“What is a life worth? What money? We don’t know.”
These are the words of everyday Australian Stephen Black on Channel 9’s Today Show back in August. He’s standing beside his partner as he takes a pair of scissors to a small plastic Lion King toy. The blades struggle for a moment, and then suddenly Simba has been decapitated in front of me. The television presenter tells the couple to stay off social media for a few days and wishes them all the best. Then the clip ends and there’s silence as I try to work out what I’ve just watched.
I’m struck by how absurd our modern world is. To be clear, no more than any other period in history, but this TV moment was obviously going to be as inexplicable to future generations as many events in the past are to us. I love to study history, and while people from the past often feel familiar, there are moments when you genuinely have no idea why they did what they did. Similarly, I realised this was one of those times when, if I somehow brought a hypothetical ancient Roman forward through time and made them watch that clip, there would simply be no way to adequately describe the significance of what just happened.
For those who aren’t Australian, this morning television moment brought together many apparently disparate threads: collectible toys, farming hardship, and the internet.
First, the toy in question was an ‘ooshie’ – a little plastic Lion King collectible given away by the supermarket Woolworths for every $30 you spent in store.
Australians went a little crazy for these collectibles. Stories about them selling online for $100,000 have turned out to be a little overblown, but there are still many listed on eBay for multiple thousands of dollars.
Second, Stephen Black and his partner Melissa Portingal are farmers at a time when Australia is experiencing horrific drought conditions.
Third, the internet can be a cesspit.
Stephen and Melissa, whose farm was struggling, thought they’d gotten a lucky break when Melissa had received a super-rare (numbered 001) ooshie along with the shopping. Having heard about the prices the toys were supposedly fetching on eBay, they decided to try and sell it for water and supplies for the farm, asking for $5,000. The couple had abuse heaped on them online and backtracked.
Deciding to try to make a political point instead, they asked to exchange the toy for irrigation water “due to the mismanagement from our government of the Murray-Darling Basin”. Apparently, the frenzy of online ooshie collectors was not sated and the abuse continued.
Finally, the couple decided to destroy the toy on live TV, ostensibly to bring attention to the drought and online bullying.
If I had to try to explain all of this to that Roman, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. But the part of the saga that particularly struck me was what it said about our ideas of ownership and private property.
The ooshie is just a tiny plastic toy. It couldn’t have cost much to manufacture, and there’s no reason to expect anyone other than Stephen and Melissa to have any sort of claim over it. And, yet, if that were the case, why was this ooshie’s beheading worthy of live television news, with a follow-up story the next day? If it’s their plastic toy, who cares what price they try to sell it for, or whether they decide to chop it up with scissors?
Don’t touch my stuff
Anthropologists have long acknowledged that ownership is a far more complex phenomenon than it seems at first. What on the surface appears to be a relationship between you and an object is actually a relationship between you, the object and everyone else. To borrow David Graeber’s example: “when one buys a car one is not really purchasing the right to use it so much as the right to prevent others from using it”. So, when Woolworths gives away an ooshie, as much as they’re giving you the right to open the little bag and discover you have yet another gold Sarabi, they’re also giving you the right to stop anyone else from claiming it as part of their own collection.
Of course, nothing can be that simple – and this is what Stephen and Melissa’s story hinges upon. After they posted their ad offering to sell the toy for $5,000, people online were outraged at the asking price, sending them a torrent of abuse and even threatening to commit suicide. Of course, some of this has to be understood as the internet just being an awful place at times. Nevertheless, it is still a sign that those angered by this asking price felt that they had some sort of claim over the ooshie, as if to price it out of reach of many people was somehow unjust.
If owning the ooshie simply meant that you had exclusive rights over what to do with it, decapitating it would hardly be newsworthy – children (and at times, frustrated parents) destroy toys all the time. Instead, this act of destruction played into wider social relations with thousands of people Stephen and Melissa had never met.
In essence, this is because there is one thing that marked their ooshie apart from other plastic toys: it was a collectible. Without realising this, the couple had become enmeshed in a web of relationships with all the other collectors: actual and potential. Annette Weiner writes about inalienable possessions and exchange in Polynesia and Papua New Guinea. What she notes about important ceremonial objects is that when they are exchanged, it is as much about the objects that are not exchanged, as those that are. Thus, the “value” (used here in a very broad sense that means a lot more than just money) of the objects exchanged or possessed isn’t just based on the objects themselves, but on a whole host of other objects that are possessed by other people. Therefore, all of those people who either possess these objects, or might even potentially possess them, are in a web of indirect social relations.
Collecting relationships with ooshies
This sounds awfully much like how collectibles work – the desirability of any particular collectible is directly related to the existence of objects of the same or similar type. When collectors exchange or buy ooshies, their value is based on all the other ooshies out there. Those that are common aren’t worth much, while rare collectibles are. However, unlike other goods, a collectible is theoretically part of a set, even if the set isn’t complete.
If I destroy an actual one-of-a-kind collectible, this hasn’t just affected my own property – that pool of objects over which I have the right to stop other people touching – but it’s affected anyone else whose collection is now permanently incomplete. If I had the one item that someone else needed to complete the collection, I have definitively and prematurely ended their search without ever having to have met them or even known they existed.
Even if I try to sell the collectible for a high price, anyone who can’t afford it now knows the completion of their collection has just gone from ‘unlikely’ to ‘impossible’. In owning a collectible, even if I don’t care about it, I have relationships with others I’ve never met and perhaps even a strange sort of power over them.
The great circle of ownership
Thirty dollars at Woolworths and a bit of luck unexpectedly propelled Stephen and Melissa into a social world of ooshie collectors. With their unwrapping of an extremely rare plastic toy, they suddenly found themselves with a power over other people’s possessions that they themselves didn’t appear to fully understand.
To be fair, I’m still not sure that I fully understand it. Could I explain the whole saga to my time-travelling Roman friend? I sincerely doubt it. But I suppose that is part of it – a collector will probably never be able to convey the full significance of their collection to a non-collector. How did a tiny plastic toy made cheaply overseas become the subject of a national conversation? It’s still hard to say.
But it does remind us that ownership is not actually a relationship just between you and an object. It’s a relationship between you, that object, and everyone else. After all, in the modernised words of Mufasa, “we are all connected in the great circle of private property ownership.”
[Images by Suzanne Davey]