The Illusion of Artifacts
Like many of my peers before me—and no small few since—I was once a child. During this period, I dedicated great time and energy into producing evidence of such. I drew pictures and made crafts. I wrote stories into clumsily stapled-together “books”. I collected childish things.
As I grew older, I lost interest in many, if not all, of these creations. My mom however, did not. She collected mine and my brother’s works as if they had come from history’s greatest artists. From time to time, as the years trickled by, she would ask if I wanted one or another of them back. Typically, I would scoff. I’m not interested in any of that. She would just shrug, however, baffled at my inability to recognize the value of these items.
Some years later, I was helping a girlfriend move into her new place. Lout that I am, I carelessly dropped the box in which she had packed a ceramic mixing bowl given to her by her dead grandma. The bowl broke. The girlfriend was understandably upset. I felt quite the piece of shit. She forgave me but the guilt never went away. That bowl was important to her. It had real, irreplaceable value.
We all have objects like these. Artifacts of our lives. Things we’ve collected. I do. You do, probably. My mom sure does, and that forgiving girlfriend too. But why? What are they? What do they really mean? I can tell you this: the last occasion that my mom asked me if I wanted any of my childhood creations, she suffixed the question with, “Because I’m getting rid of a lot of my stuff and If you don’t I’ll just throw them out.” And that girlfriend, she did forgive me, and she moved on without that one memento.
And when I think back to items I valued, artifacts from my life which I eventually decided to let go of, tossing them unceremoniously into the trash, losing them didn’t actually feel like anything. Few of these items remain, in fact. And of what artifacts I possess, I know I could toss any one of them out tomorrow and my life would be no different.
So what’s the deal? How is it we find meaning in these arbitrary chunks of matter? Do we actually? Are we kidding ourselves? What’s the deal with artifacts?
Easy. Everyone knows; why are we even talking about it? They’re reminders. They help us access memories of people, times and places that meant a great deal to us.
Sorry, no. I don’t buy this. Because … they don’t, really. Not really. I don’t recall an important moment from my past any better when I’m looking at some knickknack I picked up at the time. I don’t see the face of a person I cared about any clearer because I kept a card they gave me once. No clearer than I would have anyway, at least.
I won’t deny that our artifacts can act as reminders of the past. If you’re rummaging through some old stuff you can certainly stumble on something that will set the memories flooding in. But that’s not the same. Such items need not possess any sentimental value. They need not be the kinds of artifacts we’re talking about. They are, in fact, literally … just reminders.
We imprint strong feelings about times/places/people onto our artifacts, which then allow us to access these feelings later on.
Now I’m not being mystical here. I’m simply suggesting that we may allow certain objects to act as signifiers to our brain, connecting us to the contexts with witch we associate them.
I’m no psychologist. I’m no expert in brain physiology or even semiotics, but from my own personal experience, this too rings false. I’ve never had an artifact actually make me feel like I did when I acquired it. Or feel the same way that I did for the person who gave it to me. In fact, I’m sure I have one or two treasured items I got from someone I no longer feel any strong feelings for.
So it’s the artifacts themselves then. But what about them?
THEORY THREE (what I really think)
Artifacts act as nostalgia focal points
Nearly everyone has parts of their past they view through rose-coloured glasses. Some more than others, of course, but you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t (at least a little). Nostalgia is a built-in feature of the human condition. The past need not even have been that good for us to remember it fondly. We idealize (or romanticize) it because doing so helps us to find meaning in an arguably random existence.
Artifacts may be no more than vessels we use to carry some of this meaning.
When I attach emotional value to the mousepad Augustus Caesar bought for me the week we travelled to the centre of the Earth together, it’s easy enough to convince myself that that time in my life had meaning too. (When really, we spent the whole week clubbing and pigging out in the tourist district!)
The more I think about it the more I realize that the feelings I get from my artifacts, though varying in intensity, are all pretty much the same feeling. Contemplative warmth with a touch of loss. This is more or less the definition of nostalgia.
These objects don’t instil emotion in us; they’re outlets for an emotion we already possess. We collect them as we go because we know in the moment that we’re going to want this time—this place—this person to have meant something.
It’s a trick we play on ourselves.
But it’s good. Because finding meaning in our past helps us define ourselves. And we’re better people, I think, when we know who we are.
Okay. I don’t really know why I felt the need to post about this. But it seemed interesting to me. Maybe everything I just said is completely obvious to everyone else. Maybe it’s utter nonesense. Hope you weren’t too bored.