Our Possessions, Ourselves}
Hollow hands clasp ludicrous possessions because they are links in the chain of life.
Like alien space ships touching down at the beginning of a summer sci-fi movie, PODS have been showing up in driveways all over America. PODS (short for “portable on-demand storage”) are large self-storage containers delivered to your home that can be filled and kept there or taken away and stored remotely. When PODS started appearing in documentary filmmaker Victoria Jorgensen’s Tampa, Florida, neighborhood, she thought they might be evidence of a strange new trend. She put out an open call for people who rent self-storage units and began interviewing them, which prompted her to explore the American urge to accumulate. The result is Plethora, billed as “a documentary about stuff.” But it’s really about more than that; it’s about self-identity and interpersonal relationships, and how our personal belongings serve as extensions of our selves.
Plethora is strictly DIY filmmaking. It’s mostly self-financed on a shoe string by Jorgensen’s commercial printing day-job, along with in-kind services donated by friends. The opening sequence of floating images (known in the trade as a video river) and the superimposed titles identifying narrative sections and interview subjects are about the extent of the special effects. The talent is local (with one exception) and the dialogue unscripted. The action consists mainly of talking heads interspersed with some still-photo pans and zooms and background footage shot around Tampa. Some parts are out of focus, and sometimes the lighting isn’t quite right. But it’s engaging nonetheless, especially as it reveals the tension between theory and practice in American society when it comes to consumption.
On the one hand, there are the experts—social scientists, an advertising executive, an historian and various self-help gurus—who offer explanations of our compulsion to acquire and hang onto things. Perhaps most astute is University of South Florida sociologist Laurel Graham who notes that “there’s some element of dreaminess involved” in the American consumerist ethos. We want to possess things not just because of what they are but also because of what they stand for—“the love of our children, the love of our spouse, the dream of perfection in our lives.” For Graham, advertising and the media tap into our insecurities about these things, serving up images and storylines that present products as the answer to virtually every need and desire, substituting commercial culture for personal fulfillment.
One of the psychologists interviewed, Linda Chamberlain, sees the American consumer’s proclivity for over-accumulation as exhibiting classic symptoms of addiction. We’re hooked on consumerism, she maintains, and need to feed our jones. (I saw the best minds of my generation, destroyed by consumption, overfed, blissful, dressed to the nines, dragging themselves through the suburban strip malls at lunchtime, looking for a deep discount.)
The theories of Graham and Chamberlain offer different views of why we acquire, but they don’t tell us why we keep. In that regard, another psychologist, Susana Kugeares, sees retentive behavior as a common human response to the unforeseeable. Basically, we hang onto our shit because we never know for sure whether or not we’ll need it. And in these uncertain times, unbound anxiety seems to be fueling a vigorous pursuit of security, which shows itself on one level through material accumulation, even though we’re going broke in the process and arguably remain as discontented as ever.
On the other hand, there are those who accumulate. In other words, people who are probably not much different than you or me. There’s Bonita, an empty nester who’s saving her grown children’s old stuffed animals so that she can someday pass them onto her grandkids. And there’s Mary, who for years has paid to store a broken lamp mainly because an artist friend made it. Then there’s Bud, who began collecting McDonald’s action figures when he worked as one of Ronald McDonald’s bodyguards, and who has also amassed a trove of plastic eyeballs given to him by people who know he’s a fan of The Residents.
The individual relationship these accumulators have with their stuff mirrors research that shows we invest material items with personal meaning, making them in effect part of our being, physical and psychic devices we use to negotiate our way through life and establish connections with others. It’s not surprising, then, that it’s sometimes hard to let go of them even if they aren’t monetarily valuable or no longer functional. It’s truly like cutting off an appendage. Like millions of Americans, Bonita, Mary and Bud all confront the dilemma of accumulation, i.e., what to do with stuff once you have it?
The answer, of course, is to find a place for it. And like everything else in super-sized America—our meal portions, our motor vehicles, our bodies, etc.—the amount of space we devote to storing stuff has ballooned in recent years. In the March/April 2005 issue, Mother Jones reports that the size of the average house has increased 50 percent since 1970 even though the number of people in the average household has shrunk. (See “This New House”.) What’s more, the size of the average commercial self-storage space has doubled over roughly that same period. The annual revenue of the self-storage industry is greater than that of the motion picture and TV industries combined. Jorgensen notes there are now 49 cubic feet of rental storage space for every man, woman and child in the United States.
A lot of the expert opinion on consumption in Plethora reverberates with the Puritanical aversion of materialism that underlies what Samuel Huntington terms America’s “cultural Anglo-Protestantism.” The Protestant ethic, as described by Max Weber, stresses hard work, rationality and thrift, and a suspicion of bodily pleasure, all of which are hypothetically undermined by consumerism, whose Latin root, consumere, means to devour, waste or spend. And yet America’s rise to world superpower over the last two-and-a-quarter centuries has been in many ways made possible by its expansive consumer market, a seemingly insatiable maw, stretching from sea to shining sea, able to digest nearly every advance in productivity capitalism has thrown at it. In the dark days after September 11, it wasn’t our will to fight but our will to buy that was held up as the measure of patriotism. The accumulators in Plethora appear to have been largely untroubled by their possessiveness before coming under the scrutiny of Jorgensen’s lens.
Our stuff, what academics call “material culture,” is fundamental to how we define ourselves, as individuals and as a nation. That’s why calls at the end of Plethora from several of the experts, reinforced by Jorgensen’s narrative framing, for what amounts to purging will likely fall on deaf ears. (Plus, our personally getting rid of stuff doesn’t solve the broader issue of accumulation; it only makes it someone else’s responsibility.) Given the insight into our complex relationship with stuff Plethora provides, it’s safe to say that PODS aren’t at all an alien presence. They’re literal and symbolic containers for keeping our not-so-secret truths: we do indeed have a plethora of stuff, and most of us aren’t inclined to part with any of it.