works related to this.

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But apart from the success in itself, I’m interested in what happened with the picture. It became more and more simple – and thus, I believe, more general and symbolic. Whereas the photograph with the soldier still connotes one specific moment and prisoner, the abstract picture can evoke every prisoner being tortured. Richard Serra’s drawing (the last on the bottom right above and in the center right in the right image below and the second in the center on the left), is particular insofar as he brings back expressivity to the stripped down symbolic image. In order to account for the differences between these pictures, we can, I believe, distinguish different degrees of specificity, following a chain developed by Scott McCloud in “Understanding Comics. The Invisible Art”. McCloud draws different pictures, in order to show how pictures differ in their degree of generality. His system  (see the three last pictures below) perfectly matches the Abu Ghraib imagery.

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Ryan Gander, now one of the favourite schmusers of contemporary art institutions, currently has his second solo show in Paris this year at the FRAC Le Plateau. Given that he was only born in 1976 and graduated in 2000, Gander has had solo shows at an obscene number of high-level fancy art places.

Here’s a list from his gallery’s website: FRAC Île-de-France / Le Plateau (2013); Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2012); Museo Tamayo, Mexico City (2012); Haus Konstruktiv, Zurich (2010); Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York (2010; Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (2008); the Stedelijk Museum Bureau, Amsterdam (2007 & 2003); MUMOK, Vienna (2007) and the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco (2007). He has also shown in group exhibitions such as the Shanghai Biennale (2012); documenta 13, Kassel (2012); ILLUMInations, 54th Biennale di Venezia, Venice (2011); 55th Carnegie International, Pittsburgh (2008) and the Sydney Biennial (2008). Ryan Gander has been awarded numerous prestigious prizes, among others the Zürich Art Prize (2009), the ABN Amro Art Price (2006), the Baloise Art Statements of the Art Basel (2006) and the Dutch Prix de Rome for sculpture (2003).

Nobody should thus blame me for choosing some random semi-sucessful young artist to be complaining about.

I saw the show yesterday and was there for the curator’s show and tell. And frankly speaking: it upset me. I don’t want to dislike contemporary art and this is not a general post against Ryan Gander – I don’t know his work well enough – but this show is just, pardon my French, minimalist bullshit blown-up by discourse.

The first thing we see is a poster for “Imagineering”, a campaign to incentivize the English population to use their imagination more. It’s supposedly sponsored by the Ministry for Innovation and something. The truth is: Gander told an English ad agency to come up with a campaign, pretending that it was for the ministry – or so we are told. Probably he really told them that they should suggest a campaign as if it was for the ministry. In his gallery’s words: “Ryan Gander’s complex and unfettered conceptual practice is stimulated by queries, investigations or what-ifs”. “Queries, investigations or what-ifs”? Wow! What is that supposed to mean? That he just does whatever comes to his mind, inventing more or less – mostly less – interesting fictions. The fact is that contemporary artists who deal in fiction are usually less good at it than contemporary writers or film-makers. I sometimes feel that it’s only because they are not good enough to create really engaging narratives – because it’s harder – that they pretend to be “deconstructing the concept of fiction” (or narrative or what-have-you). The concept of deconstruction comes in real handy. It’s like writers and curators had all gone through press-training where they were told: “Whenever a work is not really good at something, just say ‘The work deconstructs the concept something‘. It works every time.”

There are of course exceptions, artists interestingly working with the concepts of fiction, what-ifs and narrative, people like, ahm, Hubbard and Birchler,  or Matthew Buckingham and to some extent Cardiff and Miller. But most of them eventually fall prone to conceptual … you know what I mean. Curators, gallery owners and collectors just don’t seem to be good at making the difference and you thus see fantastic exhibitions by quite deep artists followed by conceptual bullshit like this, or, much worse – oh yes, I’m not saying Gander is the worst among the young successful artists – the kind of stuff Stefan Brügemann produces.

Of course Gander has, like most artists, preferences that make him seem a little coherent. In his case (as in many artists’) these are things that have some achorage in modern art (like the Bauhaus). What’s great about this preference is that those who know something about modern art – the artworld basically – can feel smart. And if someone makes us feel smart, we like them. It’s as simple as that.

