Significant Objects

by John Holbo on November 14, 2009

My friend Josh Glenn, and his collaborator Rob Walker, have been running an interesting project: Significant Objects. I’ll quote from the project info page:


A talented, creative writer invents a story about an object. Invested with new significance by this fiction, the object should — according to our hypothesis — acquire not merely subjective but objective value. How to test our theory? Via eBay!


1. The project’s curators purchase objects — for no more than a few dollars — from thrift stores and garage sales.

2. A participating writer is paired with an object. He or she then writes a fictional story, in any style or voice, about the object. Voila! An unremarkable, castoff thingamajig has suddenly become a “significant” object!

3. Each significant object is listed for sale on eBay. The s.o. is pictured, but instead of a factual description the s.o.’s newly written fictional story is used. However, care is taken to avoid the impression that the story is a true one; the intent of the project is not to hoax eBay customers. (Doing so would void our test.) The author’s byline will appear with his or her story.

4. The winning bidder is mailed the significant object, along with a printout of the object’s fictional story. Net proceeds from the sale are given to the respective author. Authors retain all rights to their stories.

5. The test’s results — photos, original prices and final sale prices, stories — are cataloged on this website. The project’s curators retain the right to use these materials in other venues and media. For example: Maybe we’ll publish a book.

They are up to their 100th and final entry: Jonathan Lethem vs. the Missouri Shotglass (The Missouri Shotglass would be a good nickname. Greg “the Missouri shotglass” Whillikers.) Now, just as if that little birdy on the glass flew to my ear, I hear the project will continue as some sort of charity fundraiser type thing, which I think sounds like a fine model for a charity fundraiser type thing.

I think it’s interesting how central the investment of cultural ephemera with significance has been to cultural and artistic imagination, lo the last 40 years or so. Ephemeral is the new eternal. Yard sales and eBay, the new sites of the Sublime (whereas a Romantic poet once had to trudge to a picturesque ruin, the seaside, or a mountaintop.)

That’s not really an adequate summary of the state of art and culture, in case you are disappointed I can’t do it in two sentences flat. But it does seem to me interesting and actually quite appropriate, in our present age, that so many artists feel compelled to build almost exclusively by repurposing ‘low’ cultural products. They can’t build to a decent height any other way. Pop culture – nay, aged mass culture, in its dotage – is the new Nature, to which one turns for authentic inspiration: the ever-returning waves of the sea, no mere wading-pool of nostalgia. (Fear of the future combined with contempt for the present, as a wise comic book character once said.) Oh, it might seem this sort of dumpster diving and incessant craphounding around is just amusing, ironic subjection of the whole culture to Mystery Culture Theater 3000-style snark commentary. But these artists aren’t just kitsch-whisperers and camp followers, my dear sir or madam. Nay, these are so many brave Aeneases (what is the plural of Aeneas?), passing through Gates of Ivory, which they bought cheap on eBay, and it works out ok for them, for what dreams but false dreams could be true doors into themselves. Am I right, or am I right?

I’m most interested in repurposing-the-low because it is the spiritual engine of most good work done in comics for the last generation, ‘course. Anyway, I’ve enjoyed watching the Significant Objects project roll along. Best of luck to them, going forward.



Billikin 11.14.09 at 6:09 am

Aside from the basic question of distinguishing objective value from subjective value, this experiment seems pretty weak on controls. Here is a thought, off the top of my head. After the stories are written, mix some of them up (half of them, for instance) so that they do not appear with their “significant object”, but with another one. Then the experimental question becomes whether the objects paired with their own stories sell better than the objects paired with other stories. :)


John Holbo 11.14.09 at 7:22 am

I would agree that, as science, it pretty much sucks.


acme 11.14.09 at 8:33 am

I’ve always been fascinated by the Dickens museum in Doughty Street where real objects (like The little Midshipman from Dombey and Son) are kept because of their significance in a fictional world.


Keir 11.15.09 at 1:04 am

The boats from Swallows & Amazons seem somehow appropriate here.

