The Threads that Tie Us to Objects

Black Friday has come and gone, so has Black Monday, and still there are nearly three weeks left of holiday shopping. When I have a chance to slip out unnoticed, off I go alone in search of presents for my wife and children. Yet as I enter a store, am I so solitary? When I walk down the aisles, invisibly my family hovers beside me, and I imagine my daughter shaking her head and frowning, or my son grinning, as I pick through possible presents and consider whether the object I hold in my hand might produce a happy ending when finally unwrapped. Where can I find the gift that will be genuinely welcomed?

Evidence of this search for just the right connection is what James Elkins speaks of in his book The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing. As he points out, it’s easy to identify a person who is silently weighing the aptness of a purchase:

“The threads that tie us to objects are invisibly fine, and normally we scarcely notice their little tugs and pulls. But the webs of vision are there nonetheless. All those familiar gestures of shoppers—bending forward for a closer look and then straightening up, raising the eyebrows, tilting the head to one side, stepping back to think, sighing, shifting weight from one foot to the other, crossing the arms, sighing, scratching the head—those are signs that they are already caught in the web.”

The crowds in a department store all share these unconscious gestures, the signs of the inner drama of gifting: the desire to get it just right, to please the ghostly presences of friends and family who nudge us with their imagined advice. And those objects we contemplate are not passive either. As Elkins observes,

“I begin to wonder if shopping isn’t like being hunted. Instead of saying I am the one doing the looking, it seems better to say that objects are all trying to catch my eye, and their gleams and glints are the hooks that snare me. A harmless display case of watches becomes a forest of traps, a dangerous place for my eyes. Every shining dial and silver band is a barb, a tiny catch just the size of my eye. Perhaps shoppers are like fish who like to swim in waters full of hooks.”

I remember my distant glory days of pouring through the racks of LPs in a record store (remember those?), working my fingers through the alphabetically labeled bands until something new caught my attention: some obscure group’s latest record, or a singer I’d never heard of but whose album cover held a certain promise. The arrestingly explosive front cover of an album by a then unknown band named Led Zeppelin encouraged me to glance at the other side and discover that Jimmy Page, lately of the Yardbirds, was the guitarist for this new group. Hmmm, this might be worth buying, I thought. What drew me to those bins of LPs was the promise of surprise. Yet often I did know what I was looking for. That’s when one turns from hunted to hunter.

“Shopping is also hunting,” Elkins states. “After all, I am the one who decides to go shopping, and normally I’m on the lookout for something in particular: I’m hunting for it and trying to pick it out of the thousands of objects that I do not want . . . In this way of looking at things, the watches are all camouflaged: each is almost identical to the next, and the one I want is somewhere among them. Like a leopard hunting in the jungle, I can look at a tangle of leaves, vines, and flickering lights and pick out just half of the pupil of a frightened deer.”

What adventure awaits me in these next few weeks! I prowl the aisles, circle the store displays with a posse of invisible companions, who add their familiar spoken inflections to my inner voices as I search for and in turn am searched by potential gifts, a hunter transforming to prey back to hunter back to prey, all within a few short steps through a forest of holiday cheer.

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December 7th, 2010 by admin