Trash and Aesthetics in the Hoard
by Charmaine Eddy
published June 2015
What is it that makes an object in one context valuable and in another context trash? How do we distinguish between the museum and the refuse pile? What makes our desire for some things transform over time into a desire to discard them, while we cannot bear to let go of others? This article explores the variation in our understanding of objects in relation to value as represented in the reality television programs Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive. Most viewers comprehend the hoard in each episode in the context of trash. However, this article will put pressure on the apparent obviousness of this interpretation by interrogating the “object aesthetics” in the series. The requirement for hoarders to learn an evaluative hierarchy in relation to their objects suggests that the shows, though ostensibly therapeutic in intent, adopt principles that have long been applied to objects in consumer culture. By resisting contextualizing the object within normative patterns of consumption, I will argue, hoarders release an alternate potentiality within the object, one that resembles the theoretical work in object-oriented ontology and “thing” theory. This article reintroduces but extends and develops an argument I first put forward in “The Art of Consumption: Capitalist Excess and Individual Psychosis in Hoarders.”
The initial episode of Hoarders aired on August 17, 2009 as part of A&E’s “lifestyle” programming. Part docudrama, part intervention show, and part home makeover show, each episode focuses on two individuals who are represented as having a psychopathology that manifests in terms of their relationship to objects. The show features psychologists specializing in forms of obsessive compulsive disorder, whose therapeutic model is to compel hoarders to recognize their disorder through a process of evaluating and assessing their objects, so as to come to terms with discarding the majority of them. The psychologists situate the hoarders’ inability to let go of objects in the context of a prior personal tragedy, which has compelled the hoarder to cling to material things in compensation for loss. Objects are understood as inadequate substitutes for this loss, and they are also often viewed as contributing to the possibility of future loss. In many cases, the hoarder is on the brink of losing his or her home or facing an irreparable breach with family members. The hoarders’ “corrupt form of object relations” (Herring 184) is thus both the symptom of the psychopathology and the site where the process of psychotherapy takes place. In the episodes that conclude with a successful psychotherapeutic process, the final scenes show viewers a clutter-free home to illustrate that both home and subjectivity have been transformed. Although the production of Hoarders concluded in 2013, the series sparked a number of similar shows, including Hoarding: Buried Alive, which aired on TLC beginning March 14, 2010, and Consumed, which premiered on HGTV in the fall of 2010.
The trash heap is a staple spectacle of each episode of Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive. From the title sequence to all but the last few scenes, the hoarder’s collection of objects is almost always on view. The camera often alternates between extreme wide shots (Figure 1) to emphasize the overwhelming immensity of the hoard and extreme close-up shots (Figure 2) to capture the sordid secrets hiding within it.
Figure 1: Screenshot of Nancy’s living room from “Fuzzie and Fredd/Nancy” Hoarders Season 6, Episode 13.
Figure 2: Screenshot of Nancy’s casserole dish with dog feces from “Fuzzie and Fredd/Nancy” Hoarders Season 6, Episode 13.
By alternating between the excessiveness of the pile of objects reaching beyond the windows and feces in a dirty casserole dish, as happens in Season 6’s Nancy’s story (“Fuzzie and Fredd/Nancy”), the collection becomes fetishized as material waste, a garbage dump that has found its way inside the confines of the suburban home. Even when the camera films interpersonal conversations between the hoarder and the psychologist or a family member, or a sequence to illustrate the hoarder’s typical daily life, the hoard is often the ground against which the human figure or figures are read. In these instances, the shots undermine the hoarder’s discourse—often a discourse of protest against jettisoning an object or being defined as a hoarder—by linking them to the hoard itself as the material evidence of the hoarder’s psychopathology and therefore his or her méconnaissance (Jacques Lacan’s term for the subject’s self mis-recognition).
