Monday, March 15, 2010

Hoarders: The Bleak Transformation of Wealth

"It's all necessary.  It's all good."

I don't get cable at my place in Iowa, but several times a year, when I make my way south to Texas to visit my parents, I get to dip into the flow.  A show that I've now seen quite a bit of is A&E's Hoarders - and last night, a copycat show called Hoarding, which is functionally indistinguishable. The very fact that there's a copycat show is a testament to the amazing draw of these shows' central figures, people with a profound compulsion to accumulate stuff to the point that it interferes with their ability to live safely and sanely in their homes.  There's something here that speaks to the fundamentals of the way we live now, and I think it is this: where poverty was once defined by lack, the condition is now flipped.  It is the poor with yards and houses full of stuff, aimless and sprawling, while the wealthy live in empty space, moving through the air unencumbered.  Continued . . .

Most obviously, this is an illness, like obesity and addiction, that can only exist in contemporary America's conditions of plenty.  The central figures of Hoarders exist at various socioeconomic levels, but whether it's by purchasing new items on credit, or digging things out of the trash, they all have easy access to stuff, in large quantities.  Moreover, most of the hoarders own their own homes, which with their possessions packed to the rafters, form low-interest cocoons of consumer protection.  At least, that's the dimestore psychotherapist take - that these are people for whom possessions form a kind of insulating barrier against the incursions of the wider world.  There's certainly something to that - most of the Hoarders are patently dysfunctional to one degree or another, with various levels of awkwardness and difficulty in interacting with the outside world, and even their own families.  The most extreme examples are people who use their collections and junk to push away their children, even their grandchildren, who can't comfortably or safely visit until the condition is addressed.

There's another theme that keeps coming up as in episode after episode.  As much as any fear of people, the junk showcased in Hoarders is a shield against the idea of poverty.  In some cases, the show makes explicit reference to hoarders who had family "live through the Depression," but the logic of that connection is a bit convoluted.  The conventional wisdom is that the children of Depression-survivor parents reacted against the frugality of that generation, and Hoarders could be the most extreme possible example, a testament to the power and danger of blind consumerism and the drive to possession as an end in itself.  But really, that's backwards.  The true form of wealth in our society today is totally immaterial, the ability to be anywhere and do anything without possessions, without backup - to be, in the immortal phrase, totally liquid.  The relationship of the Hoarders to the Depression isn't universal, as each of these people has unique problems.  But to the extent that it exists, the relationship is in the form not of a reaction against the supposed frugality of  poor parents or upbringing, but a transmutation of the same fear-based frugality into a new form.  Now, it is more profligate to not have something than to grab it - on credit, from the dump, from a pile of other stuff.

Seeing this logic in action is something of a trope of the show.  At the point where the therapist or professional organizer arrives and starts rooting around in each pile of trash, there begins a cavalcade of reasons why particular things can't be disposed of.  No object is simply an end in itself, but part of a bigger plan of construction or repair, something that will be used, something that will be returned to the person who loaned it or given as a gift to a close friend - someday.  These objects represent futures full of accomplishment in which their owners will be effective, creative, dynamic, and wealthy.  Of course, for a wealthy, successful person, these plans could be accomplished in a dozen ways that wouldn't require the inconvenience of having the actual object present.  This is the strange alchemy of plenty - we now live in a world where ownership itself has become aspirational.

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