Why (material) things matter to people

I’ve been thinking about this question while clearing out the vast quantity of unused possessions which I’ve accumulated in recent years. The title is a play on Andrew Sayer’s wonderful book Why Things Matter To People in which he explores how we relate to the world through our concerns; his interest is not in the meaningfulness of the world but rather in the fact it comes to matter, in the sense that things have a moral weight to them which occupies our inner life and challenges us what to do about them. This is how Sayer describes the point on pg 2 of his book:

The most important questions people tend to face in their everyday lives are normative ones of what is good or bad about what is happening, including how others are treating them, and of how to act, and what to do for the best. The presence of this concern may be evident in fleeting encounters and mundane conversations, in feelings about how things are going, as well as in momentous decisions such as whether to have children, change job, or what to do about a relationship which has gone bad. These are things people care deeply about.

This latter aspect is particularly pronounced in my experience of giving away things in the hope of living a less cluttered existence. It’s easy in some cases to pull a book from the shelf or a shirt from the wardrobe and immediately see it doesn’t matter to you and could be distributed in order that it might come into the possession of someone for whom it does matter.

But there are other possessions which linger on in the background of our lives which matter intensely, often without being used or engaged with. This raises the question of what we should do with them but also why we cling to them in this way, even after they’ve faded from the field of the ready-to-hand into the exhausting amorphous field of ‘clutter’ which it is so easy to accumulate in late neoliberalism. In his book The Comfort of Things, the anthropologist Daniel Miller talks about what objects can tell us about people (pg 2):

“Objects surely don’t talk. Or do they? The person in that living room gives an account of themselves by responding to questions. But every object in that room is equally a form by which they have chosen to express themselves. They put up ornaments; they laid down carpets. They selected furnishing and got dressed that morning. Some things may be gifts or objects retained from the past, but they have decided to live with them, to place them in lines or higgledy-piggledy; they made the room minimalist or crammed to the gills. These things are not a random collection. They have been gradually accumulated as an expression of that person or household. Surely if we can learn to listen to these things we have access to an authentic other voice.”

It’s interesting to ask this question of yourself rather than directing it towards another person. What do the objects you have kept say about you to yourself? I was struck in thinking about this how much feeling is invested in the objects I was reluctant to part with. In some cases these were warm feelings, echoes of past intimacies which spilled over the edges of their relational container and stained an object (particularly, though not exclusively, gifts) with their warm glow. In other cases the feelings were more ambiguous, with the object carrying a sense of things unsaid or only dimly sensed, falteringly expressed through the material when other avenues proved unreliable. These objects can carry unwelcome obligations, with difficult features of past interactions lingering on in their continued presence in your life. They can be a storehouse for feeling outside of these relational contexts, carrying things which have only been haltingly processed.

This exercise left me with a renewed sense of how psychically rich our relationship to material things can be. I’ve found it easy in recent months to fall into a facile dichotomy in which I contrast a sentimental attachment to objects to a cynically realist sense of inert commodities which have been problematically invested with emotional significance. It strikes me that there can be elements of the transitional object (echoes of this kind of psychic relation rather than the full blown thing) lingering on in the possessions we accumulate in adolescence and early adulthood. To try to clear the field of clutter with a figurative machete is psychically violent for this reason, with the risk of cutting off a whole field of normative relations which retain their significance, albeit often in an ossified and increasingly inert form. But likewise to leave it intact can be cloying and claustrophobic, subordinating the lived reality of our feelings to a space-consuming field of commodities that have come to lack either exchange-value or use-value.

The trick I think to decluttering lies in intervening in the accumulation dynamics of the field. How does the clutter accumulate in the first place? What psychic work is being done by turning to novel objects for comfort? The other side of this necessarily lies in sorting through the things which have been accumulated, recognising the attachments they carry within them but working to newly (re)inhabit the feelings carried with them. Making them part of yourself. As opposed to the fantasy of the powerful self, as Ian Craib would have put it, represented by imagining you could escape from difficult feelings by casting off the possessions which carry them. While I’m increasingly on board with the idea of a radically decluttered existence (e.g. I no longer want to own any physical books unless I have a deep practical and/or sentimental attachment to them*) much of the minimalist and decluttering discourse I’ve encountered leaves me cold. I’m sure there are exceptions but the prevailing understanding of these undertakings seems to pay little attention to the psychic complexity of what Miller calls ‘the comfort of things’ or the psychosocial complexity of how we accumulated so many of them in the first place.

*This does I find incorporate a surprisingly large number of books, even with the caveat this must be a reflective attachment rather than an assumed one.

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