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Society, Politics & Law

Buttons, keys and wires: The magical powers of everyday things

Updated Wednesday 29th June 2011

Everyday objects have a power out of all proportion to their size - and a value far beyond their intended function.

Steven Connor is professor of modern literature and theory at Birkbeck College, London and author of the book Paraphernalia: The Curious Lives of Magical Things which features chapters on such very ordinary things as cones, glasses, handkerchiefs, keys, plugs, rubber bands and sticky tape. He joins me now together with writer and broadcaster Michael Bywater.

Steve, you're writing about our relationships with everyday objects, I say everything from elastic bands to newspapers and sticky tape. Can we get some definition of what counts as paraphernalia then?

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Steven Connor:
Well paraphernalia has a very kind of technical, legal definition - it's the property that a woman was allowed to bring into the marriage that she didn't have to surrender to marriage.

But we mean by paraphernalia, really the word kind of describes itself - it's kind of clanking stuff that you need usually to perform an operation. I think of window cleaners with ladders on bikes and that kind of thing, but also judges and gavels and wigs.

Laurie Taylor:
You say that you could have called your book Indefinite article, that's suggesting that these matters of which you speak are anonymous...

Steven Connor:
Yeah, I think the things that interest me, many of them are mass produced things but I'm not particularly interested in the question of mass production and alienation and all those sociological kind of themes.

Keys Creative commons image Icon ntr23 under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license

I'm interested in the ways in which certain kinds of objects seem to go beyond themselves; they sort of fan or radiate out into other allotropes.

Laurie Taylor:
They're not essential but we feel them to be necessary. Michael, how do you respond to this account?

Michael Bywater:
Well first of all I have to say I thought the book was absolutely wonderful. I got Ringo, who was a daschund who - in a double act with Professor Steven Connor's mother, acted as a sort of canine toilet roll dispenser, handkerchief dispenser. I mentioned my hero Pliny and I now know that the author combs his hair before he goes to bed. This is the book for me. But I think the interesting thing - right at the beginning, it goes all the way through...

Laurie Taylor:
He's got a comb with him at all times in his back pocket.

Michael Bywater:
Yes, and gets very anxious when it's not there. You must read the book. But I think the idea at the beginning that these things go beyond themselves because not only do we somehow imprint them with something about ourselves, but they then yield that back, like little tiny sort of everyday versions of Nietzsche's abyss - we stare into it, it stares back at us - I think that's really illuminating.

And it made me thing - I've got a notebook here which is an ordinary notebook in a leather cover, the ordinary notebook is just a notebook - you throw it away - but the leather cover, I suppose, becomes patinated, it somehow is a version of myself that justifies my existence, as I put refill after refill into it. I fell for it - what does that mean?

Laurie Taylor:
Its skin grows old with your skin.

Michael Bywater:
Well I don't know, it's looking better at the moment.

Laurie Taylor:
There's so many objects we could [pick up] but let's just almost arbitrarily pick one. Buttons, here's one of the many objects you explore. You [say] the thing about buttons is there's an oldness and a newness about them. [Could you] expand on that for us?

Steven Connor:
YButtons always seem to me to be really rather antique things. I mean this may be a personal thing - we used to have this box of buttons that we played with, and these were buttons that were of course, of necessity, useless, they didn't fit anything.

Laurie Taylor:
That was your sort of Pandora's box you had at home?

Steven Connor:
Absolutely, a sort of Fortunatus .... though, actually the mother of a student of mine sent me a photograph of a huge Quality Street jar fall of buttons that was transparent, so this was a completely new idea, that you didn't have a lucky dip into this Fortunatus' purse. So buttons, like a lot of the objects that are very close to us, like clothing, you know (and they are a form of clothing) they're implicitly bodily and there are actually lots of words that connect buttons with the body.

Laurie Taylor:
You say it nicely because they go in and out, so when we turn to new sorts of jeans, all of a sudden buttons are reappearing. But I've got one little here - of course here's a reading, here's from your book, there are some lovely readings here but here's a reading from an account by Charles Lamb of being quite literally buttonholed by his then schoolmate Samuel Taylor Coleridge at Christ's Hospital School in the late 18th Century.

