How the Ancestors of Jethro Tull Bootleg Collectors Helped Avoid the Black Death
Since I’m a modest collector myself, I’m fascinated with the obsessive mind of the collector. An article in the New York Times seems to indicate that social scientists are also busy figuring out why collectors gravitate toward certain objects. Recently published papers draw on ideas of “‘celebrity contagion’ and ‘imitative magic,’ not to mention ‘a dynamic cyclical model of fetishization appropriate to an age of mass-production.’”
One of their conclusions is that the seemingly illogical yearning for a Clapton relic, even a pseudorelic, stems from an instinct crucial to surviving disasters like the Black Death: the belief that certain properties are contagious, either in a good or a bad way. Another conclusion is that the magical thinking chronicled in “primitive” tribes will affect bids for the Clapton guitars being auctioned at Bonhams in Midtown Manhattan.
The replica’s appeal is related to another form of thinking called the law of similarity, Dr. Newman said. That is a belief in what is also called imitative magic: things that resemble each other have similar powers.
“Cultural practices such as burning voodoo dolls to harm one’s enemies are consistent with a belief in the law of similarity,” Dr. Newman said. “An identical Clapton guitar replica with all of the dents and scratches may serve as such a close proxy to Clapton’s original guitar that it is in some way confused for the real thing. Of course, the replica is worth far less than the actual guitar that he played, but it still appears to be getting a significant amount of value for its similarity.”
“Consumers use contagious and imitative magic to imbue replica instruments with power,” Dr. Fernandez and Dr. Lastovicka write in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. “Semiotically signified magical thinking causes replicas to radiate aura and thus transforms them into fetishes.”
Of course, the collectors still preferred a beat-up guitar used by a star to a brand-new replica of it. One of them told the researchers how he had improved his own guitar-playing by using old guitar strings that had been discarded by Duane Allman. This belief in contagious magic may sound illogical, but it makes a certain evolutionary sense, Dr. Lastovicka said.
“Beliefs about contagion, and especially biological contagion, by our ancestors are one of the reasons why we are here today,” he said. “Those who did not stay away from those who died from the plague in the Dark Ages also died of the plague; those who died of the plague in the Dark Ages likely have few, if any, descendants today. So in our modern and scientific world, these manners of magical thinking still persist.”