Hoarding, Curating, Asphyxiating

On How We Obsess Over Our Stuff

Judging by the spectacular rise of lifestyle blogs, magazines about entertaining, and words like “curating,” the so-called “creative class” is increasingly looking to objects as its vehicle of self-expression. More and more our cultural elites look to things to define themselves rather than, say, their tastes or words. They don’t merely collect things to affirm their social or economic status, though this certainly hasn’t diminished, but instead look for the perfect constellation of objects as to establish an identity that is entirely they own. Any passing perusal of a lifestyle blog or culture magazine invariably bears this out — our public selves are more than ever tied to our spaces, and in particular, the ways that we choose to decorate. In this disproportionate interest in the signifying capacity of objects, it seems that we have outsourced the job of self-expression to those things that bear the weakest association to us.

Looking to the recent history of style and pop culture, it’s easy to see that this is a fairly recent phenomenon. To take one example, towards the end of Manhattan (1979), Woody Allen’s character, Isaac Davis, offers a list of things that make life worth living:

Groucho Marx

Willie Mays

The 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony

Louis Armstrong, recording of “Potato Head Blues”

Swedish movies

Sentimental Education by Flaubert

Marlon Brando

Frank Sinatra

Those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne

The crabs at Sam Wo’s

Tracy’s [Mariel Hemmingway] face

Davis’ list is one of cultural and artistic touchstones and it tells us something about the person who wrote it. He, like Allen himself, likes a mixture of high and popular culture. He loves great European art along with baseball and jazz. He admires the American, hyper-masculine figures of Brando and Sinatra along with the comic figure of Marx. He also expresses love for the San Francisco beat hangout Sam Wo, which closed in 2012 due to a problem with rat feces, and thereby expresses both his bohemian leanings and his fondness for Chinese food. Through the list we glimpse the various valences of Davis’/Allen’s identity: sports fan, movie buff, urbanite, wannabe sex symbol, aesthete, and Jewish intellectual. But the purpose of the list isn’t to assert anything about Allen himself, but really just to offer a list of great stuff.

I think about this list when I see the objects collected under the ongoing Essentials series on Hypebeast. In the series, people arrange a set of personal artifacts into aesthetic configurations as a way of presenting their unique style to the viewer. These arrangements are carefully composed such that every object complements the next and attempts to evoke some singular aesthetic sensibility. There are quirky shirts, pieces of jewelry, passports, the minutiae of hobbies and professions, iPhones, liquor, vintage magazines, Polaroid photographs, and other stylish, vintage, limited edition, and/or expensive stuff.

Allen’s list and the inventory of objects in an Essentials photograph have a few obvious things in common. They both are collections of things, both suggest that the things they contain are indispensable, and both tell us something about the author. But the similarity ends there. Allen’s list, emerging from the question “Why is life worth living?” is a list of cultural signifiers none of which are Allen’s own possessions but that are universally recognizable cultural hallmarks. In many ways, these objects really are essential in that they comprise the bedrock of the aesthetic and cultural experience not just of Woody Allen but many other people. Unlike Allen’s list, the items in Essentials are all possessions and none of them are particularly significant. They are a litany of minor objects, things exhibiting a sense of culture and style but not iconic, by no means enriching of our greater cultural/aesthetic experience. With Essentials, it’s obvious that these items are not necessities but identity markers. When we look at specific objects from the series (a bottle of snake whisky, a box of Band-Aids with pickles on them, a pair of socks covered in anchors) the singularity of these items suggests that what is “essential” about them is not their place in culture or even their object-ness, their function as alcohol, bandages, or socks, but rather their stylistic features, their provenance from Southeast Asia, their amusing pickles, their anchors, i.e. their style. Unlike Woody Allen, Essentials curators manifestly tell the viewer that what is most essential to them is their own individuality and, more importantly, that this individuality rests within a set of possessions.

