The Significant Objects Project: A “Pataphysical Science Experiment”

Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Satire

Submitted by W.J. Elvin III:

One man’s trash is another man’s fictional treasure
by Carolyn Kellogg
July 13, 2009

flintstoneCan a good story make something more valuable? What if it’s entirely untrue? And what if the person telling the story — like, say, a novelist — is a kind of professional liar; does a professional lie give an object more value? And, hey, what if you could buy something like that on EBay?

When authors Rob Walker (Buying In“) and Joshua Glenn (“Taking Things Seriously“), each of whom is curious about the meaning and value we assign to objects, met in Boston earlier this year, they came up with the idea for the fiction-auction project Significant Objects. Well-known literary authors — including Luc Sante and Lydia Millet — write a short story that serves the description for a basically worthless object that is then auctioned on EBay. The first set of auctions has closed, and while the ending prices were all less than $30, Walker points out that with listing prices beginning as low as 29 cents, the final value increased by as much 4,000%.

Jacket Copy’s Carolyn Kellogg e-mailed co-editor Glenn and participating author Matthew Sharpe (“Jamestown“) about the project.

JC: Kurt Andersen’s story about an old Christmas nutcracker is the first so far to tie one of the objects (fictionally) to a celebrity. It’s also the first to get a bit dirty. Are either of those themes that you expected?

JG: Based on some classificatory work I did for my book “Taking Things Seriously,” I’ve determined that every participant so far has employed the thingamajig we’ve assigned them, in their story, as either a talisman (an object with magical powers, or one that’s conscious), a totem (a tutelary spirit from the natural world), a fossil (a remnant of some vanished epoch or way of life, including childhood), or evidence (the object plays a role in a crime, or an historical event). If there are other modes of relating emotionally and psychologically to an object, I don’t think our authors have tried them yet. Of course, it’s how an artist performs within certain constraints that’s so exciting — it’s been a joy to read these strange, funny, moving stories.

One thing that we didn’t expect is a certain amount of competition among some of the participants. Andersen, whose story strongly hints that a novelty nutcracker (which I purchased at a yard sale, two blocks from my house in Boston, for $2) is probably worth thousands of dollars because James Dean was rumored to have used it in a particularly naughty way, is really playing to win! Rob and I loved seeing that. Alas for Kurt, so far, bidders have only offered $5 for the nutcracker. However, a cow-shaped creamer that a lesser celebrity, Norman Rockwell, left behind in a psychiatric hospital where he was being treated for depression, at least according to a story by Lucinda Rosenfeld, is going for a whopping $28.

JC: While the actual provenance of an object affects its worth, here you’re inventing fictional provenances. Are you aware of any prior fictional provenances that have affected an object’s value?

JG: I’ve heard stories about forgeries and fakes that — once exposed as such — became even more highly prized as collectibles than the originals. Edmé Samson’s reproductions of fine china, for example. Speaking only for myself, I’d have to say that I regard all provenances as fictional to some degree. I’m skeptical about authenticity claims, whether in the realm of artifacts or that of Being. So … the more obviously fictional and unserious a provenance is, the more charming I tend to find it.

Read the rest of the story here.

Photo: eBay