Monday, July 11, 2016

The long-anticipated Defense of Stuff

The piece I wrote recently for the New Republic about stuff vs. experiences seems to have gotten some interest. Elissa Strauss put the ideas into context helpfully in Slate, while Rebecca Schoenkoff had fun with the topic at Wonkette. The Atlantic included the piece in a "highlights" roundup. Miraculously I can still walk through the streets of Toronto unnoticed, but it's only a matter of time until we're talking sunglasses-and-autographs territory.

And there's now even a Bloggingheads on it! I got to debate materialism with Aryeh Cohen-Wade, who made the case for experiences. I was... meant to make the case for stuff, but never quite got there. What I did instead was make the point that much of what's often viewed as worse about 'stuff' applies no more to stuff than to experiences. The case, in other words, against being anti-stuff.

Because I ramble (slightly) less in writing, here's a second attempt at the positive argument for enjoyment of stuff:

For some people - for whichever mix of we-were-socialized-to and we're-just-like-that - it's fun to buy and/or make new things. This is a broad category that includes clothes-shopping and cooking, home decor and book accumulation. It doesn't mean enjoyment of all these categories, or indiscriminate enjoyment of any one of them. I can't speak to what it means for all, but for me, it means having a particular clothing item/recipe/book in mind (not quite at the home-decor life-stage, she types from her it'll-do IKEA couch) and being pleased to wear/use/read it.

But to simplify matters, I'll stick with the big one: clothes. That's the one with some shame attached. No one is judging me for owning condiments (with the possible exception of a broker my landlord hired to rent out our place, who passed along the not-false information that clear surfaces in the kitchen would make his job easier), or calling book-consumption shallow. But just saying I like clothes makes me sound cretinous. It demands disclaimers, apologies. But I'm going for positive here, so I'm going to save those for later.

Here's what 'liking clothes' involves, for me: I think of things I want to wear, inspired by women I know, or who I've seen on the street in Toronto, or on the street elsewhere when I have a chance to experience elsewhere, or on TV shows (female detectives!), or on fashion blogs (such as there still are), or because - and here I'm thinking specifically of the cherry-blossom sneakers; no other example is coming to mind - because I've seen something in a store window and thought how fantastic it is that this item even exists. I don't just go and buy all of it at once, both because $$$ and because that wouldn't be any fun. (How many times can I refer to Kei's brilliant concept of a "wanty list"?)

Because it's not about wanting white Birkenstocks since seeing a woman in Toronto with roughly my build and clothing color scheme wearing them. It's about sorting out which I'm looking for, in which material. And all that only after thinking about what, of what I already own, I'd wear them with. While I don't quite still view my wardrobe in terms of different fashion personalities, there's nearly always a vision for what will be worn how. What look it's all going for. And I'm not really an impulse-shopper. If I go to a store without a specific item in mind, or with only a vague plan ('I will buy a summer dress'), I wander around with... exactly the attitude of someone who hates shopping, and leave without buying anything.

But I got the sandals, and wearing them is great. I feel more myself in an outfit that I like, more together. And conveniently for me, I'm not so fickle as to require constant changing-it-up in the clothing department. If anything, I make the #KonMari mistake of hanging onto clothes (shoes) beyond repair, simply because I totally would still wear them if they hadn't fallen apart (red patent ballet flats), and sometimes do because... red patent ballet flats! Yes, that's what 'liking clothes' can mean - liking what you own so much that when it falls apart or no longer fits, this is a disappointment, so you keep wearing things a little too long. How oddly... not-wasteful.

For me - and who else would I have the authority to speak for on my very own Weblog? - putting in effort in this area is a matter of self-confidence, or something along those lines. At times when I've felt sort of ugh, I haven't felt I deserved either new clothes, or, on some level, even to wear the nicer things I already own. For others, who knows? If you're someone whose "ugh" leads to purchasing the entire contents of the nearest mall, this is not your experience, and maybe liking clothes is not, for you, a positive force in your life. For me, it is.

In a sense, the positive case for stuff is very straightforward. People like it! I don't need to explain why shopping can be fun, nor that in the history of humanity, people have acquired objects without falling into a sea of debt and hoarding. Thus why the anti-stuff tirades are always framed as, you only think you like stuff, but it's a mirage. What if it's just... not a mirage? What if the things in life that seem nice - new shoes, catching a glimpse of Justin Trudeau at the Pride parade - actually are?

And now the handwringing:

To like clothes isn't to like all clothes. Nor is it necessarily to like status clothes, or the clothes of the moment, although I see nothing wrong with either of these factors trickling into the great unknowable that is why we like the things we do. Nor does it mean spending a lot, or too much relative to income, on clothes. Nor, indeed, does it mean owning more clothes than people who just wear whatever. It means getting enjoyment out of deciding what to purchase and, once you own it, how to style it. It's that simple. No great sin has occurred.

Or, put another way: Those who go out of their way to make sure everything they wear is either used or (definitively) ethically produced (as in, not just expensive and marketed as an 'investment') get to hold a moral high ground. Those who simply don't care what they wear and have closets full of clothes they're indifferent to don't get any good-person points for non-enjoyment of the mall.

Oh, and if this needs stating: To like clothes isn't to get tremendous joy in one's own reflection in the mirror. I'm 20 years past losing sleep over questions of whether I'm stunning or hideous, having too many years' worth of accumulated knowledge that I - like nearly all of us - am neither. I fall into the same category as most, which is to say that if dressed reasonably nicely, I look quite a bit better than I do in sweats.

