Professors keep paper — way too much paper. After ten years of accumulation, this summer I began purging my files of articles I’d saved but no longer used. In doing so, I ran across an article I’d kept called “The Ineluctable Mysteries of Possessions.”
The article disputes the assumption that the relationship between people and possessions is a rational one. Possessions, it argues are ascribed magical powers, in a sense — and the more magical they are, the more valued they are.
Tests for a Magical Object:
- Are you unwilling to sell the object for its market value?
- Would you buy it virtually regardless of its price?
- Do you believe the item couldn’t be substituted?
- Are you unwilling to discard it, even if you don’t use it anymore?
- Does owning it make you happy? Would you be depressed if it were lost or damaged?
- Do you treat it like a person? Name it or consider it part of the family?
If your answer is “yes,” you probably have an irrational — “magical” — relationship with that object.
What kinds of possessions are most likely to be “magical”? The list is long….
Parts of Self
Bodies and Body Parts: We regard our bodies and those of our loved ones with reverence and save, protect, and adorn them, even ascribing magical properties to things like, for example, locks of hair, or a tattoo.
Perfume, Jewelry, and Clothing: These possessions are magical because they’re in close contact with the body; they retain some aura of the person who wore them (a dead father’s watch, a dead mother’s wedding ring, a boyfriend’s jacket, a girlfriend’s perfume) and can also be transformative (a good luck shirt, a power tie, “beauty in a bottle”).
Food: Because we bring food into ourselves, it, too, is magical. Many religious and even secular ceremonies involve rituals of food or drink (communion, birthday cake, Thanksgiving turkey), some foods are seen as unclean (pork, beef), and the health movement regularly characterizes various categories of foods as good or evil, transformative or detrimental.
Security (“Transitional”) Objects: These are objects children become attached to almost as though they were parts of the self: blankets, stuffed animals, pacifiers, and so on. Adults often keep their childhood security objects or adopt new ones. (A charming photo book about security objects is Creature Comforts: People and Their Security Objects.)
Extensions of Self
Home: We see our homes, and others see our homes, as extensions of our identities, with the public areas of the home equivalent to our social selves and the private areas equivalent to our true selves. Also, the door to a home is sacred; people are usually only allowed to pass it by invitation.
Vehicles: Vehicles operate like homes, but they tend to be laden with more fantasy and sexual symbolism, especially for men. People who dote over their vehicles — polishing, customizing, detailing — are especially likely to see them as extensions of their own identities.
Burials and Grave Goods: Grave markers, flowers, and monuments for dead loved ones become extensions of the self — think of the care taken over a family member’s grave site. Also, we nod to this magic whenever we bury or burn people’s beloved objects with them. The article doesn’t mention the objects laid at the Vietnam Memorial or at accident sites, but I’d group those into this category; very few people would take a stuffed animal left at a child’s death site!
Pets: Although some may consider pets members of the family rather than possessions, ultimately, they are objects owned but invested with great emotional attachment. Some researchers argue that pets serve as adults’ transitional objects.
Magic, Science & Religion
Religious Icons and Relics: These figures are often considered to possess magical power, even by religions that officially condemn such investiture, such as formal Christianity — for example, the faithful might feel uncomfortable discarding even the cheapest Bible or prayer card.
Amulets, Fetishes, Talismans and Totems: Contemporary examples might include naming an automobile, hanging a “lucky” item in a window or over a door, or keeping around any object one thinks can magically protect, empower, cure, or bring good fortune.
Drugs and Medicine: Mind-altering drugs have long been considered to have magical powers, but can we consider contemporary medicine magical? Sure — consider the extraordinarily well-documented placebo effect; studies have even shown that the more we pay for a drug, the better we think it cures us … even when both test and control groups are given the same drug. It’s magic.
(This is the big problem category noted by most decluttering experts!)
Gifts: Gifts are magical because they represent both the giver and the recipient’s social connection to the giver. The gift economy has traditionally been kept separate from the cash economy (which is why giving money as a gift tends to be deprecated); gift-giving tends to be ceremonial in nature (removing a price tag, wrapping it in special paper) and invested with emotion.
Family Photographs, Souvenirs, and Mementos: These act as talismans connecting us to other people, places, and moods. Moreover, the way we preserve and display them can serve to edit and refashion our pasts in some desired way (for example, think of removing an ex-spouse’s photos from a photo album). Childhood toys kept into adulthood may fall into this category, representing a longing for perceived innocence and simplicity.
Heirlooms, Antiques, and Monuments: While photos, souvenirs and mementos may be personal, these items are more aggregate, symbolizing a family or other larger social group. Even antiques bought from a store can be seen as linking the owner to a desirable past era.
Rare and Mysterious Possessions
Treasure and Money: Money is seen to be magical, making people do what we want, offering security against danger or loss, etc. The article doesn’t mention, but I’ll add, that foreign coinage is often kept as a souvenir, perhaps in part due to this reason.
Collections: An item that belongs to a collection is conferred special, magical status; it becomes more than it was on its own. People often claim collections are valuable, but they usually aren’t; instead, collections give their owners a sense of purpose and importance and are an approved outlet for possessiveness.
Stars and their Relics: From saints to athletes, people collect stars’ bones, clothing, autographs, cars, and even houses. The article notes, interestingly, that male stars are revered more than female stars.
Art: Traditionally, art was granted a special place in people’s or organizations’ collections; today, high-quality reproductions may have devalued art’s magical power.
Quintessential Corporate Icons and “High Tech Pornography”: Iconic brands and products that must never be changed (Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Levi’s 501 jeans) and expensive objects, especially technological — iPhone, anyone?
Sexual Pornography and Sexual Fetishes: I’ll take the author’s word on this, but I suppose if you can’t get no satisfaction without it….
I wanted to hold onto the article until I could post about it because I think a lot of decluttering books act as though people are rational — and we’re not. Even though we probably don’t say to ourselves, “I can’t get rid of Mother’s necklace because it’s magical,” the fact is, we’ve ascribed some kind of mystic link between our mother and that necklace that makes us feel guilty about selling or donating it. And this also explains why we buy things — owning an iPhone or a pair of Manolo Blahniks will magically make us powerful and attractive. Owning shelves of books makes us smart or creative. Owning lots of Tupperware protects us against future hunger. Or whatever.
The ascription of magical qualities to possessions predates capitalism and consumerism, of course, but for nominally rational, modern concepts, both capitalism and consumerism certainly play to this deeply seated human tendency. Commercials, after all, are nothing but messages extolling the magical qualities of a product or service — this object will make you sexually attractive/beautiful/rich/healthy/happy/etc. It will save you from anguish or danger. It will keep your children safe. It’s magic — buy it.
I’ve worked hard to declutter myself and I constantly monitor my spending habits to make sure I keep my possessions down to a comfortable minimum. But I’d be the last person to say I’m rational about what I own — after I got rid of the excess junk, the remaining objects I cling to now are almost all magical in some way, from my bringing Artifact home from my mother’s apartment (named; link to dead family member; totem figure) to collecting pocket watches and restoring an old trunk to use as a coffee table (they’re antiques I associate with a desired age/identity — steampunk)!
I think this article got it right. We don’t accumulate and treasure the bulk of our possessions for any rational reason. We accumulate and treasure them because they’re magic.
Original article, and my apologies to the author for oversimplifying his points! —
Belk, Russell W. (1991) “The Ineluctable Mysteries of Possessions” in Rudmin, F. W. (Ed.) To Have Possessions: A Handbook on Ownership and Property [Special Issue]. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6(6), 17-55.