Many of us have encountered situations in which people seem to hold odd objects in high esteem. This unusual (to me) valuing of tangibles sometimes occurred when I was practicing law. For example, the parties and lawyers would reach the end of long negotiations and the sticking point would be some seemingly insignificant item. The parties' attachment was so frustrating and puzzling that the lawyers scratched their heads.
Since then, I have learned much more about objects and their meanings.
Although there are many, many resources to help us understand the meaning we attribute to objects and why those meanings are so very individual and and idiosyncratic, I will just recommend a couple. Let's start with a chapter titled "Objects Carry Essences" in The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking. The author Matthew Huttson describes a number of studies that indicate that:
- Even young children feel the power of unique objects, particularly attachment objects (those used to soothe)
- Kids, like adults, will prefer objects if they have been used or owned by famous people
- Objects such as clothing or hairbrushes when owned or used by a friend are considered neutral but are rated as unpleasant when owned by an enemy or "unsavory character"
- Dirt from particular places can be sold for, e.g, good luck charms, plantings, and burials
- People draw the germs belonging to their friends to look friendlier than those of their enemies
Why? Huttson has a guess. Towards the end of the chapter, he writes:
[Paul Rozin] owns several of his mother's paintings and lots of old books, including some owned by the late ... psychologist Solomon Asch. "It gives me a good feeling," he told me. "A sense of their presence." Belief in the law of contagion ("once in contact, always in contact") makes the physical world glow with meaning and connects us to other people and to history.
What about the story connected with an object? Can it increase the value, even of an object that is completely new to you? Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker had a hypothesis:
Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively.
They bought 100 "insignificant objects" at thrift stores, flea markets, and yard sales, at an average price of a bit over $1.25. Then they asked 100 storytellers, many of whom were professional writers, to create very short stories, one for each object. Finally they listed each object on eBay with its story, always adding that the story was fiction. They directed prospective buyers to SignificantObjects.com so they could learn all about the experiment.
The objects they had purchased for a total of $128.74 sold for $3,612.51! The exchange value had increased by greater than 2,700 percent. You may read the stories in their book. Glenn and Walker write in that book Significant Objects that they had "increas[ed] the emotional energy of inanimate objects" and "regardless of the thing's aesthetic or utilitarian properties, an object's values can be increased by way of the narrative attached to it."
For those wanting to better understand the relationship between people and objects, I will recommend just one more book: Objects of the Dead. Note there is a comb mentioned in the haiku above; a comb is also mentioned in this book. The author Margaret Gibson talks about how we live with and discard possessions of people important to us who have died, whether they be small and utilitarian like a comb or larger and filled with possessions such as a home.
I particularly recommend the chapter called "Values" in which Gibson writes:
The distribution of property within families tells a story about value systems and relationships: about how individuals evaluate what they have and and want to give (to whom), and what they expect or want to receive in relation to each other. Some objects or property are unwanted, even burdensome, while others are precious and poignant. As property, objects have the power and are used to forge, hold, damage or break relationships between the living and the living, the living and the dead, and the dead and those yet to be born.
Click to read an article by Gibson: "Death and the Transformation of Objects and Their Value" (Thesis Eleven).
We know that any object, a comb being only one example, can take on unexpected significance following death or other transitions, such as divorce. But the significance can attach without a transition. And we also know the significance is very individual—a comb may hold great value for one person and, for another, be considered junk to be tossed in the garbage.
I believe that it's important, even essential, that those of us who work with people in our roles such as mediator, lawyer, or therapist, remember that a person's valuing of, or attachment to, an object may make no sense to us but that does not mean it should not be honored.
After all, I bet many of you reading this have a relationship to an object that might not be understood by others. Yes? Even Huttson details the great effort he went through to locate a lost Beanie Baby with which he had slept for eight years—from age 18 though 26!
What's your object story?
Note: I just had to add one more book. Flip through Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance. Excerpt:
The literary theorist Miguel Tamen notes that not a few people believe that "certain properties of certain objects render those objects especially apt to mean." Must this always be an unenlightened, superstitious notion? (Speaking of notions, the Fortean anthrpologist Lyall Watson has revived the Victorian term notional to describe any "inanimate object...which demands attention and exercises power over those people to whom it appeals.) Exactly how does an object become a signifier of its owner's unsignifiable inner world.