This question of value that we have been discussing throughout the semester in regard to objects and how they relate to the human influences around them is one that I have decided has no singular conclusion. In a former blog post, I used Graham Hill's TED Talk on the relationship between possession accumulation and stress to attempt to highlight the problems that can arise by attaching too much value to something like an inanimate object in conjunction with having a focus on accumulation of objects as possessions. While I do think that there is good value in forming sentimental bonds and emotional attachments to objects, I also believe that assigning too much value can have a detrimental effect on happiness. For example, I have a friend who loves expensive shoes. They have more shoes than I could possibly imagine being able to wear in one year unless there were multiple midday swaps. However, this habit of accumulation has actually substantially increased the levels of stress in this person's life because if there is a stretch of time where no new shoes have been bought, they become very anxious and I will find them pouring through Pintrest and Etsy in search of the perfect pair of shoes to calm the mounting storm of anxiety. Recently, with our discussions of material culture in mind, I tried to (very delicately) ask my friend why expensive shoes are such a huge part of their life and if they think that their need to accumulate them alleviates or adds to their stress levels. They very candidly told me that it definitely adds stress. However, they made the point that they have become known amongst our friends, co-workers, and peers as the person with the "kick ass" sense of style and they start to feel like they are stagnating if they do not continue to accumulate possessions that reflect this perception of them. This then led to a discussion on what the relevance is between self-esteem and material possessions. The result of that conversation was that we both agreed that everyone has at least some facet of the tendency to attach value to objects and that this perceived value affects their social psychology.
(These shoes made by Versace will run you about $2,000. Would owning these bring you pleasure or stress from the cost? Even if you can afford it, what do $2,000 shoes do for you? Photo courtesy of Versace.)
I guess where I'm going with all this is that there is a definite, perceptible relationship between the value that we assign objects and the value that we assign to ourselves - whether we decide to acknowledge it at varying levels or not. So, when we buy a new car, gadget, or doorknob I believe there is a part of the psyche that assigns greater value to ourselves with that new acquisition. Disregarding any moral or ethical cultural judgment that could be discerned from that notion, this idea of "value" that has been discussed throughout the semester is something that can be studied and measured through the analysis of spending habits, stress levels, and the impact of things like media and advertisement on the consumer culture. Hill's TED Talk on the relationship between stress and the need to accumulate possessions is only one of many sources that can be referenced. Kinneavy, Kilmer, Prown, and Roberts all argue aspects of why objects and material things have such an impact on our culture and psychology.
In this TED Talk given by writer and designer Graham Hill, he makes the argument that the increased cultural trend towards "more" has actually become detrimental to us. He says that, according to research compared with past decades, Americans have more room, more stuff, more of a carbon footprint, and more stress. So, why is it stressful to have more possessions? Hill's argument is, essentially, debt and energy. He says that an increased desire for material wealth leads to reckless spending (which results in debt) and the wasting of huge amounts of resources and energy. Hill concludes that the only way to truly rectify this issue is to commit to reducing our dependence on material things and to engage in what he calls "ruthless editing" to remove the superfluous - and possibly damaging - items.
This TED Talk reminded me of our in class discussions of how peoples' perceptions of objects can either add to or detract from their sense of self. We live in a culture where addictions to credit cards, shopping, and hoarding are commonplace. We create television shows like Hoarders (which we watch through paying for things like cable) to highlight those among us who we perceive have crossed the line from normal possession dependency to total dependency on possessions. What struck me as I watched Graham Hill's talk was how normal it is in our culture to be dependent on the objects that we surround and integrate ourselves with. Most people I know are lost when they do not have their cell phones for short spans of time. However, it is not uncommon to be separated from one's cell phone on vacation or in social situations and feel totally fine. This made me wonder if a large part of our infatuation with possessions and material things in general stems from a need to feel validated by the particular object in question. For example, people who only buy designer jeans gain no real benefit from doing so other than the perceived value of those jeans. People buy new iPhones as soon as they come out even if their current model is still relevant. It seems like our culture is obsessed with either one of two things when it comes to object possession: the "newness" of the object or the monetary value of the object.
I agree that this kind of perspective can be and is damaging, Trying to juggle everything else there is in the world with the constant accumulation of money so that we can expand our possession arsenal certainly generates stress. I think that, to an extent, it can be healthy to feel comforted, proud of, or connected to an object. For example, feeling connected to a car seems pretty normal given its level of investment both in terms of money and time. I think that what Hill is getting at is that it is okay to want nice things, but not to want all of the nice things or allow a part of your identity to intersect with something as trivial as square footage.
