Monday, January 31, 2011

The Museum of You (4): Favourite Things

In a recent, slick television ad created by Colenso BBDO for State Insurance, people from different walks of life are seen carefully wrapping their most treasured possessions and putting them into boxes. A tiny box for a single toy truck; a regular box for a collection of porcelain figurines; a comically large box, for an entire house.

You can watch the 60-second ad here.

Love your stuff, says the slogan. And: ‘Your favourite things are worth protecting. Tell us yours at, and help us do things differently’.

Sharing intimate information with an insurer is not the thing one does the most freely of care, and with very good reason, but these days companies want you to talk to them, it’s become a customary part of the set up. Call us on this number; text us your choice; go on our website, and tell us what you think. Now I’m not sure when it was that the campaign was discontinued – the ads were showing as late as last week – but if you do bother to go to, this is what comes up:

Whatever information you or others might have communicated to State Insurance, it’s been securely locked away, and whether it has helped the company do things differently is not clear at this time. Here is the eponymous policy, if you wish to take a gander. 

So what are these favourite things? Few of the items shown in the ad are of likely monetary value: a couple of motor vehicles, a small art collection, plus the house itself. Mostly they are objects primarily if not solely imbued with social meaning: personal photographs, of course, as Louisa Jaggar had predicted in the book that inspired this occasional series, but more generally items handled and talked about with the kind of tender care that one reserves to that which is irreplaceable and therefore would be largely pointless to insure. The owner of the vintage bright red Fiat Cinquecento might get some money paid to her if the car was lost or stolen, but one feels that it wouldn’t be the point. And then there are the little toy truck, the much loved figurines, the items that require explanation in order to be understood: the point of all of these is precisely that they are uniquely meaningful to their people and cannot be adequately accounted for by their exchange value. The ad of course is a clever acknowledgment of this: if misfortune should befall you we’ll give you some money, but we’re ultimately powerless to replace those objects and what they signified. However we understand this and we care. Feel the love of the brand.

It’s emotional manipulation with a light touch, and frankly there’s a lot worse on the air, plenty of ads that are more insidious than this. Nor is our emotional attachment to objects being newly exploited here, every second advertiser does it in every second campaign. But the imagery is perhaps worthy of a second look.

First of all… where are these people going, that they need to make sure they have packed the house? I’m being too literal, no doubt, the packing is just there to signify how much we care, and how much State Insurance cares that we care. But how is this for literal?

A giant shoebox, right in the middle of Wellington’s Civic Square. You can peep inside it – it has holes, as if for letting the air in. The obvious association is with the works of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, albeit in an utterly impoverished form: in spite of the appeal for the public’s input, there is no meaningful social dimension here, no way to make a mark. The shoebox sits there like an alien construction, as if abandoned by an absent-minded colossus. And that’s what makes the ad visually and conceptually intriguing, that incongruity of scale: we wrap things that are too small and things that are too large, things that do not belong in a shoebox. We displace them, we close them in. In order to protect them, we fundamentally alter their nature: you cannot live in a house that sits in a shoebox, nor drive a car inside of one.

This is all done for comic effect, but then so was Buster Keaton’s drowning life preserver, discussed last year by Evan Calder Williams in a brilliant post over at Socialism and/or Barbarism. The wrongness of objects in Keaton’s Steambot Bill, Jr., their refusal to behave as we expect of them – so perfectly captured by the life preserver that sinks like a stone towards the bottom of the river – was put on that occasion at the service of Calder Williams’ newly-minted hostile object theory, that is to say
a conviction that objects aren't just indifferent to us, aren't just coherent beyond our intentions, aren't just darkly resistant to correlating with the world as it is for us. Far worse for us, when we can glimpse even a shadow of how they are not for us, they reveal themselves, with a faceless sneer, as fundamentally hostile, uncertain, dangerous, and incommensurable with the purpose for which they were designed.

There is no such apparent malice in the relationship between the objects and their owners in the ‘Favourite Things’ ad, or if there is it goes the other way – it is the objects that get mistreated, put to the wrong use. Yet one should bear in mind that the primary function of these objects is to serve as mediators, carriers of memory: that’s the significance of the shoebox, which is also – not by coincidence – the key metaphor in José van Dijck’s seminal study on mediated memory. Photographs, documents, small keepsakes: those are all things that bind us affectively with our past, and help us give it coherence. They are the key exhibits in the museum of us, to a not insignificant extent they are us. But the comically oversized shoebox casts a peculiar shadow over this. Look, it says, there is no limit to your capacity to love stuff. You can save everything, keep everything, in the dark, in an attic, forever.


It is my modest conviction that the failure to truly question the simple, appealing narrative of the shoebox is one of the key problems of contemporary memory studies. Saying that memories are not created independently of culture, nor independently of mediation, but exist in a dialectic relationship with them is satisfyingly descriptive, but fails to answer for the anxiety, the tensions, the dysfunction, in short what we might call – warping the title of Daniel Miller’s anthropological study of Stuart Street, London – the discomfort of things.

There is ample scope, for those who should seek to remedy this failure, to establish a branch of hostile object theory dedicated to studying the contents of those mutant, abnormal shoeboxes – the photographs that obscure their subjects, the diaries that forget what’s written in them, the recordings that misconstrue their content, not to mention the proof artefacts that keep faithful record of things that never happened so dear to Philip K. Dick. These are the hostile objects that will betray our trust and make us reliant on false pasts, false histories, sometimes to the point of neurosis and death. They succeed in doing so precisely because we are naturally predisposed to trust in everyday things and in their capacity to carry concrete, objective meanings within coherent and authoritative narratives, as opposed to social meanings within competing and contestable ones.

There is another piece of advertising that caught my eye last week. This one:

It is, somewhat perplexingly, a road safety ad, urging us to get off the road if we’re too tired to drive, or else a giant hand will close on us and destroy us. Closer inspection reveals the demonic appendage to be made of a clutter of grey and indistinct household objects.

These are like the spectral double of State’s favourite things: unbranded, unloved and unlovable, they are the consumer objects that we are forever doomed to accumulate, working ourselves into life-threatening levels of exhaustion. They are malicious, Calder Williams would say, because they instantiate ‘the antagonism… that drives capital.’ They are therefore
built records of a labor that wishes it did not exist. That abhors the conditions that demand it and which, conversely, it demands as the guarantee of a continued recognition that this labor meant something.

That they mean something: it’s what we ask of our things, so as to give meaning to the labour we exchange in order to purchase them, and the work necessary to care for them. We may take some comfort in the notion that this affective and symbolic content is furnished by people and not inherent in the objects themselves, and opine that agency rests therefore solely with us. But in fact the meanings that we can attach to things, and the kind of memories that they can mediate, are culturally codified and predetermined to a very significant extent; and even that doesn’t account for the murky undertow of anxiety and fear – of death, of there being no future, therefore no sense in memory – that is always pulling down on our desire to find simple comfort in things.

The application of hostile object theory to the study of mediated memory would lead us into those depths, where subjectivity doesn’t coalesce according to orderly and normative patterns of behaviour but rather explodes into a fitful incoherence, eroding our faith in personal as well as collective histories. At the very least, this should help us realise that there is no safety in wrapping our favourite things and placing them in shoeboxes, for there’s no guarantee that when some day we go back and open the lid, those meanings – if not the objects themselves – would still be there for us to read.

Evan Calder Williams, 'The Drowning Life Preserver (Hostile Object Theory)'. Socialism and/or Barbarism, 16 June 2010.