Our stuff is burying us alive: Hoarding and the mountains of garbage we call "collections"

Would you want to inherit your friends' stuff? Your valuables might mean just as little

Published November 8, 2015 12:30AM (EST)

  (AP/Eric Risberg)
(AP/Eric Risberg)

Excerpted from "Waste"

Look around the homes of loved ones whose objects you might at some future date have the opportunity to inherit or be saddled with sorting through, and lament how few of them have a meaning for you that is anywhere nearly as profound as they do for this person who means everything to you. And then return home, to your own piles of things, and see if you are able to see within them their own future obsolescence: not just as objects that will fall out of use, or into disrepair, or out of style, but out of favor with whatever child or heir or rummaging stranger will inevitably come to them once you are gone. Of the things that mattered to you somehow, almost none will mean anything for them. The object-world we build around ourselves is as fragile and artificially maintained as we are, and just as prone to dissolution. For the most part, the world beyond you will not care about your furniture, your kitchen utensils, your musty clothes, your tchotchkes, or your precious books. The only thing that holds a collection of things together is the person who had gathered and held them across the long years of her life, and considered them an integral part of herself; and now she is gone.

American Pickers, a staple of the History Channel lineup of faux-reality shows, follows the cross-country peregrinations of Mike and Frank, two junk collectors (“pickers”) from Iowa who roam the back roads of rural America in search of “rusty gold,” the detritus of earlier times buried under piles of rubble, squirreled away in attics and sagging barns. Their primary business is rediscovering and then selling things they’ve found in the nooks and crannies of the American heartland to collectors, designers, and homeowners in more affluent parts of the country. The majority of the show consists of them tunneling through immense piles of stuff that individual hoarder-collectors have accumulated over the past forty or fifty years and are now ready to sell.

Mike goes out of his way to talk about finding a new and proper home for these derelict objects by returning them to market. While his enthusiasm seems genuine—he has the simple rugged charm of a knowledgeable and self-deprecating Midwesterner—the premise of the show and the survival of their business depends on locating people with immense piles of old junk who are ready to sell at substantial discounts, as well as a pool of largely-unseen buyers eager to pay handsomely for these pieces of vintage Americana. Mike and Frank, along with their small coterie of co-workers, assistants, siblings, and associates, thus serve a critical transactional function for the ongoing process of looting the object-worlds of America’s past to produce new commodities built on our modern desires for objects of the past that have managed to survive and captivate us with their now-exotic craftsmanship. Mike will often speak of his desire to bring the junked object back “into the world” by giving it a new life. The Indiana octogenarian’s obsession and frugality become the mechanism by which overpriced Brooklyn or Silicon Valley micro-lofts are decorated in “signature pieces” meant to signify some kind of imagined relation to the past, authenticity, craft, and labor flensed of everything except the aestheticized totem-object that is supposed to embody them.

In his work on the theory of objects, Jean Baudrillard asked what lies behind “the persistent search for old things—for antique furniture, authenticity, period style, rusticity, craftsmanship, hand-made products, native pottery, folklore, and so on? . . .” As he argues, “The tense of the mythological object is the perfect: it is that which occurs in the present as having occurred in a former time, hence that which is founded upon itself, that which is ‘authentic’.” There is an entire lost world of manual production that these objects, in their rugged beauty and durability, communicate to us; and it echoes in the vanishing world of the junkmen themselves, who have served as unofficial curators of the bygone days of American craftsmanship. But beyond all of this there is the somewhat newer world of antique-sprinkled homes and businesses, seeking to present the aura of “history” detached from actual material lives, reduced now to mere curios. These new business and home spaces now serve as the museum and mausoleum of material worlds of capital production that have migrated elsewhere.

In American Pickers, this desire for the imaginary authenticity emanating from old rusted objects also functions as an old-guard nativism in disguise. The patrons are in most cases elderly white men living in rural backwaters of America. Not coincidentally, this mirrors the show’s and the channel’s target demographics. In this sense, the show not only uncovers “History” by way of dusting off the derelict objects and equipment of an earlier age of American manufacture, but also offers viewers a palliative for the aggrieved status of these junkmen who seem to have outlived their time or usefulness, as being worn-out relics themselves. These living fossils from the American Century serve as jovial, wizened spokesmen for the vanished worlds of World War II-era and midcentury lifeways. Over and over again they make their case for returning affection and attention (and a tidy profit) to dismal objects that once appeared to have outlived their usefulness. These guardians of the past have, it seems, staved off the complete annihilation of these cast-iron banks, gas- station pumps, folk art, and decaying motorcycle engines for just a little while longer. But American Pickers is more than just a primer in white American nostalgia-panic at the perceived loss of Arcadian industrial-era America. There’s also a clear generational politics at work in the show, although it’s always presented in a rather romanticized, diffuse way: there was a time, the show laments, when this country used to build things.