The sensibility expressed in the Essentials series isn’t unique — the format is mirrored in countless fashion and lifestyle blogs depicting people with immense sophistication, usually manifested in an idiosyncratic collection of objects. The Selby, a lifestyle blog and a coffee table book by Todd Selby, depicts people in their spaces, sipping coffee surrounded by an inventory of things. Philip Crangi, a jewelry designer, is shown sketching at home among his Nike Air Max Navigates, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, books by Gore Vidal and Hunter S. Thompson, issues of Nest: A Quarterly of Interiors magazine, antiques, and a banana, among other things. Every object seems carefully arranged as to dispense the correct dose of style and individuality. The Coveteur shows model and actress Noot Seear (New Moon, Breaking Dawn) getting down at home surrounded by vintage goods: “Like kids in a veritable candy store (only the candy was a whole lotta vintage, no really, like, everything vintage…” The sense here is that people are most interested in expressing themselves through artifacts, not through what they produce, or have read, or even what they like, but what they own.

Noot Seear

An avenue of research in what has been called object-oriented philosophy sheds some light on what might be happening here. In Alien Phenomenology, or What it Means to be a Thing (2009), philosopher and former video game developer Ian Bogost argues that we have been largely ignorant to the power of things. As he argues, our understanding of the material world has been indivisibly tied to an egotistical perspective called “correlationism,” a term coined by philosopher Quentin Meillassoux referring to a prioritization of the human perspective when considering the world. Bogost argues that people, by and large, only understand objects as they relate to the human, what Heidegger termed “ready-to-hand.” Through this perspective, humans only see tacos as food, hammers as tools to drive nails into wood, and cars as means of conveyance. There is a neglected perspective, Bogost argues, what Heidegger termed “present-at-hand,” which stipulates that the taco, the hammer, and the car can be conceived as objects in and of themselves without being understood as being for anything. A taco, for instance, may be thought of as an infinitely complex system, depending what kind of taco it is, of meat, cilantro, onion, cheese, and/or salsa, held together by a tortilla, within which acids, lipids, proteins and a host of chemical compounds converge in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the taco is for eating.

As Bogost argues, we have been remiss to this aspect of objects, the vast, internal, and utterly disinterested lives of things. In myopically focusing on the eccentric anchor pattern covering a blue sock, we are ignorant to the weave patterns of the cotton fiber, the provenance of the cotton, the chemical compounds of the dye used to color it, the shipping journey of the garment, the resources and labor requisite to produce it, and an infinite number of additional processes and tensions tied to it. In other words, the sock is a universe of complexity that inherently evades our attempts to know it. To then link our identity to a pair of socks on account of their pattern is to seek our identity in a veneer. We commit a correlationist fallacy when we link our identity with an object because to do so ignores the fact that the object has its own thing going on. Regardless of our reasons for acquiring an object, exhibiting travel we’ve done, tastes or preferences we have, our sense of humor, the features of the object that communicate these qualities, like the sock’s anchor pattern, are qualities that we decide to elevate to above others. We could just as easily take meaning from a sock’s country of origin or its size and to do so would be as equally arbitrary as to take meaning from its pattern. Accordingly, Bogost’s theory encourages us to understand that things have little relation to us, only the fictive, ephemeral qualities that we are at pains to see in them.

Bogost discusses an additional concept that casts doubt on the practice of collecting and displaying objects in home decorating schemes. This concept, what he calls the “ideograph,” is defined as any representation of a set of things in relation. Examples include instruction manuals for Ikea furniture, models of the human anatomy, grocery lists, medication instructions, or photographs like those on lifestyle or fashion blogs. As Bogost argues, each ideograph represents a set of interdependent relationships among a finite set of things while completely occluding all others. A receipt from a restaurant won’t list the ingredients of your pork bulgogi, only that it cost $12.95. Because the restaurant receipt is designed to highlight only one set of relations, it will only reflect the relation of meal to price as useful by the occasion.

The objects grouped together in lifestyle and fashion blogs operate according to the same criteria. The correlation between them that is captured when photographer takes a picture of them is the connection provided by ownership itself. All of the objects are depicted according to the fact they belong to someone. This evident connection of belonging is what allows the viewer to make sense of the photograph and piece together the connections between the objects into a coherent whole.