Sometimes he introduces some less well-know reference to someone that we – aka the artworld – all feel we ought to know about (like Ernö Goldfinger). And then we are even happier. The psychology behind this is somewhat more complex. I can’t really explain it, but in my earlier life, I did an internship with a priest (yup, it can be done). She told me: if you give a talk, make sure that every 30 minutes, there’s a something people don’t understand – they’ll respect you more. As it is, a lot of contemporary art (and philosophy I’m afraid) seems to be based on showing people their limitations. We like that. Maybe it’s a basis of learning. Maybe it’s masochism. But in any case, it’s another subject. Back to Gander. All his work is basically based on insider jokes and what I have sometimes called the “Oh-Yes-Effect”. “Oh yes! That’s what it’s about. That’s interesting.” Really? Is it?

The prototypical work of this kind is a comic kind face that reacts to the physical presence of visitors, moving eyebrows, eyelids and changing the direction of its look.
It’s about, well, the picture looking at the visitor – rather than the opposite. Oh! Yes! That’s interesting! Or…well, look at what the face expresses just now:

Gander Face

Exactly.

It, of course, is no new theme. James Elkins wrote an influential book called The Object stares back in 1997 and Rémy Zaugg has extensively treated the topic of the picture staring – or not – in his work:

Zaugg-Blind Picture

What’s new with Gander is the application of  comics’ aesthetics to the topic of the work staring at us and introducing some not-too-fancy spectator detection technology. Now that’s an innovation! Imagineering, maybe.

Which brings us back to the beginning. After the poster, the FRAC show starts, with some kind of weird installation, that is, according to the catalogue, a “monolith”(get the reference? ;-). The monolith is, of course, one of the favorite references of contemporary neo-conceptualist bullshitters, the other being Devil’s Tower from Spielberg’s Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977) . Gander’s monolith has mirrored walls and stands in the middle of a dark room. But while most artists, like Etienne Chambaud, do little more than display the form, Gander added some meaningful mechanism inside the structure. As you can see yourself in the polished surface, the work is supposedly about – guess what!…Bingo! Confronting the visitor with his own image. Yes! You are right. It seems to be a topic in Gander’s work. Something critics like me can detect and talk about to show that they not only read Derrida, but also Elkins and what have you.

The visitor then moves from this very very dark and deep first room to a room that shows the advertising campaign for “Imagineering”is shown. The naming – which combines engineering and imagination and makes one think of engineers of the imagination, which is of course a wonderful thing to be thinking of – is one of the best parts in the work. Too bad Gander didn’t come up with it. He just took the name from Disney. It’s, yes, a ready-made name. Disclosure: I think we all ought to prefer good advertising to bad art.

But the reference can, of course, be explained. According to one of the persons explaining the exhibition to visitors, the reference to Disney is a reference to childhood which is important in the artist’s work. Oh, yes! Childhood – a theme…

The whole exhibition scenography is such that we move from a room which is nearly entirely dark (the first room) to a room that is overly well lit in ugly neons (the last room). In between, there are different shades of gray. It gradually gets lighter. As the curator told us, this could be interpreted as a point about moving from the dark into the light. “Things become gradually clearer.” Don’t they? Yes. They do. A little too clear as far as I’m concerned…

But I found the idea better when Falko used it.

Oh! The curator also evoked the fact that the curtains of the first room are slightly moving as with some kind of breath (ventilators really). Ryan Gander showed the same kind of installation when he was invited to the Venice Biennale. He had been given a large room and just made the wind blow through it. Refusing to show stuff. Reminds me of something Tino Sehgal showed at another Biennale. But we shouldn’t be thinking of Sehgal here, but something much older – much older – the curator fortunately told us what it can make us think of: pneûma to which the Ancient Greeks attributed life-giving power… Oh! Yes! That’s interesting. Setting up a couple of ventilators brings us right back to the Old Greeks. Welcome to contemporary art, dear.

