The investment in our things

Since I am on the verge of a big cross-country move, I must sell my house and sell or discard many if not most of the objects in it. The home to which I am moving is already furnished. Although my partner and I plan to integrate some of my belongings, including beloved red sofas and a stunning dining table, really, nearly everything must go.

When my previous partner, for whom I moved to Syracuse and for whom I negotiated an academic job, left me shortly after our arrival here, I was devastated. Most people are left reeling in such a situation, but in my case, the relationship and its aftermath had shattered my sense of myself. The target of a massive gaslighting campaign, I had come to doubt the life narrative that kept my sense of self more or less coherent.

And so, as I told a longtime friend who held me near, I did not know who I was. I did not know what was real. And I was furious to have been taken down by this person, literally, taken down as one might take down a photo or a painting or some curtains. Disappeared. I even still feel invisible along my edges when I write about this. Maybe that’s a good or at least productive feeling to have, not gone but not secure.

After the ending of that relationship, I found myself amplifying my investment in my “things.” My rooms, my furniture, my art, my clothes, my space–my things. I spent the first year putting the rooms of my house together in a very careful way. Finds on craigslist or at the side of the road where really rich people discard things easily found their way into my rooms painted with new colors and arranged and rearranged.

My enclosed front porch became a sun/garden/music room full of plants one could enjoy while drinking coffee at a bistro table or sitting with the orange cat on the saggy loveseat. That space brings me light and growth.

One of my upstairs rooms, repaired after significant water damage became “the desert room” in turquoise and coral shades coloring matching file shelves and boxes. I hung a photo taken long ago in Sedona where I had visited with my then teenage daughter, our hair flying in the wind, our eyes full of impossibly beautiful landscapes. I integrated rugs from when my family lived on the Navajo reservation when I was a child. So this room became a piece of my narrative of myself and my family.

Another upstairs room became the “goddess room,” mainly because of the cracked bust of Diana on the mantel. It was also Rosa’s room, a place where I wanted my dear friend to be at ease. I added elements from her cherished landscape, the Muir woods. So that part of my story was built. That part of the story cast my neighbor as well; she and I (stoned and drunk, respectively) built a Victorian brass bed I had found on Craigslist and purchased outside a rural storage unit in the pouring rain from a crying divorcée and her 10 year old daughter.

While we tried to build the bed, my neighbor announced: I have to go to my attic. I knew better than to wonder. In a few minutes she returned with a brass wall lamp that exactly matched the brass and flower-painted ceramic globes of the bed. We shared a twilight zone moment and helped to build a story of myself and the people I love.

Yet another upstairs room became, variously, the green room (it is a serene shade of green all over), the bird room (multiple naturalist renderings of birds), or Marnie’s room, for a former graduate student whose presence I felt there–and who visited me and that room eventually. (I only just now made the connection between Marnie and the birds.)

And the dining room. I can’t even say how easy to breathe it is there, how I sense myself in every object from the long, simple table to the Chinese green credenza and matching hutch I drove to Ithaca for in a U-Haul truck, to the chart of North American birds to a reproduction of the painting The Fourth Estate by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo (respresenting men and women amassing to strike, in gorgeous conversation) and a statue of the three muses, given to me by a childhood friend who has been coming to terms with my love of naked women. That was a gift indeed.

There is an enlarged photo of tens of thousands of people of all genders occupying the Texas Capitol for abortion rights in 2013; you can see my fist raised somewhere in there behind my friend Tyler, who since has made a gender transition and claimed the name Sylvia.

In the main, these became the new spaces of myself–stories of family and friends, politics and travels. When in this house I felt myself to be real. And I was able to assert repressed dimensions of myself, for example, my love of birds. My former partner loathed and feared birds. I then introduced aviana into every room.

Which is why, to my surprise that should not be a surprise, I cried over posting and selling such objects (not all of them). I cry now to think about the deconstruction of my dining room. When people admire it I make a joke that is not a joke that I wish I could lift and transport the entire thing in whole so as to contain myself.

I am sure, that as in literature and philosophy, as Derrida practiced, the deconstruction of a too-secure sense of self is healthy and ethical, a check on hubris and false senses of security. The affects produced out of deconstruction are intense but necessary. In a cliché: It’s time to get out of my comfort zone.

We, in the privileged middle classes, the petit bourgeoisie, the intellectuals and professionals, are encouraged to disperse our sense of self across the objects (and maybe animals) of our personal landscape (and I thank Ryan Bince for that formulation). Look no further than the tidying empire of Marie Kondo–whose books and television programs ask us to thank the things that bring us joy before putting them away to avoid hurting their feelings–to find a primer in the investment in our things. The phenomenological experience of this investment is not natural or personal; it is political and ideological too. The idea and habit of rebuilding a sense of self after its evisceration through the claiming of space and objects is maybe a peculiarly capitalist thing to do, a project of capitalist subject formation.

How could it be otherwise? As the social theorist Jürgen Habermas has noted, modernity brought with it new senses of public life conjoined with new styles of interiority in which the domestic space is a model for pyschical retreat and preparation before entry into political engagement. And so I have put Habermas and Derrida into a familiar uncomfortable dialogue with one another: the modernist and its erstwhile deconstructor. Theory is affective.

And then my thoughts turn to ancient Greek thought on the architecture of memory and self. Mnemonics, the art of memory, was taught by asking a rhetor, or public speaker, to put ideas in the rooms of an imaginary house and visit them to recall their contents during the practice of speaking. This is called the method of loci. As Rosa Eberly always says, rhetoric is architectonic--it structures self and society and our knowledge of each and their interconnections. To move through the rooms of a memory palace (to invoke Sherlock Holmes) is to construct a narrative sense of the world and of self. Critical thought has returned to the study of “memory places,” lieux de mémoire, fragile holders of past and future iterations of the self in society.

My house is not a holder of memories of tragedy, atrocity, or epidemic. But it is a testament to recovering the stories of the self after these stories have been undermined or destroyed. It is a privilege to be able to collect and assign meaning to objects and to use them to create meanings about oneself. The grief of discarding these objects is the prerogative of those who have things to dwell in and on.

We can get critical distance on this feeling by invoking deconstructionists and critics of capitalism, and yet the feeling remains here in these rooms–until I/my things leave them.

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