I'm not clear where the line exists between stuff and experiences. Yes, a plane ticket is in one category, and a knick-knack ordered online, another. But rarely is it that straightforward. (Or nor even there: maybe the flight is to a shopping trip, and maybe knick-knack-browsing online is a wonderful experience!) In a sense, maybe that's where my beef with the experiences-are-better-than-stuff brigade comes from. So, so, so often, the things praised as "experiences" and therefore noble sound awfully... stuff-y, while the things derided as "stuff" are basically about the experiences involved in acquiring the stuff, or that the stuff reminds someone of.

As came up on the Bloggingheads... while lots of stuff-acquisition is about keeping up with the Joneses, so, too, is plenty experience-having. Why does "stuff" suggest debt, while "experiences," which can be at least as expensive and ostentatious, get a pass? Indeed, given that everything gets photographed and shared these days, it's incredibly difficult for me to see how the mountain vista on a vacation that someone surely paid for is any different than a handbag.

In other words, insofar as there is a dichotomy, but it's not stuff vs. experiences. It's between the things (material or not) you actually get some sort of pleasure out of, and the ones you're under the impression you ought to consume, and consume reluctantly but out of a fear of what would happen if you did not. (There's a name for the latter category: kale.) If you find you're spending too much money and time on things you only think you should like, then... that's probably the place to cut back. As in, sure, the money I put towards new sandals could have gone towards one of those exercise classes that women of my demographics supposedly enjoy. But having once dipped a toe into the world of paying to exercise, I get the sense that it's not for me, not now, at least. I'd rather have the sandals, so I chose correctly.


Flavia said...

Everything about this.

But especially this:

the anti-stuff tirades are always framed as, you only think you like stuff, but it's a mirage. What if it's just... not a mirage?

I'm very good at purging clutter and getting rid of unuseful things, but I'm also deeply attached to many of the things I own. Having half my possessions in storage for nine months was annoying in all the predictable ways, but being reunited with it was more than just a matter of "oh, hey, now I have that book or saucepan I need." It felt like being reconnected to myself and my past.


the things derided as "stuff" are [often instead] about the experiences involved in acquiring the stuff, or that the stuff reminds someone of.

Absolutely. All that stuff that I'm attached to--furniture, wall art, books, dresses, handbags, whatever--are connected to experiences either past (I bought X in a shop I love, in a city I no longer live in, with a friend I don't see enough any more) or present (having a great dress to wear on a trip, or at a wedding, or to the orchestra is part of the fun of the experience).

Does "stuff" sometimes lose that experiential aura? Sure. And when it does I can get rid of it. But the aura persists for a long time, and I take pleasure in being surrounded by a lot of things that spark varying degrees of joy or comfort (rather than paring everything down to just a few exquisite objets in a spare & minimalist living room, or just eight perfect dresses hanging in my closet, testifying to my restraint and good taste).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Yes, that's it! Thank you! I think what frustrates me about the stuff-experiences conversation mainly is this aspect of... the entire divide being a construct.

It still frustrates me, though, that defenses of "stuff", including my own, always end up relying on a slightly defensive insistence that stuff is OK to like *because* (or only when) it recalls or inspires meaningful experiences. I keep returning to "Women in Clothes," and Ann Friedman's review of the same, where Friedman correctly points out how the clothes mentioned aren't fast fashion, but thoughtfully acquired, ideally thrifted, items. Or there's Arielle Bernstein's essay defending clutter... for refugees and their offspring. These are all fair points, crucial ones! But they don't challenge the idea that "stuff" and enjoyment of it is somehow inherently disastrous. It just allows for a range of stuff-liking dispensations.

Flavia said...

Yes, the central problem is the artificiality of the divide. Sitting in my living room, with a view on several other rooms, I can state unequivocally that every single thing I see is one or more of the following:

1) connected to an experience (if only by virtue of having been in my possession for a long time!)

2) aesthetically pleasing to a greater or lesser degree (yes, a few antiques or whatever, but also stuff from Target that will not endure for the ages but that also wasn't chosen totally at random),

3) useful (is this the world's greatest floorlamp? No, but I needed a floorlamp and it was $40)

I suspect that sums up most people's stuff: what we own is stuff that we need, like to look at, or have some sentimental attachment to. No one objects to any of that (I think!) when it comes to people of their own class, taste, and peer group, but they're very ready to see others as just willfully collecting junk and not knowing what "really" matters. (E.g., I can spend--or waste!--$40 on a new floorlamp, while you thriftily take whatever hand-me-down is available; you have a sentimental attachment to a Hummel figurine; I have a vintage selzer bottle I bought on the street in SoHo for $10, that's moved with me five times over fifteen years, and remains prominently displayed. Both our peer groups are equally likely to see the other person as liking the wrong stuff, or having the wrong attitude toward it. But it's not the stuffness of the stuff that's the problem.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"No one objects to any of that (I think!) when it comes to people of their own class, taste, and peer group, but they're very ready to see others as just willfully collecting junk and not knowing what 'really' matters."


And that's - in a roundabout way - what I liked about using the "Tony" example. After hearing time and again that "stuff" equals tackiness, "experiences" tastefulness, there was something kind of too-good-to-be-true about someone going full-on "experiences"... but in the tackiest way possible. Not because (and I should have spelled this out in the piece!) "Tony" is a terrible human being, or douchiness is evil, or anything of the kind. (As in all matters of taste, it's ambiguous what's a punch up vs down - from the Twitter responses to the piece, I suspect a *lot* of people, myself included, couldn't afford the "Tony" lifestyle and also on some level think we're too good for it.) Just because it demonstrates that these are separate issues - that "good" taste is no more or less ethical than "bad," and indeed that the purported stuff-experiences divide doesn't match up neatly with tackiness-tastefulness, unethical vs ethical consumption, etc.