In Caroline and Oliver’s home in St. Maurice de Cazevieille, Uzès, part of the Sneak Peeks series on Design Sponge, the significance we are to take from the juxtaposition of a vintage tub, a worn Panama hat hanging by the stairs, and a sofa made from North African grain bags is that they cumulatively describe the taste of their owners, let’s call it “Post-Colonial chic.” But this is just one corollary among an infinite number of others. The objects depicted also have relationships outside the one they have with their owner. Caroline and Oliver’s stuff relates to place, price, age, material, labor, resources, and resource management. Moreover, Caroline and Oliver’s Moroccan rug and the grain bag couch resonate with one another because of their shared country of origin and material. These relationships among objects have nothing to do with their ownership or taste — they exist regardless. Accordingly, the notion that all photographed objects should be taken as an irreducible statement on the singularity of their owner’s identity disregards the literally infinite number other axes through which objects relate and prioritizes only one.

Uzès

Most importantly, the photographs on lifestyle blogs depict only a particular set of objects. Their inclusion in the ontograph is an attempt to say that these owned objects are more important, more emblematic of identity, than the ones just outside the frame. However, all of the unseen objects that lie beyond the frame are no less owned as those depicted in the photograph and, consequently, these marginal objects bear equal relation to their owner as the objects depicted. Hence, we engage in a fiction when display a well-worn pair of designer boots and not a mostly empty bottle of mouthwash. It would be a very different collection, though no less authentic, if we exhibited a photograph containing gym socks, a CPAP machine, and an old Chinese take-out box from the back of the refrigerator. These are objects that many of us own, though I would think that most of us would be unwilling find our identity in them. Instead, in our estimation of ourselves, these objects are treated to object-quarantine, shamed to the back corners of medicine cabinets, while our Iittala glasses and bottles of Jurassic wine sit exposed.

Product designers seem to be aware of this problem and in recent years there has been a revolution in the design world to aestheticize even the most mundane objects. In The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness (2003), Virginia Postrel argues that the past half century has seen a democratization of high concept objects such that they are no longer province of the wealthy but widely available as common consumer goods. As she discusses, most consumer objects, even the most mundane, have been “aestheticized” by product designers such that a vulgar object like a toilet brush is now available in a variety of colors, metals, woods, and finishes and ranges in cost from just a few dollars to $400 luxury models made of crystal or gold. The toilet brush is only one example of the evolution in product anesthetization that is going on willy-nilly across the wealthiest nations. Thanks to the revolution in industrial design, you can now purchase attractively packaged Mavis brand tooth paste from an online luxury toiletry retailer, K-10+ dog vitamins in a handsome purple box, Unique brand nail files made of stone from the Pyrenees Mountains, and 34 Boulevard Saint Germain Room Spray by Diptique.

It seems that the tendency to both produce and purchase these things comes out of an anxiety about the objects we own, namely a feeling of dissatisfaction that our every possession can’t be a design masterpiece in its own right and that every domestic moment can’t be an expression of identity. It seems reasonable to think that for those who aim to own only beautiful objects, from their shirts down to their acne pads, there is no need to create an ontograph of possessions arranged neatly on the floor. Instead, a photographer could open any drawer in one’s home and photograph a perfectly curated set of objects reflecting the personality of their owner, as if by collecting the worthiest artifacts in our medicine cabinets and under our sinks we can aestheticize even the most mundane daily tasks.

The extreme inverse all of this is on display in two popular reality TV shows, the A&E television series Hoarders and TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive. These programs portray, in ghoulish close-ups, the domestic conditions of people who, for whatever reason, have way too much stuff. The shows are more or less identical in format, depicting two households per episode in which the abundance of objects has become obscene.

In the first segment of a typical episode, people are documented trying to live in their environments, negotiating piles of paper plates and long-ago consumed Big Gulps, and discussing what life is like in a space overwhelmed by objects.

Sometimes a family member or a friend, someone unaware of the degree of the crisis, will be brought in to have a freak out. They cry, shame the hoarder, and accuse them of being insane, while the hoarder stands in stony silence looking ashamed. In the second half of the program, the producers stage an intervention. A cognitive behavioral therapist or clinical psychologist comes in to address the hoarder’s practices and cleaners, and “professional organizers” attempt to help the person clean up. By the end of the show, the hoarder has made some headway, received some treatment, and is left to continue the work the show started.