The problem with this kind of “X can make you think of Y” is that if an artist doesn’t really have a clear stance on anything anything can make you think of anything. But that’s just what their work is about! It’s about “imagination, thought-stuff”, as the curator pointed out – as if thinking and imagining were (kind of) the same. And that’s when I started understanding why curators aren’t good at making differences…

The fact is: the less the artist does, the better. Because the less he will limit what you can legitimately think of (or imagine, of course).

Do I really have to tell you about the lamps which Gander built with plastic containers and plastic tubes he got at the local BHV DIY market-section  – leaving the name stickers visible to make sure everyone gets just how low-key the installation – which probably sold for tens of thousands Euros by now – is? Do I really have to comment?

It’s okay that a work is really about an idea, you know. I’m just asking that the idea be good.

The one room that I found relatively interesting is the last one (you see it in the picture above). It holds three marble sculptures based on the outline of little cabins his 2 or 3-year old daughter built at their London home with chairs and an umbrella and stuff.

The little transparent disks on the wall are said to be portraits – the fact is: Gander used them to mix the colors for portraits he painted, portraits which stay in the artist’s archive (I suspect them to be really bad). Each portrait goes with a little story from Gander’s life. A girl kissing him. A friend drinking and telling him about art, an aunt giving him sweets… etc. It’s a nice exercise in storytelling. It looks neat. And there’s one good idea in it: It’s an inverted portrait. What’s considered to be remains becomes the portrait and we have to imagine the portrait based on the remains of colors. What counts is what we imagine… Now, I didn’t research this. But I’m quite sure some artists did the same thing in the 60ies or 70ies already. It just feels like that kind of stuff to me. Is this a problem? Well, not really. Originality isn’t a value in itself. But then, if the idea is the main element of something and someone already had the idea just as well as you – or better – it’s a bit of a problem, I think… But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe nobody did it before.

By the way: the sculptures in this last room also show that great minds meet: Guillaume Leblon, a French artist whose references to modernity include Adolf Loos and the Le Corbusier (Oh! interesting! I’m pretty sure Leblon and Gander know and like each other) also showed us some boxes his little kid played with in an exhibition I saw a couple of years ago…

Some people call this “Conceptual romaticism”, I suppose. I’d rather call it self-centered minimalist bullshit.

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Exploding roses by Benjamin Hugard

(c) Benjamin Hugard

Je cherchais un autre texte de Barthes sur mon ordinateur, et je suis tombé sur des bribes que j’ai écrites il y plusieurs années sans penser à les publier un jour. But it struck me as being dirty theory, exactly  as I have defined it here: theory mixed up with accounts of experience. So here it goes…

Barthes : Fragments d’un discours amoureux, Éditions du Seuil, Collection Tel Quel, 1977

Observation magnifiquement juste : le discours amoureux est fragmenté, manque de rationalité.
Mes sensations (présentes) :
J’ai besoin de dire d’abord mes sentiments et sensations, même si elles n’ont rien à voir avec le livre de Barthes. Me dégager de ce reflux dans mon cœur. Je prends plaisir à écrire sur un livre intelligent, même adorable, profondément sincère, semble-t-il, et qui pourtant tombe dans la facilité. Il en est de ce livre comme des Lettres à un Jeune Poète de Rilke. Lu à 15 ans, ce livre a eu une influence plus profonde sur moi que je ne le souhaiterais. Il fonctionne de la même façon: on y sent la sincérité, on y trouve sa vérité (l’auteur dit clairement des choses que nous avons pu sentir obscurément) et on est séduit. On veut croire ce qu’il dit, parce qu’on l’a déjà ressenti et on ne l’a pourtant jamais nommé aussi clairement. Mais il on court le danger d’y croire d’autant plus qu’on ne l’a jamais ressenti que de manière obscure, comme quelque chose d’enfoui en nous. Alors c’est comme si, finalement, quelqu’un mettait à jour (ce qui est vrai). Mais cela ne veut pas dire que ce qu’il met à jour est lui-même vrai. Je prends un plaisir immense d’écrire ainsi, sans objectif précis (je n’écris pas pour une publication ou évaluation future). Je pense à ce que Wittgenstein dit à propos de Freud: on le croit parce qu’on aime les choses enfouies.

