The eye of the beholder. An experiment (do try this at home)

A bottle cap from a beer bottle. A clear plastic tray from an over-packaged quartet of peaches. A silver coin.

The box is gradually filling with objets – not d’art, just objets.

A disposable cigarette lighter, its liquid fuel visible in a tube of clear blue plastic.

A snowstorm with the New York skyline inside.

‘A paperclip – how about a paperclip, this big one?’

It’s solid and chunky, matt silver, the metal slightly ridged.

He looks up, underwhelmed. Goes back to cutting a plastic wrapper down one side so the gold foil within is visible.

I still think the paperclip’s an interesting one – a challenge – but I shrug and put it back.

We’re trying to amass enough items to give a class of students one object between two or three as a basis for discussion.

Yes, we’re talking his occupation here, the university teaching side of his life – archaeology.

It’s the most fascinating class of the year – well, I think so.

He hands out items and asks the students to look at them as if from a basis of no knowledge. As if found by an extra terrestrial or a future archaeologist (or possibly one and the same).

To observe them, try to divine their function – if there is one. Use the evidence seen by their eyes and felt by their fingers. Focus on the why and the wherefore. Apply what they know about humans.

And – here’s the really interesting bit – estimate their likely value.

It’s very revealing about our attitudes.

Try it for yourself next time you have a bag of crisps (that’s chips, to you, US-English speakers).

Cut or tear the empty plastic bag to reveal the foil inside. Do your best to dodge your preconceptions. Try to be objective. See it for what it is, not what you know its purpose to be.

It’s disconcerting. At least, I think so.

Countless bags like this are landing in bins or being discarded willy-nilly, all over the world today. Every day. Yet, without knowledge of its contents, what is it?

Gold, indicating it’s precious.

Almost unbreakable, implying it’s highly valued.

Writing we can’t (as extra-terrestrial archaeologists) yet decipher.

So, symbolic maybe? Or religious?

Now take a look at the lighter. That’s practical, surely?

But what about that clear blue plastic? Is it a symbol of the sky that’s gone dark and needs illuminating? Something only to be used by magic men or women, interceding for the oppressed serfs of humankind?

Shake the snowstorm, watch as New York’s obscured by a blizzard of synthetic snow. Is it a plea to the weather gods to give respite to a world that’s become too warm, that never sees a snowflake, even in the depths of winter?

It seems like a very potent thing. No, it can’t be just a toy. Or can it?

And on you go. It makes for a really good conversation over dinner. Leaving a few items on the table, taking more and more extreme views, becoming more and more aware that we can never, ever, be objective.

We’re humans.

We make things and use things.

We believe in things we can’t see. Worship things (and people).

We create art and admire it.

A beautiful piece of engineering, though, is still seen by its function not its artistry – and do we really consider its value? Beyond the merely commercial I mean, beyond the price tag on a shiny, white, four-wheel drive or a sleek, black, low-slung convertible.

Or perhaps I mean its cost?

In these days of global warming, of food shortages for some and gluts for others, of an impending, self-made global crisis – if you believe the vast majority of the world’s serious scientists – what do we value?

Do we value our petroleum enough to do something different with this precious resource? To stop using so much plastic? Stop throwing away crisp bags with gold linings as if they were worthless pieces of rubbish?

Do we appreciate our precious finite resources, like metals? Treat paperclips as things to be valued – re-used, recycled, not thrown away?


If we don’t understand cost, can we ever appreciate value?

No answers, just thinking …


[Thanks to Tess for her ‘Finders Keepers’ post which prompted this ]

Sierra Exif JPEG


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6 Responses to The eye of the beholder. An experiment (do try this at home)

  1. Jennie Saia says:

    Oh, what a brilliant exercise. I really like to have one informal activity of topic for all of our dinner parties, so I really will try this!


  2. Steph says:

    Hey, I do this when teaching adjectives. The kids write a piece, a journal, as though they were aliens seeing Earth for the first time, using as many adjectives as they can to describe the objects they see. They turn up some really imaginative stuff, particularly considering they are writing in a different language. A post box is a creature that waits at the corner of a street for other, mobile animals to feed it with white or coloured squares. At the end of the day it vomits out its waste which is collected and taken away as if it has some kind of value. Maybe it is a god requiring daily worship and attention?
    This project was all stimulated by Craig Raine’s poem ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’. Well worth a Google!


    • Woefully ignorant, I am. Most poetry is a bit of a blind spot with me, partly because I am an impatient reader. I’d never heard of this – it’s bizarre and I find it quite provocative. I couldn’t work out the snoring ghost – had to look it up! Thanks, Steph. I bet your lessons are fun. I can feel this sinking in – something may emerge of it in due course!


  3. Pingback: Precious | MEMOIRS OF A HUSK

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