This evening I returned a chuck roast about 5 minutes after purchasing it. I didn't know how to cook it. I called my aunt from the parking lot of the grocery store. I mentioned that my kids wanted meat for dinner. "Not tonight," she said. Chuck roast is too tough. It takes several hours to cook. I didn't know that. My capacities for preparing food have diminished in comparison to those of my aunt, mother, and grandmother. I don't know the differences between cuts of meat. It's a challenge for me to put dinner together. I'm pretty good with pasta and know how how to work the rice cooker.
The best part of APSA was talking about the television show, "Hoarders," with other political theorists. My own dirty secret, that I watch "Hoarders," was others' compulsion as well. We all watch it. I feel awful afterwards. Not everyone else does. I feel compelled to clean and throw out, ill at ease by the proximity of total decay, of being completely overcome by objects that take control and in this taking enact my failure. I also feel the legacy of a couple of generations of class anxiety, of escaping from white trash clutter. The class to which we aspired enacted restraint, a kind of minimalism that demonstrated wealth, comfort, and security exceeding the tacky knicknacks of new money. Uncontrolled stuff was a give away.
What about "Hoarders," then? We easily agreed that it is symptomatic for a US trying to deal with a half century of consumerism. There are limits to what we can accumulated. It can be too much. "Hoarders" makes vivid an America suffering from over-consumption, from the accumulated effects of buying too much, of getting bargains and shopping early. It enacts system-wide failure, nation-wide decapacitation. People have lost the ability to organize their things, to clean up their messes, to pick up after themselves. They don't know how to run a household. They have lost their ability to govern their economy, now understood in the old terms of household management. Some feel shame. Some seem to have denied their situation, distanced themselves from it, as not to be able to fathom it at all. How did I get here? Why am I living in piles of trash? Isn't this where the US is? We are living in our own refuse and filth, unable to manage or organize or control our consumption and waste.
There's more, of course. Paul is on the side of the objects, the stuff, against the "experts" and "therapists" who want to take it away. This is not his usual theoretical stance, this orientation toward objects. But we both love(d) the man who saw the potential for art, the becoming-art, in whatever he would find in the dumpster. Through his eyes, a broken lamp was the potential for sculpture, for something new and wonderful. But there was so much potential, too much potential even. The potentiality of the objects becoming-art took over the man's dwelling space, at least according to his neighbors and those in charge of public housing.Perhaps the potentiality of the objects displaced his potential as they filled in the clearing of being.
Hoarders seem over-whelmed by the potentiality of objects. Anything can be reused, recycled. And there are bargains that can't be passed up. Saving money, saving things, costs them their living space. The injunctions of late consumerism--save, save, save--become a material that buries them alive. The therapists and experts don't seem to see this, though. For them the objects are only to be discarded.
What amazed me in the APSA discussion with other political theorists about hoarding is how we each expressed ourselves, for a time, in the theoretical languages of another. Someone who is non-judgmental turned to moralism and condemnation (I agreed, but moralism and condemnation don't bother me; I think we need more of it from the left). Another employed more psychoanalytic terms. And I retreated from psychoanalysis and thought about objects. Why?
Perhaps when encountering something deeply troubling, something that resonates and disturbs, we react by turning to a theoretical language that also disturbs. Perhaps we do this to protect our home language and the selves that dwell in it. Perhaps we do it because the strangeness of the issue, event, phenomena invokes for us the strangeness of other modes of thought. Perhaps we turn elsewhere because the rupture of the phenomena ruptures our thinking and calls us to think differently. I think each of these ideas seems right. Together they encourage me to think of the richness of combined modes of thought, not because each theorist should think in multiple registers or with multiple instruments but because we are each enriched and enabled through the different thinking of others. This would be diminished if we tried to make it our own, to bring it in as just another accumulated object of thought.