By framing the hoarder’s perspective against the fetish of the hoard, the category of “waste” is tied to the hoarder’s subjectivity so as to reinforce the psychologist’s interpretation of his or her behavior as psychopathology. The waste of the hoard becomes part of a narrative of moral choices made in the past by the hoarder, where his or her decision to retain objects is configured as “wasting” economic resources and/or threatening family relations and personal mental health. The hoarder is also often represented as if on the brink of becoming another object in the hoard. As we watch Nancy from Season 6 navigate the hoard with difficulty to microwave her dinner and return to the living room to sit in a cramped space in the pile, the camera’s close-up shots associate her food with dirt and trash and the wide shots associate her body with the heap of waste she has accumulated. The implicit message is that Nancy ingests waste, surrounds herself with waste, and is on the verge of becoming a part of the waste itself. Seemingly incapable of acting, lacking in affect, living in increasingly restricted cubbyholes surrounded by things, Nancy’s very subjectivity appears at risk. The trash aesthetic in Hoarders, then, is not simply about describing the collection of objects; instead, it is motivated in the service of the characterization of the hoarder.
Figure 3: Screenshot of Nancy eating in the midst of the hoard from “Fuzzie and Fredd/Nancy” Hoarders Season 6, Episode 13.
“Waste” is the adjectival criterion applied to the collection of objects and the hoarder’s past economic and “lifestyle” choices, but it also describes a revised relationship to objects that the hoarder must learn, as one developmental stage in the therapeutic process the hoarder undergoes. In order to throw objects out, the hoarder must come to adopt an evaluative hierarchy about those objects’ value—worthy of retaining/needing to be trashed—which family members, the psychologist, and most viewers share. Sometimes, experts are brought in to appraise objects that the hoarder claims have some value. Almost invariably, the hoarder’s object semiology is undermined: antiques are revealed as reproductions in Season 4’s “Kevin/Mary”; designer handbags are shown to be fake in Season 3’s “Theresa/Karen”; Sir Patrick’s collector’s items have no resale value in Season 4’s “Gordon & Gaye/Sir Patrick.”
At other times, expert advice is not required since the distinction between objects of value and objects of no value appears incontrovertibly clear. Becky from Hoarders Season 4 has lost her house and has all of her objects in storage units that she has not paid for in months. She is about to lose all of her possessions, and has been given a last chance to retrieve some of the items before the units are auctioned off. In spite of the threat of losing everything, Becky sorts through garbage bags containing refuse instead of paying attention to much more valuable family antiques. Lisa, a food hoarder from Season 4, has retained decaying and desiccated food items in half-used and open cans, partially empty bottles, and layers of old Styrofoam food trays. As self-styled “extreme cleaning specialist” Matt Paxton empties the kitchen, he focuses in on single objects that magnify the abject quality of the entirety of the hoard. While gagging and coughing, Paxton brings to the camera’s view decaying chicken bones in a plastic container, rat feces on a piece of Styrofoam, a half-full can of pineapple with contents that are blackened and dried up, and even a flattened dead rat that ate unsafe food in the kitchen and then died. The message is clear. Even rats cannot survive in the garbage pile in Lisa’s home.
Figure 4: Screenshot of Matt Paxton holding a flattened dead rat in Lisa’s kitchen from “Lisa/Bertha” Hoarders Season 4, Episode 10.
Although many hoarders attempt to contextualize object collection outside of an economic narrative—they are saving, curating, or archiving objects—an overwhelming aesthetics of abjection confirms their psychopathology within a narrative of normative consumption. Whether totalized as a trash heap or individualized as items of waste, as in Lisa’s case, most objects are represented as long “past their due date.” Hoarders must alter their understanding of and attitude toward objects within categories of valuation that support consumer culture by discarding almost all of them, based upon the translation of objects into their economic value. In other words, the psychotherapists recuperate a hoarder’s disorder by teaching him or her the difference between objects of value and waste. If the hoarder’s problem is the need to part with an excessive number of objects, then one could ask: what difference does it make which objects are discarded and which are retained since so many of them will need to go? If we agree that there is a subjective aspect to the desire for objects, then why must the hoarder learn to discard and retain objects based upon their resale value? What is at stake in the insertion of objects back into economic circulation via their translation into their monetary value? Is something beyond psychotherapy informing the therapeutic process? Theories of object-oriented ontology, where attention is paid to the object isolated from human subjectivity, can help us to answer these questions by providing a different way of perceiving the objects in the hoard.
