Objects of Affection

I moved last week and am finding myself unpacking endless boxes of what is now considered “old media:” CDs, DVDs, and above all books. Boxes and boxes of books, fiction and non-fiction and poetry and even spiral-bound collections of notes. (Never know when you’re going to need those old grade 10 Canadian History notes!) Sorting through them all brings me a kind of contentment that I’m sure is akin to how others feel when purchasing new shoes or clothes or gadgets. My books tell a story about the things I’ve studied, and the papers I’ve written, and the dusty used book shops I’ve visited throughout the years. They are a visual reminder of how my thinking has expanded.

I’ve written before about the sad demise of the bookshelf in the age of Wikipedia and e-readers, but moving has caused me to think about my particular clutter more broadly, particularly given how difficult it is for me to get rid of it (much to the chagrin of my ever-growing moving fraternity). There is comfort in stuff, especially in one’s own stuff. My grand theory is that everyone has a “clutter threshold,” beyond which things start to seem untidy. (I fall somewhere between Ikea-Chic and Victorian-Living-Room on the continuum, but more toward the latter.) And while my clutter tolerance level has remained relatively static, I’m always happy to put something else on the shelf that I’ve loved reading.

Is this just simple materialism? No; I suspect it runs much deeper. Things – particularly branded things, but also things in and of themselves – are what project our image out into the world. What we own and use defines us. Many psychologists believe that an obsession with objects is part of feeling secure, or included, in that having the same things as others gives one a certain identity as part of their group, however remote the connection. Advertising, of course, capitalizes upon this need for security and belonging by selling emotions, with the promise of happiness, comfort, or popularity inherent in owning or using their products.

My sagging bookshelves define me in ways I’m quite happy with, which is likely why I find it so difficult to give books away. Other people feel similarly about clothing, or teacups. But at what point does our love of things start to have negative effects? In Das Kapital, Marx wrote of commodity fetishism, the result of a capitalist system in which people’s labour is viewed as a commodity in and of itself, something to be bought and sold. Commodity fetishism alters social relations so people can only see their relationships with objects, instead of each other, i.e. producer with what she produces, consumer with what he consumes. Have we got to a point where we care about things more than the people whose stories are wrapped up in making, marketing, and selling them?

I read an article last August in the Globe & Mail about objectum sexuals: a movement of those who form romantic/intimate relationships with things. One such individual the article profiled had recently married the Eiffel Tower; another was at the time “dating two soundboards” (apparently objectum sexuals are no more likely to be monogamous than those who are attracted to humans). Is this just capitalism to its farcical extreme? Did Marx foresee this? Is our preoccupation – and in some cases obsession – with material objects a sign of the decadence and decay of Western society?

I wonder if this kind of thing occurs in the developing world, where there are generally fewer things, or if extreme materialism is only found among those who have the luxury of having many things. It makes some kind of sense (perhaps from watching too many 80s movies) that those who aren’t used to thinking of objects as having what Marx referred to as exchange-value instead of merely use-value would find the materialism Westerners exhibit absurd. In part, I suspect it is because those who live in less highly developed monetary exchange societies don’t imbue objects with significance in and of themselves to the same extent, as representations of communities. In the West we use objects to send subtle messages about what we value, what we think, and who we are at a fundamental level. In our world of extreme marketing and extreme materialism, buying (or not buying) things is our way of acting, instead of protesting or voting, which in many developing societies can be highly political even in the action itself. In my conceptual model detailing a national hierarchy of needs (perhaps more appropriately titled a hierarchy of national development), materialism would likely rest in the second-highest tier, that of a “thriving public sphere” with imagined communities. Consumer communities are a large part of the significance behind the idea of “taste,” because taste is, essentially, a quality that is comparative or shared.

I suspect that this is why iPods and e-readers and such – though certainly useful, and popular – will take a while to replace actual CDs and books entirely. Having electronic objects that store many different albums or books in one place ingratiates one into only a narrow kind of community, that of electronic gadget aficionados, whereas every book is a choice that can open up commonalities with whoever happens upon a bookcase. E-readers are not common enough yet to overcome their form and be judged by function alone, as paper is for books.

So would a way to escape from extreme materialism be to seek out others who feel the same way through action, instead of consumerism? To stop buying things and turn to protesting instead? Perhaps. But society has evolved to a state that is so commercialized, such actions are by default seen as economic ones, a kind of self-identification through one’s refusal to consume. In a world of too many things, materialism is no longer a difference of kind, but of degree. The amount and make-up of my clutter thus says a lot about me. Alas, back to boxes.

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