Significant Objects

By: Joshua Glenn
July 10, 2009

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EARLIER THIS WEEK, Rob Walker and I launched an online experiment called Significant Objects.

The project, in brief: Rob’s “Consumed” column in the New York Times Magazine attempts to figure out why consumers respond the way they to do particular products, from consumer items to TV shows. My book Taking Things Seriously, meanwhile, asked 75 writers, artists, and other creative types to describe the surprising significance of unlikely-looking objects they owned. Rob and I decided it would be interesting to ask authors to tell stories about objects that he and I had purchased at thrift stores and yard sales. Our question was this: Can stories, even fictional ones, transform insignificant objects into significant ones? If so, how to measure this qualitative transformation?

Rob’s brilliant and funny solution, to the latter question: Put the objects on eBay, using the authors’ stories as item descriptions, and then see if they sell for more money than we originally paid. We’ve lined up a talented group of participants — over 40 of them, so far — including Stewart O’Nan, Matthew Sharpe, Ben Greenman, Michelle Tea, Kurt Andersen, Rebecca Wolff, Annie Nocenti, Jenny Davidson, Sheila Heti, Curtis Sittenfeld, and James Parker. So far, we’ve offered 13 objects for sale on eBay. We’ll offer one new object per weekday, for the duration of the experiment.

With three days left to go for the first round of auctions, the Chili Cat about which Lydia Millet wrote — starting price $0.50 — is selling for $9.50. So Millet’s story has multiplied the item’s market value by a factor of 19! Meanwhile, the Sanka ashtray (starting price: $1) about which Luc Sante wrote is now selling for ten times that; and the Candyland labyrinth game about which our own Matthew Battles wrote (starting price: $0.29) is selling for $11.50 — the magnitude of which transformation I can barely conceive, much less compute.

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“So is it the intrinsic utility and beauty of a commodity that creates its value, or the stories we tell ourselves about them?” asks Chris Shea, in a Brainiac post about the project. So far, our experiment suggests it’s: (the latter) + (publicity). After Susannah Breslin posted an item to Boing Boing about her participation in the project — she’d written about an “All-American Official Necking Team” button, purchased by me at a flea market near Hingham, Mass., in June, for 50 cents — there was a bidding frenzy. With over 5 days left in the auction, the top bid is $36.88!

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