Jean Baudrillard’s 1968 book The System of Objects set forth this provocation: “Could we classify the luxuriant growth of objects as we do a flora or fauna, complete with tropical and glacial species, sudden mutations, and varieties threatened by extinction?” If we could create such a taxonomy, “disposable” protective face masks – some of which have a robust lifespan of 450 years – would certainly earn a place of prestige as a formidable invasive species. They basically live forever, and are capable of flourishing in any hardiness zone. Like a particularly opportunistic cultivar, masks have bred like wildfire in the Covid Era – and we are the masters of their exceptional husbandry.
And what of those objects that haven’t necessarily reproduced like metaphorical rabbits, but seem to cast a broad and dark shadow over our human reality with an ominous, species-decimating creep? In the US (particularly since the Columbine school shooting in 1999) firearms are objects that have not become more statistically pervasive per se (gun ownership in the US has hovered at around forty-two percent of the population since 1972). Instead, they have been made more deadly and wild, like a once-domesticated species gone not just feral, but rabid.
While guns have obviously been with us for far longer than masks as a cultural point of contention, both masks and guns distinguish themselves by their ability to become not just tools of utilitarian service, but god-objects imbued with a power we humans cannot seem to understand or bring into control. Guns kill people; masks save lives. These phrases trip off the tongue, and their utterances make it seem as though these objects entered our lives of their own accord, like aliens coming down from some outer galaxy. It is as though we didn’t invent them, manufacture them, market them and ultimately use them ourselves.
When it comes to our emotional and psychological relationship to objects, we can be as irrational as new lovers in the heat of an intoxicating infatuation. Or as disconnected as mass murderers on an indiscriminate killing spree. Which begs the question: how do certain objects accrue this level of power and significance in what purports to be a rational society? In his 1979 analysis of youth movements, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, cultural theorist Dick Hebdige wrote that, “… [W]e are intrigued by the most mundane objects – a safety pin, a pointed shoe, a motor cycle – which, nonetheless … take on a symbolic dimension… [We] … seek to recreate the dialectic between action and reaction which renders these objects meaningful.”
As endless debates around both masks and guns have proved, it is indeed not the object itself – which lays limp and lifeless until human action animates it into “being” – but the meaning we assign to it, and particularly the conflict that ensues from this applied meaning, that ushers it toward significance. Further into his thesis on the symbolic meaning ascribed to relational objects, Hebdige cites British historian E.P. Thompson’s formulation of culture as, “‘[T]he study of relationships in a whole way of conflict.’”
Thompson’s work, particularly his 1963 historical study of pre-industrial England, The Making of the English Working Class, details the struggles from which new cultures emerge. For Thompson, these conflicts are akin to the violence of a bloody parturition; they are often realized in the realm of the physical, and what comes after is the birth of new cultural systems and mores. For example, when analyzing a laborers’ revolt in 1830, Thompson wrote, “the main assault was on the threshing-machine, which (despite futurist homilies) patently was displacing the already starving laborers. Hence the destruction of the machines did in fact effect some immediate relief.”
Though one could see a thresher as an effigy symbolizing the violent attack of industrialization on previous labor modalities (and on the people who survived through these labors), its destruction wasn’t entirely symbolic, as Thompson points out. The annihilation of this one object meant, perhaps, a few more weeks of income for one starving field laborer.
But of course these attacks only delayed the inevitable: from the broken remains of each thresher, a new class, which is to say a new culture, arose. And with this evolution came the reformulation of what Thompson referred to as a “class consciousness,” which is, “largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born – or enter involuntarily … Class-consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas, and institutional forms … Consciousness of class arises in the same way in different times and places, but never in just the same way.”
In the rise of any new collective consciousness, we might observe our daily habits gradually changing. Or we might be caught off guard and awaken, seemingly overnight, to an entirely new cultural framework having been erected around us – to a city filled with faces obscured by masks. The strange thing about this is that the more we try to tear down that framework, the higher it climbs. To wit: some might view questions related to the proven efficacy of protective masks as an attack that might weaken this object’s cultural significance (does the Emperor wear no clothes?), but that is simply not how culture works. As stated by Thompson, it is conflict – not compliance – that imbues certain objects with lasting significance. Were the mask universally accepted upon adoption, it would also be at extreme risk of being universally dismissed. Or at least denied the cultural relevance it continues to hold.
