My Life with Things: The Consumer Diaries, by Elizabeth Chin

Book of the week: Shahidha Bari on our attachment to consumption and whether we might ever somehow escape it

June 9, 2016
Man weighing basket of cotton balls, 1890s
Source: Alamy
New slaves: Chin reminds us of the original imperial and racial inflections of capitalist consumption and its ongoing conjunctions with slavery, migration and global labour

"I think that capitalism sucks,” Elizabeth Chin declares nonchalantly at one point in her curiously wobbly study-turned-memoir. It’s an odd opinion to espouse, she concedes, for someone writing about their relationships with objects, especially since the book reads so often like a passionate teenage love letter to lost bracelets and longed-for rugs. But this oddness (both in sentiment and tone) is characteristic of a work that can be as bewildering as it is brilliant. In our earnestly yogic age of middle-class disillusionment, swirling with the injunctions of an apparently kinder counter-capitalism – be green, more organic, buy less, give more, keep objects that spark joy, lose worldly possessions, live off-grid, discover nature, become mindful – Chin composes a sprawling paean to the joy of stuff and the impossibility of our ever eschewing it. In My Life With Things, she is winningly alert to the ambivalence around our acts of consumption, both the awful guilt and the immeasurable pleasure nonetheless.

An anthropologist by training, Chin sets out to record her “consumer diaries”, tracking the various practices and processes around her own purchasing habits, evaluating the significance of objects ranging from a pair of metallic purple sports shoes (“Really, people have actually said they remind them of that show ‘Lost in Space’”) to the daily print copy of the Los Angeles Times (“What I loved…was the smell of the paper itself, its sounds as pages turned or sections were tossed to the floor”). She recounts a story about an engagement ring belonging to a Chinese grandmother, inherited circuitously after a rancorous family dispute. If some of this sounds discomfortingly personal, it is. There is no dignified academic arm’s length here: rather Chin commits to inspecting the circumstances around every last item, even when it reveals her own personality in distinctly unflattering light. This she undertakes in the name of a kind of “autoethnography”, and the book comprises a series of “field notes on the self”. Impartiality is impossible: indeed, Chin actively refuses to draw a line between the personal and the scholarly, since the object of the project is to delineate “the ways consumption connects me at once outward to the world, and inward to my being”.

And yet if she understands consumption mostly in terms of her own feelings, this testimony is also set against a knowledgeable backdrop of Theodor Adorno, Bruno Latour and Dick Hebdige. Most significant of all is Karl Marx, who figures almost as a spectral interlocutor throughout. These thinkers are always quietly percolating in the background of Chin’s otherwise thoroughly colloquial narrative, and they provide a necessary antidote to a chatty mode of address she describes, unsqueamishly, as “girlfriend to girlfriend”. The upshot of this methodology is that readers must acquiesce, and accept the authority of Chin’s experience. This isn’t easy, mainly since Chin seems to consider her digressions as much a part of her study as any decided argument, and the end of each analysis isn’t always apparent from the beginning. An early, charmless essay about online dating (Chin dismisses a man who calls her “babydoll”) seems pointless, self-absorbed, jarring, but then it suddenly seems to signpost a more thoughtful consideration of the commodifications of the self demanded by the modern romantic marketplace. A discussion of the debatable merits of eBay broadens into a discussion of exchange value, Marx’s proclivities for pawning (including his coat and dresses belonging to his daughters) and the historical forces by which Native American communities were enjoined into their colonisers’ economy. The seemingly open benevolence of an online auction is overshadowed, Chin points out, by the impulse to turn “everything into money”, with the everyday things we use, wear and consume transformed into calculated dollar signs.