Lamentably, the show is one of the few on contemporary television to give any airtime to senior citizens. We’re meant to see the collectors themselves, and not merely their piles of junk, as relics of a bygone time—of a present that no longer has the space, patience, or interest in the detritus of an earlier time, whether the castoff objects of those eras or the people who lived most of their lives in them. By being attuned to the demise of the age of American manufacture and its attendant phenomena—the erosion of class mobility, job security, and community—through a neck-deep ramble among the rust and antiques, the show serves as a living document of the many shapes that wastelands take in the age of globalization. The mini-biographies given of the collectors on the show also offer us a striking, if fleeting, glimpse into the quiet lives of the World War II and Vietnam generations in the new decades of the new century. These generations used to be at cross-purposes a few decades ago, but within the purview of the show they have coalesced into a vast Retirementland, where the distinctions between World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War veterans is effectively meaningless. For students of American political history, there is a strange flattening effect in seeing the differences between sixty-year- old Vietnam vets and eighty-five-year-old World War II vets being effectively erased. The generational conflict of the New Left era, with its deep suspicions of and disengagement from the culture and values of the generation that preceded it, collapses in American Pickers into a new formulation of a broader industrial American past, one in which there are those who came of age in America before the great neoliberal transformations of the 1970s and beyond, and those of us who came after. These are men who worked a forty-year job and bought a home and some land and started a family, accumulating a lifetime of junk in the process that they now display with avuncular pride. What the culture wars of midcentury did, globalization neatly undoes, now uniting a broader swath of “authentic” American experience by unsettling the old political divides that no longer obtain and replacing them with a new type of division, between the age of good old-fashioned grit and industry, and the new fallen age of store-bought faux-authenticity.

The show makes a fascinating and antagonistic counterpoint to the TV show Hoarders and its even more sensationalist TLC variation Hoarding: Buried Alive, both of which milk the hoarder’s collection-compulsion for every ounce of pathos it’s worth. To a far greater degree than American Pickers, Hoarders depends for its pathos on the lingering, voyeuristic spectacle of unseemly and unhealthy rubbish. Where American Pickers offers a folk archaeology, Hoarders provides us with the worst kind of pop psychology. It appeals to our perverse fascination with social deviations, mania, obsessions, the landscapes of psychological disorders or defects. The shows offer competing portraits of people’s relationship to the objects of their affection, suggesting that objects (even in great quantities) are neither good nor bad; only one’s relationship to them is. The producers of these shows frame their respective junk-heaps in markedly different ways: the piles in Hoarders are always filled with spoiled food, rotting papers, dead animals; in American Pickers they contain cast-iron toys and rare nineteenth-century bicycles. But even a cursory glance at the immense piles of objects the pickers find in even the richest seam of antiques makes clear that the vast majority of material owned by the people in American Pickers is also certifiably worthless rubbish. The question this leaves unasked or unanswered: might the depraved hoarders have some items of genuine material or historical value buried among the wreckage of old leftovers, dirty dishes, and mouse turds? Occasionally, we are given glimpses of this, but it’s quickly elided, since the objective of the show is completely different. Here all that we survey is waste, and nothing more.

Placed side by side, these two shows about waste and desire also indicate that what counts as value depends on what the market wants and what social norms dictate as being something deserving of individual desire. The market and the social conventions of reality TV are thus the proper judge of character. If your home is filled with moldy newspapers and expired condiments, you’re deviant; if it’s filled with old gas pumps that cheesy chain restaurants will restore and display for their goggle-eyed customers, you’re a savvy investor and arbiter of value. One show highlights the market gems and downplays the mountains of undesirable junk, while the other reverses this, focusing mostly on the valueless junk and the toll its exponential growth takes on the hoarders and their loved ones. In the special reflective recap episode, American Pickers: Off the Road, Mike is asked to respond to the question sometimes asked of him: what’s the difference between your show and Hoarders? “People on our show are proud,” he declares. If the predominant sentiment expressed by the junk dealers in American Pickers is pride, the atmosphere of Hoarders presents the towering midden-heaps of domestic America as a source of shame. In the former, dirty mountains of objects are the records of a life of adventure, travel, curiosity, hobbies, interests, or benign accumulation; while in the latter, the people living under the shadow of their disorders are hard cases: antisocial, damaged people. Massive trash bins and psychiatric counselors are brought in, and everyone starts chucking in the vast majority of the offal from the fetid houses as its owners look on in obsessive-compulsive anguish. If Baudrillard was right to suggest that “consumption is irrepressible, in the last reckoning, because it is founded upon a lack,” shows like Hoarders are designed to diagnose that lack by lingering over the terrible wastes buried in the cramped houses of the desperate and deranged.

