Article

Our obsession with “Stuff”

Students of linguistics and communication are familiar with the saying, “We cannot not communicate” but that is not the whole picture. The saying is one of the axioms or principles of the Interactional view of communication. These axioms maintain what they call the family homeostatis. By this they mean that if one fails, they all fail. The axioms are,
1. One cannot not communicate. In simpler terms (henceforth IST), we cannot help it, whatever we do communicates something.
2. Every communication has a content and relationship aspect such that the latter classifies the former and is therefore a metacommunication. IST, the relationship we have with our communication partner influences the content of our communication.
3. The nature of relationship is dependent on the punctuation of the partners communication procedures. IST, You and your communication partner determine how the communication flows or happens.
4. Human communication involves both digital and analogue modalities. IST, we communicate directly people to people, or we communicate via machines.
5. Inter-human communication procedures are either symmetric or complementary. IST, communication inherently involves a power dynamic. It happens between those perceived to have equal status in the communication (symmetric) or between partners with different perceived status in the communication (analogue).
There is, however, an aspect of our communication which is just as pervasive as communication but much less explored, our inherent obsession with stuff: here used to mean “something” or a “thing”. It is, I think, also an axiom that, we cannot not have stuff. More importantly, often our stuff talks louder than we do.
We cannot face the world without our stuff. Just ask yourself, when have you ever been without your stuff either on you or around you? Even babies are given stuff the moment they come to this world: the blanket being the first, usually. Some of us enter esoteric groups or teachings that shun all worldly stuff, but they will still have stuff. The Sadhus of India reject worldly possession and choose to roam the world completely naked as a sign of them no longer desire the falsehood of this world. However, look closer and you will still see stuff: prayer beads, holy ash in their hair, colours that they use to draw symbols on their forehead, and more. Similarly, Buddhist monks shun the word and go forth into the world to do good deeds, but they too have stuff: their begging bowls, their saffron robes, their prayer beads, and more.
Surely, you might say, we can shed all our stuff. Certainly, we can but the grip of stuff on our lives is such that removing our stuff has to be done within specific confines or parameters. The nudists say that they shed everything to be free, but this freedom has to be contained lest it affects the rest of society. Nudists are confined to colonies or resorts. Else it is done stealthily in secluded places. Where there are no walls, the behaviour is surrounded by invisibles walls: public nudity laws. Failure to respond appropriately will result in sanctions.
Our obsession with stuff is such that we need to name the notion of doing with less stuff. We call it minimalism.
Our obsession with stuff is ubiquitous and our fantasy of not having to have stuff are both strong enough for us to make not having stuff a commodity. There is a large industry that revolves around images, both still and moving, of people without stuff on. It is even performed live in specialized entertainment establishment particularly at red light districts: striptease. They can also be placed on a continuum with different names given to the different levels of not having stuff on and doing things without having stuff on: glamour modelling, pornography. These too are illusions. The people being presented in the images actually have stuff on them, make up. They are use furniture and other stuff – props. They are posed, in other words, they are directed in what they do like living mannequins: stuff. On a more social level, we commoditize control of our access to our stuff for different purposes. We have retreats and resorts where we leave behind our stuff and use the stuff there.
Stuff that we use to do things or make stuff, we call tools. If these tools are movable or extend our movement, we call them machines: still stuff. We are so obsessed with this category of stuff that we even seek ways to have several on us wherever we go. The Swiss Army knife can have as few as two tools in one or much more. We call these multi tools. So, we have one stuff that can do the work of many other stuffs in one singular stuff.
In our age of communication, we also have stuff that do not actually exist in real life: even our virtual selves have stuff. The smartphone is one singular item, but it boasts the ability to do numerous things by using something we call apps. Each app is really a tool: virtual stuff. Even our cyber selves are loaded with stuff.
Our obsession with stuff lies at the root of the problems that stem from our efforts in getting stuff. Today, bankruptcy among young working people is fuelled by our desire for more stuff. To expedite the process, we categorise the stuff we want to buy and sell. Stuff that are you are told you need is pushed onto you by using such terms as fashion, necessity, fancy. The act of obtaining stuff has also become a comfort seeking behaviour.
This obsession prevails even after our deaths. Some people are buried with their stuff. Stuff like cars, clothes, trinkets, and more. Our Chinese friends burn paper structures in shape of stuff because they believe that something that disappears here, emerges there to be used by their beloved ones on the other side. When we do not want to bring our stuff to the other side or believe that this cannot be done, we leave instructions on who among those we leave behind using paper stuff we call wills.
Unlike in that other galaxy far far away, an appropriate greeting in our world may perhaps be, “May your stuff be with you”.

Note: The featured picture is the KLCC towers taken from inside Suria KLCC. It is an example of really big stuff.

Reference

Miller, D. (2010). Stuff. Cambridge, England: Polity.

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