Friday, January 28, 2022

Mementos Mori: Does Anyone Have An Ashtray?

From The Baffler:

Mementos Mori
What else is lost when an object disappears?

Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects, ed. Barbara Penner, Adrian Forty, Olivia Horsfall Turner, and Miranda Critchley. Reaktion Books, 400 pages.

“My mother possessed a superlative ashtray,” writes architecture critic Catherine Slessor. It had a waist-high stand and a chrome-plated bowl, and, she writes, “faintly reeking, it stood to attention in our 1960s suburban living room like some engorged trophy.” Slessor goes on to describe other ashtrays of note: a Limoges porcelain limited-edition ashtray that Salvador Dalí designed for use on Air India, in exchange for a baby elephant that the airline transported for him from Bangalore to Spain; the ashtrays at Quaglino’s in London that reportedly used to disappear at a rate of seven per day in the 1990s, snatched by diners as souvenirs of a society locale. In doing so, she conjures the material world of the twentieth century, inhabited as it was by ashtrays of all shapes and sizes. Then, with the dawn of the millennium, this category of object—part functional décor, part objet d’art—all but disappeared.

Slessor’s short essay on the ashtray appears in the new book Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects, a collection of illustrated essays on eighty-five objects that, its editors write, “once populated the world and do so no longer.” To skim its table of contents is to encounter a wide-ranging catalog of lost things: all-plastic houses, cab fare maps, chatelaines, flying boats, moon towers, paper dresses, slide rules, UV-radiated artificial beaches, zeppelins. It is pointedly open-ended, inclusive of infrastructure and architecture as well as personal effects. The only unifying criterion is what its editors term “extinction,” in a self-conscious nod to Darwin-inflected evolutionary theories of technological innovation. 

“When things disappear, they do so, it is implied, because of their own inadequacy or their unsuitedness to their conditions. Part of the purpose of this book is to probe and question this seeming inevitability,” they write in the introduction. The word “extinct” also connotes something else, more poignant than “obsolescent”: a nod to the kind of death that can happen to our things. It is a loss more profound than many of our words for it—waste, breakage, consumption, discarding—convey. Extinct takes these material losses seriously and tries to quantify the social effects wrought by the wholesale disappearance of particular objects.

Now, there is something illicit about possessing ashtray, associated as it is with the mild rebellion of smoking cigarettes.

The essays in Extinct often answer two questions: What was it that has disappeared and why? And then, what was the significance of this loss? Some, like Slessor’s, are lucidly personal meditations, stuffed with anecdotes and design history; others are more technical treatises on the reason a particular technology failed to take root. The editors identify six general reasons why things become extinct and categorize each object in this way. Certain objects are deemed “failed”; they simply didn’t work. Many more, though, are “superseded” by more advanced models of similar things. Some dead objects, especially commercial products, are “defunct”—these have failed to gain widespread adoption, or couldn’t be mass-produced, or have simply gone out of style. Others are “aestivated,” meaning that they disappear but are revived in a new form. Still others are classified as “visionary,” in that they never quite came into being at all. The rest are “enforced,” basically regulated into disappearance.

Ashtrays fall into this last category. They have largely vanished, at least in the West, in the wake of indoor smoking bans and the decline of smoking in general. Though their disappearance might have seemed sudden, it was the culmination of long-term litigation, public health campaigns, and the slow process of local government action. None of this was aimed at the ashtray itself, but it does go to show how shifts in behavior and social mores affect the material world and vice versa. Ashtrays still exist, of course; some are still in use, and others have taken on a second life as mementos of a bygone era. But even those still circulating have a different aura than they once did, Slessor argues. Ashtrays are no longer status symbols, displayed waist-high in suburban living rooms. Now, there is something illicit about possessing an ashtray, associated as it is with the mild rebellion of smoking cigarettes. She writes, “The ashtray is not only an adjunct to social pleasure, but a memento mori, a reminder that you are dancing with death.”

Not all the essays in Extinct are inflected with nostalgia. Some things should have died sooner. Arsenic....