The discussion of exchange value and the alienation of men from goods is, of course, Marx 101, and he is never far from Chin’s thinking. Early on, she notes how Marx’s formulation of the all-consuming commodity “fetishism” of modern culture derives from the Portuguese feitiço, meaning charm or sorcery, referring specifically to the West African practice of object worship, as witnessed by 15th-century sailors. To the fetish, worshippers could attribute magical, inherent properties, and in the same way, modern capitalism, it seemed to Marx, traded on the seemingly supernatural life of objects, blotting out the brute facts of labour and the conditions of working people. Chin, brilliantly, reminds us of the original imperial and racial inflections of capitalist consumption, but she notes too its ongoing conjunctions with slavery, migration and global labour. “If black Americans have a different relationship to consumption, it is”, she observes, citing the words of poet Jamaica Kincaid, “because we were capital, like bales of cotton and sacks of sugar.” It’s such an astonishingly powerful insight that it resonates throughout the book, when Chin’s dentist fits her with a crown of a generic shape and size (“my white man’s tooth!”) and again when she visits a nail salon and watches the Vietnamese workers, squatting on their haunches, “the embodiment of labor exploitation”.

Later, poring over expensive antique Oriental rugs, she wrestles frankly with her desire and the spectre of Chinese child labourers: “How on earth can I ever buy, or own, or enjoy one of these rugs? And what else is in my house that is just as tainted, just as terrible?” Chin acknowledges, with an admirable candour, the war of attrition we face, the ways that ethical will erodes in the face of consumer desire. The question here is not simply an outraged “How dare we buy such things?” but a more sympathetic “How do we not?”, and it is to Chin’s credit that she refuses to deny how compellingly consumer desire works while recognising too the sickness at the heart of commodity culture.

For Eleanor Marx, Chin reserves a particular affinity, noting their shared experiences of anorexia and skilfully folding this into a meditation on the duality of the ascetic body and the excessive consumer. The anorexic’s insistent question, “How can I stop wanting what I can’t have?”, she poses with devastating effect here, persuasively locating the condition in its rightful, broader context of consumption. Chin’s autoethnography is attuned to the ways that capitalism works both with and against these intangible, insatiable economies of desire and need.

Chin isn’t always an agreeable companion, and the informality of her prose dips too often into inane self-inspection rather than insight (“I’m an inflexible old fart,” she informs us at one point, apropos of very little). But at other moments in this book, her connective thinking – personal, scholarly and political – produces remarkable insights. In the chapter “Banky”, she recounts her attachment to a childhood comfort blanket, joining up the dots between this, psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s theories of child development through transitional objects, and Horace Miner’s satirical study of the rituals of the North American “Nacirema” tribe. What Chin realises is that the transitional object guides the child into lone sleeping arrangements and so inculcates, from as early as possible, the autonomous individuality on which capitalism is predicated. We teach our children to desire objects, she writes, in one terrible moment of realisation. And the challenge, she recognises, is not to undo that, but to better understand why we buy and the ways in which we seek out stuff to plug the gaps in life.

Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism, Queen Mary University of London. She is writing a book on philosophy and dress.

My Life With Things: The Consumer Diaries
By Elizabeth Chin
Duke University Press, 248pp, £65.00 and £17.99
ISBN 9780822361183 and 61367
Published 10 June 2016

The author

Elizabeth Chin, professor of media design practice at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, lives in “far northeast Los Angeles – it’s not at all the LA that you see in the movies. It’s a wonderful green little pocket only 15 minutes from downtown and only 10 minutes from where I work, so my commute is a dream. Sometimes I ride my bike to work. 

“My 16-year-old daughter splits her time between me and her father on a peripatetic basis. My husband, who is English, is in London this year, which I am not all that happy about, although it means my daughter and I get to come for a visit in August. He works in IT and has taught me the English attitude toward work, which is that the weekend begins at 5pm on Friday and no working happens until Monday morning. I have yet to completely embrace that approach, but I’m working on it.

“We have two pit bulls, both rescues, and our neighbour’s little chihuahua mix, Sue Ellen, comes under the fence every day to play. One of my dogs loves to put Sue Ellen’s whole little head in his mouth and make the most horrifying growly noises. She loves it.”

Chin was born in Nevada and raised there and in California as a young child, moving east with her family at the age of six. “In Connecticut, I lived mostly in New Haven, and for a time in a small coastal town called Madison. Being a mixed race white/Asian in what was then a very white state was sometimes difficult – the racism in Madison, particularly, was something I have never forgotten or forgiven. 

