Monday, September 20, 2010

Assignment #3: Object Social/Cultural Context

I’ve decided that the best way to fulfill this assignment is to think about my object, Bill’s pen, in a literal sense. It is a pen. Yes, its also a luxury Montblanc Meisterstuck (German for masterpiece), but that, I think, is second to its basic identity as the fundamental writing tool. This week, we’re supposed to discuss the cultural or social context of our objects, and there are so many different cultural references to pens that my head is spinning.
There’s the ever menacing “red pen” that is ubiquitous with failing exam grades, and harsh comments on carefully constructed essays, familiar to students all across America. I’m even fairly sure I’ve read somewhere that seeing red ink on a graded assignment makes students feel worse about their score, regardless of how well they do. While I can’t provide a reference for that statement, from my own personal experience its all too true.
I could talk about the implied symbolism of pens, and in particular, pens as gifts (in fact, Bill’s very own pen was a gift from a good friend). Pens are supposedly power symbols, possibly even evoking images of masculinity1 (John Irwin even goes so far as to reference it in a phallic way).2 I can definitely see the connection to power, it’s kind of a way to show the world that you write your own destiny, so to speak. Giving someone a gift of a pen is a common tradition in business relationships, and in the context of pens being power symbols this makes sense. Bill’s pen was gifted to him after he got a promotion at his job. There is also the connotation of an expensive pens as “a status symbol, a sign of intelligence and education”3 and that makes sense too, with the historical context of pens and scribes (hint hint: last week’s assignment).
Pens show up in politics and diplomacy too. How about the common saying “the pen is mightier than the sword”?4 Woodrow Wilson used that saying on one of his campaign buttons during the 1916 election.Strangest of all pop-culture references perhaps, is the persistent rumor circling the Internet (and I’ve heard it from other people and places as well...Bill!) that the favorite and only pen used by Hitler was the Montblanc Meisterstuck. Ironic, when you consider that the Montblanc logo on the top of these pens is basically a stylized Star of David.
So what does this all mean? I’m not sure, there’s a lot to get through here, and even more that I’ve failed to say. But, what I can say with certainty is that the imagery associated with pens has deep cultural connections. And I think for Americans, pens have evolved to symbolically represent the virtues of knowledge or learning, intellect, and power (whether it be social, economic, or political). 
1- Bruce-Mitford, Miranda.  “The Ilustrated Book of Signs and Symbols,” Dorling Kindersley Limited, London, 2004. 

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