Scriptive Things, Fifth Verse: A Little Bit Louder, A Little Bit Diverse

The question remains the same.  Generally speaking, what actions or responses do novelty salt and pepper shakers invite when they appear as part of a table setting for a meal?  Most obviously of course, they invite those at the table to shake them, i.e., to put salt and/or pepper on their food–and whatever kind of shakers they are, plain or fancy, they bring with them the range of  implications and invite something like the kinds of responses I’ve tried to outline in my last few posts.  But in addition to all that, their novelty aspects add yet more nuances.  In order to explore those in as non-specific a way as possible, I’ve chosen a set of shakers that are even less distinct or unusual than the pair of bear of my last post.  This time it’s pigs:

These two are one of the few sets I own that are actually carbon copies of each other–exact duplicates, except for the fact that one has two holes (for salt, I’m guessing) in its snout, and the other has three holes in its mouth (for peppers, since I understand that the one with more holes is usually understand as supposed to be the pepper).  They’re just a pair of simply formed and mostly pink pig shapes–a vaguely cute evocation of pigginess, with a bit of cleverness in the placing of the holes in the snout where the snout holes would be in one instance and in the teeth where gaps would be in the other.  but still, you wouldn’t want a real pig on your dining table.  Why these, or things like these more generally?

Most obviously, I think, they evoke a kind of lightheartedness, or whimsy, a sense that this is a relatively informal and congenial kind of table to be dining at.  They convey the idea that the person who chose to put these on the table doesn’t take things too seriously, likes to have fun.  in that way, too, they reveal a personal taste.  In doing so, clearly, the action they most clearly script (beyond the action of salting and peppering one’s food) is a response to that perosnal taste, ideally, of course, a positive one, like, “My, how adorable,” or “What cute pigs.”

In other words,  they exist significantly as potential topics of conversation–things to comment on.  And the more novel they are, the weirder or more sexy or more bizarre they are, the more they invite a conversation about their uniqueness or novelty.   They exist, to a great extent, primarily to be noted and commented upon.   And the fact that someone chooses to make something so novel or noteworthy a part of the dining experience  makes them markers of a unique or novel selfhood.  They ask us to think positively about the specialness of the person who chose them: “Ooh, what adorable little pigs, Samantha.  You have such good taste.”  Or “Where did you find these pigs, you clever thing?”  Or “Pigs?  Really?  Is it one of your clever little jokes, Sam?  Because I do plan to pig out on that pot roast–it smells divine.”

All of that leads to what I suspect is the primary action encrypted in the existence of purchases like this–an urge to desire them and, when they appear in stores or garage sales or on eBay, to want to purchase them and have them for one’s own.  As more or less impractical novelties that defy the important design principal of less is more and exude more whimsy than utilitarian practicality, they script an invitation to ownership, to possess them for their cuteness and their novelty.

And apparently, given my two hundred or so sets, they seem to script that urge to possession in terms of multiples.  One set of novelty shakers, obviously, cannot in and for itself imply a desire for a larger number of others to go along with it.   But I think that the fact of their coming in such a range of different shapes and sizes and representations of different animals, people, and things does imply an urge to moreness–to having more than just one set of shakers, and indeed, more than just twenty or two hundred.  There are pictures showing surprisingly large collections of them all over the internet–collections of many thousands arranged in voluminous crowds.

So what it is about them that makes them so eminently collectible?  How do they script collectibility?

One, they are relatively expensive–you can usually always afford to get yourself a few more without going into serious debt. So why not go out and get more, right now?

Two, they are small, and you can have a surprisingly large number of them in a surprisingly small place.  Indeed, they are small enough that you can almost always manage to squeeze a few more into the same shelf space, where they end up looking like the Tokyo subway in rush hour .

Three, they represent things–a variety of things, thus encouraging those who have some shakers that represent some things to want other shakers that represent other things

Three, they all basically do the same thing–contain and distribute salt and pepper–and thus,  they are very much alike each other in general shape and size and conformation; and yet at the same time, in their act of representation, they can be surprisingly different from each other.  In other words, they are the same sort of object but with clearly obvious (or sometimes even not so obvious) differences from each other–a combination of sameness and difference that allows a collector to focus on just the one kind of object (“I only collect salt and pepper shakers” or even “I only collect salt and paper shakers that represents pigs”) but to keep adding different individual objects to the general category in order to represent the scope of the category more completely. Like stamps or coins or Tiffany lamps, shaker sets represent an ongoing and therefore eminently collectible series of variations on each other.

As collectibles, the action novelty shakers more urgently encsript is putting them on display in groups and inviting other people to look at them, first as a group (“You have so many!”) and then, once having a first impression of admirable bulk and mutititudinousness, to pick out ones that appear specially interesting and observe them more closely–perhaps in something like the way we look at paintings or other art objects, with an eye to understanding both what they represent and the possible implications of the ways they represent it.  in other words, once more, they script discussions of themselves and their interesting novelty.

How the discussion goes can obviously be various.  Most of the members of the Novelty Salt and Pepper Shaker Club seem, as the club’s web site suggests, be motivated by a pure and unmediated  “love of collecting novelty and figural salt and pepper shakers,” for, it seems their own sake, as intended. As I’ve suggested in earlier posts, though, my own interest tends to have more to do with a kind of mean-spirited feeling of superiority to many of the shakers I own–an ironic enjoyment of just how tasteless and silly and awful they can be.  Even so, I’m not totally convinced  that the shakers themselves don’t actually script at least the potential for that sort of ironic and theoretically disengaged response to them.   Some of my sets are trying very hard to elicit a kind of objection to them–to be offensive or crude or otherwise disruptive of conventional niceness in ways that are meant to be humorous or otherwise pleasing.  Like a range of comedy in greeting cards and night clubs and on T-shirts and coffee mugs, they do often seem to be scripting a supposedly negative response, or at least, a response that confirms the responder’s awareness of their antisocial tendencies and a positive or negative attitude toward them.  They are made to be objected to, or to be perceived as satisfyingly objectionable.

And I also have to acknowledge, as I think about it, that my own ironic and superior response is also often accompanied by a more positive appreciation of the attempt at jocular playfulness that arouses that feeling of superiority.  Their awfulness makes me smile, or even, sometimes, to manipulate them in ways that either help me to express how foul I think they are or reveal even deeper levels of double entendre.  Think, for instance, of what you might tempted to do with a pair of detachable breasts; think of the verbal scripts of pidgin English you might invent as you imagine what some offensively stereotypical Indian shakers might say.  Many novelty shakers are playful and a lot more of them invite playfulness–even the act of actually playing with them, as revealed by the shoebox and larger displays created by contest winners at the Novelty Salt and Pepper Shaker Club convention and depicted on the club’s website.  These are scenes using a number of different shakers that club members create by playing with them and playfully arranging them into groups and in settings–check them out here.

There’s more to be said about how the shakers encourage playfulness, and what sort of interactions that playfulness enscripts–like, for instance, shaking little pigs to put salt on your spuds?  More next time.

Published by pernodel

Children’s literature critic and author of books for children

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