Categorical Imperative

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Rob Walker (or is it Josh Glenn?) analyzing SO data

Rob Walker (or is it Josh Glenn?) analyzing SO data

The holidays are over, and here at Significant Objects we’re back at work, assiduously analyzing the data from our project’s experimental phase. Last month, we finished up our quantitative analysis; in 2010, we’ll focus on a qualitative analysis of our data set.

We’ve been tagging the 100 stories from Significant Objects v1 thematically: from “adolescence” and “bad parents,” for example, to “thievery,” “third-person omniscient narrator,” and “unhappy romance.” It’s a big job, and we’re not finished yet. Not to worry, though, we have other qualitative fish to fry, in the meantime.

While v1 was in progress, we tagged each story according to what we might call the qualities of object’s-intended-function and object’s-apparent-attributes: from “cat,” “cow,” and “dishware,” for example, to “promotional item,” “souvenir,” and “toy.” It should be fascinating to see whether cats sold better than dogs, say, or novelty items better than promotional ones. We’ll get around to adding a function/attributes column to our data chart later this month.

And then there are the categories! While v1 was in progress, we placed each object into one of the following four categories: TALISMAN, TOTEM, EVIDENCE, and FOSSIL. As I explained back in October, a fossil is an object that bears witness to a vanished era or way of life (including childhood); an object that played a role in a crime or memorable public event is evidence; a totem is an object from the natural world — animal, vegetable, or mineral — that is a tutelary spirit; while an object that has magical power, is lucky, or is alive is a talisman.

Below, you’ll find a chart — sorted by Adjusted Sales Rank — that includes, for the first time, a column devoted to categorization.

A couple of quick observations.

* Among the Top 25 object/stories, it’s a dead heat between the categories TALISMAN, EVIDENCE, and FOSSIL, at seven apiece. Meanwhile, only four object/stories in the Top 25 were in the TOTEM category. In the Top Ten, the TALISMAN and FOSSIL categories are tied at four apiece, while EVIDENCE and TOTEM are tied at one apiece.

* Among the Bottom 25 object/stories, FOSSIL is by far the most unpopular category (1211), followed by TALISMAN (7) and EVIDENCE (6). The least unpopular category, TOTEM (1), is also — see above — the least popular. [But see Mimi Lipson’s obseravtions, in the comments below.]

So… what can we take away from this?

(1) Apparently, an object whose associated narrative has to do with a vanished era or way of life (including childhood) is polarizing: potential owners feel strongly about it, either pro (FOSSIL is tied for most popular category) or con (FOSSIL is by far the most unpopular category). Perhaps this is because we love stories that remind us of our own happiest times, and hate stories that remind us of our least happy times — or which recall times to which we can’t relate at all?

(2) Apparently, an object whose associated story has to do with tutelary spirits — animal, vegetable, or mineral — from the natural world does not inspire strong feelings in potential owners; TOTEM is both the least popular and unpopular category. However… since only eight of our contributors wrote totemistic stories, maybe it’s to be expected that so few made it into the Top and Bottom Twenty-Five?

(3) When it comes to object/stories in the TALISMAN and EVIDENCE category, more analysis is needed. Are certain types of talisman (animal figurines, say; or novelty items) more popular than others? Should we add a new category (ANIMATUM, say? ANIMACULUM?) for those talismans that are alive, as opposed to merely lucky? If the evidence is associated with an incident in the life of a celebrity, does that make it more popular than evidence associated with, say, a petty crime?

Readers, we can’t figure this stuff out by ourselves. Please take a look at the chart below and post your comments!