Parfois, Barthes (comme Rilke) tombe dans une opposition facile, comme celle entre « complaisance mondaine », « hystérie de séduction » vs. « intimité sacrée », « vérité » (Fragments, p. 23). C’est, bien sûr, impossible. Certes, la complaisance mondaine existe, comme aussi l’intimité sacrée. Mais être dehors, dans un café n’implique pas être dans la complaisance. Il y a des rencontres fortes et importantes au dehors, des vernissages qui finissent avec une vraie rencontre, un vrai dialogue. Tout n’est pas noir et blanc, comme les sages tendent trop facilement à le peindre. Et la force de l’expression bien trouvée, comme « complaisance mondaine », risque alors de faire oublier la complexité, risque de faire oublier que d’autres cas de figure existent et que, par exemple, le mondain n’est pas toujours complaisant. Il y a toujours beaucoup de vanité dans la reconnaissance de sa propre faiblesse et vanité parce qu’on sait que beaucoup de gens se sont rarement demandés s’ils étaient complaisants dans telle ou telle situation, s’ils se laissaient trop facilement flatter, etc.
Je pense qu’il faut donc lire ces livres (Barthes, Rilke) avec l’admiration qui leur est due, mais ne pas en faire des sortes de révélations. Il faut y voir la part d’écriture et la part d’exagération (ce qui est souvent la même chose).

Belle observation : le discours amoureux brisé par une remarque commune, banale, de l’être aimé, notamment dans un environnement social, avec d’autres où il se fond parfaitement. Une facette qui apparaît qu’on n’aurait pas voulu connaître (l’exagération de la bien-aimée lorsqu’elle est avec sa meilleure amie, sa manière de parler…). Et effectivement, l’importance du registre du langage est énorme. (p.36)

« C’est l’originalité de la relation qu’il faut conquérir » (p. 44)
Belle idée encore : l’originalité de la relation mettrait à l’abri de la jalousie, parce que les autres ne seront jamais comme nous. Si j’arrive à ne plus vivre le stéréotype, je ne suis plus obligé de réagir selon les stéréotypes, être jaloux, blessé etc. comme les autres.
C’est ce qu’on aurait voulu : cette conquête. On n’a pas su s’échapper.

Le rapport assumé entre être aimé et mère. Le rapport à l’être aimé serait comme l’a été le rapport à la mère. Au lieu d’essayer de se révolter, Barthes le prend pour acquis. C’est comme ça. Comme Jocaste qui dit à Œdipe : « Qui n’a pas encore rêvé de faire l’amour avec sa mère. Qui prend pour chimères telles, etc. vit mieux la vie. » Mais, bien sûr, elle finit par se suicider quand elle découvre que ce n’est pas seulement un rêve, un présage doublement mauvais (en teneur et aussi en degré de vérité).
Observation : lorsque l’amour a cessé on attend encore l’autre, comme une douleur dans une jambe amputée, l’attente. C’est comme avec les êtres chers qui sont morts ou avec les vêtements qu’on a perdus ou qu’on nous a volés. Et la douleur pique à chaque fois que l’on se rend compte que pourtant on ne l’a plus…. (p. 49)

We can at least distinguish four species, and several sub-species of buyers. I’ll focus on the four main species: the common buyer, the nostalgic buyer, the expert buyer and the creative buyer. Although there are some individuals that exemplify all and only traits of their species, most of them display traits of different species and can shift from one to the other, even on the same visit. Different types of buyers can like the same item for different reasons, which implies that there are some objects that appeal to all categories. These should turn out to be the top-sellers at flea markets if my little theory is correct. A seller at a flea market will be much more successful if (s)he knows these categories of buyers and adapts his or her sales pitch.

Different species of buyers are naturally attracted to items of different kinds. As for characterizing items, there seem to be three main characteristics: age, originality, usefulness. We could ad beauty here, but this would get us right away into hell’s kitchen. But let’s say that the beauty (or aesthetic value) is mainly a value for the creative buyer and that for a decorative item, beauty will be part of what makes it useful.

Usefulness and originality are both relative (as is age, but to a much lesser degree). As for now, originality of an item can be defined in terms of the probability of finding a similar or identical object at the same or another flee-market. Originality is thus gradual.

