People have a weird relationship with stuff. Some people view it as a necessary evil and scoff at the rabid consumerism we see today, while others cling to their possessions, unwilling to let go even in the face of losing everything. Here in America we’ve been accused of, probably rightly so, being materialistic in the extreme. Modern manufacturing has pushed us farther and farther towards a disposable mindset when it comes to things, which means the stuff we own is largely fleeting. We know it for only a moment, then it’s gone to the landfill to be replaced by something newer or more modern, no matter how much we may have liked the old version.
Stuff is a physical extension of who we are, even if you view it as the rotten core of modern consumerism. Even the cheapest plastic crap is the outcome of human creativity and effort. The objects we gather around us reflect our view of utility and pleasure, memory and loss. In the end it doesn’t really matter how we feel about our things, their physical record is there telling our stories loud and clear. Everyone has at least one object they hold near and dear: the baby shoes of a child, a grandmother’s locket, a first edition novel, a fiddle played long ago in a dance hall. It’s an interesting relationship – our stuff is imbued with us and becomes us. We create it with meaning and then overlay more meaning onto it.
I find the new crop of television about people and their relationship to stuff fascinating. I’m not crazy about the markets these shows create, which encourage people to value stuff that has monetary worth over the personal or historic, but they still highlight the rich history of creativity and ingenuity of human beings. Even though I know shows like Pawn Stars and Storage wards are largely manufactured for entertainment I still love the reveal, that moment when the story of the object is told. They’ve featured items from across time: Uranium glass, a wonderful mix of science and art; vampire killing kits from the 19th century; a treasure trove of action figures.
That last item, a large haul of toys from movies and comic books caused a huge stir among collectors. It piqued my interest as well; the items were stored in an archival manner with care, and I imagined all sorts of sad scenarios where an avid collector could lose their prize collection in a storage auction. According to a thread on this forum at the Mego Museum, the collection was probably loaned to the show and the find staged. The thread is interesting not just for the deconstruction of the reality of these shows, but for the reactions of the collectors. Here’s an interesting place where monetary value and stuff intersects; some collectors are just glad to see their interests represented in a more public venue, others are worried that this exposure will affect their market and start pricing them out of collecting. When we find that the more and more people connect to our stuff-extensions of ourselves, sometimes it becomes less likely we are to be able to enjoy the stuff we like. Is it “good” that people are more accepting of stuff if it has value, as opposed to it just being stuff? Even value is personal; for every person in that Mego thread that would spend $1,000 on a certain figure, there’s another person who could not care less, and would toss an action figure in a donation box figuring it’s just a toy.
I’d say that my favorite of these shows is American Pickers. It’s like a mobile version of Antiques roadshow, to some degree. While the goal is for the two stars to find items of value to resell, they do something the other shows don’t; they introduce you to the collectors of stuff. I’ll admit, some of these people seem to border on being hoarders, but even so their stashes are impressive. One episode featured a bucolic farm with something along the lines of twelve trailers devoted to holding stuff. There are people who worked in various occupations who hold on to the relics of their jobs. One woman bought a department store with her husband, renovated a portion for their living area and then filled the rest with stuff. These people are like impromptu museums, who see an item and attach meaning to it beyond the monetary. They see the creativity and ingenuity. Maybe they also see the impermanence of our lives, and hold on to stuff to remind them that humanity is reflected in the things it makes, in the life and energy and place in time our possessions hold for us.