‘The Anxiety of Stuff: a Review of Ruth Quibell’s The Promise of Things’, by Alex Gerrans

Before the great sanitisation of Sydney’s centre for sale to developers, I was in a dealer’s apartment in King’s Cross, smoking ice. He had a set of flimsy white IKEA drawers. The same ones I had at home. Something about that stuck with me. In an unfamiliar context, meaning spills out of things. They underlined our similarities, deflated the conceit of difference: we were both young, with no concrete ties to place, and more concerned with function than form. Unlike me, however, he could have afforded mid-century furniture if he wanted.

In The Promise of Things, Ruth Quibell proposes that, beyond the innumerable words devoted to our culture’s messy relationship with consumption, it is “possible to seek out and be deeply attached to things, to attend to and appreciate them, without necessarily engaging in destructive materialism.” She opens with an anecdote about an ornate armchair purchased by an ailing Matisse. It was not useful, but it was beautiful. He didn’t need it, but it wasn’t purchased out of senseless greed. The armchair influenced Matisse’s life in an unquantifiable way; its aesthetic qualities leaked into some of his final works. She’s showing us that sometimes we’re not wrong in our “implicit belief that the goods we own will improve us and our lives, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.”

The ideas Quibell examines are more interesting than the objects she uses to make her point. You extrapolate her ideas and apply them to your own stuff, and this is where the work that goes with reading The Promise of Things occurs. Why is this object valuable to me? Who or what does it symbolise? Am I part of the IKEA-buying class if I’m getting it second-hand and weirdly stained?

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She argues that the self is both reflected in and constructed by our material environments. She considers an Edwardian wardrobe that’s survived a number of moves, even though it’s bulky and impractical, and writes of household furniture: “Through familiarity their existence becomes an unthought extension of ourselves in intimate space.” In The System of Objects, Baudrillard talks about how “the object is always transforming or mediating our relationships to the world.” I believe the inverse is true, too. A change in the narrative that goes with an object transforms our idea of the object itself. Some treasured gifts become trash when your relationship with the giver sours.

To illustrate the gap between our ideas of objects, and the deflation that follows their acquisition, Quibell uses her dream jacket, found in an op shop. After years of searching, this find doesn’t change her life. It robs her of a pastime. No longer will she habitually sift through op shops. The jacket does not transform her into the ideal self she’d imagined years ago, into the kind of bohemian who’d have a fitted brown velvet coat. The idea of a thing is always more evocative than the thing itself.

The Promise of Things prioritises the personal, and appraises the attachment of emotion to physical objects. When Quibell was seriously ill in hospital, a stone from a family trip that her husband brought her “satisfied [her] basic need to touch and to feel, and in doing so cut through this utter desperation.” There’s nothing like feeling the weight and texture of an object in your hand. A world of feeling encapsulated in the well-known shape of a thing. A thing that, without its story, would be just another rock on a beach.

Another cause for emotional investment in things is the evidence of labour. Quibell’s example is rabbit soft toys she makes for her children, though it would be cheaper and faster to buy toys. They’re unique and imperfect, and warrant sentimental attachment. This is not the same as, but it is related to, the weird fetishisation of the artisanal and handmade in our culture.

At my local Kmart, there are mason jars with candy-striped straws in them. They’re probably just as hand-made as the ones on Etsy, but the woman who sells her wares in an online shop has ownership of what she’s produced. A face, a name. She profits directly. The worker who put the straws in the Kmart jars is anonymous. Mass-produced objects aren’t necessarily machine-made, but their uniformity allows us to believe that no human hands were involved in their production. Quibell observes that it’s this “anonymity of labour” that “helps to disburden us” of responsibility when we buy goods of unknown origin.

The cheapness and uniformity of mass-produced objects allow us to throw out things like furniture that formerly were supposed to last a lifetime. Contrary to Baudrillard’s assertion that “form and function are the only values that matter”, form doesn’t matter when your material circumstances provide you with few options. Function is supreme: as soon as those IKEA drawers cease to fulfil their function, into hard rubbish they go. The obsession with workers’ agility and flexibility means that there’s an appeal to being able to assemble the same kind of environment wherever we are. A kind of stability through sameness.

There’s something fishy about the moralising language of the purge, and its perpetuation of cycles of consumption. Free. Clear. Clean. As Quibell puts it, “we have to be ready to throw away if we are to consume more.” You get to feel good about all the stuff you’ve binned, then the pleasure of anticipating some online purchase. For this to work, she says, “we have to believe that the litter of commodities melts into the air”; that the bag of charity bin clothes, once out of our sight, ceases to exist.

Some objects don’t disappear so easily. Quibell talks of “active dispossession”, a term devised by gerontologists. When people begin to anticipate their own death, they find pleasure in rehoming objects with worthy candidates. It’s your grandmother giving you a fur you’ll never wear, but you do it to make her happy. We’re attempting to curate our memory, and hoping our stuff holds onto its value independent of us. Things we don’t feel are connected to our memory fall by the wayside. My grandmother probably didn’t want to be remembered by her stockpile of adult nappies, and so did not seek to pass them down.

The anxiety of things reads belongings like this: Quibell’s book is a physical object. Does it justify its existence if it somehow produces a net loss in consumption? But it’s not Quibell’s aim to end, or lessen, our acquisition of things. She’s exploring our relationship to material goods, beyond vague hand-wringing or quick-fix solutions. She wants us to think harder about them, and to value things that can’t be replicated. Ownership entails work, whether we like it or not.

We should allow our possessions an intrinsic emotional value, beyond the vague guilt of consumption. We’re doing “ourselves and our possessions a disservice when we extend the problems of consumer culture and materialism uncritically to all the things we possess.” But I can’t get past the complicity in all of capitalism’s wrongs that I feel is inherent in every one of my belongings, can’t approach the healthy relationship with objects that Quibell believes is possible. It is instead the anxiety of things that governs my relationship with my belongings, because I am responsible for them.

Alex Gerrans is a writer from Brisbane who lives in Melbourne. She writes about women, the body and illness.