December 18, 2009

Musings on Material Culture as we come upon a Merrily Material Holiday

We are in the thick of the holiday season and so I've been thinking about the roles one's material objects play in the fabric of life (for lack of better pun). December is often a reflective time, as the days become shorter, and the weather colder. Pangs of melancholia are common during the holidays and into the New Year, as one revisits half-finished lists of goals, assessing achievements against ambitious resolutions from 12 months prior. Coupled with the complexity and occasional amnesia of nostalgia, memories from fiction and reality overwhelm me this time of year. I confront the bittersweetness in knowing my holiday-specific, childlike anticipation will only be a shadow of what it was when I used to stay up late, hoping to hear Santa. The holidays present a mixed bag of emotions for many, thus elevating the significance of rituals, traditions, and material goods.

For better or worse, my memories of the holidays (and in general) are often tied intrinsically to the ensembles of garments that outfitted me. I can describe in detail my "Christmas dresses" for every year of grade school. And today, when I thumb through my closet, (which by the way is from where my new header  came), I see not just clothes but thick autobiographical details of their acquisitions and occasions. The muted orange velvet jumper is no longer merely 'that Anthropologie dress I scored for a song on ebay.' Material and personal histories have transformed it into 'the dress I wore a year ago when Chris proposed to me in the snow.'

As frivolous and vapid my consumption likely reads on the surface, I am certain that material culture is rich with meaning, symbolic value, and contextualities for just about everyone who would read this little blog. Whenever it has been tempting to dismiss my desire to participate in commodity fetishization, I've found comfort in recognizing that for better or worse, stuff matters. It is certainly not all that matters. But as an academic, sometimes I need reassurance that this hobby (that is admittedly so silly and indulgent) has meaning.

I can tell you exactly from where each piece of furniture in my home came. I can tell you exactly from when each band represented in my record collection impacted my life. I can tell you exactly from who each ornament on my tree was gifted. And with each inanimate object come memories and stories of the people, places, and times of my life. I have spent enough energy and time writing my dissertation (for which I will wrap another major section this week!) as I have justifying a lifetime of interest in things to myself. And for this next year, I resolve to continue my intellectual and critical curiosities about things. And simultaneously to try my best to take my interest in stuff less seriously. That apparently begins by displaying somewhat crass photographs of my obscenely tiny, but very well appointed dress closet.


4 comments:

erin said...

your closet is great. i wish i could edit mine like that!

Jesspgh said...

Thanks Erin!! I WISH I had the space I used to have at the house we rented. And I have two dressers and a small armoire to compensate. Plus I seasonally store some stuff like coats to make it work. I envy your closet room.

Tien said...

I recently found your blog and I love it! I often have troubles reconciling my sometimes rampant comsumerism and intellectual ideals. I'm not a grad a student, but I see myself as an aspiring writer (of sorts) and at times, a pseudo-intellectual. Whenever I purchase something new, I often am plagued with guilt. How do I assuage this guilt? I try to balance my life by spending more time reading, exercising my mind, creating things. I had even donated my television (although I still watch some shows, but on my own time and when I am ready for them instead of living my life according to program schedules).

Anyway, what I am trying to get at is that it's such a nice breath of fresh air reading your posts. This discussion is great, and a wonderful way of exploring how objects and things situate themselves into our lives--and by that I mean, how a coat no longer becomes just a coat, but sentiment. The dress no longer is just an object, but is now a representation of the night on which you got engaged. Not exactly, but close to metonymy.

I just wanted to say thank you for writing this. Your blog is so unique in this regard.

S said...

Jess, thanks for posting this. It was a really really heart-warming post, though I'm not sure I could tell you why? (Which is weird?)

Maybe it's because I struggle with the same issues of questionably vapid consumption, attachment, and consuming love for the material connections to emotional inner life. Or maybe it's because you're exceptionally articulate and say what few other people ever take the time to express. Anyway, seriously, thanks for posting this.

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