Adjusted RankCategoryObjectAuthor
1TalismanRussian FigureDoug Dorst
2TalismanIndian Maiden R.K. Scher
3EvidenceWooden AnimalMeg Cabot
4Fossil"Hawk" AshtrayWilliam Gibson
5TotemPink HorseKate Bernheimer
6TalismanMetal BootBruce Sterling
7Fossil4-TileToni Schlesinger
8FossilCape Cod ShoeSheila Heti
9FossilDuck TrayStewart O'Nan
10TalismanWooden MalletColson Whitehead
11EvidenceFish SpoonsMark Doty
12EvidenceFake BananaJosh Kramer (Center for Cartoon Studies)
13FossilCow VaseEd Park
13TotemMissouri ShotglassJonathan Lethem
15TalismanKneeling Man FigurineGlen David Gold
16TalismanRhino FigurineNathaniel Rich
17EvidenceRainbow Sand AnimalSloane Crosley
18TalismanIdolAndrew Ervin
18FossilMeat ThermometerNicholson Baker
20FossilFelt MouseMeghan O'Rourke
21TotemBird FigurineSung J. Woo
22EvidenceZiggy HeartTodd Levin
23EvidenceBBQ Sauce JarMatthew J. Wells (Slate Contest Winner)
23EvidenceGeisha BobbleheadEdward Champion
25TotemIreland Cow PlateSarah Rainone
26FossilNecking Team ButtonSusannah Breslin
27FossilRope/Wood Monkey FigurineKevin Brockmeier
28FossilRooster Oven MittVictor LaValle
29FossilMotel Room KeyLaura Lippman
30EvidenceJar of MarblesBen Ehrenreich
31FossilSmiling MugBen Greenman
32EvidenceMarines (Upside-Down) Logo MugTom Vanderbilt (Design Observer)
33FossilMaine Statutes DishBen Katchor
33FossilHalston MugMimi Lipson
35FossilSeahorse LighterAimee Bender
36TalismanHand-Held Bubble BlowerMyla Goldberg
36EvidenceCreamer CowLucinda Rosenfeld
36TalismanJFK BustAnnie Nocenti
39FossilRound BoxTim Carvell
39EvidenceMr. Pickwick Coat HookChristopher Sorrentino
41FossilAmoco Yo-YoMark Sarvas
42FossilPenguin CreamerSari Wilson
42TalismanMiniature BottleMark Frauenfelder
44EvidenceCigarette CaseMargot Livesey
45TotemChili Cat FigurineLydia Millet
46FossilAlien ToyNomi Kane (Center for Cartoon Studies)
47FossilUnicornSarah Weinman
47EvidenceOcean Scene GlobeStephanie Reents
49EvidenceCrumb SweeperShelley Jackson
50FossilElvis Chocolate TinJessica Helfand (Design Observer)
50TalismanPraying HandsRosecrans Baldwin
52EvidenceSanka AshtrayLuc Sante
53TalismanTin ArkRebecca Wolff
54EvidenceWindsurfing Trophy/StatueNaomi Novik
55FossilPabst Bottle OpenerSean Howe
56EvidenceSanta NutcrackerKurt Andersen
56FossilSpotted Dogs FigurineCurtis Sittenfeld
58FossilFoppish FigurineRob Baedeker
59EvidenceKitty SaucerJames Parker
60TotemMule FigurineMatthew Sharpe
60TotemPiggy BankMatthew De Abaitua
62TalismanNutcracker with Troll Hair (or something)Adam Davies
62FossilGrain ThingJoanne McNeil
64TalismanDome DollJason Grote
65EvidenceGolf Ball BankTodd Pruzan
65FossilPopsicle-Stick ConstructionSara Ryan
67EvidenceBlue VaseLauren Mechling
68TalismanCandyland Labyrinth GameMatthew Battles
68EvidenceMilitary FigureDavid Shields
68FossilPen StandLizzie Skurnick
71TalismanDilbert Stress ToyBetsey Swardlick (Center for Cartoon Studies)
72EvidenceChoirboy FigurineJ. Robert Lennon
72FossilUncola GlassJen Collins
74EvidenceStar of David PlateAdam Harrison Levy (Design Observer)
75FossilLighter Shaped Like Small Pool BallRob Agredo (SmithMag Contest Winner)
76FossilCracker Barrel OrnamentMaud Newton
76Totem"Hakuna Matata" FigurineJennifer Michael Hecht
76FossilDeviceTom Bartlett
76TalismanOrnamental SphereCharles Ardai
76FossilSea Captain Pipe RestMichael Atkinson
81FossilCat MugThomas McNeely
82TalismanWave BoxTeddy Wayne
83TalismanToy ToasterJonathan Goldstein
84TalismanFlip-Flop FrameMerrill Markoe
85FossilSmall StaplerKatharine Weber
85EvidenceThai HooksBruno Maddox
87TalismanDuck VaseMatthew Klam
88FossilFred Flintstone Pez DispenserClaire Zulkey
89EvidenceBasketball TrophyCintra Wilson
90TalismanToy Hot DogJenny Davidson
91EvidenceUmbrella TrinketBruce Holland Rogers
92EvidenceToothbrush HolderTerese Svoboda
93FossilCoconut CupAnnalee Newitz
94FossilSwiss MedalKathryn Borel Jr.
95Fossil#1 Mom HooksRachel Berger (Design Observer)
96TalismanClown FigurineNick Asbury
97EvidenceKentucky DishDean Haspiel
98FossilPorcelain ScooterTeddy Blanks (Design Observer)
99FossilHawaiian UtensilsStephen Elliott
100EvidenceBar Mitzvah BookendsStacey Levine