It is controversy itself, rendered in material forms, that gives our cultural objects a sticky form of social relevance. The myth of the unifying nature of commodities – the 1971 Coca Cola commercial vision of people of all stripes coming together to worship one magically loveable consumer item – is far from reality. Were Coca Cola to disappear from the shelves tomorrow, people would simply find or invent another sugary drink to guzzle. Yet if Coca Cola were universally banned (or, conversely, if its consumption were universally mandated and enforced), we would quickly be knee-deep in a new Cola War. Coca Cola would morph from a neutral substance to a politicized object; it would become either a can of freedom or a can of poison, depending upon one’s affiliation. And this is hardly a speculative notion. Recall the famously tone-deaf 2017 Pepsi commercial wherein Kendall Jenner hands a can of Pepsi to a cop at a protest as a peace offering. Soon after, protesters in real life were hurling unopened Pepsi cans at cops during a May Day parade, directly referencing the commercial in question.
Which opens the question: which comes first, the object or the conflict? Are these “special” objects the flint that lights the fire, or are they merely the smokescreen that barely disguises a seemingly inborn need for conflict. From object-oriented controversy, from, say, a willingness to demand, arms akimbo, that everyone “wear a damn mask,” a collective consciousness is born. And it is equally birthed from the loins of those who have derided protective face masks as clown-face muzzles, from those who believe that being compelled to wear a mask is a violation of our basic rights as human beings.
In the Covid Era, our fixation with existential threat drew us into this new form of consciousness, which fetishized the mask as either God’s hand over our mouths, preventing the annihilation of the species, or as a fey, Liberal Snowflake accessory meant to annihilate individual liberties and freedoms. And in an almost perfectly inverse proposition, every time a school gets shot up and we question America’s darkest heart, guns become one of two opposing symbols: they are the signifiers of brave American gun-owners who are exercising their God-given civil liberties as defined by the Bill of Rights, or they are the weapons of choice for the psychopaths who wish to devour our nation’s children. A middle ground, a meeting point, is impossible.
Fetishes, from the Latin facere, meaning to make, are those objects that humans fabricate themselves, but then go on to irrationally imbue with beyond-human, supernatural powers. In their writings on religion, Karl Marx and Frederic Engels stated that the concept of commodity fetishism is “the religion of sensuous appetites … the fantasy of the appetites tricks the fetish worshiper into believing that an ‘inanimate object’ will give up its natural character to gratify his desires.” Some objects transcend their material status and transform into an animistic “realness.” These objects come to act as collective “living” artifacts within a common consciousness, which Emile Durkheim formulated, in his 1893 book The Division of Labor in Society, as “The totality of beliefs and sentiments common to average citizens of the same society [that] forms a determinate system which has its own life … [It] is is something totally different from the consciousness of individuals, although it is only realized in individuals.”
Within this form of consciousness resides the collective representations (i.e., the symbols) that we choose, however unconsciously, to pitch the tent of our common faith within. In his 1912 book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim claims that,
Collective representations are the result of an immense cooperation, which stretches out not only into space but into time as well; to make them, a multitude of minds have associated, united and combined their ideas and sentiments; for them, long generations have accumulated their experience and their knowledge. A special intellectual activity is therefore concentrated in them which is infinitely richer and complexer than that of the individual … It does not owe this to any vague mysterious virtue but simply to the fact that according to the well-known formula, man is double. There are two beings in him: an individual being which has its foundations in the organism and the circle of whose activities is therefore strictly limited, and a social being which represents the highest reality in the intellectual and moral order that we can know by observation – I mean society.
This doubling of the individual allows us to cohere into (often opposing) groups by giving an autonomous significance to these representations and by allowing them to exist beyond the individual.