“From about the age of 13, I was very bicoastal, visiting family in San Francisco and Santa Barbara in the summers. Both of my parents, in their different ways, are very committed to social justice, and each of them has been much braver than me in sticking to their principles. My mother is a long-time peace activist and my father’s work on justice for Asian Americans is extraordinary.”

She recalls: “My parents split when I was very young and there was a period of about eight years where I did not see my father at all. He would send odd presents – antique dolls, a box of bubble-gum cards he’d written for the K2 company. We moved a lot. But as an adult, I have not moved since 2001 when I bought my house. I am so very invested in being secure as a result of the disorderliness of some of those early years. Because my mother was ill for periods of my childhood, I have what I call ‘extra parents’. I believe in having lots of parents and joke that my daughter has five grandmothers – on my side of the family. I try to be a good extra parent to a few other people.”

When Chin entered school, she discovered that she was the only child in first grade who did not yet know how to read. “I was horrified and made sure that I was at the top as soon as possible. Since then, I have been a reader who will read anything and everything and nothing feels so luxurious to me as a wall full of books.

“Partly because home life was not always the easiest, school was the place where I felt safe and where things were clear and predictable, so I held on for dear life to what school offered. School was my lifeline and I was lucky to have many extraordinary teachers over the years. My fourth grade teacher is the one who really made things come alive for me, and I am pretty sure that our social studies curriculum was what seeded my interest in anthropology: we studied the Native Hawaiians, Native Americans, Australian aborigines and the Inuit. Every bit of that was so exciting and fascinating to me – the different ways people lived, danced, ate. 

Her mother completed her college degree when Chin was 12, after four years of part-time study. “I remember going to classes with her, and I remember her sitting at the kitchen table studying Chaucer and chatting with we about Middle English. College seemed so sophisticated; people sitting around in a room discussing ideas and not having to raise their hands to speak. 

“For much too long I motivated myself in school nearly exclusively through fear. I never really was convinced I was smart or prepared or capable, so I would just frazzle myself into a state, feeling like I was most likely going to fail, then get good grades I couldn’t even feel good about. I still wrestle with feeling like a fraud or an imposter. But throughout my whole life, there have been people who encouraged, supported, goaded. Tom West, my writing teacher in high school, always treated me – and all of his students – with the most extraordinary kind of respect and seriousness.   

Chin took her undergraduate degree at New York University. “At NYU I was in the undergraduate drama programme, and when I started I had vague dreams about living a life in the theatre. I worked brutally hard, both at my classes and outside school, as I was paying my own way. In an odd way I wasn’t particularly ambitious; I was just trying to get through to the next term. In my third year, I realised that being an actor was not going to be a good fit for me as a profession. I’d landed a role in an off-Broadway play and that was exciting, but when I had to wear a tiny costume consisting of a lacy corset and suspenders, I burst into tears. The prospect of making a living by prancing around in things like that – and even worse, without being allowed to speak fluent English – struck me as humiliating beyond belief. That is when I decided to take a double major in anthropology and go into the world of academia. I loved living in New York and had a group of friends that I still see (mostly on Facebook) today. It’s been so interesting to see where we’ve all ended up, those starry-eyed kids who landed in New York in 1981 to study drama at NYU.”

She notes that her interest in Haitian dance – both as a practitioner and researcher – came about quite by accident. She recalls: “One of my NYU friends dragged me to a Haitian dance class. I was thinking ‘I don’t want to do that weird stuff!’ – but shortly thereafter, I wasn’t doing anything else, dance-wise.

“I was really terrible at it for the first few years because I had to unlearn all my ballet training. It was the bodily equivalent of learning a foreign language. It was an incredible time then – I was studying with the founder of the National Ballet [of Haiti], Jean Léon Destiné. I just thought he was some old guy, but I was incredibly lucky to be working with him.

“Most of the members of the National Ballet had left Haiti because of political difficulty, and they were all teaching in New York. On Saturdays, I would often take two or three classes in one day. The drumming was also exceptional – sometimes there were about 10 guys there playing and singing.  

