Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Storage Wars, E.T., and Theories of Stuff



James Parker has recently written an article in the Atlantic about the rise of reality television documenting the overwhelming amount of stuff that American consumer culture of the past seventy years has accumulated. Many of these shows are focused upon the public appraisal, the auction of storage lockers, pawnshops that delve briefly into culture or history through the monetization of objects, and yardsale 'picking' shows. All of these programs hinge upon turning a profit by finding and selling other people's stuff. They document the dramas of secondary (and even tertiary) scavenger economies that have arisen in the wake of a recessed economy and the American population reaching new heights (literally) of material possessions. Other shows, such as Hoarders, document the pathology of stuff, how stuff has become a mental disease that people have to deal with. 'How sad,' we think, 'these people can't get rid of all that silly stuff.' (Though it's interesting how often we condemn ourselves and our society for creating a culture of disposability as we sheepishly toss out that old Blackberry we got in 2007.)

Parker covers all this reasonably well, arguing that these shows are both a specific cultural and historical moment. Namely, the steady extension of reality tv's commodity fetishism into everyday life and an economy so crummy has made weeding through trash bags of a stranger's clothes seems like a sound financial strategy. I would note that it's probably also a supply-side story: baby boomers who have now been at peak earning income for over a decade and have blown most of it on stereo speakers, workout equipment, and other household accoutrement.

Of all these shows about stuff, my personal favorite is Storage Wars. I discovered this show during a history conference in New Haven a couple years ago. The first panels of presenters began at 8am the next morning, but after stumbling upon this gem on A&E, I was up till four on the first television binge I had since Battlestar Galactica.



We pay rent to hold things we don't use.


This is a well-structured show broken into three parts:

1) Angsty and competitive bidding for storage lockers:  'If Barry thinks he's getting this locker… well, let's just say he's got another thing coming!'
2) Treasure hunts through a Tetris puzzle of a storage unit with cliff-hanging commercial breaks:  'Hey, hand over that flashlight… wait I can't quite see in the corner…. Oh my God, this is incredible!…'  (Abrupt commercial break and the viewer is left waiting to find out if they found a Faberge egg or someone's dildo collection.)
 3) Dramatic appraisal from exotic antiquary to determine profitability of the purchase: 'Well normally you might get $200 for a pair of these…' '…but… given the condition of these you could get $800!'  (cue enthusiastic trumpet ditty, high fives, probably the only triumphant dancing that ever occurs in a second-hand store)

But, here is what I would like to add to the conversation.

Whenever I watch the characters of Storage Wars root through these lockers, the stuff piled around those steel rooms reminds me of Elliot's home in the Steven Spielberg film, "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial."  For whatever reason, there was a lot of stuff in that house. I suppose it gave E.T. lots of things to interact with (E.T. hiding as a stuffed animal scene, E.T. bumbling around drunk bumping into things, etc.), but man, just watch it. Like most middle class homes in the late eighties and nineties it was a warm, kind of tacky environment with a ton of stuff. Toys, tools, dishes, furniture, etc. If Elliot's household really existed, almost thirty years later, pretty much all of that would now be obsolete and unwanted.




Think about it. Elliot has long since grown up, finished college at UC Whatever (or CSU Whatever if he was a slacker in high school), got a job doing tech at Netscape, got laid off in the dot-com bust, visited India, worked at Best Buy for a spell before bouncing back and rising to middle-management at Linked-In.  Anyway, at some point his Mom got fed up with all of his stuff still hanging around in his old bedroom (which she really wants to turn into a place where she can do yoga or maybe pilates). She gives him a call and Elliot dutifully drives his Prius C (or perhaps rents a truck on ZipCar) and loads his old crap up and brings it back to his apartment. After two weeks of tripping over cardboard boxes, Elliot caves and buys a storage unit near the Colma BART station.  Elliot then tragically dies in Prius battery fire and unfortunately leaves no record that he had a storage unit. After several months of missed rent, the storage company auctions off his locker and we watch hopefully as our lovable scavengers paw through his things and think about profit margins. 