The field of object-oriented ontology or metaphysics, also called “speculative realism,” has emerged as a critique of the human-centeredness of continental philosophy. As Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman argue in “Towards a Speculative Philosophy,” their introduction to The Speculative Turn, the real world outside of human subjectivity “appears in philosophy only as the correlate of human thought,” a Kantian hold-over where objects “conform to the human mind” (3,4). Speculative realists pursue the problem of realism as a “mind-independent reality,” through a speculative model that produces “something far weirder than realists had ever guessed” (Harman, “Well-Wrought” 184). Object-oriented ontologists, who participate in the larger field of speculative realism, attempt to understand objects’ differences positively and affirmatively, rather than perceiving objects epistemologically or “from the standpoint of a consciousness [...] [where] the differences composing objects are taken by reference to what objects are not” (Bryant 266). After all, as Bryant argues in “The Ontic Principle,” “[t]he temperature of boiling water is not the negation of other degrees” (266).
In “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-Oriented Literary Criticism” in the spring 2012 issue of New Literary History, Graham Harman rethinks phenomenology’s attempt to understand the “essence” of objects, building on Heidegger’s radical assertion that the object is often not present in the human mind, but taken for granted as the mind focuses on something beyond it. He invokes Heidegger’s infamous example of the broken hammer to illustrate how both theory and praxis conceive of an object’s essence as oriented toward its human use-value. The broken hammer—an event or performance of the object apart from human intention—not only upsets this orientation and the concept of an object as static and unchanging on which it relies, but alludes to “the inscrutable reality of hammer-being lying behind the accessible theoretical, practical, or perceptual qualities of the hammer” (Harman 187), a reality the human mind cannot access. For Harman, the broken hammer offers an alternative representational economy in which the object can be placed—one where the object is “mortal, ever-changing, built from swarms of subcomponents, and accessible only through oblique allusion” (188).
By maintaining a non-relational approach to objects as “unified entities with specific qualities that are autonomous from us and from each other” (Harman, “On the Undermining of Objects” 22), object-oriented ontology proves useful when rethinking the apparent obviousness of the hoarder’s pile of objects as trash. Like Harman’s reading of Heidegger’s broken hammer, the hoard takes on qualities beyond human intention and understanding. Not only has each object’s value for human use been abandoned or deferred, the collection itself exhibits what Jane Bennett identifies as a “distributive agency” of its own (Vibrant Matter ix). As an assemblage of objects, the hoard produces effects that are “distinct from the sum of the vital force of each materiality considered alone” (Vibrant Matter 24). In fact, hoarders often identify the hoard itself as a non-human “actant” with a “material agency” or life of its own: “They repeatedly say that ‘things just took over,’ got out of hand, and ‘overwhelmed’ them; they experience the hoard as having its own momentum or drive to persist and grow” (Bennett, “Powers of the Hoard” 244, 252).
Bennett’s reading of the hoard evinces its transformation from an “object” collection, which serves human purpose, to a “thing” in its own right, a distinction Bill Brown inaugurated in “Thing Theory” in 2001. While Bennett’s argument attests to a form of agency manifested by the totality of objects within the collection of the hoard, the individual object can also exhibit “thing-power” (Vibrant Matter 24) when seen from the point of view of the hoarder, rather than the psychologist. Although the camera focuses on individual objects that confirm a reading of the hoard as trash, there are moments in some shows where a hoarder hangs on to an object, resisting abandoning it. If we attend seriously to the perspective of the hoarder in these moments, and oppose the imperative of the camera through whose perspective we are trained to view the hoard, then we may be able to glimpse the possibility of understanding the object in a non-relational way. In other words, if we imagine the hoarder as a thing theorist, rather than a person with a disorder, then we may be able to perceive the objects in the hoard outside of the cycle of human consumption and waste since thing theory demands that we view the object apart from its relation to human subjectivity.
There is a moment in Lisa’s story, where she and the psychologist are sitting on the porch, and the psychologist holds up an empty ginger ale can, asking Lisa what the can means to her. Although his intention is to draw a comparative evaluation between the empty can and the flattened dead rat or decaying chicken bones—Lisa is supposed to recognize and acknowledge that the can no longer retains value—as the camera focuses first on the can and then on Lisa’s tranquil face, the possibility emerges that the empty can holds something within it that is beyond human comprehension and consciousness. As the sunlight filters through the trees onto the porch and produces a glint against the green of the can, Lisa responds, “I see potential in everything.”
