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My Life with Things
The Consumer Diaries
By Elizabeth Chin
Duke University PressCopyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
The anthropologist Daniel Miller famously claimed that consumption is nothing less than the keystone in our understanding of contemporary society and culture. Important questions remain as to the relationship between culture and consumption, people and things, capital and humanity, in part because the literature on consumption has yet to fulfill the program outlined by Miller over ten years ago. Many people who think and write about on contemporary consumption remain hampered by a strong vein of anticonsumption. In this project, I wanted to explore consumption more broadly than that, while simultaneously focusing down into the minutiae of consuming as a way of life. To do this, I began to take field notes on myself, documenting my own consumer life, not daily but nevertheless with a regularity that, over several years, yielded quite a virtual stack of reflections and observations. Opting to document my own dilemmas and obsessions involved releasing the imperative to make an argument or to establish a position. All the contradictions were left in place: for me consumption is maddening and joyful, scary and sexy, boring and fascinating, funny, horrifying, and, above all, unavoidable. This book has at its center the field notes documenting my own consumer life. These field notes take the form of diary entries, each of which is a self-contained essay written in a single sitting. My aim with this project is to explore a world of consumption in which I myself am — for better or worse — utterly culpable. Yes, I'm for social justice, and meanwhile I take inordinate pleasure in the few pieces of designer clothing I own. Yes, I'm against social inequality, and yes, my child was in private school through grade two. The larger point is that nobody is exempt, no matter how smart or critical, and realizing that ought to spur us into action rather than becoming an excuse for complacency or capitulation.
To hate a tradition properly, Theodor Adorno notes, "one must have it in oneself." Oh, yes, I have the tradition of consumption in myself. This project is very much an exercise in hating tradition properly, one in which I have attempted to apply to myself the same theoretical and ethnographic tools we so often use to analyze and judge others. Using autoethnography, I turn my anthropological skills toward my own life and experiences, making myself the object of study, in the same way I once studied the consumption habits of a group of poor, black children from New Haven, Connecticut. If I hate consumption, and if I hate anthropology (as well as loving them all too much), I hate them variously as a consumer, an anthropologist, and a writer — and as a woman, a woman of color, and a mother. That the standards of serious scholarship are also heteronormative, patriarchal, and white should hardly be news to anyone at this point. In choosing to question the value of appearing objective, I am hating the tradition of positivism, a framework that in its worst instances can be reduced to what I call the "smartypants" principle. Positivism is so appealing because it is so clear and so definitive: as Vincent Crapanzano shows in Serving the Word, positivism is a literalist formulation; the kind of idea that runs through Antonin Scalia's insistence on the one-dimensional meaning of the Constitution is not all that far removed, rhetorically, from the assertions by evangelical Christians that the Bible must be taken at its word. While I love the systematic investigation advocated by science, I do hate the simplistic kinds of analysis offered by an unreflective, absolutist positivism. By investigating myself, then, I am exploring how it is possible to reject positivism yet still remain meaningfully engaged with scientific and anthropological principles. For me, this has meant undertaking autoethnography, an ethnographic investigation of myself.
Therefore, I confess: I am a commodity fetishist. I am made of the same failed and flawed impulses and desires as the children I studied in the early 1990s. eBay has been for years my not-so-secret vice. Certain hair products evoke in me a very particular kind of erotic excitement. A "made in China" label does not automatically deter me from a purchase even though I know slave labor may have been involved. I get a kick from Champagne, though lately Prosecco does it better. I will never spend even one dime at Wal-Mart, but Target is one of my ritual destinations. A Hello Kitty tattoo was not out of the question until Sanrio announced that she was a white girl. Sometimes I am afflicted with the overpowering feeling that the oranges growing on the tree in front of my house cannot be as clean or as good as the ones in the store.
My first book examined the consumer lives of poor and working-class African American children in New Haven, Connecticut. In Purchasing Power I sought to challenge a number of myths about poor, black consumers, a challenge provided in large part through careful observation of what the kids I came to know really did and thought. Many people, when faced with my claim that the kids I knew were fiscally savvy and asked for few or no gifts, even at Christmastime, wondered about the scientific validity of my sample. Others quite plainly refused to believe that I had found neither closets full of Nike sneakers nor welfare queens driving Cadillacs. It troubled me that none of these doubters was poor, that none had lived or spent time in the hood, so they did not — to be perfectly blunt — know what they were talking about. These interactions rather painfully alerted me to the continuing power of narratives about wealth and poverty, about deservingness and punishment that circulate so freely around us. I was brought up short, again and again, to see how often such narratives are used as a substitute for knowledge in the face of facts. This sort of knowledge has real effects out there in the world. In my fieldwork, the geographic situation showed ever so starkly how closely great wealth and great poverty resided: in New Haven the city's most poverty-stricken neighborhoods bordered the wealthiest blocks, and people worlds apart lived cheek by jowl while somehow managing to avoid any sort of personal interaction. Walking nearly every day from one of New Haven's most well-to-do neighborhoods into one of its poorest areas, I was warned by Yale professors on one side and drug dealers on the other: "Don't walk over there! It's dangerous!" We are urged to believe that poverty and wealth exist at a remove from each other, but I am interested in exploring the ways they are connected. Connectedness is also about relations between people, and I am interested as well in the ways that consumption and commodities serve as bridges between people in ways that might not be scary.