It’s worth noting that nearly every hoarder on these shows has experienced some sort of trauma that led to their behavior. Chris (Hoarders Episode 10) began hoarding following the death of a child, as did Barbara (Hoarders Episode 61), whereas Kathleen (Hoarders Episode 66) started hoarding following the death of her husband, while Diana (Hoarders Episode 82) hoards in response to childhood abuse, as does Lisa (Hoarders Episode 51). Quite frequently, the nature of trauma has some connection to abandonment or privation and the associated hoarding behaviors seem like an attempt to negotiate these fears. When “professional organizers” attempt to remove items, one of the most common reactions of hoarders is sentimentality towards the object, as if removing the object will remove the associated memory. Accordingly, these programs usually seem driven by consequences of trauma, yet the producers of the program would have you believe that stuff, the mountains of mail, clothing, and expired food, is the star of the show, and indeed the heart of the problem. When the producers of Hoarders or Hoarding: Buried Alive intervene in a hoarding situation by helping to clean a person’s home, they are asserting that what make’s a person a hoarder is the overabundance of objects, not trauma or illness.

This view of objects, like that displayed by curators, issues from a correlationist view of objects. To their credit, the shows do attempt to address the person’s behavioral issues, and most episodes voice some version of the point that, “clutter is the symptom,” though the clear assertion of the show is that objects, not mental states, make one a hoarder. Were this not the case, the shows would follow an individual’s therapy sessions and treatment rather than crews in blue gloves gutting a home. They would pay more than a passing interest to the person’s past, and would deal with the emotions loosing stuff brings up. This is hardly every the case. Instead, the endless litany of close-ups focus entirely on objects as disease, not as symptom, and they seem to chart progress by how much stuff they are able to remove from a home. In so doing, the shows reinforce the taboo of hoarding, alienating rather then humanizing the individual hoarder. Quite similarly to style blogs’ materialist tendencies, these television programs assert that objects determine identity.

Emboldened by the Internet, contemporary culture seems to be increasingly interested in objects and is constantly developing new ways to be captivated by them, both celebrating them and reveling in their grotesqueness. People shop on Ebay, Etsy, and Amazon, craft Pinterest boards, manage Instagram accounts, they consume lifestyle, fashion, decorating, and entertaining blogs, and distribute pictures of their possessions and outfits while simultaneously inhaling gigabytes of “ruin porn.” For whatever reason, because of the Internet, or disposable income, or the increasing availability of things make possible by advances in production and labor’s race to the bottom, we are increasingly materialistic in our worldview, but narrowly so in that we are interested in objects merely for their relationship to us. Our relations to objects, in the tendencies to display and hoard, are the result of our correlationist attitudes. Both hoarders and curators, as well as the publics who affirm their identities, derive an arbitrary sense of self from their relation to objects, seeming to believe in a unitary connection between self and thing, and both groups, as well as their audiences, seem to believe that the ownership of objects is the most relevant feature about those things.

It ought to be more widely understood that things matter, but not necessarily because they define us. Rather, things matter because they bear deep and complex relation to other things and offer a way of understanding the world in new ways. As Bogost argues, all objects are infinitely entangled with one another through multiple axes of production, symbol, shape, and touch. An mp3, for instance, is not just a playable recording but also a code sequence, an artistic endeavor, a financial object, an artifact of technological evolution, and a symbol. In addition, an mp3 links every object and individual involved in its production, from the sound proofing lining the walls of the recording studio to the gas pumped into the band’s tour bus.

Contemplating things according to their complex relationality, I think, opens avenues of thought that are less egotistical and more conscious concerning the things that populate our physical and psychological spaces. For example, when we reflect on Philip Crangi’s Nike Air Max Navigates in the sum of their associations, we might consider the design significance of the mesh upper with strategically-placed overlays, or the excess rubber from the Nike manufacturing process that is reportedly burned in a dump outside Jakarta, or Nike’s support of the RED campaign to cease mother to child HIV transmission. Thinking according to an object-oriented perspective is not an inherently political project that leads us directly to judgments about social justice or environmental pollution. However, it could allow us to start weaning ourselves from the narcissistic perspectives of objects encouraged by popular culture and instead explore other possibly more vital issues: human rights, design, labor, chemistry, or anything more substantive and interesting than the question of our own identity. Given the extent of what could concern us about objects, their relation to our sense of uniqueness, or indeed to our shame, is a minor fragment of a complex system of object relations whose immensity should interest us far more than it does.