On Stuff

I have been thinking alot lately about all the stuff I own. It goes hand in hand with a general period of contemplation I’ve been having about the amount of clutter in my life; both tangible and digital. I’m interested in this current trend for ‘minimalist’ living that has spawned a cottage industry of bloggers and book writers. I’ve spoken here before about trying to cope with living in the full torrent of the digital stream; of trying not to be overwhelmed by the amount of information I subject myself to and trying to focus on whats important. This has extended to the world around me; do I need all this stuff? I am a hoarder, and I come from a family of hoarders, and this has resulted in a bedroom full of stuff and an increasing anxiety about what to do with it.

These minimalist living types promote ideas like getting rid of all your stuff, or living with just 50 items. This however requires a giant shock to the system for most of us, a ruthless culling. This seems too much, but I can see the appeal. Then I read this post on Zen Habits which offered a half-way house solution; put everything away and only take stuff out if you really need it. If you havn’t taken something out in a long while, ditch it. It seems like a good approach to the problem. I’ve started by doing it to my computer. Archived then wiped, and I’ll only go back for the stuff I need. In some ways i’ve been doing this my entire computer-owning life in one way or another; moving machine or when Windows XP just couldn’t hack it anymore and you had to go for a fresh install.

I then began a real-world de-cluttering by ditching half my wardrobe. Stuff I haven’t worn in years,and wasn’t likely to has been thrown out. It was harder then I thought. Even though I have little attachment to clothes, I still found myself doing that thing that us hoarders do. “Ah, I’ll hold on to that, you never know when I might need it”. This is the quintessential habit of the hoarder; and it leads to a life of living with boxes of NME’s and Select magazines from 1998, old Nokia phones with the green screen and monophonic ringtones, VHS cassettes of “Aliens” recorded off ITV in the mid-90s late at night and a shelfful of CDs now duplicated to digital copies and gathering dust, never to see the inside of a CD player ever again. I don’t need any of this stuff. Some of it I never look at ever again, but some of it I do. I occasionally wistfully flick through old Empire magazines, or pull out the liner notes of a Method Man CD from 1994. Less to actually ‘read’ them, but more to reminisce on the time when I did read them for information, for when I bought them. ¬†And of course, to enjoy that increasingly dying artform, the art of the record/CD inlay. But more and more I find less need to do this.

I haven’t bought a physical CD in years, I am a full convert to the paid-download school. I have in recent years stemmed my DVD buying, as I have found that I simply don’t watch them enough. (Someone needs to get the paid-download-film market done proper.) The only vices I have are t-shirts from the net, and books. In many ways I don’t collect a lot of stuff anymore. I rarely buy magazines, and am more or less content to do most of that reading online. But I still have a legacy of old stuff.

Photo owned by Brianfit (cc)

In the midst of all this thinking, I read this wonderful article by Stewart Lee in the Guardian about his life time of collection stuff. Whilst I was never as meticulous or as dedicated a collector as Stewart I definitely sympathize as he laments the passing of the age of the collector.

And all this stuff, in the digital age, is literally worthless financially, and losing any value it had daily. There’s nothing here a burglar would even bother with. I’m aware I’m a social relic from an age when you walked through the shopping centre with an unbagged album under your arm to show like-minded souls who you were, and when the book as an object was quietly fetishised. Now kids stake out their personal space with knives and guns and gadgets, and working stiffs flip falsified pages of virtual books on Kindles. I’m like a character in a dystopian science-fiction novel, holed up in a cave full of cultural artefacts, waiting for the young Jenny Agutter to arrive in a tinfoil miniskirt, fleeing a poisonous cloud on the surface, to check out my stash and ask me: “Who exactly was the Quicksilver Messenger Service? Who was this Virginia Woolf? What kind of man was Jonah Hex?”

There is a definite loss of tactile feel and nostalgia that digital archiving just can’t compete with. In many ways I feel oddly sad that I don’t feel more kinship to this stuff like I once did. That this decision to de-clutter isn’t tougher than it is. What has happened to me? Has the digital age chipped away at some pure, dusty part of me? But none of this is clear; although I am very much interested in the idea of eBooks and digital reading devices, I haven’t bought one, and I look at a shelf of Alan Watts books I have been amassing over the past few years and I just can’t see how a digital version could compete.

The key probably is, as always, a Middle Way. It’s too much to ask most people to just dump everything, and live with only the ‘essentials’. At the same time, it is unhealthy to indulge your every consumerist fantasy and amass a temple to your belongings and a mausoleum to your youth as expressed through the things you owned. There is a definite need for things; special, beautiful, meaningful things. I guess the trick is finding out what they are.