Encounters with the past

Exploring the tension between the practical and impractical, and how our perception of an object's value can be shaped by its context and history.
Last updated 4 min read

A hair curls across the inner bowl of my coffee cup, down into the shallow pool of latte dregs, scoring through the brown stain rings that trace, like geological strata, my time in the café; each sip an epoch.

I know it is not really a hair, or at least I certainly hope not. I test it with my teaspoon and it occurs to me for what may be the first time, with the joy that accompanies all novel but obvious realisations, what the term ‘hairline crack’ refers to. I run the lip of the spoon back and forth over the line, finding a small kinaesthetic pleasure in the barely perceptible tic-tic-tic the action generates. Tilting the cup towards me, the milky-brown liquid shifts to reveal the hair tracing another inch across the bottom until it eventually tapers off.

I wonder how many more rounds of the dishwasher the cup will survive, as heat and chemicals pry the ceramic atoms further apart in ways no eye will discern until the tipping point, whereupon the cup could collapse into pieces.

It will not come to that. The staff or a customer will soon detect the defect and, I imagine, the cup will be flung into the bin to nestle amongst mounds of spent coffee grounds.

It will not be recycled.

Born under the force of intense heat, the energy required to melt porcelain is similarly extreme, and thanks to the vitreous glaze whose coating enables the cup to weather a thousand rounds in the dishwasher, fungi and microbes will struggle to penetrate the raw material to break it down. Not for a million years or so. The shrapnel of this once-useful object will embark upon a journey the lengths of which defy human comprehension.

But it will cause no harm. No plastics will leach. In fact, depending on where precisely the cup finds itself over the millennia to come, it may even be of some further utility—supporting drainage, anchoring roots, or acting as a bed for molluscs to cement themselves to. Of all the anthropogenic detritus whose fossils interest some future archaeologist, kitchenware may be the most mundane. But for now, the cup—distressed but not yet disposed of—continues to perform its role. All is not yet lost.

Permanence, impermanence. Wabi, sabi.

Celebrating the beauty found in patina and the alluring melancholy in the limited mortality of things, the Japanese aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi speaks to the acceptance and even veneration of a transitory state of being. It is in other senses (unsurprisingly) a style to be produced, imitated, acquired, and desired.

In second-hand and handmade objects this desirability emerges from the ways in which they enable everyday encounters with the past. Monica Khemsurov and Jill Singer of Sight Unseen suggest that “there’s something primarily appealing about an object that’s been made by a body at work. While machines can make objects more perfect and identical, hands can infuse each other with a soul”. Similarly, Anna Bohlin refers to a common practice in Sweden “of referring to second-hand objects as ‘having soul’ or some kind of inner being”.

Whether baked in or through circumstance, imperfect objects are rendered unique. Special. Their increased fragility through use invokes an urge to care more for them in order to diminish the risk of further degradation. There is a similar desire to preserve the immaculate state of the thoroughly new object. We have all known the pain of the first scratch on our new phone screens, the first threads fraying on an expensive garment. It is this small pain that the wabi-sabi view attempts to relieve.

The cracked coffee cup with its synthetic, faux-Pantone colourings is a copy produced en mass and sold cheaply, its price suggestive of its fate. It is the epitome of a commodity. Its desired state is fixed and flawless. Customers are not supposed to form an emotional attachment to the cup, per se, but to the emotional state invoked by its contents within the context of the cosy café. However, the blemish that has now rendered it imperfect has caught my attention, and the meditative tic-tic-tic of my spoon stirring my imagination.

Yet I have no desire to rescue the cup. In some other drinking vessel, sculpted or gifted by a friend, stolen from a bar, inherited or hoarded since childhood, the crack may be interpreted as a sign of growth—the evolution of the object’s story, the embodiment of a ‘past’. But the context in which I encounter this cup flattens any affective connection I could develop for it. All day it contains the drinks of strangers and is emptied, cleaned, re-stacked and re-filled. This is the purpose for which it has been designed—its practicality condemning it to a loveless death. Is that why we’re so often drawn to desire the impractical?

If I had instead discovered it in a second-hand store several years from now, a chip on the saucer accompanying the crack, would its spontaneous appearance spur some murky memory of my once sitting in a café in Amsterdam and urge me to purchase it? Perhaps, but it would be an unreliable memory performing that emotional labour, not the object itself.

But I do not care for this cup. Indeed I imagine that, for others, the fracture may render it grotesque, even dangerous. What if the crack were to expand rapidly, the cup splitting in two and spilling hot liquid all over the table? They will point this out and thus consign it to its bed amongst the coffee grounds. I will not. I have finished my drink.

I will leave that responsibility to the next person.

Further reading

  • Bohlin, Anna. “The Liveliness of Ordinary Objects: Living with Stuff in the Anthropocene.” Deterritorializing the Future: Heritage in, of and after the Anthropocene, Open Humanities Press, 2020, pp. 96–119.
  • Khemsurov, Monica, and Jill Singer. How to Live with Objects: A Modern Guide to More Meaningful Interiors. Clarkson Potter, 2022.

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