This particular item, like all other natural and artificial elements that comprise our world, is “a product of history and culture … as much an idea as a plant type” (747). Beyond its original status as sustenance (a human-centric notion in and of itself), a confluence of “physical traits, market status, and uses” helped transform the pumpkin from a single crop into the basis for typology (756). Giant pumpkins – the basis for competition at state fairs and world records – completely lack function (largely inedible and difficult to transport). Yet, they provide “a case study of how Americans have employed nature and history to create personal and national traditions and the effects of these traditions on the world around them” (748-749).
The squashes’ connection to “rural nostalgia” helps everyday people “get close to nature, create a sense of heritage, and build communal identity” (759). In the tradition of souvenirs, keepsakes, and totems, “commemorative objects” embody human sentiments that far exceed their “intrinsic worth.” They allow us to connect with or “possess” intangible memories, experiences, and ideas through exhibition, pageantry, and sensation (touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound). In turn, these memories, experiences, and ideas make material culture valuable – rather than the material culture’s value informing the memories, experiences, and ideas to which it bears witness.
Such was the case with French philosopher Denis Diderot. As he describes in his 1772 essay “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown” (translated by Kate Tunstall and Katie Scott in 2016), the opulence of his new dressing gown makes him uneasy, as he longs for the familiar, raggedy comfort of the old. The feel of it around him – not to mention the memories of using it to wipe off dusty books or unclog his pen – renders his new robe stiff, unused and unusable in comparison. Dideot even goes so far as to anthropomorphize his “comfortable, humble, old calamanco rags” as a woman who hugged and shielded him, concluding – “Dear friends, hold onto your old friends. Dear friends, beware of contact with riches” (178). In other words, do not adopt societal conceptions of worth that would have you exchange something personally meaningful for something expensive. Stick with what “sparks joy” for you.
Conversely, the “Diderot effect” is now used to explain overconsumption – why we continue to buy what we don’t need in search of instant, yet momentary gratification. This issue, of course, would lead into an entirely separate discussion of how subjective personal worth actually is, shaped by market forces and a “keeping up with the Jonses” mentality – best saved for another time.