Maya Seligman
Swarthmore College
English 95: Fictions of Consumption
Prof. Lisa Cohen
February 25, 1997

Shopping Journal #5

This week had very little real shopping for me. I spent money on the following: a pack of gum, a strawberry popsicle, laundry, Mentos, gasoline, "Dutch Chocolate/Old Fashioned Vanilla swirl" frozen yogurt, copy card credit and broccoli with garlic sauce. All purchases were spread out during the week, and I only went into a store once (even then, it hardly qualified as a store since it was at a rest stop between Swarthmore and D.C.).

I was forced to think about my relationships to my possessions this winter break. Starting on New Year's Eve (1996), a major flood hit my hometown of Ashland, Oregon, becoming a lifestyle-changing force for the next five days (and even the following few weeks, after it stopped raining). Lithia Creek overflowed into the downtown plaza and the park, causing massive infrastructural damage to the city. Running water and sewage service was cut off for more than a week, which made me feel like I was camping out at home. The aspect that affected me the most was that the ground-floor of my mom's house -- my bedroom -- was flooded. I had to box up all my stuff and move it upstairs, every single belonging, which finally made me realize what a packrat I had been my whole life. I found myself having to deal with crates and crates of junk that I had collected ever since I was in kindergarten: letters, clothes, science projects, photographs, invitations, yearbooks, newspaper clippings, stuffed animals, jewelry, books, postcards, reports, drawings, valentines and knick-knacks of every kind. (Reminding me of Madame Realism's overburdened bookshelves and crowded desk of letters she could not throw out.) It took me two full days to move everything; my things filled up our library room, overflowing into the hallway and into my sister's room. Seeing the quantity of stuff I owned was nauseatingly overwhelming.
I thought back to all the times I had wanted to get rid of some of my old things; it had never worked because every object held memories for me, representative of another period of my life. Lynne Tillman describes Freud's collection as a "chaos of memories," to which I can certainly relate. Going through my stuff felt like the archeological process Freud writes of in Studies in Hysteria, digging through layers of palpable, burdensome reminiscences. I would divide the stuff I sorted into two piles -- trash and save -- but the latter would always end up much larger. I thought about the total time I had spent trying to keep all my belongings in order, the hours devoted to the attempts of realigning my surrounding disorder into straightened cleanliness. This stuff had commanded an incredible cumulative amount of my time and energy.
After the flood I was dedicated to starting fresh, to purging myself from material attachments. I wanted to have a Zen lifestyle, with no owned commodities to bind me to the past. Although I wasn't able to get rid of everything, I did let go of a record percentage of my stuff, which went to the trash, Goodwill, my sister, my friends, or the recycling center. Illustrative of the value of objects (which I discuss below), I had to keep some things for their true emotional value: photos, diaries, special letters, etc.. Some boxes were put under the house for storage until this summer, when I can unearth them for a yard sale -- a chance to make money on these burdensome commodities. The whole process was a satisfying release for me, making me assess the true value of my habit of collection. Tillman had an interesting diagnoses of "collecting," writing that it represents the absence of something and the impossibility of entirely filling one's desires. For one of the first times, my chaos of memories becaame a little more manageable.
Yet I also see the value of collecting. Tillman's article clarified a connection I see between objects and stories, as Freud "wrote" a world around himself through his belongings, and without his words and stories from those objects, he maybe felt a little lost. In this way, personal ownership is a comforting stabilizer. As Walter Benjamin writes (in "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century"), "For the private individual the private environment represents the universe" (154). Our belongings can help define our perceptions of reality and our identities.
When Madame Realism looks at today's Coney Island, she sees death and loss because it was not salvaged; this gives validation to collecting, as objects have the fulfilling power to build bridges between our mental and physical worlds. When someone gives an object symbolic significance, it can validate and justify his/her thoughts by making them more tangible, pulling the concept from abstraction (inside the head) into the palpable form of physical representation. Walter Benjamin refers to a quote (with no given source ?) in "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century," claiming that construction can fill the role of the unconscious (147). I am trying to figure out his theories of the dream world and dialectical thinking. It seems like all articles we read this week (as well as Studies in Hysteria) refer to the unconscious and dream images, somehow using them to illustrate important theories. Benjamin's discussion of the collective unconscious seem especially pertinent to me -- the "illusion of perpetual sameness" wrapped up in the history of a culture (158). Susan Buck-Morss also writes about the collective unconscious, referring to it as an illusory, false one affecting both producer and consumer, causing reality to take on "the distorted form of a dream" (109). These ideas all seem connected on many levels; the issues of the dreaming state, the unconscious, history, objects, collecting, past memories, stories, commodities, exhibitionary images and the consumer are all tied up in a web of relationships which I am attempting to untangle in my brain.

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