Sunday, July 04, 2004

The earring economy. I've always been fascinated by the informal ways we transact everyday objects in the public domain. Two main sorts of objects are pens and cigarette lighters. Not that I've ever studied economics, but I like to think of these as economies.

Here's how it works. One person might ask to borrow the object from another person ("Has anyone got a pen?" "Can I borrow your lighter?") and then forgets to give it back. But I think it's also part of the economy when you find the object abandoned or forgotten somewhere, and say, as might Burglar Bill in perhaps my favourite children's book of all time, "That's a nice pen. I'll have that!" And that way, you always have a supply of the objects and can afford to 'lend' them to other people without expecting to get them back.

of course, this economy isn't really self-sustaining because someone always has to subsidise the supply, i.e. buy the original pens and lighters. I suppose they're often given away free as advertising for bars and universities and pharmaceuticals etc, or stolen from workplaces. But anyway.

Then there are things you 'lend' to people without ever expecting to get them back; indeed, it would be ridiculous or offputting to get them back. Like pieces of paper and tampons. In these contexts, the language of borrowing is used to suggest the reciprocity of the transaction: the idea that if you ever needed those things yourself, the recipient would be happy to give them to you.

But, and in typical Mel fashion of reaching the point of my story after much sidetracking, on Friday night I was having a drink with Saige at St Jerome and noticed a single earring sitting on the seat behind me. It was a mother-of-pearl disc. Saige said I should pick it up and disinfect it with Dettol and adopt it as my own. This is what Saige did when she found a single earring abandoned in one of her tute rooms. She'd just watched Purple Rain and been inspired by Apollonia's single-earring 80s look.

Anyway, because I'm a) constantly losing one earring and b) constantly identifying ridiculous fashion trends, this seemed like a godsend, and I started wearing one earring, usually my silver Madonna-style crucifix. But then on Friday, Saige said, "Hey, I'll swap you my single earring for that single earring." And I suddenly was struck by what an interesting economy that would be.

See, it'd be slightly different from the other economies, and not just because of the potential for spreading communicable diseases through sharing pierced jewellery. Look at it on a purely conceptual level. Saige prefers mother-of-pearl discs to dangling pearls suspended on tigertail wire (the construction of the earring she found), and if enough people participated in this economy, it would become a pure economy of cultural capital, i.e. a direct exchange of taste-signifiers rather than the usual exchange of cultural knowledge for money and money for taste-signifiers which through this exchange become cultural-capital-signifiers.

And there's another aspect which would be particularly delicious to someone like me who romanticises random pop-cultural detritus as significant and even fateful. Unlike the pen economy, for example, in which objects are transferred between people without leaving traces of their ownership, the original owner of your earring would become your unwitting twin: linked to you by the shared taste that leads you to like the same jewellery. And imagine if it were a really unusual earring, the sort that would be instantly identifiable.

Of course, mass production somewhat negates that last delicious possibility. But even in symbolic terms, if you see someone wearing only one earring, of a kind that you know you lost some months previously, you'd have to wonder if it were yours.

Like many of my ideas, this is by no means original: for example there's BookCrossing, the system by which books are circulated in a somewhat organised but essentially random fashion through the internet, which I hear they have on computers these days. But while BookCrossing likes to think of itself as an anarchic book club for the discussion of literature, it's the issues of fashion and taste that interest me.

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