Figure 5: Screenshot of psychotherapist, Mark Pfeffer, holding an empty ginger ale can on Lisa’s porch from “Lisa/Bertha” Hoarders Season 4, Episode 10.
Figure 6: Screenshot of Lisa looking at the empty ginger ale can on her porch from “Lisa/Bertha” Hoarders Season 4, Episode 10.
This open-ended potentiality within the realm of the “thing” is soon shut down by the prevailing narrative of the show. First, Lisa goes on to articulate the can as having potential for art-making: “There are lots of things you can do with tinsnips to create flowers.” And then the psychologist returns the concept of potentiality to the human subject: “So this can, theoretically then, would have more potential than you do.”
The momentary isolation of the empty ginger ale can, though, interrupts an oscillating aesthetics of privilege and abjection adopted by the camera. When filming Lisa’s hoard, the camera tends to maintain a perspective well above the collection, capitalizing on the excess of the mass, or to focus in on items that abject the hoard as a form of trash—the dead and flattened rat, the decaying chicken bones, the desiccated pineapple, insects, feces. When the hoard is viewed from an angle well above the ground—the perspective of God, one might argue—the hoard resembles the garbage dump as the object’s individuality is lost in the multitude. However, as de Certeau reminds us in The Practice of Everyday Life, the omniscient perspective, borrowed from Medieval and Renaissance painters, is a fiction, creating “imaginary totalizations” by laying claim to a viewpoint that the eye will never attain (158). Lisa’s focus on the can brings the viewpoint “‘down below’” (158), forcing the camera to rest on an object so that it cannot be so easily dismissed.
The close-up shot of the can equalizes Lisa’s perspective with the hierarchical viewpoint of the camera, and it attends to an object isolated from the hoard that cannot be as easily abjected as feces or a dead rat. It also slows down the camera’s encompassing sweep, which tends to homogenize all of the objects together into a spectacle of abjection. As Bennett notes, the object has a durability that human flesh does not, due to the “relative slowness of its rate of change” (“Powers of the Hoard” 252). Lisa’s attentiveness to the potentiality within the empty can forces the camera to adopt a temporality closer to that of the can. In that brief moment, if we engage seriously with Lisa’s perspective, the empty can hovers at the point of functioning like Heidegger’s broken hammer, alluding to “the inscrutable reality of [object]-being lying behind [its] accessible theoretical, practical, or perceptual qualities” (Harman, “Well-Wrought” 187). Although a conventional interpretation would view the can as trash since its contents have already been consumed, and so its function to deliver those contents to the consumer is over, this momentary glimpse of something beyond in the can helps us to think of the object outside the terms of its human use-value. As I have argued elsewhere, in these instances “we witness the move from ‘object’ to ‘thing,’ as the hoarder makes something out of nothing, producing what does not even count as an object—the non-object one might say—as having legitimate ‘thing-power’” (Eddy 12).
It is only by attending seriously to the perspective of the hoarder, against the imperative of the psychologist through whose perspective the camera trains us to view the hoard, that we may be able to glimpse the possibility of understanding the object as having the potential of a thing. Lisa’s interpretation of potentiality in the “valueless” ginger ale can offers a perspective that alludes to something within the object beyond human consciousness. By giving credence to this potentiality, viewers can gain a glimpse into the inaccessible world of things, but there is also a possibility that the evaluative aesthetics imposed on the collection might begin to unravel. Although the psychologists in each episode want to push the object into a relational context, as a symptom of the psychopathology of the human subject, the object could then speak back to an aesthetics of waste that would define it as disposable. We would come to see the category of waste as no longer articulating a descriptive criteria of the object, but as propelling both the object and the human subject into the stream of production, consumption, and waste that motivates consumer capitalism. Although hoarders lay claim to any number of rational alternatives to contextualize their objects, even morally viable philosophies in which object collection and retention has a place—recycling, reusing, archiving, curating—the requirement for them to discard objects symbolizes their reintegration into proper object consumption. If the object is employed in the service of establishing the hoarder’s psychopathology, then perhaps one could argue that the “thing” exposes the fact that the trashing of the object is employed in the service of tying the therapeutic process to consumer capitalism.
