Profile, £14.99, 247pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Paraphernalia: The Curious Lives of Magical Things, By Steven Connor
Friday 22 July 2011
It doesn't do to bite the hand that feeds one. But have a look through this newspaper. If you're reading this online, have a look through the global interwebs. What you find is that it's all about stuff. Stuff you don't need, most of it. Much of it, stuff you don't want which, thanks to the genius and sheer effort of marketing and advertising, you somehow come to believe you do want. Some of it (insurance is a good example) is stuff they are pretty certain you will never need, which is why they persuade you that you need it urgently, or else.
Much of this is Big Stuff. The many-thousands-of-pounds silly watch that offers you the chance to magically acquire the kudos and values of someone in an advertisment: a sports star, say, or a constipated Swiss banker smirking at his prissy son. The ludicrously expensive car with a head-up display projected onto your windscreen, so that you can pretend that you're a fighter pilot. Except that fighter pilots drive things like Honda Civics, and their HUD shows them breaking through Mach 2 as the SAMs hurtle upwards, while yours shows you the correct exit on the Hangar Lane gyratory.
Steven Connor's urbane, witty and seductive book avoids the Big Stuff, reasoning, I imagine, that it's all about itself, and imposing the values it represents. Big Stuff is like Dylan Thomas's famous hypallage of the man "with a blunderbuss bourbon, being smoked by a large cigar." Small stuff is another matter. Like the textual trickery so brilliantly disclosed in Roland Barthes's Mythologies – which Paraphernalia resembles – Connor dissects, meditates and discourses on 18 categories oof the small stuff which makes up the substrate of our lives.
Bags, batteries, combs, glasses, keys, rubber bands, sweets and wires are among his subjects, and in every case offer surprises and jumping-off points for further pleasant speculation. Queen Elizabeth I had a craving for buttons. A discussion on combs leads him to consider aerodynamic laminar flow and the cult of the lawn among Anglo-Saxons. Knots can not only join but block: touching a bridegroom with a handkerchief, then tying a knot in it, can prevent consummation.
In passing, there are wonders, most wonderful of all Connor's childhood dog, a dachshund called Ringo who consumed handkerchiefs which passed through him unscathed but became tightly rolled in transit. The first sign was a blossom of cotton at Ringo's exit. His description of the point at which the emerging handkerchief was as long as Ringo himself – "tightly furled... like the twisted sheet one might use to climb out of a burning building... as though the sausage dog had been transformed into a kind of hanky dispenser" – will remain in the mind for ever.
But this is more than just a meditative cabinet of overlooked curiosities. Connor eschews the word "stuff" for the richer "paraphernalia". The word itself originally meant the goods and chattels a woman brought to marriage which were not part of her dowry. It later came to mean that part of a wife's property outside her husband's estate. There are resonances of inviolability about it, and of a deep association between paraphernalia and its owner.
The "magical" nature of these things is, again, reminiscent of the "mythologies" smuggled under the disguise of everyday texts in Barthes's book. Our paraphernalia possesses, in our eyes, a significance beyond the material: it appears to give something to us which is no more than what we project onto it.
Women's handbags are only an extreme example of this. Not just women, either: I have a soft leather messenger bag which has a name. It is called Bungo. I believe Bungo has a nature, almost a personality; I believe Bungo says something about me. What it says is (a) that I believe my bag says something about me and (b) I have given it a name: Bungo. I wonder what that says about me?
There is, in the end, a more serious point to Paraphernalia. We live in an age where we are more and more defined not by texts but by material artefacts. Connor, professor of modern literature and theory at Birkbeck College, has bypassed the usual academic discourse of consumer materialism and applied some of the techniques of literary theory to stuff. The result is challenging and often enchanting. If I had one complaint, it's that I wasn't called on to index the book. That would be a job to die for.
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