NB: Some objects we initially placed in two categories (for example, if a TALISMAN happened to be a Duck Vase, then we also categorized it as a TOTEM), but we’ve since decided that each object can only belong to one category.


Joshua Glenn is an editor, publisher, and a freelance writer and semiologist. He does business as KING MIXER, LLC. He's cofounder of the websites HiLobrow, Significant Objects, and Semionaut; and cofounder of HiLoBooks, which will reissue six Radium Age sci fi novels in 2012. In 2011, he produced and co-designed the iPhone app KER-PUNCH. He's coauthored and co-edited Taking Things Seriously, The Idler's Glossary, The Wage Slave's Glossary, the story collection Significant Objects (forthcoming from Fantagraphics), and Unbored, a kids' field guide to life forthcoming from Bloomsbury. In the '00s, Glenn was an associate editor and columnist at the Boston Globe's IDEAS section; he also started the IDEAS blog Brainiac. He has written for Slate, n+1, Cabinet, io9, The Baffler, Feed, and The Idler. In the '90s, Glenn published the seminal intellectual zine Hermenaut; served as editorial director and co-producer of the pioneering DIY and online social networking website; and was an editor at the magazine Utne Reader. Glenn manages the Hermenautic Circle, a secretive online community. He was born and raised in Boston, where he lives with his wife and sons. Click here for more info.

8 thoughts on “Categorical Imperative

  1. [Rolls up sleeves and puts on bean-counting visor.] Perhaps the FOSSIL category is most heavily represented in most/least favorite because it is most heavily represented in the sample as a whole. By the same token (no pun intended), perhaps TOTEMS are unpopular in the top and bottom because there are so few of them overall. I count: 40 FOSSIL, 29 EVIDENCE, 23 TALISMAN, 8 TOTEM. We need a proper statistician to do the chi squares and such–just eyeballing it here.

  2. Surprising that so few objects turned out to be Totems. So many of them (at least this is what I think) seemed to have Totemic potential… But I suppose if buyers weren’t enthusiastic about the Totem stories that did emerge, perhaps writers who avoided that impulse were wise…

  3. [Pushes glasses up nose.] In fact, if you look at the data in terms of expected values, you could make an argument that TOTEM is the most popular category, FOSSIL the least popular, and TALISMAN the most polarizing. Here are the absolute percentages by category (Top 25/Middle 50/Bottom 25):

    FOSSIL (40% of total): 28% of top/ 42% of middle / 48% of bottom
    EVIDENCE (29% of total): 28% / 32% / 24%
    TALISMAN (23% of total): 28% / 18% / 28%
    TOTEM (8% of total): 16% / 6% / 4%

    Ideally, you’d want a multivariate analysis to identify interactions between, say, the MBE (Metal Boot Effect) and object category. For instance, were more TOTEMS offered up post-Metal Boot?

  4. Mimi, go! Go! Keep bean-counting. This is very helpful stuff.

    I have a question, though — shouldn’t the tops add up to 100%, the middles to 100%, etc?

  5. Right you are, Josh… I was extrapolating from your numbers, but there are actually only 11 FOSSILS in the bottom 25 (not 12). Revised table:

    FOSSIL (40% of total): 28% of top / 44% of middle / 44% of bottom
    EVIDENCE (29% of total): 28% / 32% / 24%
    TALISMAN (23% of total): 28% / 18% / 28%
    TOTEM (8% of total): 16% / 6% / 4%

  6. Oh, I was counting #75 as part of the Bottom 25, wasn’t I? Thank goodness for your sharp eyes.

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