Because both the gun and the mask inhabit this immaterial world of symbolism and illusion distinct from their material identity, they also veer toward what pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott termed the transitional object. As explored in his 1953 essay “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena – A Study of the First Not-Me,” for Winnicott, “[T]he terms ‘transitional object’ and ‘transitional phenomena’ … [designate] the intermediate area of experience, between the thumb and the teddy bear …”Winnicott defines transitional phenomena as,“the use made of objects that are not part of the infant’s body yet are not fully recognized as belonging to external reality.” He points out that this phenomena is, in fact, “the substance of illusion, that which is allowed to the infant, and which in adult life is inherent in art and religion, and yet becomes the hallmark of madness when an adult puts too powerful a claim on the credulity of others, forcing them to acknowledge a sharing of illusion that is not their own.” In other words, we are fine with our collective fantasies, and in fact much of our world depends upon them – but they must remain collective in nature in order to be acceptable. Winnicott believed this mutual delusion to be, “a natural root of grouping among human beings.”
While Winnicott deems such illusion-based group beliefs and behaviors natural, he did not equate this with rationality. For example, when interrogating the use of transitional objects in adulthood, Winnicott noted that the object was always secondary to that which it symbolized, “… symbolism has at the very best a variable meaning. For instance, if we consider the wafer of the Blessed Sacrament, which is symbolic of the body of Christ. I think I am right in saying that for the Roman Catholic community it is the body, and for the Protestant community it is a substitute, a reminder, and is essentially not, in fact, actually the body itself. Yet in both cases it is a symbol.” The transitional object’s nebulous symbolic nature doesn’t make it any less “real” – Winnicott’s theory simply recognizes that we humans never fully transition from the developmental stage wherein transitional objects become the tools we use to negotiate reality more comfortably. As Winnicott states, “It is assumed here that the task of reality-acceptance is never completed, that no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality, and that relief from this strain is provided by an intermediate area of experience which is not challenged (arts, religion, etc.). This intermediate area is in direct continuity with the play area of the small child who is ‘lost’ in play.”
But often our relationship to these “special” objects does appear to be just another state of arrested development. Just like blankies and teddy bears, people often sleep with their guns close by – if not necessarily cuddled up with them, at least in close proximity (in nightstands and under mattresses). One could argue that guns are important to have around, because they keep families safe from intruders (this is, after all, is what the castle doctrine allows for). One could also argue that the more deadly weapons you have around, the more you up the chances of those weapons being used to cause harm. While the Bill of Rights honors the right citizens have to own firearms, we do not have an attending Bill of Responsibilities to ensure that those rights are exercised within some framework of common sense reason. We simply have a strange and unpredictable mix of guns, laws, and sane or crazy people – and the results that ensue.
Similarly, with masks, we have the data that they “work,” sometimes. And we have enforced mandates to make sure that people wear these masks. But we also have human emotion and individual psychology. We have, say, a high school principal who grew up watching her mother battle cancer, resulting in a lifelong phobia of hospitals and death. When tasked with the responsibility to mandate masks in the classroom, this individual will obviously have different subconscious motives than, say, a psychologist who wrote his dissertation on the effect observing human facial expressions has on children.
As use-driven objects, both masks and guns carry the burden of all or our many associations and projections. When tools take on an identity that transcends their objective use value, they begin to feel more like living entities than inanimate gobs of atoms. If and when we do stop wearing masks on our faces or carrying guns on our bodies, they will hardly disappear from our lives. Our streets and waterways are now eternally littered with discarded masks, and the Small Arms Survey believes there are 393 million civilian-housed guns in America. These objects will never disappear, but their meaning can (and obviously will) change over time. To wit: after France ordered the production of 2 billion more disposable surgical masks, Laurent Lombard of Opération Mer Propre predicted (on social media) that “… soon we will run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean.” This statement accompanied a video showing a lifeless mask drifting jellyfish-like above a seabed in the Antibes. Robbed of its symbolic resonance, we see an object value-morphing in real time: from a lifesaving miracle device to just another scrap of ocean-clogging, man-made garbage.