The Meaning of the Material World

Stephen A. Herring         December 8, 2014

En Arxh Hn O Logos

In principio erat Verbum

“In the beginning was the Word.”  John 1:1 


Every human artifact has a narrative associated with it.  There is a narrative belonging to the first flaked stone scraping tool created by the first proto-human.  There is a narrative that runs through all the world’s antiquities and all the objects of human fabrication.  There is a narrative that includes the stuff filling your trash can.  Everything has a story of some form associated with it.  This is the story of how, when, where, and why this object came into being.  It is also the story of who used it, what they did with it, and why they did what they did with it. 

Every person who has ever lived also has a story.  Assuming that we have access to the information, a person’s life can be sketched out in several different ways.  A person’s life story can be told as a formally structured biography.  Biography can be either written or orally transmitted.  Another form a life story takes consists of the network of relationships we construct as we live.  People influence one another by their words and actions, and these influences are passed along over time through vast networks of overlapping relationships.  This is how people are remembered who do not get the luxury of a narrative biography.  Life stories are also built through the collective life’s work a person accumulates.  This includes objects built, notes written, songs composed, pies baked, things repaired, things broken, and all the physical results of actions taken throughout life. 

There is an overlap between the story of an object and the story of a person.  If a person gives an object to another person, this gift becomes part of the narrative of both people’s lives, and it also becomes an attribute of the object given.  For example, many fine antiques have a history of ownership documented as part of their provenance.  The object becomes part of the person’s life story and the person is likewise part of the story of the object.  We can also build conversation and relationship around shared memories associated with objects.  We remember objects fondly from our past and we share the narratives associated with our memories. 

Art is all about objects and shared narratives.  Art is a way we have of enclosing a narrative within a larger narrative.  Works of art tell a story.  It can be as momentary as a single moment within a single experience, or as long as an epic poem.  It can be factual, or fictional, or somewhere in between.  This is the internal message, inherent to some degree within every work of art. 

The story of a work of art is never fixed, never static.  Art changes as it is perceived by different people in different contexts.  The meaning, or story derived from any work of art will be differently interpreted by different people at different times.  This is why art is so positive and so empowering.  Art empowers us because it validates the narrative of the individual who appreciates it.  All of these different interpretations comprise the narrative within the object of art. 

Most works of art are also objects in an external sense.  Performances, plays, concerts, and songs can be objectified.  They are frequently preserved in some form as a script, notes, sheet music, a recording, photograph or some other object which preserves and transmits the work. There is often some form of record that this work of art existed.  The narrative communicated by the art is enclosed within the object which is the art.  Art exists to be collected and great collections come to possess a narrative all their own. 

What would happen if we came to view every object of human fabrication as a work of art?  What would happen if we saw everything we have made as possessed of value according to the fragments of narrative it holds?  What would happen to us if we learned to value the objects in our lives and to seek to understand the stories they can tell?  What would happen if we valued all things? 

At first glance, we might fear that this proposition would lead to disaster.  Our present social/economic order is based on the concept of disposability.  We are a consumption based society and consumption requires digestion and excretion.  We acquire objects only to use them up and dispose of them.  If objects retain value because they retain some fragments of narrative information, we might incline to hold onto them and to throw fewer of them away.  If we do not throw things away we can’t continue to acquire new things, or we risk becoming dysfunctional hoarders, living in unsafe or unsanitary conditions.  We fear that we might be buried in our own waste. 

Hoarding Disorder is classified by the American Psychiatric Association as an obsessive compulsive disorder.  This means the disorder is caused by the pain and anxiety associated with hoarding more than the simple collecting of material possessions.  Hoarding is not just a matter of keeping stuff.  Hoarding consists of the adverse social and psychological consequences associated with keeping too much stuff, or too much of the wrong kind of stuff.  Hoarding is not about the stuff, but it is about the anxiety associated with keeping it or not keeping it. 

Our purpose here is to look at the positive value objects possess as part of a larger personal and social narrative.  On the positive side, the proposition that objects possess fragments of valid personal and social narrative may guide us to value more than just the objects.  This way of thinking might persuade us to value people as well.  People suffer stress if they do not have an outlet in which to share their personal narrative.  The heart of loneliness is not having anyone to ask you how your day went.  To be healthy we need the opportunity to share the small stories that compose our daily lives.  Objects can form a foundation or a starting place for conversations which in turn build relationships.  Relationships form the core of the larger narratives of our lives. 

If we learn how to recognize and to read the value of everyday objects we will benefit in many ways from growing to understand the meaning of the material world.  We need to hold firmly to the assertion that it all does have meaning and that all this junk is not just the chaotic byproduct of over consumption headed to a dump to be entombed for eternity.  Our task is to appreciate what is around us and not to walk away and ignore it.  After all, the words “ignore”, and “ignorance”come from the same root. 

The whole material world has meaning.  Imagine for a moment that time has swept forward to the point that the human species has completely ceased to exist.  Imagine that some intelligent alien species has come upon the remains of the human endeavor.  The fragmented ruins of human civilization have been discovered somewhere in the deep abyss of space.  Those who have found these objects have found us, our story, and all that remains of our narrative.  If we assume that they have a social/value system similar to ours, how will they see our piles of stuff?  The artifacts they discover might be perceived as precious antiquities.  Whole academic disciplines might arise out of the effort to reconstruct our narrative by reading the story all these objects tell.  Perhaps we might benefit by appreciating our own narrative while we are here to enjoy it. 

Knowing and appreciating the deeper meaning of the material world guides us to understand our personal narratives.  This in turn helps us to understand and appreciate the people around us. We are completely surrounded in every moment by works of art.  If we choose not to recognize and appreciate these works of art, we choose social and intellectual poverty.  If we choose to appreciate them and to interpret them, we choose a wealth of experience and imagination. 


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