Brim full of some new idea and in spite of my assuring him that time was precious he drew me within the door of an unoccupied garden by the roadside and there, sheltered from observation by a hedge of evergreens, he took me by the button of my coat and closing his eyes commenced an eloquent discourse, waving his right hand gently as the musical words flowed in an unbroken stream from his lips. I listened entranced but the striking of a church clock recalled me to a sense of duty. I saw it was of no use to attempt to breakaway so taking advantage of his absorption in his subject I, with my penknife, quietly severed the button from my coat and decamped. Five hours afterwards, in passing the same garden on my way home, I heard Coleridge's voice and on looking in there he was with closed eyes, the button in his fingers and his right hand gracefully waving, just as when I left him. He had never missed me.

It is a beautiful story.

Steven Connor:
What I love about that is he's the opposite of the person from Porlock who [interrupted] Coleridge writing. Nothing can interrupt this flow, even your interlocutor vanishing.

A red button Creative commons image Icon funadium under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license

Michael Bywater:
How awful to have as your avatar a button from your coat. I think one of the really interesting things about this [is] it reminded me, if you don't mind me saying so, in a way of Roland Barthe's Mythology, looking at the hidden or the smuggled in sub-meanings or sub-texts behind things we hardly notice.

Buttons - you start seeing all sorts of sort of oppositions in the things like - the sort of sex and death, Lear, at the end of King Lear where Cordelia is dead he asks somebody to undo her button to help her breathe and at the same time we have buttons as the things you fumble with before the act of generation.

Laurie Taylor:
And also a very powerful metaphor remains isn't it, because I mean it stands in for things that are worthless as well, so often doesn't it.

Steven Connor:
Yes I mean buttons are a kind of a currency, so they're one of these objects that in a sense can stand in for anything - we used to gamble with them when we were kids.

Michael Bywater:
You stick them in the collection plate and then Father O'Bubblegum finds out and condemns you.

Laurie Taylor:
Michael, let me bring this word though from the title - I mean the curiosity lives of magical things - would you use the word magical. Do you endow stuff, paraphernalia, with magical properties?

Michael Bywater:
I fear I do, and I get quite frantic when there are certain things that therefore lose their magic. When I was flying an awful lot I had lucky flying things like a lucky flying hat, which was just an ordinary mass produced ball cap and somebody wore it and I said you've spoilt its luck and he said, unfortunately, he said 'right you've got a lucky flying hat, you've got lucky flying shoes, a lucky flying ruler, lucky flying protractor, lucky flying sunglasses, lucky flying cigarette lighter - you have such a chain of potential disaster'. But he then bought a lucky monkey.

Laurie Taylor:
Are you using the word magical in this sense of lucky charm or...?

Steven Connor:
Well yeah, in part. Freud describes magic - magical thinking - as the omnipotence of thoughts, the idea that thoughts are more powerful than things. But we always need things to embody that thought, that thoughts are more powerful.

So you know the whole apparatus of magic - magic wands and magic rings and all of those sorts of things; I got very interested in how we requirethe assistance of these things as it were for our fantasies of overcoming them.

Michael Bywater:
And magic never works outside the laws of the physical world does it?

Steven Connor:
No, no.

Michael Bywater:
It can accelerate them, it can slightly change - so something impenetrable can become penetrated and something could move slowly moves instantly but they're still doing the same things, it still is a physical [object]...

Steven Connor:
Yes and I always like J G Fraser's idea that the magical stage which comes before the religious is worthy of respect because it is at least a theory of the physical world - it's completely wrong but it is at least a consistent theory that depends on things behaving.

Michael Bywater:
And magic doesn't do things that we haven't been able to....

Laurie Taylor:
I want to turn to keys. While you were talking I was absenting myself from your descriptions of what elements and odd things meant to you but here I have a key ring which I've had for 22 years which has got a rather battered picture of the Maracana Stadium in Rio. I'm wandering around with this, I can't lose it, whatever happens - it goes through marriages, it survives, it lasts, very important to me but suddenly when I read your account of keys and the significance of keys I no longer felt at all worried about the extreme degrees of depression which can be induced in me if I lose these for five minutes.

