The Null Device

The Trough of No Value

Idea of the day: The Trough of No Value, an idea peripherally related to Momus' anxious interval, only for material items rather than trends:
The problem is that many kinds of objects go through a period in their potential lifespans when they don't "pencil out"—they're not worth keeping or preserving because they're not worth any money.
My favorite example of the Trough of No Value comes from a former acquaintance whose back room had a high, narrow shelf running all the way around it, about a foot below the ceiling. Arrayed on the shelf were dozens of kids' lunchboxes from the 1950s and '60s. He told me that not only are such lunchboxes collectible now, but that they're actually fairly hard to find. Time was, of course, when most every schoolkid had a little metal lunchbox (poor kids "brown-bagged it"). But the kids grew up, the school lunch program got started, and who wanted to keep old lunchboxes around? They weren't useful any more. They weren't worth anything. And, since they were almost all used for their intended purpose, many were damaged or worn by use (I vaguely remember owning one that was rusty and had a dent). People naturally threw them away. The "trough of no value" for lunchboxes was long and harsh. That's why they're not so common today as you might guess—because not that many made it through the trough.
That's why "being famous" is a great way to preserve your work—because value is the #1 preservative for old objects. But want to know another? Craftsmanship. One of the great hazards of survival through time is the lack of a market and a lack of trade value, but another is simply shoddiness. (I have to chuckle whenever I read yet another description of American frontier log cabins as having been well crafted or sturdily or beautifully built. The much more likely truth is that 99% of frontier log cabins were horribly built—it's just that all of those fell down. The few that have survived intact were the ones that were well made. That doesn't mean all of them were.) It's not just that things that are poorly made deteriorate more readily, it's also that they signal their own worthlessness. Or, in the case of an archive of photos, they might actually hide their own worth. I have in mind making a book of my best 35mm black-and-white pictures, for instance, and I have it in my head which pictures would be included. But if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, nobody will ever be able to extract that book out of the great motley of my hither-and-yon mess of negatives.

There are 2 comments on "The Trough of No Value":

Posted by: Peta http://petamayer.blogspot.com/ Sun Mar 8 08:06:02 2009

I wonder if Raymond Williams's discussion of dominant, residual and emergent cultural forms (in 'Marxism & Literature' 1977) is of relevance to you? Thomas Greene's taxonomies of anachronism (in 'The Vulnerable Text' 1986) is also good. Plus 1 love Elizabeth Freeman's analysis of 'Shulie' the 1997 experimental video remake of a 1967 docco of the same name on Shulamith Firestone. She talks about strategic anachronisms and temporal incongruity. I'm not sure if it's that relevant, sorry to be lazy, but it's a good piece.

Who has cultural authority to decide how and why objects attain status is to me integral to an analysis about the location of an object in the cultural field. Bourdieu is the man here.

Posted by: Greg Mon Mar 9 07:30:04 2009

On the other hand, these value histories need not necessarily be the diktat of an authority. They might emerge from the average reactions of individuals. You could get that curve with about four parameters, two of them coefficients and the other two time periods, defining when an object's "newness" ends and when it later becomes "antique" and begins to appreciate. If enough people instantiated reasonably similar values for these parameters, you'd get the curve. I'd go so far as to guess/suggest that our feelings about value are ancient and not a product of modern consumerism. Religious relics for example might follow a similar history.

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