Now.

Compare the ET vision of stuff with the latest paradigm of stuff. This is the distinctively different form of consumer materiality that has been increasingly marketed over the last decade. I'm thinking sleek Apple minimalism. This form of marketing views clutter as a hindrance, an obsolescence that we can replace with 'data dressed as pixels.' It is a society of glass, of the image, of the plasticized glass-glow of touch screens and digitization.



To continue the movie allusions, let's take as an example the apartment where Tom Cruise's character, Jack Harper, resides in the recent film Oblivion. It's like a iPhone 5S shat out a condominium unit.


This isn't itself that surprising since the evil alien mastermind villain is some sort of queen of the Android cellphones. Seriously, the villain in the movie is probably what Siri aspires too.



Anyway, the point is to compare the visions of material possessions in lumpy, frumpy,  stuff-laden E.T. with the gleaming, tabula rasa of digitization in Oblivion. Indeed Oblivion makes this comparison itself. Jack has built a cabin in some mountain oasis that escaped the apocalyptic destruction of the earth. He fills the cabin with stuff: books, paintings, pencils, sporting knick knacks. The idea is that humanity isn't represented by the linear world of linear iPad angularity. Whenever Jack comes back to the glass cube, he's not working for humanity. He's actually unwittingly working for Evil Space Siri who wants to suck the world of resources and then fly away in her spaceship (which itself looks like a Google TV Dongle). Indeed, Jack has to keep grounding his humanity in his stuff and continues to visit his cabin in an unconscious attempt to hold onto his personhood by… well, touching his stuff. Seriously, dude goes to the cabin just to hold, finger, jiggle, and wear his stuff. Indeed, after Jack dies destroying Evil Space Siri his female love interest goes to live in his cabin and commune with him by again… hanging out in and touching his stuff.  It sounds odd when you think about it, but onscreen it comes across as a very human form of memorialization through material possessions. Jack's stuff seems particularly important because unlike in E.T., there is actually not that much stuff left in wake of the apocalypse. So Jack's cabin of curiosities represents not only his memory, but also the memory of broader humanity on the verge of disappearance. It's a far cry from the saturation of Storage Wars, where we have so much stuff that we literally organize it with garbage bags.  
     The point is, that we now have competing theories of consumer materiality. We have the inundating, flood of asymmetrical, tangible, stub-your-toe-in-dark-trying-to-get-to-the-bathroom theory of stuff. This is the Nineties aspirations of stuff. Or, as was suggested to me by a friend, this is the 'Atomic Theory of Stuff', a cold-war era materialism that defined itself by the colorful contours of things. Think of the family in A Christmas Story, a lovable tale of a family that really is just about stuff (decoder rings, leg lamps, and air rifles!). This theory revels in tangible, material, stuff. It is the age of QVC, Sears catalogs, and VHS cartridges. More stuff is better! Get stuff! So much of it that you can hide an alien in your stuff for several weeks.
    I would suggest that this is being replaced (at least in terms of marketing) by an alternative theory. No stuff. Ditch your stuff in favor of a few 'devices.' Contain your stuff digitally, not tangibly. Fit all your stuff into a widget that's slimmer than a deck of Magic the Gathering cards (which you can play online). Of course it's not that we don't have stuff, it's just that we've converted it into a format that measurable in gigabytes. Toss out your Scrabble set and play Words With Friends. Of course, this is just a sales pitch. That Apple is hitting record sales at the same time that reality TV shows about stuff are proliferating is proof that the Atomic Theory of Stuff is still alive and well. But, it will be interesting to see if we really do respond to the minimalist marketing. Perhaps we are entering an age that is not only 'post-recession,' but also 'post-stuff.' Perhaps the Millennial generation will decide that it wants to consign its stuff to oblivion.