Steven Connor:
Ah yes, yes, well this is the liability of objects, isn't it, but I mean I not only have my comb in my right back pocket, but I'm a pickpocket's dream, because I'm patting myself - it's signation all the time, and I must always know where my keys are. And there's something about the ugliness and the lumpiness of the key which is more reassuring than other objects. Smart phones, they can easily slip out [but] keys are just sort of squat and awkward and pointy.

Laurie Taylor:
You talk about the two principles of alchemy [being] somehow combined in the notion of keys, essentially the principles of disillusion and sickening; and you talk about in China, I think, a key may be given to an only son to lock him into life and in Germany, a key in a cradle kept the child from being stolen - all these ways in which they feature.

Steven Connor:
Yeah they lock things up, but they unlock them, and it seems to me that a lot of magical objects, certainly in terms of folklore and superstition, they tend to have these kinds of dual utility. They mean the opposite of themselves.

Laurie Taylor:
And feature as well in fairy stories, I mean the Bluebeard story in which the wife usies the key that she's not supposed to use, and discovers the secret room.

Michael Bywater:
Binding and loosening. It's the symbol of the Vatican, it's the symbol of the holy see of Rome, the crossed keys. But the thing that interests me there - and you move on in the book to the computer keyboard and you mentioned the smart phone - keys have a sort of physical immutability about them. Your key - proper keys not hotel silly card keys - has this shape, which you quoted somebody describing like a dog's grin, and if it loses that shape it no longer works.

Whereas the key card, the mobile phone, is by its very nature mutable, it's a tabular rasa and it conveys no permanence to us. [Isn't] the key is a sort of a permanent record of where we may go?

Steven Connor:
That's right, but then that's why hotels who have these horrible smart keys will sometimes give you an enormous key that you cannot possibly lose, that's almost as long as your arm, which is like a sort of ecclesiastical key.

Michael Bywater:
There's one for a room in Queen's College in Cambridge which I used to teach and it doesn't have the name of the room on it, it merely has a big brass tag which says "Do not throw this key into the river" and I'd love to know what's behind that.

Laurie Taylor:
I'm sure people are going to write in and talk whether [paraphernalia] is plural or singular, I'm pleased to say the OED says it's plural and singular - paraphernalia. When we're talking about paraphernalia, about changes which affect our views and in your last chapter you talk about wire and about the ways in which as a young child you were fascinated by the wires going into the wall, the wireless coming through the wires, and even unpicking the wires almost as though you were in search of that which came through them.

And the way in which this has now turned into waves - that we sit around in our house and we connect without the wire but still resort to the terminology of wiring, we can't somehow lose it.

Steven Connor:
And we're sitting in a wirophile's paradise here, I mean you're obviously the most important person in the studio, you've got a huge fat wire like a gas pipe going into your [microphone]

Laurie Taylor:
I ask for it every week.

Steven Connor:
And you've got wires coming down from your headphones, so actually we're wired up all the time and there's tremendous reassurance I think in that.

Wires Creative commons image Icon INTVGene under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license

Laurie Taylor:
The magical thing is that this business about the way in which wires really want to revert to being coils, I mean you write about this - wires left alone revert to coils.

Michael Bywater:
Oh yeah it's like the towing line in Three Men in a Boat isn't it, it's got this sort of serpentine integrity about it, if you turn your back it's coiled - wonderful.

Steven Connor:
Hosepipes too.

Laurie Taylor:
We've lost something by going to waves then?

Steven Connor:
No we'll never let go I think, I think they'll come back. And I mean it comes back - this kind of tangliness of - and our intangledness in - matter will never go away.

Michael Bywater:
And the magical thing here attributed to wires by hifi audiophiles, they have one directional wires which is physically impossible, they love seeing them. I have a friend who's one - he said come and see the new wires. It's extraordinary.

Steven Connor:
You must introduce me, I'd have gone and see his wires.

Michael Bywater:
They were pretty impressive.

This article is adapted from an episode of Thinking Allowed broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on June 15th 2011

Paraphernalia: The Curious Lives of Magical Things by Steven Connor is published by Profile Books

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