The Stuff of Our Lives

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Clutter to save Photo by Robert Francis/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The A&E television show Hoarders is hugely popular for so many reasons. Maybe we see our inner hoarder in their characters, or just want to be shocked at the sight of extreme stuff. But when writer Amy Gutman decided to declutter her storage space, she developed a fascinating idea about why our stuff is so important to us.

For decades, she paid nearly ten thousand dollars for a storage unit to avoid letting go of her things, and recently came to see much of it as worthless. In trying to comprehend how she could have kept these things for so long, she suggests that for some people our stuff is tied to our character, our being. Gutman pulls from her memory banks (but not her vast repository of stuff), Margaret Jane Radin’s paper on Property and Personhood:

"Most people possess certain objects they feel are almost part of themselves. These objects are closely bound up with personhood because they are part of the way we constitute ourselves as continuing personal entities in the world. They may be as different as people are different, but some common examples might be a wedding ring, a portrait, an heirloom, or a house.

One may gauge the strength or significance of someone’s relationship with an object by the kind of pain that would be occasioned by its loss. On this view, an object is closely related to one’s personhood if its loss causes pain that cannot be relieved by the object’s replacement. If so, that particular object is bound up with the holder. For instance, if a wedding ring is stole from a jeweler, insurance proceeds can reimburse the jeweler, but if a wedding ring is stolen from a loving wearer, the price of a replacement will not restore the status quo — perhaps no amount of money can do so.”

Clearly there is no end to what kinds of objects can be imbued with this kind of meaning. One question that has not only legal but philosophical implications is how much of personhood is the culmination of experiences. And maybe those experiences are deeply tied to property, where some may find the necessity and pain of attachment. The one thing I wished Gutman had revealed in the article was how she released her attachment to her stuff.

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