Also, downcycling & the anti-functionalism of this whole thing.


bad Jim 11.15.09 at 9:08 am

A parking lot in Copenhagen, next door to Tivoli, an array of American muscle cars from the 60’s and 70’s, around which Europeans wandered admiringly. My reaction was to wonder how we ever put up with this crap. It put me in mind of a Jaguar E-type abandoned in front of my workplace one year which went from wonder to eyesore in next to no time and was towed away.

Objects of desire, reeking of testosterone, have a short life in the real world but live forever in imagination. A couple of nephews bought classic cars but balked at the prospect of keeping them running. We uncles were less than supportive. Some of us had the tools and the skills to keep a VW running, but a Mustang or a Cadillac? Are you serious? Kids: there’s a reason we drive Hondas and Toyotas.


LM 11.15.09 at 3:40 pm

This “project” confuses me somewhat – isn’t it to be a test to determine how a story attached to an object makes the object somehow more valuable? But isn’t that test nullified by the very publicity the “project” received, and the public’s desire to “support” the project – i.e. by bidding on these items? If you look at the feedback received by the group’s Ebay account, it is clear that buyers were buying to “support” the project. This makes it impossible to determine the degree to which the story actually adds value to the object.


ejh 11.15.09 at 6:02 pm

Who is Significant and to what does he object?


Aulus Gellius 11.16.09 at 1:35 am

acme: a similarly bizarre example is the statue of Rocky outside the Philadelphia Museum of art. I’m not sure if it’s the actual prop from Rocky III, or just a statue of a fictional statue.


Zamfir 11.16.09 at 8:33 am

isn’t it to be a test to determine how a story attached to an object makes the object somehow more valuable? But isn’t that test nullified by the very publicity the “project” received, and the public’s desire to “support” the project – i.e. by bidding on these items?
But at one level deeper, the aim of the project is to get attention for the people involved and raise money for the project.


Henri Vieuxtemps 11.16.09 at 10:03 am

This reminds me of the J. Peterman catalog from Seinfeld. And apparently it exists in real life too.


Tim Wilkinson 11.16.09 at 12:47 pm

1. ‘Aeneases’ rendered in Latin would probably be Aeneae – Greek 1st I think kinda becomes Latin 1st, though Greek endings were used too. In this case they are the same, so despite the (probable) lack of any actual usage to refer to, ‘ae’ would be the thing. But importing the name into English then applying English pluralisation seems a more sensible course. And you wouldn’t want to be caught out taking a less-than-sensible course in a matter like this, would you.

2. (UK) All this talk of semi-complicity in fictional provenances reminds me of the single – and just about sufficient – reason to watch Antiques Roadshow, which is the straight-faced offer and acceptance of a story of the the amazingly common form “my [deceased relative] did some [manual work] on a stately home, and the owner said he could take an object of his choosing, and he chose this.” Hilarious. It’s best if you can convince yourself that the person relating the story has always successfully repressed all doubt, and the refained, solicitously nodding expert is (almost) perfectly concealing his matter-of-course disbelief.

Fuck fuck fuck I’m wasting time. Must have a deadline. Ah, yes. And it’s nearly ripe (why must deadlines be like pears and not apples)?


Billikin 11.16.09 at 4:14 pm


Josh Glenn is a cultural semiotics analyst. Now, a cultural semiotics analyst is a wonderful thing, but it is not a scientist.


Ray Davis 11.16.09 at 10:24 pm

Cory’s “Craphound” would be the definitive text here, wouldn’t it? (I’m a proud owner of one of the tie-in giveaway paper bags.)


Ginger Yellow 11.18.09 at 1:43 pm

In this case they are the same, so despite the (probable) lack of any actual usage to refer to, ‘ae’ would be the thing

It’s not too hard to come up with a usage. A Latin textual commentary on the Aeneid, for instance. “There are 62 Aeneases in Book I, 53 Trojans, 41 sons of Anchises…”


Kenny Easwaran 11.19.09 at 4:16 am

Ginger Yellow – you’re not making the use-mention distinction!

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