Josh Burraway, Social Anthropology, UCL
With the festive season chronologically behind us (and yet despairingly in front of us) we can breath a brief sigh of relief as we enter the new year. Or at least we think we can. Although the wrapping paper, discount champagne and dodgy fireworks have indeed been put away for another year, most of us are undoubtedly returning to our homes and into a decidedly uncanny space. If you are anything like me, the residual objects of the Christmas break will no doubt still be adorning the living room. The slowly withering tree in the corner, the wreath on the door that has overstayed its welcome, the flaccid bunting of Christmas tinsel hanging stubbornly to what will surely be its final resting place, and, most interestingly to me – the dense sea of Christmas cards that have colonised the mantelpiece since the fateful day that November mercilessly toppled into December. No doubt your Christmas well-wishers come from far and wide, trickling in from all corners of the globe; forming something of a familial-material refugee camp in the centre of of your living space.
According to Mary Searle-Chatterjee, the Anglo-American custom of sending Christmas cards serves to establish diffuse links as ‘potential resources for the future and as links with the past.’ The card acts as a material vehicle, heavily pregnant with symbolic capital, that secures and maintains relationships, past and present. As I have already mentioned, Christmas cards tend to occupy a particular space within the Euro-American home, the notably centralised and public space of the mantelpiece. The display thus acts as a central mirror into the dense cloud of relationships that define the family network and its potentially infinite tributaries. The exchange of cards and the giving of gifts are part of the same symbolic system, expressing the continuity of life beyond the core family unit whilst concurrently fortifying domestic bonds.
Rebecca Empson has explored this process of objectification in the Mongolian context. Within the Mongolian house objects placed on top of and within the household chest, act as a permeable surface that ‘draws attention to relations in the absence of people.’ These objects thus represent an idealised category of kin relations; where the physical separation of the person must be mirrored by the containment of an appropriate object. Mongolian life is characterised by a nomadic existence. This continuous movement creates the constant need to negotiate both physical and relational boundaries. The chest’s surface is layered with images of patrilineal relatives and religious icons, emphasising the agnatic dominance in the household. The beholder is thus dazzled by the multiplicity of relations bestowed upon them; enforcing the viewer to reflect on the potential for infinite connections within static groups. These photographic montages do not represent inter-personal relations, but replicate relations between groups; serving a similar function to the dense assembly of Christmas cards that we are accustomed to in our own homes.
Things found in the bottom of the chest are hidden objects that have been removed from people at significant moments of separation and transformation. These things are often actual parts of people’s bodies, such as pieces of umbilical cord and children’s hair. They represent a cosmology of ‘shared blood’ that is characterised by ‘umbilical communication.’ Such is the intensity of this connection that it must be mediated through practices of separation. By creating distance and by splintering a part of the body, ‘a liveable version of the relation is formed’ (Empson 2007:124). Thus, the contained and hidden objects serve as the visible manifestation of relations that are not openly displayed in everyday life.
It is with regard to this idea of the “secret” or “hidden” object that I now wish to turn. In both cultures we can see the ways in which idealised kin relations are made real through processes of objectification. The question I would like to raise is twofold: Can we relate to the concept of the “hidden object”? If such a thing exists, where might we find them? It is well established that during the holiday period, suicides seem to spike in tandem with our commercial expenditures. At this time of year, people’s imagined “ kinship failures” take on an increased and often fatal potency. In the vast majority of suicide cases, the act is accompanied by a note – the final act in the theatre of a person’s life. Suicide remains a deeply taboo subject, heavily loaded with the stains of family shame and private crisis. If objects are indeed the sites of social memory, what might we say of the suicide note? Might we begin to recast it as a site of social amnesia? People will rarely retain objects associated with a loved-one’s decline into terminal illness. Instead they will keep photos or souvenirs that reflect when a relationship was closest to its ideal. The reality is that for most families, images of a person in a critical condition simply don’t exist, so there is nothing to dispose of – nothing to “divest from.” And yet the suicide note does exist, it demands reading, at least once. It would hardly seem likely that the suicide note would be sat among the mantelpiece, nestled among the growing forest of Christmas cards. The closest parallel to this kind of hidden object might be the kind of material shrines that parents keep for children that have died prematurely.
Often these highly charged objects are hidden away, tucked into specific draws or at the bottom of a wardrobe. Or, like a mosquito preserved in amber, an entire room remains locked and untouched, frozen in time as a kind of memorialisation; providing an avenue for parents to deal with the agony of death; instilling their lost child with “realness” and cultural value. The power of objects here is to mediate and memorialise, attaching a sense of gradual loss to a sudden and severe trauma. For those who have been on the receiving end of a suicide note, is it kept, as some form of perverse inheritance? Perhaps it is not physically thrown away but put away, lost and forgotten. If this is the case, the object of social amnesia can be said to have collapsed into a moment of actual amnesia. Indeed, the same son that would proudly wear his father’s watch upon his wrist is likely to be the same person to stuff the suicide note into the back of some drawer, some dark fissure. If we had our own version of the Mongolian chest, might this be the final resting place for the “last act”? Or would we just throw it out along with the Christmas tree before the reminders and residues became too much?