One of the most striking things for me after reading Cine's article "What is a Machete, Anyway?" and considering the prompt is that, when it comes down to it, pretty much anything can be considered a weapon. For example, the prompt reminded me of an incident a few weeks ago where I got home late at night and had to walk back from the Underground Atlanta parking garage to my building downtown--and realized that I forgot my tazer. As a general rule, I do not walk around downtown Atlanta at three o'clock in the morning by myself, but in this case it was happening. So, as I looked around my car for some device that could serve as a rudimentary form of protection just in case I found my eye linger one one possible candidate: a box cutter. While not inherently dangerous or even made for the most gentle of combat, an object like a box cutter does have certain dangerous properties. It has a sharp blade and can easily be wielded with one hand due to its small size. So, after reading Cline's article I found myself wondering what is the difference, really, between:
Assuming that the differences in dimensions, weight, and aesthetic are pretty self-apparent, it is difficult to really differentiate the two objects in terms of utility. Obviously the machete is larger and meant for different tasks, but both of these utility-based objects have the same capacity for being viewed as something dangerous. A machete is made to be a tool for hacking through various brush and vegetation and the box cutter is meant for slicing through tough material as well- albeit on a small scale. However, a machete has a striking resemblance to a sword or scimitar and a box cutter to a modern knife with a safety handle. So what is it really that separates them from their more vicious counterparts to us? Is it simply the knowledge that they are constructed for a different purpose in the same way that an assault rifle carries a different connotation from a hunting rifle? Or is it the aesthetic of a box cutter that somehow makes its potential for violence less grisly than, say, a butterfly knife?
To be completely honest, I really don't know.
To that end, what separates the potential of a cell phone from a machete? This is where I think the question gets particularly hairy, as the immediate answer seems obvious: you can't physically hack at something with a cell phone. But, you can hack information with a cell phone or send instructions that could lead to a physical hacking. I suppose what ends up being the main factor for me in determining if an object is a weapon or just is a tool is accepting that almost all objects are both. While I do not necessarily subscribe to the idea of a gun being dangerous not because of its inherent properties, but because of the individual holding it, I do think that human intent and interaction with objects can alter their perceived state. My conclusion is that all objects can possess a capacity for danger, but that people can either increase or decrease that capacity.
Why is death something that is simultaneously ever-present and a subject of taboo? Comedians make jokes about death and the audience laughs. Parents scold their children about running on wet floors with the warning "you might fall and break your neck" with both a cavalier and ominous tone. One of the things that Fidler hits really well for me in his essay "Impressions From the Face of a Corpse" is the notion that we are, as a species, terrified of, entranced, confused, and amused by death. For example, as a child I remember asking my mom why it was alright for me to watch cartoons that clearly showed horrific violence and insinuated death (I am specifically thinking of Loony Toons, Courage the Cowardly Dog, and the like), but it was not permissible for me to watch live action shows or films that did the exact same thing. Her response was that cartoons are obviously fake - not a satisfactory answer for a curious kid. http://youtu.be/9EZdiIS9KhQ (creepy!) What she was most likely trying to communicate with that aswer is that there is a difference between something animated that "dies" and yet still continues to bounce about and reanimate, and something that is purposefully meant to convey literal death or violence. As odd as the notion may or may not be, it is one that is almost universally accepted in our present culture.
What I think Fidler really hits on in this regard is that we are fascinated both culturally and biological by death, but feel uncomfortable with this fascination because it could somehow imply that we want to die in a sense. In addition, death totally contradicts most social constructions. A dead face will not remove itself if one becomes uncomfortable in its presence, cease to stare vacantly in one direction, or offer some witticism or insight in regard to how to handle the utter stillness of it. It is a reflection of something that was once kinetic and has lost its potential for generating energy. I think this is the main difference between a death mask and the sculpture of something that is supposed to be alive. Subconsciously or biologically (or both), we can associate a static object in the form of something living with that living thing. A death mask, however, negates this association. For example, Fidler's talks about how death masks polarized nineteenth century society because some embalmers employed techniques that attempted to make the dead face softer and detract the viewer from its lack of animation. He says:
These indelible markers of death, at odds with the smoothing and softening strategies of contemporary embalmers, polarized nineteenth-century viewers. We’ve already seen how Hutton enthused that the death mask captured a face unguarded by the niceties of conscience and social grace. Others, often relatives of the deceased, railed against death masks as grotesque perversions of portraiture. Even the most artfully cast mask foregrounds the subject’s death in discomfiting ways. Austin Allen recognized this when he wrote of the “fanciful death mask” that “only accentuates the blank stare behind it.”
What Fidler is saying here is that to a living, breathing person seeing the countenance of a love one preserved in such a way connotes some sort of perversion on a biological level. If we know this person is dead and no longer has any sort of animation, observing their face becomes an uncomfortable exercise because there is no chance of it reanimating so to speak. It becomes an exercise in futility and morose reflection. This is the core of why I believe our culture interacts with death the way that it does. We like to acknowledge it, show it that we are aware of its presence, and poke fun at it when we can. However, when death becomes something that is too intimate or too unchangeable (like a death mask or a picture of a corpse) it crosses the line from something malleable and in our control to a force that is immovably, stiflingly present.