Anthropologists not infrequently find themselves reflecting ‘anthropologically’ on themselves, their actions, their relations. If social action is a ‘text’, our social action often unfolds with in-text citations. Whether this habit is obsessively reflexive and irritatingly self-referential, or interestingly enlightened and productively analytical, we tend to live our lives amidst an invisible but ever present series of citations. These pop up in our everyday speech in odd ways, sometimes amusing, sometimes surreal. They recreate (and test) academic habitus.
For example: noting Mary Douglas’s canny reflections on the cultural construction of drunkenness (in Constructive Drinking) whilst getting drunk with friends, querying the appropriate kin term for describing the exact genealogical heritage of one’s pets (is it properly a ‘clan’ or a ‘sib’??), commenting on the Dumezilian ‘structure’ of a 19th-century civic center plan (with cultural, administrative, and provisional functions carefully mapped), etc. The mention of a key thinker or concept is either met with a knowing nod, an appreciative grunt or chuckle, an admonishing correction, or, the worst possible result: unknowing silence.
As it happens, each of the examples above comes from my own recent experience. I have just moved to Helsinki, Finland, from San Francisco, California, having taken up a position as a visiting lecturer at Helsinki University in the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Moving out of my home of 10 years (a small apartment in the Western Addition neighborhood) prompted me to wonder how and why I had invested both the physical space of my home and all the things (read: crap) I had accumulated in it with value. Was it appropriate for me to be 48 hours from my groovy Virgin Atlantic flight, looking at piles of boxes and the grimy residue that had accumulated under various pieces of furniture, and think of “Igor Kopytoff”? How weird.
Nevertheless. Emptying closets full of old drag (including two fabulous red and black feather boas), protest signs (signifying opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq by so-called ‘coalition’ forces), a scuba diving t-shirt from Madang recording the Tok Pisin terms for scuba gear, pants of differing waist sizes, steel-toed boots, notebooks from freshman year in college — these things are the residue of my life. I imagine future archeologists discovering this treasure-trove (so I imagine) of millennial personhood. It occurred to me in going through all these things that strategies of personalization, the making-unique of commodities in consumer culture — what most Americans are doing most of the time when not working — is fundamentally a psychic process.
I imagine the title of my treatise, The Psychic Life of Things: Theories in Objection. Opening chapters cite important contributions from Mauss to Munn on the social creation, negotiation, and negation of value, including the idea that objects in exchange accrue value as the residue of the social relations (classed or classless, hierarchical, gendered, erotic, et al) that elicit them. Interesting twist: an account of objective interpellation, ways in which objects call us into being as their subjects. Ownership as a regime of personhood in which those things one ‘owns’ or at least ‘has,’ insofar as they signify self to self, and to others, are both the effluvia of social life, detritus – junk – but also the material substrate of what we as persons are. There’s probably a Heidegerrian term for this (which I am hoping Rex will supply) and perhaps even a Sartrian one (any takers?). Accumulation carries consequence, and when you try to get rid of things, a cliche takes hold: do I own this stuff, or does it own me? Yet, what struck me in disconnecting myself from all my junk (or not disconnecting: some of it was placed way way way back in the recesses of the unconscious, namely, paid storage) was the emotional aspect of all that.
Sociophenomenological or not, it makes you cry to throw away the cherished counterfeit Picachu’s purchased in 1999 in Tijuana on the eve of fieldwork in New Guinea. How emotionally vexed and vexing it is to get rid of things that remind you of yourself.
Well, I’ve moved from a junk filled apartment in a working class neighborhood of an American urban dystopia (SF is very far from the Emerald City, Toto) to a superclean modernist apartment in a famed planned community called Tapiola. It’s like tough love. Reflections on living in a hyper-rational environment in coming days and weeks…In the meantime, a hearty thanks to Rex for inviting me to join this ongoing discussion. I am quite new to this particular digital genre, and so I beg readers’ forebearance where necessary as I learn its conventions and techniques.