FEBRUARY 4, 2012
Photograph © Lisa Jane Persky
SUPPOSE SOMEONE ASKED YOU: “I want to keep living, like everyone else. But, tell me, what does that mean, ‘to keep living?'”
How equivocal the phrase is: it can mean to go on living, to let living go on, to keep it (living) alive, but also to keep it as one keeps something in the garage or in storage, to keep it secure under lock and key. All these uses and still others are possible. “What does it mean to keep living?” There’s more than one way to answer the question.
Cultural anthropologists and paleoanthropologists suggest humanity has always divided around the question of how best to keep living. Look, they say, for instance, at the indispensable role storage practices played in the development of sedentary, agrarian societies. People really couldn’t settle down in one place until they figured out reliable storage methods for the fruits of their labors. Because they don’t store food in any quantity, hunter-gatherers have to keep moving to better hunting and foraging grounds. The anthropologist James Woodburn has made the distinction between “immediate return” and “delayed return” economies, terms he uses to classify foraging societies that consume their food within a day or two, as if there were no tomorrow, as distinct from social organizations that practice some kind of food storage. Most anthropologists agree that immediate-return societies are typically nonhierarchical and egalitarian, more egalitarian at any rate than delayed-return societies. Which suggests that social inequality couldn’t really get a foothold until people developed a storage capacity.
Marx would no doubt be the last to disagree with that suggestion. He fulminates against the way what he calls primitive accumulation has been written off by other political economists as something as fated as original sin:
This primitive accumulation plays in Political Economy about the same part as original sin in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote of the past. In times long gone by there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living… . Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour, has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly although they have long ceased to work. (Karl Marx, Capital, Part 8, chap. 26, “The Secret of Primitive Accumulation”)
In other words, there are ants and grasshoppers, your frugal elite and your lazy rascals. And that’s the way it has been ever since Adam ate that apple instead of storing it up for a rainy day. So says his namesake Adam Smith, in a passage from The Wealth of Nations that Marx might have been thinking of:
There were some people that were hard working and some people who were not. Some people who could be bothered, and some people who could not be bothered. And the result of that was that, bit by bit, those who were hard working, and could be bothered, accumulated some wealth. And eventually, those who could not be bothered, could not accumulate wealth, and in the end, in order to survive, preferred, actually, to give up their labor power as a commodity, in return for a living wage.
None of this was on my mind yet, certainly not on the evening a few weeks ago when, channel surfing, I washed up on the shores of A&E’s reality program Storage Wars.
I’d never seen or heard of it before, but in less than a minute I was watching the 30-minute rerun episodes one after the other as if under a kind of compulsion. I knew what was feeding that compulsion, and I’ll get to it in a moment, but first here’s an outline of the show’s invariable plot. A voice-over prologue sets it up very tersely: “When storage units are abandoned, the treasures within them are put up for auction.” The show’s four protagonists (or antagonists), all professional auction buyers, are spotlighted, along with the husband-and-wife team of auctioneers, and then the week’s episode gets rolling at a storage facility always somewhere in Southern California. The crowd of bidders is led to the first unit to be auctioned that day. It will be opened to exhibit its contents briefly before the bidding starts. At this point, there is always a shot of the padlock on the unit’s door being cut off, either by a saw or bolt cutters, as prelude to rolling up the metal garage-like door. The shot is typically a tight focus on the cutting action of the tool, showing little more than the hands of the tool’s operator. This sequence of opening a unit and auctioning off the contents is repeated several times in the first half of the show, while the second half shows the new owners — who are always the show’s four featured players — unpacking their units and totaling up the value of what each of them has gambled to buy virtually sight unseen, with a final tally displaying that day’s winner and loser. The minimal through-line from episode to episode is the antagonistic rivalry among these guys, each time focused on the most ruthlessly efficient and single-minded of the four, nicknamed “The Mogul.”
It so happened that, the same day I stumbled onto this program, I had rented a storage locker and transferred to its presumed safekeeping a number of plastic containers filled with personal papers. These had accumulated over many years during which they were haphazardly stashed here and there around the house, many in flimsy cardboard boxes in the garage. Because a lot of these papers had more than sentimental value — manuscripts of works by friends who were now well known, autograph correspondence from these same friends — it seemed irresponsible to store them so negligently. But in fact I didn’t give a damn for what Marx would have called their exchange value; their value was as unique, irreplaceable fragments of life that it would distress me to know had been lost or destroyed. And yet, the thought of physically parting with them, of turning them over to a third-party caretaker-for-hire, to a “storage facility,” filled me with no less anguish.
