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.


George D said...

Aye, the monster of transubstantiated capital.

You can't escape domesticity, the second image says. You've left the city, in your late-model four-wheel-drive, to a place of tranquility and peace. Yet it follows you.

I think these objects are dangerous because they are generic - all in a monotonous off-white that tends to grey. They don't have identities that we could embrace, a warm light and colour that makes them ours. They are not a red Bambino. Neither are they the wonderful hues of the countryside in the early evening sun.

Like the first, the second ad also accomodates the idea that you can invest heavily cultural capital into items and experiences (the family escape into beauty). And it does so by contrast. The idea of a monotonous life that drags you down and wears you out is here, and it is symbolised by items that have no specific identity. At least one night's rest is required to forget it.

Robyn said...

I'm currently doing a bit of a spring clean and I'm surprised at how much stuff I'm getting rid of. I'm surprised because before I moved to Wellington (little over 2 1/2 years ago) I did a massive chuck-out and donated or threw out bags and bags of stuff. I didn't think I'd have much to dispose of now, and yet here I am, filling bags with stuff I haven't touched since I got here.

stephen said...

The grey menace is an anti-Archimboldo vegetable portrait. It is not a human, but a monster; not colourful, but monochrome; not a jolly jape, but a menace; not for amusement, but for instruction.

It also reminds me a lot of those grey concretions that hang in the sky in Brent Wong paintings.

I wonder what you feel about the recent trend pieces we see around the place, advocating that you simplify your life and throw things out as far as possible?

Giovanni Tiso said...

"I wonder what you feel about the recent trend pieces we see around the place, advocating that you simplify your life and throw things out as far as possible?"

It's a middle class aspiration, isn't it, a sort of affluent asceticism. The unhappy hipsters all live in wonderfully decluttered, minimalist houses - in fact I'd venture to suggest that one of the reasons they look so unhappy is that their houses aren't full of the things we can't bring ourselves to get rid of, even if they don't quite tone in with the bedspreads.

(For I'm not denying that objects can be successful memory mediators, rather that this mediation is as transparent and cheerful as most advertisers and more than one theorist seem to think that it is.)

Dougal said...

Great stuff, Giovanni.

Can the ideological work that goes into erasing the "discomfort of things" - these ads, and also all those products about which there's an exhausting literature on how they're selling you a self-image - be traced also to the correspondingly negative cultural energies put into the figure of The Collector?

I wonder if laughter at the collector - from the Comic Store Guy in the Simpsons through to the stock type record dude (that guy Buscemi plays in Ghost World) is directed at the fact they hold to the illusion too dearly: ie, sure, these objects define who you are, to be sure, but you've got to keep consuming, right? There needs to be a new you eventually. The promise of the object needs to be half-believed in to be bought, but needs also to be unsatisfying enough to lead to another purchase (something State incorporates in ways you discuss).

stephen said...

"the correspondingly negative cultural energies put into the figure of The Collector?"

Am I the only person who as a child in the 70s and 80s was fascinated by the tropes of the child in a basement room filled with cool shit, and labs crammed with stuff, and wizard's workshops?

At some level I have always wanted to be a cranky old man with a shed full of grown-up toys and spare parts for every conceivable device.

Giovanni Tiso said...

When I was a child I wanted to be Eega Beeva. The idea of being able to just put your hand down your pants (ahem) and bring up whatever object you needed is something I found very appealing. Disney 'classics' are also the one thing I came closest to collecting successfully - but I haven't thought too closely about the figure of the Collector, other than in the context of Toy Story (and there one could probably expand on what "being put in a box" means for things, with some relevance here).

Douglas Kretzmann said...

over on the other side of the world, Alex Waterhouse-Hayward is composing his own meditation on memory and technology - in his particular case, cameras and images. On the 29th he wrote about resistentialism,a neologism coined by Paul Jennings in facetious mood to describe the ordinary hostility of objects. The distinction between this and hostile object theory is in the word Calder Williams added in the Mute article - "a conviction that the objects of capitalism aren't just indifferent to us or darkly coherent beyond our intentions." Capitalism, that is.

Keir said...

The first thing that came to mind with that first picture is the way that buildings in Christchurch are propped and swaddled and supported after the earthquake.

Interesting concept in that the buildings are both dangerous objects and objects to be protected.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you for that - I enjoy very much that you can keep following links to "more resistentialism". It seems to me though that what Waterhouse Hayward has in mind is a different order of hostility, having to do with objects that fail to work at the worst possible time - when you're pushed for a deadline, typically. Whereas Calder Williams talks about objects that behave strangely, in ways that we don't expect (and one can reasonably expect a device to malfunction). Although the case of the recorder in the Vargas Llosa interview is possibly closer to hostile object theory in that there the apparatus turns out not to have worked in spite of giving every appearance of working normally in the course of its use. (Indeed, the resulting blank recording would be a perfect exhibit in the catalogue of objects that are hostile to memory.)

pollywog said...

we moved house 2 years ago and bought all the crap we'd accumulated but couldn't bring ourselves to throw away, thinking one day it'd come in handy

of course that day hasn't come and we've since collected more stuff

all of it goes/went into a garage that looks like a junk bomb went off inside it

i think it's a metaphor for my head

i'm almost at the stage now of chucking everything outside the garage and only putting back in what i need or can really use's more that i'm running out of room than anything

judging the sentimental value of some things as opposed to others will be difficult

rather i do it than my lady though

last time she cleaned out my wardrobe i sulked for ages wondering where all my 'cool' clothes had gone

Douglas Kretzmann said...

in the catalog of objects hostile to memory - I still have a small reel of tape, recording oddly enough dinner-table conversations of our family in 1970. I look at it and remember many things, but the contents themselves have become inaccessible (was it half-track mono, two-track stereo, or..?)

It occurs to me in the software business we confront Calder Williams' hostile object every day - "a computer is a machine that always does exactly what you tell it to, but never does what you expect" - like Amelia Bedelia.

Giovanni Tiso said...

My parents still have a few reels from that period, albeit not quite as precious as a family conversation - cabaret shows from the Sixties, I think. They might even be of documentary value, but of course although we haven't shown them to a technician or anything I suspect we'd have the same problem you're describing. Which leads inevitably to this.