Because I am an anthropologist and am always interested in comparing my own experience with others that might seem vastly different, I often reflect by thinking about the past, or about the poor, or about cultures other than those in the United States. The great wealth of the United States is profoundly connected to the crushing poverty of Haiti, for instance, and the consumption possibilities and limitations in a place like Haiti have deep connections to wealthy sites abroad. These economic connections are accompanied by those of the material sort: most consumer goods in Haiti are secondhand items that come from the United States. Take a moment and imagine what it might be like to go shopping when there are virtually no new clothes for sale in the entire country. What might not be emerging in your imagination is the reality in Haiti: that nearly everyone is impeccably dressed, in clothes that fit and styles that are hip. The worst-dressed people in Haiti, in fact, are international aid workers, whom Haitians view as hopelessly slovenly. Even more astonishing, at least to me, is that an incredible number of people wear white from head to toe — white that is utterly and entirely unmarked by dirt or dust. This ability to manifest style and to be fashionable speaks to me of very particular sorts of labor required by the context in which people get dressed in Haiti and places like it — a type of engagement with consumption very different from going to the mall.
These comparisons are especially important because so many recent accounts of consumption are centered on and in the United States, thus missing the broader connections that make the global economy what it is. The problem with being too U.S.-centered in thinking about consumption at large is that presenting the United States as the norm is a bit like saying Paris Hilton or Bill Gates has an average lifestyle. The United States, after all, is the richest country ever in all of human history. If, like me, you live in a household whose income is $90,000 a year or greater, then your income is in the top 20 percent of the richest country ever in all of human history. Households with incomes of $75,000 make up the top quarter of the U.S. population; at $55,000, a household is in the top 40 percent of the United States in terms of income. To use some clunky logic to illustrate, anyone with a household income of $55,000 or more might easily be framed as an "average" consumer, but to do that is taking the wealthiest portion of the wealthiest nation as a starting point, providing a monumentally skewed view of the so-called average life. It galls me to say it, but I am a member of an extremely tiny economic elite of enormous privilege and wealth. So are my students. So, perhaps, are you. Not feeling rich and elite does not mean it is not so.
For those with some measure of disposable income, the consumer sphere represents a nearly endless array of choices, which themselves are nested within choices of choices (options that somehow lead nowhere). No wonder so many rather frantically attach themselves to notions of moving away from consumer incursions: get off the grid, get back to nature, get a life. In recent years, we have seen an upsurge in documentary journalism in which writers (most from an economic segment similar to my own) attempt to reform or eschew their own consumption, buying locally or not at all for a specified time — typically a year — and then write about their experience. This wave of experiential accounts arises, in part, from the growing sense of too-much-ness that pervades the United States, coupled with a heightened awareness of the global impact of consumer capitalism on the planet. There's an important element of walking the walk in these books, but these experiments also smack of gimmicks and tricks that are at once utterly hilarious and strangely endearing. I find it both interesting and instructive, though, that this position is one that is particularly strong among those who consume the most, comforting us even as we swipe the credit card one more time, chide China for its growing greed for fossil fuels, and chastise rural Africans for eating more meat in their diets, because more people eating more meat spirals the price of wheat ever upward, since as everybody knows now, it takes four pounds of wheat to produce one pound of beef. No, I can't spare a dime, mister, I have a mortgage to pay, and that lease on my electric car isn't so cheap either.
I began this introduction with Adorno, himself a member of what is often called the Frankfurt School, a group of scholars who developed some of the earliest and most devastating critiques of mass culture and mass media. Their ideas remain useful and influential, and most anyone thinking about contemporary consumption has got to wrestle with the likes of Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, and Hannah Arendt. Their critiques zeroed in on the powerful potential of consumer spheres for intensifying social control, intellectual anesthesia, and political shams — hardly a set of qualities worth celebrating. This point of view was impelled in part by the horrors of World War II, where film, radio, and music were used to promote fascism and racism and homophobia. Even Walter Benjamin's relatively enthusiastic defense of the culture industries noted the extremely powerful potential of these industries when put to nefarious purposes. His classic essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is one of the best-known examples of this (measured) enthusiasm. In a wide-ranging discussion that moves from cave paintings to fascist movie-making, he discusses how the ways that art is produced affects the way we see, understand, and experience it. Mass production, he argues, inevitably changes art from something unique and uniquely experienced (a piece of art), to something ubiquitous and reproducible (copies of an original). This ubiquity and reproducibility is not altogether bad — after all, it allows mass audiences to have access to ideas and resources formerly reserved only for elites. However, mass media's potential to reduce politics to entertainment, and war to aesthetics, was something that worried Benjamin deeply. One need only view the gorgeous black-and-white celebratory images in Leni Riefenstal's pro-Hitler film Triumph of the Will to get Benjamin's point. I'm not afraid to admit that somehow the film instilled a good feeling about the whole enterprise, much to my horror and disgust. Most horrifying was my own permeability, my own lack of immunity, my own inability not to "know better" except through disciplined, conscious effort.