This standoff between two versions of loss had somehow been resolved that day. I found a facility that could rent me a small locker, which turned out to be still far larger than needed for the six containers into which I had sorted the papers. But it was nearby, which seemed reassuring. In dense urban areas like Los Angeles, storage facilities tend to cluster in lower-rent, higher-traffic areas and the Public StorageTM locker I reserved online was in an iffy neighborhood. To enter its lock-gated space, I had to drive down an alley, passing close in front of a semi-permanent-looking homeless encampment of men, perhaps some women as well. I saw how they gathered their belongings tightly around them, but without the benefit of anything like the lock just purchased to secure my unit, much less the unit.
Once inside the gate, I transferred the containers quickly into a shabby-looking wooden locker. After shutting the door and affixing the lock, I drove off feeling guilty of abandonment. Later that night, the feeling was still raw as I watched Storage Wars, watched all those storage units being forcibly shorn of their locks. As if in a dream, the spectacle punched me and held me down, repeatedly, for several hours. I was guilty, I had betrayed someone or something, and my punishment was to take those punches.
Which is what got my attention. There is something epically epochal about this new figure, this “reality” called storage wars. As in the great poetic epics of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton, it draws on all the clashing forces of its age to produce the illusion of reality. Naturally, for the epoch of virtual reality, this epic has to be on television, it has to be “reality TV.” This space where private storage wars open onto the public square, via the rectangular screen, is where each singular identity and unique experience is broadcast over the public airwaves, with the result that everyone can acknowledge more or less the same thing as real.
There thus seems to be something very large at stake. Indeed everything must be at stake, because reality appears real only if it can be recognized in some way by everyone subject to its laws. And since these are storage wars, these laws are laws of war – another reason to think everything’s at stake. Wars are totalizing phenomena, figuring a whole world divided between friends and enemies, allies and opponents, partners and rivals, your frugal elite and your lazy rascals, never more than two camps, the Greeks and the Trojans, the saved and the damned, whatever. All binary oppositions get pulled into the collective illusion through the operation of total war. Fought over capital accumulation in a globalizing economy, our epic storage wars stage a confrontation between just two sides of the world, sides that are neither two equal halves nor two hemispheres of a globe. Instead, to use terms recently made popular, the 1 percent who make more than $500,000 a year outmatch the 99 percent who do not. On the way to becoming trite, this unbalanced equation states the seemingly irreconcilable difference between wealth and lives, between what is fungible, exchangeable, convertible, and expendable, on the one hand, and what, on the other, each time makes up a singular experience, a life lived, a measure therefore of what has no common measure.
It should be impossible to set an equivalence between two such incommensurables, between pure undifferentiated measurement or counting and difference without measure. And yet, the exchange between them takes place everywhere and all the time; lives are converted into commodities, and these conversions accumulate capital somewhere, which then has to be stored in the vaults of banks or the memory banks of computers. Everywhere, incommensurables are measured out as equivalent so as to be made exchangeable. This is the necessary fiction that allows any exchange whatsoever, including and beginning with linguistic exchange. But through accumulated repetition, not to mention the law and other institutions, the condition that makes such exchange possible comes to erase itself as merely a necessary fiction; instead, it starts pretending to be an equivalent, to be general reality. Forgetting this erasure and this pretense is what allows accumulation; for things to accumulate they must be exchangeable as equivalent. The genius of capitalism (as Marx well knew) is that it forces one to forget the fiction of equivalence in order to pose wealth accumulation as a natural, God-given reality. Louis Althusser called this genius of capitalism “ideology” and tracked its effective reproduction through what he called “Ideological-State Apparatuses.”
I mention all this because the other night I felt how such an apparatus, like an octopus tentacle, could stretch out from the TV screen to grab you and make you watch.
But the TV show also exposes what’s been forgotten in the public storage lockers of collective memory. Its ideological role is therefore very ambiguous. On the one hand, it stages over and over again the operation of exchange between incommensurables — a quantity of money bid in exchange for the unknown contents of someone’s locker — while it binds the viewer’s pleasure to aggressive contests: outbidding one’s rivals, accumulating more money, and winning a “war.” These are all useful associations when the point is to train desire to follow general orders, which is the main task of ideology. But, on the other hand, the show also lets one see a door being forced open between the private accumulations of singular experience and the public currency of capitalizable accumulation. Ideology thereby risks betraying itself for what it is: a violent erasure and suppression. This act of forgetting is poignantly staged as the spectacle of cutting off or raping the locks of the storage units. Open, they spill out their forgotten contents. Whatever has no value in the public currency is discarded, erased, forgotten, without remainder. And yet, at the same time, the viewer can see and perhaps remember what it is one is supposed to forget.
