Bountiful Landscapes of Junk

The History Channel and Reality TV

by Irmak Ertuna-Howison

18 July 2012

As the American economy struggles in this eternal recession, the TV screen is filled with images that bring back a more primitive sort of capitalism, one which operates on the border between the compulsive hoarding and the accumulation for profit.

Watching the History Channel in Istanbul is an exotic experience. Sandwiched between UFO Hunters and an assortment of quest-for-the-holy-grail documentaries are the various hit reality shows, all of which appear to be based on a simple formula: follow around a bunch of white American men going about their business-as-usual and, along the way, discover the trials and tribulations of their livelihoods. Whether loggers, pawnbrokers, truck drivers, or alligator hunters, their stories are uniformly set in the ‘heart’ of America.

What is it about Swamp People, Ax Men, American Pickers or Pawn Stars that makes us keep watching? What other ‘authentic’ American ventures will the History Channel find to hook us with? Is there an experience we share with these characters? Is this another version of the American Dream? (If it is, that would help to explain the prominent link to the Green Card Lottery on the History Channel website that appears when you visit it in Turkey. But somehow I doubt that being a storage-unit-bidder is a common aspiration of immigrants in pursuit of a better life.)

Or is ours a simple case of homesickness that drives us to follow these scenes from America? Although my husband (an American) and I (a Turk) spent enough time in a de-industrialized college town in upstate New York to call it our home, this was not the America that we knew. Our town had nothing to do with the swamps of Louisiana or the forests of Alaska—although parts of it did resemble an old basement full of junk. Set in the middle of green rolling hills, the city was desolate, littered with strip malls along empty highways and a downtown decorated mostly with ‘Out of Business’ signs. Much like a thousand other American cities, I’m told. Yes, there were quite a few interesting local figures (landlords, bar owners and nostalgic seniors), but none of their businesses merited our devoted attention. There was no sense of glory, no feeling of adventure. They were simply people trying to survive in a dying economy. The scavenger hunts on screen are reminiscent of our trips to the Goodwill stores—but unlike us, the transitory grad students, the ‘townies’ did their shopping out of necessity, not with hopes of finding a cool vintage treasure.

Ax Men

Ax Men

What we see on the History channel is a different type of America. These tough guys, dressed in their plaids, driving Caterpillars or huge motorcycles, ooze testosterone. There are no women—or more accurately, there are no women who are not secretaries or tag-along wives. Considering that these shows cater primarily to American men, it seems surprising that the producers did not see the need to sprinkle in a few sexy ladies here and there. There aren’t any attractive guys either. If you commit to these shows, you give your consent to watching fat, hairy men in muddy overalls.

These shows do not require eye candy; watching them is like entering a giant American Man Cave. With no women to fool around with, the men can play with their toys, which range from antique swords and guns to tugboats and forest machines. Size seems to be an issue: the bigger the toy, the more exciting the story. Who knows what kind of a huge device will come out of a storage unit in Storage Wars? On one episode, the Pawn Stars estimate the price of a helicopter, the next, an original life-size Transformers robot. Sometimes, it’s the accumulation of toys that is massive. How many episodes of American Pickers take place in an old collector’s (a euphemism for hoarder) gigantic junkyard? How many times does the lyrical auctioneer open the doors to a tremendous stockpile in Storage Wars? But what keeps us watching is not so much the monetary value of, say, a desert windsurfer, but the sense of risk, adventure, profit and loss that comes to the storage bidders, pawn brokers or junkyard scavengers.

These objects are reverentially burdened with history. An engine or an old dollar bill becomes an insignia to a glorious American past. All objects carry a sense of heroism. After all, they did manage to survive their relegation to oblivion before they were rescued by their saviors. Although it seems like you learn more about American history through these shows than through a PBS documentary, in fact, all we are able to discover are bits and pieces, old junk from a lost era.

Storage Wars

Storage Wars

Alligators and magnificent forests affirm the sublime and archaic nature of the continent.  While the loggers deplete these forests and the pickers forage through other people’s junk, the looming sense of scarcity grows.  Amid this dearth of resources, the competition is on for one last great haul of timber or one last buried treasure in a dark basement or behind the door of an old storage unit. There is a last grasp to accumulate. It’s not just the old hermits, but tough and seemingly self-sufficient types who also hoard.

This insatiable desire to accumulate is like a labor of Sisyphus, as Marx might say. Marx also finds a resemblance between the hoarder and “a conqueror who sees in every new country annexed, only a new boundary.” Perhaps it is the nature of accumulating itself that drives these men to constantly open up new frontiers, to trek into areas untraveled, to go deeper into that swamp.

As the American economy struggles in this eternal recession, the TV screen is filled with images that bring back a more primitive sort of capitalism, one which operates on the border between the compulsive hoarding and the accumulation for profit. These shows are addictive because of our shared nostalgia for a straightforward, back-to-basics capitalism that is now long gone: an era when cost and profit were calculated by addition and subtraction, not by convoluted software programs. The History Channel reverts financial speculation back into traditional bidding wars; contemporary precarious labor that defines today’s work disappears as we marvel at old-fashioned manual labor. Factories in America close and reopen in Asia. All that’s left are basements and storage units full of junk and forests full of tree stumps. These all-American figures flaunt our collective desire to begin again.

American Pickers

American Pickers

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//Mixed media