The distinctly alarmist fears of the postwar critiques continue to operate in much consumer analysis, complete with a sort of cold war rhetoric of good and evil and an "us" vs. "them" structure that assumes the centrality and normality of white, middle-class worlds. Few who grew up in the 1960s, as I did, could avoid reading Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders, which argued that ads are full of hidden, subliminal messages designed to rope people into buying. I still cannot look at a liquor ad without trying to figure out if there's an image of a penis hidden in the ice cubes. This ultraparanoid point of view is a rather limiting way to think about the consumer sphere, and inevitably questions of resistance and agency emerged. Writing on teddy boys and punks of urban Britain in the 1970s, Dick Hebdige showed how something like "style" can be enmeshed with politics of a powerful sort. With a tendency to be a bit over-hopeful about the potential for resistance to disrupt hegemonic processes, this work is nevertheless an important counterpoint to the "down with consumption" stance. The wave of resistance literature was inevitably tempered, and Lila Abu-Lughod's important article "The Romance of Resistance" marked an important shift into nuanced territory where colonialism, media, gender, religion, and other forces all came into play. In a detailed analysis of the contradictions of the desires of Bedouin girls to escape the oppressive patriarchal demands of family, Abu-Lughod shows how turning to mediatized versions of romance and an individually based love relationship leaves these girls often isolated in the city, and, ironically, in many ways they end up being more restricted than they were in the desert. Resistance, Abu-Lughod reminds us, is resistance to something; where it gets you may be somewhere new, but not necessarily somewhere where one is undeniably free.
In the current moment, where a U.S. president can declare shopping as patriotism, the fears of Adorno and his colleagues seem utterly relevant. These fears can be tempered, however, by paying attention to what people really are doing. After all, just because the packaging on the Barbie doll says "for ages 3 to 5" doesn't mean the doll will be played with only by three- to five-year-olds, or even that those who play with them will use the doll and her accessories as intended by the manufacturer. Of the millions and millions of children who have had Barbies over the last fifty-plus years, how many of them have used them only in the approved manner? And even if everyone did stick to the hegemonic script, how many kids who played with Barbies ended up actually being like Barbie?
Excerpted from My Life with Things by Elizabeth Chin. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments vii
1. Introduction 3
2. The Entries 37
My Life with Things 37
Learn to Love Stuff 38
A Digression on the Topic of the Transitional Object 42
My Purple Shoes 58
Rose Nails 63
The Window Shade 67
My White Man's Tooth 72
Should I Be Straighter 76
Curing Rug Lust 85
Window Shopping Online 89
Other People's Labor 95
Making Roots/Making Routes 98
My Closet(s) 101
Joining the MRE 108
Fun Shopping 114
Preschool Birthday Parties 114
Xena Warrior Consumer Princess 118
I Love Your Nail Polish 120
Little Benches 123
The Kiss 126
Are There Malls in Haiti? 127
Baby Number Two Turned Me into Economic Man 129
Pictures of the Rice Grain 132
Panting in Ikea 136
Capitalism Makes Me Sick 139
My Grandmother's Rings 147
Anorectic Energy 157
Mi-Mi's Piano 162
Dream-Filled Prescriptions 169
The Turquoise Arrowhead 170
Turning The Tables 173
Minnie Mouse Earring Holder 176
Make Yourself a Beloved Person 181
3. Writing as Practice and Process 187
4. This Never Happened 203
What People are Saying About This
"In My Life With Things Elizabeth Chin offers a smart and fascinating look at the historical, political, personal, and material specificity of people's relationship to commodities. Chin's use of short essays, autoethnography, colloquial language, and often poetic prose make for an elegant, original, insightful, and accessible book."
"In this highly anticipated volume Elizabeth Chin provides what is sure to be a classic text in consumption studies: a breakthrough auto-ethnography that exposes this mundane space as the highly affective, contradictory, and political space that it is. Smart, beautifully written and honest, My Life With Things is a singular achievement and an unprecedented work that will forever trouble how we think about consumption and the very craft of contemporary ethnography."