Why Miniatures? Part 3 – On Longing


“The inanimate toy repeats the still life’s theme of arrested life, the life of the tableau. But once the toy becomes animated, it initiates another world, the world of the daydream.”


Why Miniatures part 1, part 2.

Why are we so fascinated with miniatures? What makes miniatures useful in artistic work? In this ‘Why Miniatures’ series, we explore these ideas through quotes from various articles and books. Today, we look at On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection by Susan Stewart, published in 1984.

Let me start by saying that On Longing is an extremely tedious read. I originally had difficulty locating a copy, outside of the $25 ones listed on ebay. I eventually found one through interlibrary loan, had to renew it, and then unable to renew it again, finished this post through images I took of certain pages with my phone…

That said, I’ve read some criticism by miniaturists of this text and it peaked my interest. I also read that my time would be better spent reading The Poetics of Space, and to that sentiment I’ll agree. In any sense, there’s still some that can be taken from this text. So here we go.

The Miniature:


  • “…the remarkableness of minute writing depends upon the contrast between the physical and abstract.”
  • “The miniature here became the realm not of fact but of reverie.”
  • “A reduction in dimensions does not produce a corresponding reduction in significance; indeed, the gemlike properties of the miniature book and the feats of micrographia make these forms especially suitable ‘containers’ of aphoristic and didactic thought.”
  • “…a world whose anteriority is always absolute, and whose profound inferiority is therefore always unrecoverable.”

Tableau: The Miniature Described

  • “To be a display of the world not necessarily known through the senses, or live experience.”
  • “The miniature has the capacity to make its context remarkable; its fantastic qualities are related to what lies outside it in such a way as to transform the total context.”
  • :…the exaggeration of the miniature must continually assert a principle of balance and equivalence.”
  • “In The Poetics of Space Bachelard writes that ‘because these descriptions tell things in tiny detail, they are automatically verbose.’ We might add that in this verboseness is also a matter of multiplying significance.”
  • “The miniature offers a world clearly limited in space but frozen and thereby both particularized and generalized in time – particularized in that the miniature concentrates upon the single instance and not upon the abstract rule, but generalized in that that instance comes to transcend, to stand for, a spectrum of other instances.”

The Secret Life of Things

  • “The profundity of things here arises from those dimensions which come about only through scrutiny.”
  • “The miniature assumes an anthropocentric universe for its absolute sense of scale.”
  • “The toy is the physical embodiment of the fiction: it is a device for fantasy, a point of beginning for narrative. The toy opens an interior world, lending itself to fantasy and privacy in a way that the abstract space, the playground, of social play does not.”
  • “The inanimate toy repeats the still life’s theme of arrested life, the life of the tableau. But once the toy becomes animated, it initiates another world, the world of the daydream.”
  • “The toy world presents a projection of the world of everyday life; this real world is miniaturized or giganticized in such a way as to test the relation between materiality and meaning. We are thrilled and frightened by the mechanical toy because it presents the possibility of self-invoking fiction, a fiction which exists independent of human signifying process.”
  • “…serves as a representation, an image, of a reality which does not exist.”

The Dollhouse

  • “A house within a house, the dollhouse not only presents the house’s articulation of the tension between inner and outer spheres, of exteriority and interiority – it also represents the tension between two modes of interiority.”
  • “The dollhouse has two dominant motifs: wealth and nostalgia.”
  • “…the dollhouse erases all but the frontal view; its appearance is the realization of the self as property, the body as container of objects, perpetual and incontaminable.”
  • “Unlike the single miniature object, the miniature universe of the dollhouse cannot be known sensually; it is inaccessible to the languages of the body and thus is the most abstract of all miniature forms.”

Miniature Time

  • “The reduction in scale which the miniature presents skews the time and space relations of the everyday lifeworld, and as an object consumed the miniature finds its ‘use value’ transformed into the infinite time of reverie.”
  • “…and their detachability presents even more possibilities for manipulation. In this rather remarkable phenomenon we thus find the object at least three degrees of removal from everyday life: the distance between the work of art and what it signifies (itself not necessarily ‘representation’), the decontectualization of the work of art within the museum context, and the removal of the museum from the constraints of its physical setting into an almost infinite set of possible arrangements and recontextualizations.”
  • “The miniature’s fixed form is manipulated by individual fantasy rather than by physical circumstances.”
  • “In its tableaulike from, the miniature is a world of arrested time; its stillness emphasizes the activity that is outside its borders. And the effect is reciprocal, for once we attend to the miniature world, the outside world stops and is lost to us.”
  • “The miniature world remains perfect and uncontaminated by the grotesque so long as its absolute boundaries are maintained.”
  • “The miniature, linked to nostalgic versions of childhood and history, presents a diminutive, and thereby manipulate, version of experience, a version which is domesticated and protected from contamination.”

The Imaginary Body:

The Body Made Miniature

  • “…fairies represent minute perfection of detail and cultured form of nature.”
  • “Like other miniature worlds, the world of fairies presents a hallucination of detail.”

Objects of Desire:

Part 1: The Souvenir

The Selfish

  • “The souvenir both offers a measurement for the normal and authenticates the experience of the viewer.”
  • “The souvenir speaks to a context of origin through a language of longing…”

Distance and Intimacy

  • “Because the world of the souvenir offers transcendence to the viewer, it may be seen as a miniaturized one, as a reduction in physical dimensions corresponding to an increase in significance, and as an interiorization of an exterior.” But while the miniature object often speaks to the past, it encapsulates the time of production. Miniature objects are most often exaggerations of the attention to detail, precision, and balance that is characteristic of artisanal culture – a culture which, with the possible exception of microtechnology (the major contemporary producer of miniatures), is considered to have been lost at the dawn of industrial production.”

Separation and Restoration

  • “Thus such objects satisfy the nostalgic desire for use value at the same time that they provide an exoticism of the self.”

So that’s that. Why do you think miniatures are fascinating? Leave a comment all about it below.

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5 thoughts on “Why Miniatures? Part 3 – On Longing

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  1. Hi there! I just came across this post of yours and your blog in general and I couldn’t help but comment and tell you how much I love this! Keep up the great work, I am going to follow you so I can keep up with all your new posts!

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