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SMILE magazine

The Grooming Tool

Lee Warren, 1986
When you pick up a comb in a public place, a place where another person can see you, you challenge socialization with an act of free will. The street comb is a powerful symbol, particularly since it is often dirty, wet, mangled and toothless. What does the collector actually accomplish when he recovers this "powerful symbol" from the street?

The comb collector rationalizes his actions by reviewing some if his observations. He has now been publicly exposed as a person with at least one major peculiarity. Some people might presume that this person has picked up this comb because he intends to use it. But we might also wonder if this person is manifesting an insatiable need to collect a variety of small objects. This is the distinction between the finder collector and the finder user, and this discussion shall be limited to the topic of the former.

Let's approach the comb collector from outside his sphere of influence and without considering his appreciation for the sheer immate beauty of the object. Seemingly obvious explanations spring from the exploration of taboo, fetishism and fanaticism.

Returning to the collector himself, we find these motivations viewed differently by each individual. He certainly recognizes the aforementioned possibilites. However, his own rationalizations, should he choose to make them, are positive. They are founded on the assumptions that he is a free thinking individual and should take advantage of this freedom within the conflines of an unenlightened social structure. Consequently, from the collector we receive the same list of possibilities only prefaced by a different perspective, from that of the uninitiated, uninvolved observer. With this addition, the list is changed to read

"the self-creation and exploration of: taboo, fetishism and fanaticism".

In Western culture, there are taboos against picking things up off the ground, particularly in the urban environment. Exceptions to these rules are: valuable objects, money and personal belongings. It is even forbidden to pick up and examine an interesting piece of paper.

The comb is an object loaded with connotations. A personal organizer and grooming tool, its relationship with our bodies often provokes an attachment on the part of the owner. As children, we were warned not to share them; as adolescents, sharing them is a convenient expression of rebellion. This rebellion, however, in no way prepares the collector for the responsibility he bears as soon as he rights himself after stooping to recover a comb.

The adult comb collector smashes taboo with each find, personally trangressing his boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior and before the eyes of many, immediately confronting the social stigma as well. It is exhilarating to break taboo. What subject is not intensified by a sense of the forbidden?

Comb collectors speak of the sublime feeling of the taboo flowing out and being replaced by a sene of accomplishment on the occasion of each and every Lid. One can appreciate this exhileration privately and personally or take advantage of the public nature of experience and escalate it through and into exhibitionism. In either case, the collector takes on the responsibility of public behavior contrary to the norm and risks social stigmatization.

Fetishism confronts the collector with a number of possibilities. Given that the decision to collect combs is made prior to and independently of the development of any comb created fetish, one may assume that collecting is the result of a rational decision. Traditional psychological technique and terminology may serve to describe the collector's actions and attitude. However, since his interest in combs, at least initially, results from a decision, the collector has the option to determine the nature of the manifestations of his interest. He is able to experiment with himself and a variety of phenomena so as to transform the results of the decision into the manifestations of a condition such as fetish. Although such a condition would be a potent motivator, this potency is not an immediate result of the decision. The interested collector must conduct a personal experiment designed to recreate traditional psychological development patterns in order to create traditional psychological results.

If the collector intends to manifest his fetishism through eroticism, direct consideration of sexuality is necessary, Reconsidering taboo and the presumption that increased stimulation is derived from the forbidden, the collector might be eroticized by direct attraction to combs or indirectly through repulsion. Depending upon the individuals temperament, attraction might manifest itself in revulsion and/or disgust, i.e., "The comb is filthy, phallic, harbors parasites and disease and I want it," or in sadistic domination, "The comb is helpless, lost, left in the street to be destroyed and is completely at my mercy."

When the collector is successful in effecting in himself a fetish, his attitudes toward other aspects of comb collecting are also affected. One can assume that prior to an experiment of this sort his interest has developed from a whim to that of a habitual, almost reflex, action. With the additional encouragement of the fetish the collector experiences a marked stimulation in motivation. The context of the experiment expands in his consciousness encompassing other aspects of his life. The details become clearer and may evolve into principles that guide him toward a system of erotic specification and classification.

At this point the collector may be reluctant to check the growth of the fetish. Due to the self-created nature of the subject and its irreverence to the dominant ideology, collectors are encouraged to continue their experiments, as this type of intelligent subversive behavior challenges existing social norms.

...of the methodology of symptomatic manifestation. That is to say he is free within the artifice of collectorship to manifest his interest as he sees fit.

The traits of the fanatic are seemingly easy to mimic. The collector knows this is a superficial observation and that the full-time responsibility of fanaticism is no easy row to hoe. Developing a complete fanatical outlook is a multi-step process; having made a commitment illuminate an entry into fanaticism.

Initial compulsive behavior helps solidify the collector's intentions. Hoarding, for example, is a prevalent early manifestation of this sort, and perfect soil for growing a new obsessive relationship with the object.

After the first comb is retained, and until a later time when an indeterminate though larger number has been gathered, the desire to hoard may satisfy completely the collector's urge for obsessive behavior. The collector derives pleasure from his attachment to an object so despised by others. This attachment of value to a seemingly valueless object is a philosophy that needs little defense. It is a subject dealt with thoroughly in explications of the value of art and in the philosophies and religions of many cultures.

As with art and religion, the collector often feels a need to exhibit after a suitable number of objects is on hand. This is a different tendency from exhibitionism; it is a considered and organized display, not a spontaneously inspired public action.

After simple hoarding changes to the desire to display the spoils, the collector might begin to feel competitive. This is particularly true if the individual involved maintains relationships with others of the same interest. Competition can be as simple as who has the most combs, who found what number of combs within a given period of time, or branch into more complicated forms such as who currently hold the record number of a particular
parameters of the collector's limits are expanded. Loosely organized teams form with collectors in one area competing with those in another. The need for recruitment of new collectors is added to the responsibilities of the existing ranks. Collectors begin proselytizing, possibly the ultimate manifestation of fanaticism, "spreading the word" of the phenomenon to which they are so deeply committed.

Possibly the single most important doctrine of comb collecting is the tenet that all combs found are eventually headed for the master collection. Given this as dogma and coupling it with emergence of a group identity, the collector readily accepts the importance of codification of tendencies within the subculture, regardless of whether these tendencies are classified as taboo, fetishism or something altogether different. This benign and mutable social order encourages the participants to design and regulate its parameters. Its active and transitional socialization sheds light on its own process and enlightens those involved to its benefits and dangers. Collectivism of this type is important to the peer support structure of subculture as eclectic as comb collecting.

Maintenance of the master collection is flexible as well. Floating curatorship and responsibility in combination with the flexible social order supports an atmosphere charged with possibility for both the individual collector and the future of the collection concept.

Media exposure of this isolated phenomenon could spell an explosion in popularity. However, this acceptance could potentially dampen the enthusiasm of many of the original collectors. It remains to be seen if the current outlaw ambience of the phenomenon is an essential aspect of its appeal and survival or if it can adapt to acceptance and assimilation into the mainstream.

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