Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (New York: Laurel, 1969) 39. (qtd. in Lasusa)
At some point I stopped buying souvenirs. Keychains specifically were a weakness wherever I’d traveled in the past. As any collectible, it was never about function. After all, how many keys does one have? Even after all keys (and duplicates) are neatly secured onto loops and rings and other securing mechanisms, one is still left with more keychains than could ever be put to use. What I ended up with in my case was a set of interconnected keychains, each one holding onto the other for dear life. It was poetic in a sense – Prague holding on to New York City holding on to Florida holding on to Bucharest holding on to a seemingly random benefit for X charity.
And there they sat, locked and tucked away in a drawer, never to see the light of day for months and years at a time. I could not get myself to throw them away, but I also did not feel a tinge of some particular sentiment when I stumbled across them. At some point they had lost their ability to call back to a particular moment, to act as a relic imbued with some deeper meaning that would justify its preservation. It had, in other words, become mere accumulation – just stuff.
In “Eiffel Tower Keychains and Other Pieces of Reality: The Philosophy of Souvenirs”, Denielle M. Lasusa seeks to address some of the rationale behind our compulsion to collect souvenirs. Lasusa argues that along with symbolic value souvenir collecting sheds light into “one’s tacit employment of a methodology by which he or she builds an archive of personal history and gives himself or herself a sense of meaning. We find aspects of all of these philosophical issues when we begin to unpack the souvenir-filled suitcases of contemporary tourists.” This is how Lasusa begins her exploration of the meaning behind souvenir collecting, and it seems to me that it begins with a rather broad and assumption about the practice. First, she indeed raises it to a “practice”, something that has method and purpose, and therefore suggests that “collecting” is necessarily connected to a need to construct meaning.
But what if, for argument’s sake, we think of this practice not as “souvenir collecting” but “souvenir purchasing.” How would a simple change in terminology impact how we think about it? Is it possible then that purchasing a souvenir could be considered merely a compulsive “act”, a “re-enactment” if you will of what is expected of the typical tourist (much as the requisite photograph with the Eiffel if one should ever visit Paris)? Could such an act then be raised on the pedestal of a methodology by which we give ourselves meaning? Or has the act been co-opted by what we might call the conspicuous consumption of cultural symbols? If that is the case, then much like the person who cannot stop from compulsively buying new pairs of shoes that they might never wear and sit idly in boxes, we might have over time robbed “souvenir collecting” from its potential to signify anything else than the completion of rote behavior that does not register long after we have returned home and resumed our day-to-day lives.
That is not to say, of course, that purchasing souvenirs does not have significant meaning for many people. In many instances souvenirs are proudly displayed in people’s homes – from a miniature spoon collection hung on a wall to snow globes adorning shelves to thoughtful gifts brought home from a loved one. It also has significant impact that we often do not even consider when engaging in the act. When purchasing souvenirs, as Lasusa mentions, we must also recognize that “it is not necessarily [an] ethically benign activit[y]; there are myriad economic, cultural, social, political, and ethical implications of these modern behaviors in increasingly globalized world, each of which deserves critical evaluative judgments from various perspectives.” For example, and this is only one of many such critical approaches, tourism and its related activities such as the selling of souvenirs, often provides jobs to local peoples and plays a crucial part in the local economy, while also possibly sustaining unethical practices such as low wages and less than desirable working conditions.
Lasusa ends this way: “Perhaps these arguments will find fruition elsewhere—for, indeed, they are important evaluative claims which ought to be explored—but the fact remains that I, too, have done my fair share of souvenir collecting. I have a shoebox full of pamphlets, ticket stubs, postcards, and photographs. I, like the character of Kurt Vonnegut’s claim, am trying to construct a life that makes sense from the things found in gift shops. Thus, for the purpose of this essay, I am content to simply argue that souvenir collecting is, in fact, meaningful as a tool for the construction of the (post)modern identity—that it can, in fact, tell us something about ourselves and our world.”
I want to agree with the first part of her claim, that there are important evaluative claims to be made surrounding the reasons for why we collect souvenirs and the impact it might have beyond the acquisition of the “thing” itself. But I am not so sure that I fully embrace her claim that we purchase souvenirs because we are “trying to construct a life” and that it is always a “meaningful tool”. I am also not sure that I can disagree entirely, and this project itself is a testament to our belief in the importance of materiality to shaping one’s identity. What “I am content simply to argue”, to borrow Lasusa’s own words here, is that at times the fine line between meaning and meaningless makes it difficult to know how to approach and assess our relationship to material objects.
Does the fact that I keep a tangle of keychains (sans keys) in a drawer imply that they “mean” something to me? Do those objects play a role in “constructing” a life? Or do they simply (or perhaps in even more complex way) “tell us something about ourselves and our world”? Perhaps they tell us that someone is a hoarder, a compulsive shopper, a collector who resells for profit, and perhaps it helps shed light on the complicated relationships we have with the places and people we visit, and why it is necessary to have a “calling card” to prove one’s travels. I raise these questions because they are all possibilities, and because I’m still trying to make sense of – and to find out if there is any sense in – that 7-ball keychain joined at the ring to a carabiner stamped with the name of my Alma Mater.
And then there is the bottle opener keychain with a picture of the skyline of New York City, the iconic Twin Towers still visible. I assume that it was purchased soon after my arrival in American in the early 90s, an ironic calling card from a place where I would not leave again, and which I could only attribute to “it’s just what you do when you see New York for the first time.” And after that initial purchase it sat tucked away in various boxes and drawers, never actually used for anything – neither to hold keys, not to open any bottles. It had lost all function and all meaning. Today, excavated from its storage space, it has become once again an object with meaning, through no intention of my own. There was no tacit methodology behind its preservation, no trying to make meaning – that, I realize, it does now on its own in accordance with the course of history, of which we, and all of our things, are inextricably connected.
Each month we will select and feature several stories from the archive, contributing reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world, as well as addressing that particular story's relationship and resonance to the larger theoretical and philosophical principles underlying the project. The complete text of the original stories can be accessed by navigating the interactive map based on location (using the zoom and pan feature), or by author's name on the bar to the left of the map.