The power of things


We had a fantastic event here at JAS last night as part of our Arts and Ecology dialogues. The audience was lively, up for some impromptu and planned participation, and as inspiring as the speakers themselves – I’d really recommend that you have a listen to the podcast, available on the RSA site soon.

First up was Neil Boorman, critic, author, music promoter and all around cool guy, who famously burned all his branded possessions in an effort to rid himself of the tyranny of ‘the brand’. His argument is that we have been conditioned, much like Pavlovian dogs, to desire specific brands because their marketing is specifically designed to appeal to your emotional responses causing us to consume ever more, even if we claim to be brand neutral. Arguably this is mass consumption is unsustainable both economically (re: the credit crunch) and environmentally (climate change).

Daniel Miller, an anthropologist researching material culture at UCL, followed hot on his heels. His forthcoming book The Comfort of Things explores the complex relationship that we have with our stuff, branded or not. He cautions against hope that consumer choices can be a major lever in tackling climate change. This is because our relationship to things is complex. People have to play off the public ethics of buying fair trade and environmentally and the private ethic of saving money for their family or eating healthily. And people are confused: bottled water which largely began from an environmentalist critique of the ‘polluted’ water in our taps has now emerged as a environmental culprit.

Miller believes that we need to allow scientists to work out what the most harmful activities are to the environmental, and for the government to make the tough decisions and legislate against them. This prompted another bit of audience participation – I asked the audience to raise their hands for either a Government Centric or Citizen Centric model for combating climate change, and the results were split about 50/50.

Finally, Michael Landy, the artist who gained notoriety when he catalogued and deconstructed all of his possessions for the piece Breakdown showed his film about the work, and discussed his feelings of elation, and loss. This sparked a debate about whether we should value our ‘things’ more or less – again, the audience voted, and the overwhelming majority believed that we should value our things more.

This reminded me of the famous William Morris quote: ‘have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. By following this maxim I think that we both value things more and less – our possessions are linked to our memory and to our understanding of ourselves and the world. Maybe we keep them precious to us because we have a desire to feel connected to the material world, because our lives feel so ephemeral in comparison to the world around us.

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