Do you recognize this jovial mug? It is best known, writes the novelist and New Yorker staffer Ben Greenman, from its appearance in a second-rate 1939 Hollywood comedy entitled "No News from the Navy." The picture centers on an inveterate seaman forced by circumstance to remain on land. In its one memorable scene, a bit of Chaplinesque farce, the man tries to shave, using the cartoonish vessel as a shaving mug, but, unused to doing so on land, he can't keep his balance and lurches about amusingly. The mug, one critic has suggested, is "an oddly compelling focus of the film so long as it is onscreen, enormous in its diminutive size, menacing in its cheer." What's more, it was fashioned by a Belgian surrealist of some note. It appeared in that one film alone.
With that kind of back story, are you now tempted to buy what seemed, at first glance, like a mere tchotchke? Well, you can, via eBay! (Last I checked, it was going for $10:51.)
As it happens, however, the story is pure fiction. And that's the whole point of an arty exercise, The Significant Objects project, conceived by Joshua Glenn (former author of Brainiac), and Rob Walker, the "Consumed" columnist for the New York Times magazine. Intrigued by the question of how consumer goods -- things -- become the objects of intense, even libidinal, human desire, they picked up sundry seemingly trivial objets at yard sales and the like. Then they recruited noted writers, including Greenman, Kurt Andersen, Luc Sante, and Stewart O'Nan, to devise fanciful, evocative stories about what they'd collected.
"Invested with new significance by this fiction, the object should -- according to our hypothesis -- acquire not merely subjective but objective value," Glenn and Walker write.
So is it the intrinsic utility and beauty of a commodity that creates its value, or the stories we tell ourselves about them? We'll know shortly, at least in the case of one goofy, leering mug (and a "Sanka ashtray," cow creamer, and toy hot dog ).
There's no attempt to hoax eBay shoppers: the descriptions are clearly labeled as fiction. High bidders will receive the objects as well as printouts of the stories.
Hmm. That mug's menacing cheer is growing on me!
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.