The political and theoretical implications of rethinking the apparent “obviousness” of the hoard as trash are the following. First, the visibility of the “distributive agency” of the hoard exposes the fact that consumption relies upon our coming to understand what we have once desired as disposable and unwanted. Second, the representational aesthetics that guides the perception of objects and establishes a hierarchy of value between them is not value-neutral itself, but instead supports normative practices of consumption, even when that aesthetics is supposedly in the service of something else, such as psychotherapy. Third, viewing the object as having “thing-power” inserts a wedge into the evaluative object hierarchy that subtends consumption, taking it beyond the terms of its monetary equivalence in the marketplace and its human “use-value.” Object-oriented ontology helps us to resituate the hoarder outside of a disability narrative and the hoard beyond an aesthetics of trash. Like the found-art assemblage of Song Dong in his 2009 MoMA exhibit “Waste Not,” where he examines individual and cultural memory through the artifacts his mother could not discard, or Alison S. M. Kobayashi in her installation for Elsewhere, “The Possessed Artifacts and Detritus of Mrs. Florence Hazel Davis Bland,” where she explores how objects are haunted by the traces of the departed human subjects who once owned them, the hoarder’s archive may be able to teach us something we did not know, and perhaps do not want to know, about the object and ourselves.
If we are able to see the object beyond a relational understanding of it as a window into human subjectivity alone—if, as Bennett postulates, “this ‘call’ from things is taken seriously”—then we have the opportunity to reconfigure “our writing, our bodies, our research designs, our consumption practices, our sympathies” (Bennett, “Powers of the Hoard” 240). It is not an easy pathway to follow the call of things away from the narcissism of our critical philosophies, but, as Harman reminds us, “we pay a heavy price when we strip individual things of all causal power and turn them into a petrified forest at the surface of reality” (“On the Undermining of Objects” 37). By resisting homogenizing the differences of objects in the hoard into the singularity of trash and thereby disrupting the moral definition of consumption on which that homogenization is based, we may be able to begin to address some of the larger social and environmental problems we now face as a result of the restrictive human-centered aesthetics in which objects have historically been placed. If we can imagine our objects as things in their own right, we may be persuaded to desist from assuming a hierarchy of value between human subjectivity and other forms of animate and inanimate life. If human consciousness is no longer the reference point for our comprehension of objects, if human consumption is no longer the purpose of the life of objects, if human status is no longer determined through a value-laden object economy, we may begin to see human desire for the object as the way consumer capitalism repeats the priority of the cycle of production, consumption, and waste, as it turns human beings as well as objects into vehicles of consumption and production.
I would like to thank Elaine Stavro, Sally Chivers, NANO’s anonymous reviewers, and editors John DeGregorio and David Banash for their productive suggestions on earlier drafts of this article.
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Figure 1: Screenshot of Nancy’s living room from “Fuzzie and Fredd/Nancy” Hoarders Season 6, Episode 13. A&E. 4 Feb. 2013. Television.
Figure 2: Screenshot of Nancy’s casserole dish with dog feces from “Fuzzie and Fredd/Nancy” Hoarders Season 6, Episode 13. A&E. 4 Feb. 2013. Television.
Figure 3: Screenshot of Nancy eating a meal in the midst of the hoard from “Fuzzie and Fredd/Nancy” Hoarders Season 6, Episode 13. A&E. 4 Feb. 2013. Television.
Figure 4: Screenshot of Matt Paxton holding a flattened dead rat in Lisa’s kitchen from “Lisa/Bertha” Hoarders Season 4, Episode 10. A&E. 22 Aug. 2011. Television.
Figure 5: Screenshot of psychotherapist, Mark Pfeffer, holding an empty ginger ale can on Lisa’s porch from “Lisa/Bertha” Hoarders Season 4, Episode 10. A&E. 22 Aug. 2011. Television.
Figure 6: Screenshot of Lisa looking at the empty ginger ale can on her porch from “Lisa/Bertha” Hoarders Season 4, Episode 10. A&E. 22 Aug. 2011. Television.
Charmaine Eddy is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Trent University. In addition to writing articles on hoarding and thing theory, she has published on the fiction of William Faulkner and Alice Walker in the context of contemporary critical race studies, psychoanalysis, theories of gender and sexuality, and debates about nationhood and national sovereignty.