Monday, June 1, 2009

The Museum of You (3): Something You Lost

I once had a friend who liked to participate in the auctions held from time to time in our hometown of objects found in railway carriages. He enjoyed the exercise very much and was always full of stories about the scarcely believable things that people would forget on board - oil paintings, large farming implements, furniture, complete dinner sets. I suspected some of these finds to be apocryphal, and none more so than the urn with the ashes of an unknown deceased, if for no other reason that I couldn't believe the authorities would put that particular item up for auction. Ditto the inflatable sex doll. However, over the years I received some independent verification that a) this auction actually exists, although it is held in a very out of the way location and you have to know somebody who knows somebody since it isn't advertised anywhere, and b) people do in fact lose the most bizarre things on trains. (Including, yes, dead relatives).

According to this forum of railway enthusiasts, Milan is the only Italian city where such objects are sold; elsewhere they are donated to charity. Imagine then the surprise of the drug rehab centre that earlier this year received a backpack found to contain 64 dynamite sticks weighing 12 kilograms in total. It later transpired that the backpack had spent up to two years in the lost luggage office of the in Genoa railway station, and the police is still working on figuring out how it came to be lost, and by whom. But of course in stations and airports elsewhere, most loudly and proudly in the US, you are reminded that if you so much as leave your luggage unattended for a few minutes, it will be seized and destroyed. It is best to beware of contents unknown.

There may be some deeper cultural undercurrent here than the straightforward fear that something may have been abandoned with malicious intent. When people come to be separated from their stuff, it is an alienation of sorts - a very literal one, in terms of the word's etymology, as well as the inverse of the Marxian sense, that inscribes alienation in capitalist relations and notions of property. In the cultures that establish a strong correlation between who you are and what you own, the idea of things being lost is psychologically disruptive, regardless of the raw material value of the thing lost.

The act of losing money - either because of theft, or a stock or property market misadventure, or the loss of one's job - is pertinent but requires separate treatment. The wonderfully worded notion of one's 'personal net worth', that naturally originated in the United States, can be brought to bear here, but money isn't stuff. It exists on a much more abstract plane, changes in value as a result of its own special dynamics, and the nature and psychology of its ownership are quite unique. One can of course think of examples of how money can be turned back into stuff, such as this exchange in Buster Keaton's Sherlock Holmes Jr:
"I lost a dollar"
"Can you describe it?"
Or the classic image of Uncle Scrooge swimming in his money.

Or again the tradition of the lucky penny. But for most intents and purposes, and even as it allows to acquire things, or buy some more life in the bizarre lease arrangement that governs human existence and subsistence in capitalist societies, money is an abstraction, a number, not a thing, and certainly not something you'd ever be so crass as to display in the museum of you, or that can be lost irreplaceably - any amount of money of equal or greater denomination will do.

If I may be allowed a little autobiographical moment, I have in fact lost an item that nicely illustrates the difference between semiotic and material value, insofar as this difference can be said to exist. It seems that some time during my fourth year on this planet I taught myself to read and write, something that my parents only became aware of one night when I left a note on the dinner table and made it with a scowl for the door of our apartment. The note said


Which, minus the typos, translates as follows


As it happens, it was dark in the landing outside and I ventured no further. In typical fashion, however, my mother took the fact that I wanted to leave the family entirely in her stride, and opted to celebrate instead my cognitive prowess. She therefore tucked the note in her handbag and proceeded to show it to all and sundry. In fact, if you resided anywhere in the Northern Emisphere during the Nineteen-Seventies, I'd say you've probably seen it. Then we lost sight of it for, oh, fifteen years or so, until I found it amongst some junk in a drawer and possibly even chastised my mother for being so careless with it (you can see where this is going), then took over the curatorship of the precious childhood artefact. And I can tell you exactly how I lost it: I put it inside a tacky but fond copy of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and in the flurry of activities that preceded our emigration to New Zealand the book must have ended up in the wrong box, because it never reached us down here.

I am genuinely sorry about that, and seeing as mum and I remember the note's contents word for word, hence there is no loss in that regard (although a bibliographer might beg to differ), the reason must be that I see intrinsic value in the object itself, some sort of material validation of my having been a precocious pain in the arse. The metaphor of the museum is a good test here, for I have no doubt that I would have included it in my personal exhibit. But it wasn't to be.

If the book ended up in the wrong box, it would have made its way to a second-hand bookshop, so chances are somebody eventually came into its possession. I wonder what they made of it, if they chucked it away or kept it as a curio, perhaps to be used as a bookmark for the flamboyantly bound works of that man from Baltimore. I'm thinking probably the former. But as it happens, that note is exactly the kind of thing that would have tickled the fancy and curiosity of the readers of Found Magazine, seeing that it is not too dissimilar for instance from this entry on Found, the work of an unknown primary school child in Brooklyn:

'Holla. This world is going be ruined. Finish.'

Creators Davy Rothbart and Jason Bitner explain that at the magazine they
collect found stuff: love letters, birthday cards, kids' homework, to-do lists, ticket stubs, poetry on napkins, doodles-- anything that gives a glimpse into someone else's life. Anything goes.
I shall freely confess to finding the magazine itself exquisitely boring, but it's quite the phenomenon, with books and tours (featuring songs inspired by the finds), a dirty section, international beachheads and a lively community. By all accounts its creators are smart people who are quite aware of participating in a culture that, in the words of Eric Karjala,
insists that certain things be popular, and it doesn’t necessarily matter what: a hideous dancing baby, the senseless engrish from an obscure video game, a random 1980s pop hit by Rick Astley. We are so desperate for commonality that any random cultural artefact can become a shared experience, and this is especially true on the internet, which is viral not just in nature but in consequence, making us nauseated from the absurdity.
The little spice that Found adds to the mixture is that its artefacts are collected around, in the incongruously named Real World, and dematerialised, beamed into cyberspace to provide momentary occasions of reflection and contribute a whole new source of material to the ever expanding uber-text that so many of us read every day looking for meaningful signs. As if the information already there wasn't enough, and these 'glimpses into someone else's life' contained special kernels of truth, otherwise missing pieces of whatever puzzle it is that the culture is trying to solve by means of the Internet.

Or maybe people read Found because it's innocent fun. Either way, it leaves me fairly cold: there is so much more in the world that gets meaningfully lost, instead of just being crumpled and discarded, as most of Found's finds are, indicating that perhaps they had ceased to be significant to the owners themselves. If I have to go looking for glimpses, I'll browse the lists of items recovered by the Carabinieri, or by the city of Turin, the two largest online repositories back home, and there, hidden amongst hundreds of cellphones and personal organisers and umbrellas and sunglasses, discover candelabras, exquisite antique jewellery, a vest pocket watch inscribed 'from your friends', magnificent old coats, but also - and overwhelmingly - items of little or no value, that yet some officer has bothered to archive and describe, often in painstaking detail, just in case they might have, for their owners, a meaning that they themselves can't see.

There is much there to fantasise about the personal histories, and the connections lost, but also something to commend in that idea of service, the effort spent with very little statistical chance of reuniting anybody with anything.

In that spirit, did you happen to lose this in Cusano Milanino some time in 2004?

I know whom you can call about that.