Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Psychology of Stuff (from's Thomas Rogers posted an interview with Randy O. Frost, one of the authors of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. Frost, while providing a compassionate exposé of the beauty and neuroses of compulsive hoarders, strikes on an attitude in American culture that seems much more pervasive.

Frost is quick to distinguish compulsive hoarding from plain-and-simple materialism. When Rogers asks, "Different cultures have different attitudes toward objects. Can we blame hoarding behavior on American materialism?", Frost replies,
"I think it might make it worse, but it’s clearly not a major component. If you take someone who's highly materialistic, who buys cars as a part of their identity, these are outward signs to the world saying, 'This is who I am.' In hoarding, the interest is not to show the world who you are, but to experience the objects."
Identity vs. experience. Who really has the neurosis? Stop and think about this. Frost's distinction normalizes the incorporation of possessions into personal identity while making the enjoyment of possessions for use-value or experience-value suspect. There is something morally backward in this outlook, yet this paradigm rings true to the way we live our everyday lives. It is normal to guard your MacBook as part of your identity (at least to protect against identity fraud!)--more normal than enjoying the aesthetics of a bottle cap collection.

This is not to say that hoarding is healthy. No, hoarding is destructive. But I think Frost names the sickness poorly, improperly. When Rogers asks how to distinguish between "somebody who is simply attached to things" and somebody who is a compulsive hoarder, Frost responds,
"It all boils down to the level of distress that the person or people around them experience. If you can’t eat at your table, if you can’t sit on your couch, if you can’t sleep on your bed, then those things are all impairments that occur as a result of hoarding, and that’s the tipping point, from when it’s just a set of behaviors and eccentricities to where it’s a disorder that needs some attention."
To my ears, this sounds like saying, "Cancer's okay, at least until you're dying of it." Instead, we need to open up the heart, the affections, and search out a more basic misdirection of desire. We need to find the lump before it metastasizes. How are our affections attaching themselves to things in sickly ways?

Frost locates one of the impulses to hoard in a "sense of intense responsibility for objects and an unwillingness to waste them." I can relate to this. My Protestant ethic keeps my desk and closets full of things I just can't stomach throwing away. They might be useful later. Maybe that unmatched sock or stack of college notes will be just what I need down the road.

Frost also talks about possessions as opportunities. "One of the hoarders in the book," he relates, "compares her hoarding to a 'river of possibilities,' because each object is a world of possibility for her."

Stewardship, beauty, hope, identity. Normal people would never locate these completely in their stuff. Of course not.

Possessions, according to Frost, are magic. The things in our drawers, on our shelves, lining bookcases, displayed atop the mantel--they are fantastic nodes of connection, imbued with memories, hopes, dreams. Frost explains that possessions "connect people to the world."

Our possessions, whether we are hoarders or just people who like something new every once in a while, are fundamentally relational. We might even say romantic. Like the reappearance of the 19th century muse, stuff (say, an iPad) is my better self, the self who still remembers the faces in all the high school photos in the bottom of the shoebox. A self who makes the best of every opportunity. A self who lives every moment to the fullest, who takes in the beauty of the experience. I don't think an iPad (or any other thing) should be able to do quite all this. Why do we hope that stuff can?

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