The Essence of Objects: How Material Finds Meaning


“If your house was burning, what would you take with you?” This question is the center of Foster Huntington’s thought-experiment book “The Burning House. Huntington says, “I was interested in the idea that the stuff that’s really important to you isn’t necessarily the stuff that’s most expensive.”

I want to add to Huntington’s observation that the stuff that's really important to people also tends not to be the most “useful” stuff. Objects can take on meaning far beyond their monetary or utilitarian value.

Last night I got to talking with my housemates about the meaning we ascribe to material things. Around our home there are uniform singlets pinned up on the wall and race bibs hanging down from a DePauw flag and NCAA DIII banner. While I wouldn't go out of my way to grab any of it if the house were burning down, these objects clearly hold value—but why?

Objects reflect identity

The second verse of American singer-songwriter Father John Misty’s “Bored in the U.S.A” reads, “Now I've got all morning to obsessively accrue / A small nation of meaningful objects / And they've got to represent me too.” The verse is a satirical commentary on materialist  culture, but it reflects a truth about identity being intertwined with physical possessions.

In their 1981 book “The Meaning of Things,” Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton write, “Man is not only homo sapiens … he is also homo faber, the maker and user of objects, his self to a large extent a reflection of things with which he interacts.”

If a total stranger walked into my house, it would be quite obviously runners live there. My house chose to reflect our identity as runners with the materials we surround ourselves with. Objects can be an extension of oneself.

In the aftermath of the horrendous bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon, over 600 pairs of running shoes were placed at memorial sites. Andrea Shea of WBUR 90.9 said, “the shoes, they’re the things that make this makeshift memorial different from the others. There’s the way that they symbolize running, they really do speak to this identity of runners.”

The running shoes were a tangible (and I believe more meaningful) version of the “thoughts and prayers” sentiment that follows violent tragedies in the U.S. They became the physical representation of a grieving community, city and nation.  

Objects embody the intangible

“The Meaning of Things,” distinguishes between two types of materialism: terminal and instrumental. Terminal materialism is most closely associated with shallowness and vanity—it is wanting things for their own sake or to impress others. Instrumental materialism is when “the object is simply a bridge to another person or to another feeling” and is what would most inspire someone to save something from a burning home.

The race bibs and singlets hung around my home have less to do with impressing others and more to do with connecting myself and my teammates to the history of our sports program, the goals of our team, and the experience of being a DePauw runner.

Objects can be tied to emotions. The wilted flower kept from a first date or prom night connects you to the memories of that event. Nostalgia—remembering past joys—plays a role in the decision to keep objects from the past. People hang onto some objects because they want to be reminded of the joy felt in that moment.

I can't entirely describe the combination of complete physical exhaustion and joyous triumph that enveloped me at the finish of the 2018 Great Lakes Region cross country championship when the team and I learned we had far exceeded expectations and qualified for the national meet. I do know that the race bib I wore that day is the closest i'll ever come to that moment in time again—so I kept it.

Objects tell stories

The most significant way objects are endowed with meaning is through narrative. Photographer Sandy Suffield takes photos of people and the objects they hold meaningful. She says about her online project “Things & People” that “everyone has an object with a story. It’s not about its aesthetic or monetary value; it’s chiefly about the narrative wrapped up in the object”.

In John L. Parker's fictional novel “Once a Runner,” protagonist Quentin Cassidy is gifted a pair of racing spikes, by olympian Bruce Denton, that "have never lost". The novel makes clear that Bruce has lost races while wearing other spikes, but the narrative of those spikes—a perfect record—is what matters. Quentin continues this narrative until achieves his greatest success and only loss in the racing spikes when he wins a silver medal at the olympics.

I think narrative is what motivates many runners, including myself, to hold onto race bibs and write the date and finishing time for the event on them. A collection of useless objects can tell a story. There’s the bib from my first ever collegiate race, my first national championship and my fastest 5k track race. They show the progression—the story—of a season.

In her blog “Design for Mankin” Erin Loechner says that objectshold meaning because they’re personal – attached to an experience, an event, a declaration.” She says, “Perhaps we’re not surrounding ourselves with meaningful objects as much as we’re attempting to surround ourselves with meaning. With purpose. With essence.”