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Walter Putnam

Related: taxidermy - uncanny - object - animal - hybrid - Pygmalion

This article was originally published in Reconstruction , Summer 2003: Volume 3, Number 3 ISSN: 1547-4348 http://reconstruction.eserver.org/033/putnam.htm

In their unassuming ubiquity, stuffed animals have proliferated in our everyday, postindustrial lives. But their ascent to this status depended largely on the processes of industrialisation, urbanisation and commodification. They embody important aspects of the colonial and post-colonial encounter in their material, psychological and geo-political roles. Ideologically, stuffed animals defy historicization: While they, as a commodity form, have a discernable history, which Walter Putnam imparts in the following, individually, stuffed animals are inscribed with meaning by their owners and in their act of acquisition. They are, Putnam argues, a fetish of our own making, and a fixation that provides no easy solutions.


<5> Stuffed animals are hybridized objects and, as such, challenge notions of purity and authenticity that emerge in discussions of living animals, especially when considering taxonomic classifications and questions of origins and authenticity. Unlike a hunting trophy that the taxidermist immortalizes as a token of man's domination over nature, stuffed animals are objects without a lived past. It is rather their owners, most often children, who invest them with meaning. Teddy bears perform in the affective and emotional realm yet they carry some undeclared cultural baggage that must be unpacked and inspected. Although they are widely collected, stuffed animals rarely become museum pieces because they do not belong to a category that is readily identifiable as art. According to James Clifford's outline of the art-culture system, objects exist in one of four zones or in traffic between two or more of these zones: 1) authentic masterpieces; 2) authentic artifacts; 3) inauthentic masterpieces; 4) inauthentic artifacts (223 sq). Following this schema, teddy bears would seem to exist as commodities in the fourth zone although only certain bears merit collecting for their historical or artistic value. As industrial products, the time and circumstances of their origins have only occasionally been valorized; a vintage Steiff bear can acquire considerable market value among serious collectors. In general, it is nevertheless their moment of acquisition that stands out as more important than their place of origin. The gift of a teddy bear marks the beginning of its lived history more than the date of its manufacture. Their important affective value lies with their owner and not with their market value. Stuffed toys are not made to exist outside of human contact. They depend on their human sponsors for their identities, indeed, for their very existences. It is a further irony that their proliferation during the past century corresponds to a growing public concern for the disappearance of real wildlife. This irony did not escape the satirical online journal, The Onion, which ran a mock report in 2001 titled "Stuffed-Animal Biodiversity Rising," noting that the rise in this phenomenon "has been made possible by humans' growing interest in environmental issues." Stuffed animals have spread across the globe in response to an anxious sense of degradation and depletion in nature that is countered by the collecting of incalculable specimens in the bedroom zoo or safari park.

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