Objects and Identity

Extract from Alice's unpublished essay, ''This is Me': how objects act as anchors for personal identity':

Material things through their very physicality stabilise notions of personhood, prompting memories of past experiences or of other people and preventing these from drifting away like an unsecured ship.

One of the most important ways in which objects might be used to anchor personal identity is by reminding owners of the past, representing memories. Thus objects are often kept long after they have ceased to be useful because they serve as ciphers for remembering (Gregson and Beale 2004:690).

This is particularly important when other identities are in flux, as when moving house (Marcoux 2001) or in times of desperation and flight (Parkin 1999). In such times the things and stories people carry with them may be all that remains of their distinctive personhood to provide for future continuity, in extreme cases also serving to legitimise their memories of a lost history (Parkin 1999:314).

But more than embodying memories, objects can also embody people themselves. By 'embody' I mean that the object does more than represent a person: it is an extension of their personhood and is unique, unlike a representation, which can be replaced. An object imbued with personal qualities cannot but express those who contributed to its current state, thus a chair expresses the carpenter's design as well as the owner's body that subsequently moulded its seat.

Thus at various stages of its existence the chair might be said to 'embody' different people. For the owner who sat upon it every day of his life, even an exact replica would not be an acceptable substitute. Whilst new owners may not know who made or used the object, there remains in their consciousness an awareness that it was possessed by people other than themselves (Gosden and Marshall 1999:173; Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981:190-1).

It might actually be this unknown past that makes an object desirable, with the new owner identifying with an imagined community of previous owners. An interviewee for Gregson and Crewe described his feeling that, 'You've got a common bond with some person you'll never meet or ever see’, because both have bought the same thing, perhaps for the same reason (2003:150).

In Melanesian society this attachment to objects is conceived of more literally. Objects are seen as the detached parts of people circulating through society, which cannot act without announcing the ‘presence’ of their owners. A person is thus ultimately composed of all the objects they have made and transacted in their lifetime, and through the things they once possessed people may continue to have effects at a distance and even after they are dead (Gosden and Marshall 1999:173).

A psychological link of this kind is detectable in contemporary western society, so that whether an object is acquired new or second-hand a degree of the owner’s identity is inscribed upon it by the very act of possession, even when the object's history is unknown. Identity is thus constantly objectified (Miller 1987).


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