To keep it simple, I define usefulness in terms of frequency of use once acquired. This definition has the virtue of relying on facts rather than value. But it cannot account for some objects that we would call tremendously useful in common speech, like a suction cup used in cleaning sinks, but that we don’t use frequently. Frequency of use is relative (to other objects) and objective, even though the decision for buying an item or not really depends on expected usefulness, which is subjective. This concept is tightly linked to the common buyer.

The common buyer just looks for a simple object to be used like another object of the same kind which (s)he could buy in a store, and the main value of getting it at a flea market will be that it’s cheaper than at the store. The common buyer will likely prefer an item that seems better suited to execute the task (s)he buys it for. Everything else being equal, (s)he will usually prefer a newer item.

There are some sellers who specialize on this species or aspect of buyer personalities. They sell cheap, out-of-the-factory items for everyday use, like toothbrushes, spoons, nails, clothing, etc.

The nostalgic as well as the creative buyers tend to ignore these sellers or even despise them (they usually also tend to display a very different habitus). The behavior of the nostalgic and the creative buyers are similar and they are often interested in the same items, but, again, for different reasons.

The nostalgic buyer can be either a collector or else a romantic. This definition is sketchy, because the nostalgic buyer is just as complex as nostalgia. (S)he finds those items most interesting which remind him or her of a preferred period of time. (S)he will thus be buy those (old) items which represent her favored period.

The expert buyer isn’t emotionally implicated in buying. (S)he buys the items whose price doesn’t reflect their market value. (S)he will either keep them and wait that their price further raises or resell them soon at another place, where (s)he gets the market value for it. (S)he is really a trader at the flea market who buys an object because (s)he thinks that it’s a good deal.

There are now specific high-brow flea markets, like Les Puces du Design in Paris, where expert buyers resell items they got at standard flea markets, often for triple the price they bought them for. People who buy there usually have more money and are willing to pay the premium for someone else having done the sorting at a more standard flea market, where most objects are without interest, and only few actually have high market and aesthetic values.

In many cases, the nostalgic buyer will be ashamed of his or her nostalgia and will pretend to buy for the same reason the expert buyer buys, especially when questioned about a specific item which appealed to him or her because of personal fancy. However, (s)he will only rarely resell an item and the people in his or her environment will end up understanding that (s)he really buys for emotional rather than commercial reasons. If they are nice, they’ll let them go on pretending that they are actually expert buyers.

The creative buyer is probably the most intriguing and complex species. A creative buyer can buy things that nearly nobody else even finds worth looking at. And (s)he’ll be all the happier if they don’t. What makes him or her feel good is that they see something nobody else does. The creative buyer will pull a half hidden item from below a heap of stuff and shout out: “This is fantastic!” or scroll through hundreds of pictures because there might be one (s)he likes.

There are at least two subspecies: the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and the artist.

The DIY likes to restore items, (s)he like the smell of glue, the sound of drilling, and the feeling of polished wood. (S)he will be happy to acquire an item, simply because (s)he likes to restore it, erasing the traces of its use, and making it look fresh. If (s)he is on the internet, (s)he’ll probably love etsy. (S)he doesn’t necessarily like the old to have the patina of the old. (S)he buys an object because of the potential (s)he sees in it.

The artist likes to feel that (s)he sees something in the item that most other people don’t see. (S)he might for example buy an old projector in cheap plastic that runs with old batteries or a host of family photos. It might neither be cheap, nor useful nor remind him or her of a favorite moment in history. It’s just that “(s)he somehow likes it”, finds it “weird” or original or that (s)he thinks: I might use this for a project some day (either as a ready-made or else to integrate it into a work). For him or her, buying an object is like for an artist to make a ready-made in the most basic sense: she or he declares it to have value – even if their museum is just their apartment.  To make things clear: (S)he doesn’t actually have to make a living on being an artist. (S)he may “only” be an artist in his or her way of looking at the world of things. (S)he will take things made for one purpose and assign them another.(S)he buys an object because of what she (s)he sees into it.

Here are a couple of things I bought at the flea market. I let you figure out for yourself who in me bought each of these items. Would be happy if you shared some thoughts (and pictures) of your favourite flea market acquisitions.