Unpacking the Meaning of Objects, Stuff and Other Things

For the past few weeks I've been living under constant fear that my roommate will tell me a prospective tenant is coming by to check out the room (i.e. my current room, but only for another ten days). It's an absolute mess. And not in the "just give me a few minutes while I tidy up" sort of way; no, I'm talking legitimate disaster zone. Because I'm not just packing to leave, I'm also sorting through what I want to take with me on my upcoming three-month trip.

I came to Paris with two large suitcases and two carry-ons - altogether more than my own body weight worth of clothes, shoes and bags. When my brother helped load the car to drop me off at the airport he scornfully said that one should never take more than she could carry by herself. Now, especially since I've accumulated even more things, I'm beginning to think he was right. 

Of course there's always a way to get things somewhere else, but it's a question of how much you're willing to pay. The sender and receiver both pay taxes, for instance, and if you want the parcel picked up at your place of residence that's even more in fees. Filling out forms at the post office this afternoon, I found myself staring at the empty space for "declared value (€)." How much was my box of school recipes and slightly stained chef uniforms worth? Apart from the obvious (I paid a pretty penny for those white jackets and took a lot of notes on recipe procedures), in this instance I think personal value exceeded any remaining commercial value. And yet it still cost me 109€ to send them back to the states.

Towards the end of my college career I took several classes that dealt with signaling theory and its social applications, which got me thinking - why do we feel compelled to accumulate so many things in the first place? I was reading a lot of Marx at the time, and was particularly fascinated by his theory of intrinsic value via commodity fetishism.  

Commodity fetishism is the process of ascribing magic “phantom-like” qualities to an object, whereby the human labour required to make that object is lost once the object is associated with a monetary value for exchange. Under capitalism, once the object emerges as a commodity that has been assigned a monetary value for equivalent universal exchange, it is fetishized, meaning that consumers come to believe that the object has intrinsic value in and of itself. The object’s value appears to come from the commodity, rather than the human labor that produced it. 
- Patricia Louie

Having spent practically my entire life surrounded by middle/upper-middle class America, I was so accustomed to the sort of behavior that commodity fetishism breeds that it took reading Marx, Veblen and other scholars to see the folly of it. Prime example: conspicuous consumption, or rather the acquisition of material goods in order to display economic power. In high school and college I was guilty of "label-whoring," i.e. buying things more for the brand than any other particular reason. From True Religion jeans to London Sole flats and Marc Jacobs sunglasses, you can try to argue that the price is justified by the quality, but it probably isn't. And denim, especially, is susceptible to arbitrary price setting

If it's not about the quality or the little to non-existent intrinsic value, accumulation of material goods emerges as a great symbolizer, sending signals to others about our "quality" (economic power and status, in this example, but signaling theory has many other applications). So why is it that the middle class tends to be the biggest consumers? I suppose it goes back to the old wealth/new money divide à la Great Gatsby. Those of us still trying to climb the socioeconomic ladder feel compelled to engage in flashy, runaway displays of conspicuous consumption while those at the top don't; in fact in some cases the elite prefer not to signal their status.

Now that I'm sorting through everything I brought with me (and the sad thing is that it's not even a fraction of what I own), I find myself wondering why I have many items in the first place. I suppose if I looked hard enough I could find the French equivalent of Salvation Army to donate to, but it would have been so much easier if I had simply not purchased them in the first place. I'm sure I thought it mattered when I pulled out my credit card, but being surrounded by so much stuff leaves me feeling decidedly unfulfilled. 

I felt inspired reading this op-ed about downsizing, not only because I identified with how exhausting it can be just to keep track of all the things you own, but also it's my goal to lead a more meaningful life via experiences and interactions with others rather than filling it with inanimate objects.

My space is small. My life is big. - Graham Hill

For once I'm actually looking forward to living out of a suitcase.