“I kept dancing all through graduate school and in my mind it was totally separate from my anthropological work and training. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, when a good friend went to Haiti and ended up working there for 10 years, that it occurred to me that I could actually go to Haiti, learn to speak Kreyol, and approach it at least a little bit from the anthropological point of view.  

“Even now, my dancing and my research as an anthropologist are things I tend to keep separate, although I have been increasingly experimenting with what I call performative scholarship – ways to bring my training as a performer to bear on the ways in which I produce scholarly knowledge. I am absolutely committed to never again delivering a visually ugly and textually boring PowerPoint [presentation], and will never again simply read a conference paper to an audience.

Extracts from Chin’s diaries play a role in My Life With Things. “Like so many girls, I tried keeping a diary on and off. For a long while in college I kept a dream journal. But doing anthropological fieldwork, the kind I did for my dissertation and first book, was really the model. There is a strict discipline in doing fieldnotes and a sense of seriousness in terms of the doing of the work – you know that it’s meant to go beyond a personal, private thing. The diary entries were never intended as private, and I knew that, and wrote with that in mind. I think I called them diary entries to signal how personal they were in a way that is usually not so true for fieldnotes.” 

One of the consumer goods she has trained her focus on as an academic is Barbie, and particularly the doll’s “unbearable whiteness’. Does Chin believe that Mattel’s attempts to introduce ethnically diverse versions, and dolls with “non-traditional” careers, are sincere?

“Like any toy company, Mattel’s good faith goes only so far as it is profitable,” Chin suggests. “My guess is that those diverse dolls won’t be around in a few years, and then Mattel will come out with some new type of diverse dolls, as they consistently do, but it’s always Blonde Barbie who reigns supreme. She’s what sells, so we only have ourselves to blame. But I love what kids do with Barbies and other toys, all the off-label uses and activities. There are huge numbers of hysterically funny Barbie videos made by kids that you can find on YouTube, and they invariably are so smart and interesting and sassy that I don’t worry too much that Barbie is ruining anybody’s life. If anything, the creativity and brilliance with which kids manage to ruin Barbie’s life over and over again is quite inspirational.” 

What was the last thing she purchased that gave her utter joy? And what purchase has she regretted? 

“The most recent, best purchase was tickets to see Angelique Kidjo. Probably the last thing, or object, I bought that made me really happy and excited was a silk blouse from the late 1980s that I found in a thrift shop for about $4. It’s a light mushroom colour with white polka dots and huge shoulder pads. And it looks fantastic on, if I do say so myself. I went to a thrift store today and was very proud of myself for leaving without purchasing a thing – not that I wasn’t tempted. I recently had to buy an external hard drive because I very carefully put the other one away and now can’t find it. That was a maddening purchase. Lately I’ve become aware of how careless I can be with my stuff, and that carelessness is partly basic disorganisation, but it’s also a result of having a certain level of wealth – I can afford to be careless in a way that is rather disturbing.” 

Asked to mention work by some early career scholars that she finds particularly interesting, Chin responds, “I am hugely excited about the kinds of work that are stretching boundaries outside of the academy. Wendy Hsu, for instance, is an ethnomusicologist who is now working on digital initiatives for the Department of Cultural Affairs of the City of Los Angeles. A few months ago, she built a karaoke rickshaw that had songs in about 15 different languages for Angelenos to try out at metro stations. I love the way this project mixes bringing delight to city life, digital know-how, technology and social engagement.”

What gives Chin hope?

“The fact that I can get out of bed in the morning gives me hope. For a long time I’ve said that my superpower is my ability to look completely normal under any circumstance. I’ve suffered depression most of my adult life, but somehow I can always get up in the morning and get through the day. Lately, for the first time in years, I’ve been feeling happy when I wake up. The reawakening of a sense of happiness is something for which I am deeply, deeply grateful.

“In terms of working and thinking, women scholars of colour give me the most hope. With all the continuing issues around sexual harassment, discrimination and diversity on college campuses, I sometimes feel that as my daughter prepares to go off to college herself, I’m sending her into something awful. Wherever she ends up, I know the women of colour faculty will hold her up, keep her close, and help her to flourish.”

Karen Shook


Print headline: Buy first, ask questions later

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