One class of hoarders is adept at policing its garbage, while the other fails. One show imagines perfect markets where the new and the old circulate side by side in a culture of endless repurposing and profit-generating (value without use), and the other imagines a world of properly adjusted individual mentalities, which are needed in order for the world of consumption to continue without revealing too much about its own built-in schizoid relationship to production, accumulation, and value. In American Pickers, the “lack” is the modern condition of low-quality goods that can only be remedied by resurrecting the noble past embodied in talismanic objects of value, whereas in Hoarders and its related types of shows, the lack is a psychological affliction, and addiction to trash that serves as the symptom of social awkwardness or mental illness. The irony is that one of the things that makes the hidden treasures unearthed on American Pickers valuable now is that they were once seen as unvaluable, and thus discarded—in just the way that the detritus of the hoarders is seen as valueless. Things that have survived the scrap heap are valuable in part because so many other objects of its kind found their way to the scrap heap. Both American Pickers and Hoarders, then, depend for their meaning on a cultural logic of trashability. Hoarders suggests that the proper place for all of this—all of it, and quickly—is the garbage heap, while American Pickers suggests that the proper place for all of this is anywhere other than the garbage, because that’s where most of its companions already ended up.

Is it possible to read the human subjects that populate shows like Hoarders as something other than merely psychiatric problem cases? Far more immense and consequential acts of wastage don’t receive this kind of attention and scorn, and certainly not this pathological eye. But why? Industries pile up astonishing amounts of waste as the mere cost of doing business, as does the average modern consumer, throwing out his seven pounds of trash each day. But those who live among their filth, those who reject the false concept of Away, are the ones cast as aberrant. They are diagnosed, mocked, or subjected to our armchair analysis. But of course it’s those of us who indulge in the Away-fantasy who are the real deviants: not from social norms, but from truth. At the very least we can say that hoarders hold on to their own garbage rather than outsource its storage. The fact that they themselves would not describe it as trash is less consequential than the fact that, as Edward Humes notes, hoarders perform “a kind of public service,” because they let us see what our true legacy looks like. Unlike the cheap spectacle these hoarders provide, most of us hoard our waste in outsourced landfills instead of our own living rooms, kitchens, and yards. Shows like Hoarders reveal that those of us who do the seemingly normal and healthy thing of dumping our mountains of trash into unseen dumpsites are in an equally unsavory position where the question of waste is concerned. The hoarder’s lairs constitute an alternative space to the pristine, or only mildly messy, domiciles in which most of its TV audiences live their daily lives, and feel themselves to be of sounder mind.

Hoarders is thus in part about our cultural habit of attempting to regulate and normalize desire; about the dangers of manufactured desires run amok; about the perceived need for finding the happy medium of consumption and accumulation in a world that insists on it to the full limits of one’s health and well-being. It is as if the hoarder has broken some unspoken covenant with the way we are supposed to relate to time, value, and objects. Beneath the rhetoric of obsession, compulsion, and mental and social crisis, what is meant to be most alarming to the viewer is the colonization of living space by the overwhelming force of accumulated garbage. The home has become a storage shed, and the business of enjoying the pleasures of one’s more properly balanced modern home is disrupted here by the intrusion of too much enjoyment, too much indulgence in desires that have spoiled, that have transformed from dreams of possession to claustrophobic nightmares. The cultural logic of hoarding is that the opposite of enjoyment is too much enjoyment. Hoarding is the name we give to a particularly acute species of storage panic in the era of low-quality, low-cost goods, where our inability to reign in our desires for things exceeds our ability to house and organize and demonstrate use or value in them. Like the Collyer brothers buried under their own detritus; or the women of Grey Gardens, the hoarder has turned her back on a society that has given her an endless supply of objects to turn away with. It is no surprise to hear the more famous or affluent of hoarders as merely eccentric, because it reminds us that accumulation is not bad (it’s good and necessary, we’re told!), but that it’s outside the norm, off-center. In a society organized around conspicuous consumption the worst sin of all is to be someone other than Goldilocks—someone who either drowns himself and his mania in mountains of trash or someone who lives like the equally suspicious Spartan hermit, living off the grid, uninterested in phones or TV or internet, unconcerned about fashions and news and trappings. Like so much of the other pseudo-reality TV we consume, Hoarders and its variants allow their viewers the opportunity to express a vague empathy while trafficking in the salacious voyeurism that lets us (as we gaze at the commercial interruptions on our flat-screens) define ourselves in opposition to the pathological cases we find so compelling to gawk at from afar. Whether we realized it before or not, our waste objects must achieve a homeostasis with the clean and desirable objects of our lives. We want to be sure we are not being buried alive by the wrong sorts of things.

Excerpted from "Waste" by Brian Thill, part of the Object Lessons series from Bloomsbury Publishing Inc. Copyright © Brian Thill, 2015. All rights reserved.

By Brian Thill

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