At Hyperallergic, BB pal Mark Dery mourns the loss of "the Internet's kitschiest, most surreal" flea market and laments its new role as "the world's largest mall."
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(In the 1920s,) the Surrealists preferred “Les Puces,” as the flea markets on the outskirts of Paris were called. Andre Breton, the group’s self-appointed leader, wrote in his novel Nadja that the market at Saint-Ouen was “an almost forbidden world of sudden parallels” and “petrifying coincidences,” where unexpected encounters with dreamlike objects lurked around every corner.
EBay, the first e-commerce site, was until recently the web’s kitschier, crummier answer to (cultural critic Walter) Benjamin’s arcades or Breton’s Saint-Ouen. In its early years, its hit-or-miss search engine was conducive to close encounters of the absurd kind. Stumbling around the site, you’d find yourself in some obscure corner, staring in slack-jawed amazement at William Shatner’s kidney stone (auctioned off in 2006 for $25,000) or a Lilliputian suit of armor handcrafted to guinea-pig proportions, guaranteed to keep the dauntless rodent “protected and secure in all situations.” Unlike its sleeker competitor, Amazon, whose algorithms ensure you only see things like those you’ve already seen, eBay seemed, for a while, to facilitate chance meetings with the offbeat and the downright bizarre.
Lists of the most curious, absurd, abject, and grotesque eBay auctions have taken their place in the folklore of consumer culture: the grilled cheese sandwich miraculously emblazoned with an apparition of the Virgin Mary, which sold for $28,000; four golf balls (not just any golf balls; they’d been surgically removed from the belly of a python, who’d mistaken them for hen’s eggs); your advertising slogan tattooed, for $10,000, on some cash-strapped woman’s forehead; a corn flake shaped like the state of Illinois; a Dorito shaped like the pope’s miter; the meaning of life, on offer from a seller who claimed to have “discovered the reason for our existence” and was “happy to share this information with the highest bidder” (which he did, for the dispiritingly small sum of $3.26).