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The Hoarders: Material Deviance in Modern American Culture


The verb “declutter” has not yet made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, but its ever-increasing usage suggests that it’s only a matter of time. Articles containing tips and tricks on how to get organized cover magazine pages and pop up in TV programs and commercials, while clutter professionals and specialists referred to as “clutterologists” are just a phone call away. Everywhere the sentiment is the same: clutter is bad.

In The Hoarders, Scott Herring provides ...

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The Hoarders: Material Deviance in Modern American Culture

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The verb “declutter” has not yet made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, but its ever-increasing usage suggests that it’s only a matter of time. Articles containing tips and tricks on how to get organized cover magazine pages and pop up in TV programs and commercials, while clutter professionals and specialists referred to as “clutterologists” are just a phone call away. Everywhere the sentiment is the same: clutter is bad.

In The Hoarders, Scott Herring provides an in-depth examination of how modern hoarders came into being, from their onset in the late 1930s to the present day. He finds that both the idea of organization and the role of the clutterologist are deeply ingrained in our culture, and that there is a fine line between clutter and deviance in America. Herring introduces us to Jill, whose countertops are piled high with decaying food and whose cabinets are overrun with purchases, while the fly strips hanging from her ceiling are arguably more fly than strip. When Jill spots a decomposing pumpkin about to be jettisoned, she stops, seeing in the rotting, squalid vegetable a special treasure. “I’ve never seen one quite like this before,” she says, and looks to see if any seeds remain. It is from moments like these that Herring builds his questions: What counts as an acceptable material life—and who decides? Is hoarding some sort of inherent deviation of the mind, or a recent historical phenomenon grounded in changing material cultures? Herring opts for the latter, explaining that hoarders attract attention not because they are mentally ill but because they challenge normal modes of material relations. Piled high with detailed and, at times, disturbing descriptions of uncleanliness, The Hoarders delivers a sweeping and fascinating history of hoarding that will cause us all to reconsider how we view these accumulators of clutter.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This well-argued study of so-called hoarders and their relationship with modern material culture asks for a second opinion on the recent identification of "hoarding disorder" in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a type of psychopathology. Herring explores the demonization of hoarding in contemporary culture using four "genealogies" as his foundation: the infamous Collyer brothers, whose deaths-by-refuse prefigured "hoarding disorder"; Andy Warhol, whose Manhattan townhouse was found piled with art and kitsch after his 1987 death; professional organizer and lifestyle counselor Sandra Felton; and Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith, whose trash-filled East Hampton home became the subject of feature articles, documentary films, and a Broadway musical. Building on the work of others, Herring submits that accounts of hoarding incite an "object panic" in non-hoarders, who stigmatize it as unsanitary and unsafe, and who collapse "the distinction between overfurnished rooms and demented headspace." Herring digests a considerable amount of sociological, psychological, and scientific research into an engrossing and accessible exploration. If, as he posits, "hoarding is more social apprehension than neurological irregularity," then readers may well agree with him that "hoarding is in the heads of those who fret about the disease as much as the individual herself." (Nov.)
Wayne State University - Jonathan Flatley

"My high expectations were fulfilled and indeed exceeded by Herring's brilliant, groundbreaking, fascinating, and lucid book. In traversing his rich and well-researched archive in the series of case studies that make up the book, Herring examines how and why hoarders have been stigmatized in a number of different contexts through the twentieth century. In doing so, he mounts a sustained and significant challenge to the pathologizing discourses about hoarding."
Rutgers University - Allan V. Horwitz

“Using a fascinating array of sources, Scott Herring places the contemporary obsession with hoarding within an intricate cultural and historical matrix. His innovative and ingenious work shows how hoarding became a mental disorder through the efforts of an unusual variety of groups encompassing not just psychiatrists, social workers, and other mental health professionals but also sanitation authorities, closet organizers, and TV producers. In the tradition of Emile Durkheim, Mary Douglas, and Michel Foucault, The Hoarders is a worthy addition to the literature on social boundaries and moral order. It reformulates our conceptions not just of hoarding but of psychiatric disorder itself.”
Christopher Lane

“With hoarding recently designated a mental illness and America boasting its fair share of pack rats, diagnosis is unavoidably cultural. What do hoarders reveal by their unwillingness to part with things? Why is the nation currently fixated on eradicating their clutter? Drawing by turns on psychiatric debate, cultural lore, and family history, Scott Herring’s sharp and insightful book does not disappoint.”
Diana Fuss

“Anxious you may be stockpiling too much stuff? No worries: Scott Herring’s seriously smart book turns the tables on experts who have declared accumulating ‘junk’ a mental illness. Putting the pack rat back into historical context, this intelligent and humane book examines how precisely disorder became a disorder. From the rise of antiquing, through the gospel of cleanliness, and all the way to reality television, Herring’s culturally informed and deeply sympathetic readings of America’s celebrity hoarders (the Collyer brothers, Andy Warhol, Big Edie Beale) succeed in nothing less than destigmatizing our own domestic caches of everyday things. Add this one to your household collection: it’s a keeper.”
Library Journal
In this academic work, Herring (English, Indiana Univ.; Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism) studies the social roots of hoarding in American culture. The author contends that society frequently depicts hoarders as socially disorganized, troubled, elderly, abnormally acquisitive, or simply addicted to stuff. Herring illustrates this with cultural histories of the Collyer brothers who died in their junk-filled home in 1947, artist Andy Warhol who collected extensively and kept hundreds of boxes in storage, and Edie Beale and her mother, both of whom lived in a cluttered and dilapidated mansion. Herring also discusses the rise of professional organizers, the self-help group Messies Anonymous that is patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous, and the influence of the Kovels (the antique experts) and the culture of collectibles. He argues that the definition of hoarding as a mental disease derives in part from its deviation from popular conceptions of acceptable and deviant behaviors. VERDICT For students of material culture studies and those interested in the social history of hoarding.—Janet Clapp, N. Clarendon, VT
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226171715
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/9/2014
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 536,343
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Scott Herring is associate professor in the Department of English at Indiana University. He is the author of Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism and Queering the Underworld: Slumming, Literature, and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History, also published by the University of Chicago Press. 
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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
1          Collyer Curiosa
2          Pathological Collectibles
3          Clutterology
4          Old Rubbish
Note on Method

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