I have been in the UK since October. I have been falling further and further down the rabbit hole that is social anthropology. It’s been great. I feel a bit like Alice at any rate, with bottles and sweets, each saying ‘drink me’, ‘eat me’ or ‘try me’. There are all these new topics to learn about and lectures to attend and I can try them all. So far I have remained regular size.
On Monday night I started thinking about packing to go back to Africa next week and I got my rucksack out and had a look at it. It didn’t look healthy. It had measlesque mould spots all over the inside and the out. This ailment was contracted on arrival to the UK due to the general cloud of dampness encompassing the whole country. I diagnosed the illness early on and treated it with a good old fashion scrub. But nevertheless the mould returned. Other problems plagued my rucksack as well. One of the main straps had mysteriously become unstitched at the bottom and looked mildly precarious. The inner liner was peeling off thus reducing any attempt at water resistance. All in all it looked tired and small. Especially small next to the Santa’s sleigh sized pile of Christmas presents which needed to go inside.
So sadly, reluctantly, heavy heartedly I began to accept the fact that my rucksack had to be put down. And I was sad, not just a little sad, but proper heart broken sad. Sad like when Sam accidently killed our prehistoric friend. (NB: prehistoric friend was a little lizard who lived in our house but he looked like a miniature dinosaur!)
Now my rucksack is an object, even social anthropologists would struggle to contest that. It has no pulse or ability to move of its own (other than unstitching itself!). Nor does it have a voice of its own. Regardless of its inanimate features I have had a relationship with it. We had been through a lot together.
I bought my rucksack at the Metro Centre in Newcastle in 2003 in preparation for my Operation Wallacea trip to Indonesia, my first big international adventure by myself. This is a photo of me, age 19 (!), with my beloved rucksack on. The rucksack was brand spanking new and when this photo was taken I had known the fresh faced Sam for a mere 24 hours. By the way Sam still wears that t-shirt. It’s mostly hole now though.
Since then I have been on a lot of big trips and my rucksack has joined me on most of them. I think that this particular rucksack has been to 24 countries with me. Here’s a summary of its movements:
On Tuesday I was sitting in Matei Candea’s non-human anthropology lecture which was discussing the anthropology of things. It got me thinking about my relationship with this particular rucksack. My devotion to the item and the experiences we shared has meant that I have attributed my rucksack with intrinsic values and personified it in a way. This relationship exemplifies Appadurai’s concept of ‘methodological fetishism’ (1986).
My rucksack has no personhood on it’s own. It needs a conscious being (me) to attribute it with value and meaning. The journey that we have shared has defined this relationship. Two of the very most important things in my life are Sam and travel. This rucksack was an integral part of cultivating both of these loves. In a way it enabled me to meet Sam. For example in order to travel to Indonesia and take part in Operation Wallacea which involved trekking through the jungle, a rucksack was required, not a suitcase, not a holdall, but a rucksack. The desire to undertake the action of trekking dictated the particular object required, however by having the object it enabled and encouraged further actions of backpacking and hiking. Backpacking has defined who I am as a person but this perhaps was not entirely self perpetuated. Although I decided where the rucksack travelled and what was carried in it, it had decision making powers over me. For example, possessing a 60 L rucksack which heavily symbolised adventure, youth, wilderness, and freedom affected where I wanted to go and what sorts of activities I wanted to do. This rucksack was not built for posh hotels and business suits. The physical size and shape of the bag also had decision making powers. It was impossible to fit my large sleeping bag in it on one trip so I bought a small one especially. The rucksack commanded that purchase. In some ways our relationship was, therefore, a two way communicative interaction.
The item also reminded me of the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met along the way. The rucksack involved almost a decade of memories. And in a few days from now I will say good bye to my rucksack forever. It will be left forlornly in a snow covered bin in Gilesgate. All the nostalgia of a 9.5 year relationship abandoned. It’s sad. Really sad. I think the worst part is whoever encounters my rucksack next, be it a binman or a pikey, they won’t know where its been or what its seen or what all of those things meant to me. To them it is just an old, broken strapped, mouldy rucksack.
But the story does not end there. It’s time for a new start. Today with Christmas money from my dad and Sam’s dad (thank you!) I bought a new rucksack. I felt a bit like I was cheating on my old rucksack but my purchase’s fancy features dazzled me and in my excitement I began to forgot about old mould face. Suddenly this new rucksack possesses all sorts of qualities and invokes possibilities of new adventures (first on the list: Japan).
It has been proposed that anthropomorphism is a cognitive default (Caporael, 1986). I believe that some people are more inclined towards creating relationships with objects and have a greater level of sentimentality. I think I might be especially designed to do this. I used to talk to fireplaces when I was little. As I fill my new rucksack with Christmas presents wrapped in bright paper I wonder if the items beneath the wrapping will yield relationships that will influence my life and how long these relationships will last.
Appadurai, A. (1986.) Introduction: commodities and the politics of value. In Appadurai, A. ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Pp. 3-63. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Caporael, L.R. (1986) Anthropomorphism and Mechanomorphism: Two Faces of the Human Machine. Computers in Human Behavior 2, 213-234.