July 10, 2008
The Economy of Relics
— Spencer Dew
The most discussed aspect of this month's release of baseball card company Topps' "Triple Threads Baseball" series is, in fact, not related to baseball at all. Inserted in a single pack of baseball cards will be a "relic" of President Woodrow Wilson, a so-called "book" card – actually two cards together, which open like a book – wherein will be embedded a pair of sunglasses owned (and presumably worn) by the president. You can hold the card up to your face and look through it, seeing, as one release says, "what President Wilson saw." It is a unique card, or, in collector's jargon, "a one of one."
Topps will release a variety of other Presidential cards as part of the baseball series, including those boasting the presence not only of autographs but also "DNA," as in an actual hair from George Washington. Such cards, along with those that include more conventional, sport-themed items such as swatches of "game-used" jerseys, mitt pieces, or bits of pads, are marketed as "relic cards," and indeed, the economy generated by their creation and circulation is quite similar to – and therefore can offer us a revealing "sight" on – that of relics in more traditional religious contexts.
John Calvin once remarked that there were enough splinters and fragments of the True Cross for sale in the world that, if collected, one could build a ship from them. The core of his critique is both that authenticity can become a dubious category and that there is a risk in the proliferation of relics for profit. A relic may have no intrinsic value until it is offered for sale as a relic. Likewise, there may be no demand or market for a given object until it is reframed as relic.
Traditional Catholicism holds that there are three classes of relics, and while first-class relics are, for instance, pieces of the body of a saint, second and third class relics allow for wild proliferation, being objects associated with holy sites, people, or objects (meaning, in many cases, that they are relics only because they have been in contact with relics – a piece of cloth that has touched a piece of cloth that once touched a saint, for instance, is a third-class relic). Third-class relics are less efficacious, in metaphysical terms, but they are also, in economic terms, more affordable. And there is a potentially infinite supply – this is the rub of the relic. The laminating machines of the Topps company can churn out utterly unique "one of one" relic cards day and night, inserted with an array of autographs or slivers of bats, bits of ball casings, or snippets from presidential neckties.
All relics, whatever their class or level of authenticity, act as artifacts of the social conditions that created and circulated them. While the conflation of athletic and political celebrity in Topps' "Triple Threads Baseball" series may well be worth mining for some reflection of the culture from which it springs, with trading card companies it is not merely the arena of sports or history wherein the allure of the "authentic" leads to the proliferation of relics: There are also collectable fragments embedded in cards devoted to television shows and movies.
Relics are a special class of objects, but Calvin's worry was related to how that special status came to be – was it natural to the object or conferred upon it? While fragments of the True Cross should, by their very nature, be limited in number, signatures of politicians, celebrities, and sports stars need not be, and "game-used" outfits and equipment are of a similarly staggering quantity. Saint Thomas only had so many teeth in his mouth, but Jackie Robinson may very well have signed thousands of autographs and used hundreds of bats. And a contemporary player like Jermaine Dye is not only constantly doing these activities; in addition, he may very well, upon retirement, participate in the business of relic-making as a side industry of celebrity, signing autographs for the companies that will then make collectable cards. The economy of relics functions by taking bits of cultural detritus for which previously there was no monetary value per se, and repackaging and reinventing them as something new and potentially valuable. Ultimately, it is up to consumers as to whether they will create a continuing market for such relics. Will Woodrow Wilson's sunglasses become a hotly tradable item, or will some young sports fan merely be disappointed to find she's been cheated out of actual baseball cards when she rips open the unique pack?
Spencer Dew is a PhD candidate in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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