The idea that renting public space for private storage could be profitable is essentially an American one, although the business formula has been adopted elsewhere in the world. Public StorageTM claims to be the largest self-storage company in the world, with over 2000 facilities in the U.S. that together accumulate “approximately 129 million net rentable square feet” according to their website. The company started in 1972 in Southern California, ever the harbinger of things to come: 58,000 storage facilities around the world by 2009, of which 46,000 are located in the United States. Still the leader in the industry it virtually invented, Public StorageTM accounts for its success like this:
What we didn’t realize at the time [in 1972] is that we’re entering a business at the front of a massive power curve composed of three elements. One, the amount of living space per capita was going down. Two, every year that goes by, there’s more stuff. Last year’s stuff, next year’s stuff. And next year there’ll be another year of accumulating stuff. The third element is one of human nature — people are squirrels. Combine these three and Bam! The need for places to keep all this stuff. Stuff takes on a life of its own. “It was Grandma’s. It was my baby’s. I simply can’t throw it away.”
The association made here between “human nature” and squirrel-like behavior reinforces the idea that accumulation is animalistic, instinctive, which means there’s no fighting it, like death and taxes. Indeed, something like death and taxes are the other two elements identified in the “massive power curve” that the company rode to success as if in some surfer’s wet dream. First, it’s just a question of time: given that squirrel-like accumulation is natural, “every year that goes by, there’s more stuff.” And stuff “takes on a life of its own.” This stuff-ly life is, however, a kind of haunting by the dead and the past: Grandma has died and the baby has grown up. As for taxes, they are indexed and implied by the measure of “living space per capita,” which in 1972 could be projected to continue on a downward trend.
So you have living space and storage space: less of the former means more of the latter. Like Storage Wars, this canny business plan evolves from a contemporary storage culture that is (paradoxically?) a culture of scarcity. There is a scarcity of living space, of space for some life — yours, mine, his, hers — to keep living. As if along with every storage facility there had necessarilyto be a homeless encampment. Along with it, which is to say also within it, in those lockers where effects and remainders of homelessness are able still to put a roof over their head, paying rent that is cheaper than anywhere else. Storage “facilities” house many who are homeless without giving them a home or an address, without granting them living space (or facilities), just storage space: a unit, as it’s called.
What is shown, then, is the reverse side of capitalist accumulation, the side where things don’t really accumulate so much as pile up: stuff you can’t throw away, stuff that is incommensurable with commodities for a little while yet. The things stored by those units have accumulated as the immeasurable fragments of life, both the life of someone who is, or used to be, living somewhere and this uncanny life of its own that stuff can take on.
Glimpsing the reverse or tail side of the capitalist coin does not obliterate, of course, the other side, the side that favors heads of states and corporations (let’s remember our Latin: “capital,” from caput, head). And yet, in the process of taking its business plan to the bank, the public storage industry had to define a space (or 58,000 spaces) where the thrust of capitalist accumulation must go into reverse and acknowledge the lives that just gather stuff around them, without regard to value on the market. Storage Wars thus taps into the energy being released by the fission of capitalist self-awareness, an explosive division that the show both recuperates (capitalizes on) and exposes.
On Storage Wars, nothing is ever revealed about the living or once-living leaseholders of the units. Their names and stories, their lives, are erased from the broadcast. This erasure is what induces one to forget that the stuff was living before, that it had to die on the way to becoming mere property, with a common value and no longer singular meaning (“It was Grandma’s. It was my baby’s”). The transubstantiation of living-dead stuff into dead-living property is the miracle Storage Wars celebrates, like high mass. In the process, the viewer is diverted from the thought of death by the belief or the desire that something will live on by being turned into a commodity. For cannot commodities, just like the stuff from which they are made, take on a life of their own? Marx certainly thought so and wanted us to believe it when, in “The Fetishism of Commodities,” he described a certain dancing table.
Has it become common yet for people to provide in their wills for the upkeep of storage units? Public StorageTM or one of its competitors might want to look into that as a business opportunity. Just think: Storage companies could offer to help you set up the bequest that would pay your unit’s rent in perpetuity. Or else, another option, they could ask a hefty one-time fee in exchange for the promise to take perpetual care of your unit. And they could sell the idea with a slogan, for example: “We keep your stuff for life — and beyond!”
It’s got to be a sure thing. After all, who doesn’t want to keep living?