Curated: conjuring demand and identity

I love beautiful things. Full stop. When things are not beautiful it hurts a little. I have been known to say to friends, usually when talking about things like interior or fashion design, “if you can make it beautiful, you should.” I live my life in the center of what one would call “refined aesthetics.” 

It brings me a certain ironic, late-capitalist, Gen X thrill to know that Refined Aesthetics is a [maybe chain?] “boutique medical spa.” A place you apparently pay money to get Gwyneth Paltrow-ified. Teach me to put that into Google ever again… When I say I have a refined aesthetic I am not talking about botox and micro-term abrasions, no I mean a certain cultivated appreciation for the visual arts that I was taught over time to appreciate and derive pleasure from. 

As an American, I know that concern with beauty is gauche, not that any Americans are going to use the term “gauche” [speak American!]. They’re going to tell me I am stuck up or snooty or dozens of other colorful terms that mean essentially that I have wider aspirations than my station in caring about something frivolous and elitist. Culturally, most of the United States has been told that beautiful things are for snobs and queers [and I guess since I am both there is a ring of truth to it]. Real Americans care only about utility and money.

Not that it matters [it expressly doesn’t matter to almost anyone] but I know a tremendous amount about art history, architecture, interior and fashion design. These are special interests of mine, partly because of a childhood spent going to art museums with my grandparents in Manhattan, and partly because beautiful things sing to me. I can feel the harmony of beautifully made and designed things underneath my skin. Beauty in an ugly world is soothing.

When I was about 9 or 10, my grandfather took me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Not for the first time. My grandparents took me to the Met rather a lot when I consider that we lived in the surrounding counties of Manhattan and it was a bit of a trial to get there. The reason for recounting this particular experience is to say I was a spoiled 10 year old who had no idea that I should consider going to the Met kind of an enormous deal [my kids have never even been to New York]. Sure, there were times when my parents couldn’t pay the electric bill, but there were no times where my grandparents were not going to turn a visit to their house into a cultural experience. Being properly cultured is a mindset sometimes more than a real class. 

In any case, on this visit my grandfather, who it must be said was a veneer and furniture specialist of no small renown, was expressly taking me to see two things: 1. The Frank Lloyd Wright installation [breath taking], 2. the Chinese pottery. I never knew him, but my great-grandfather was apparently, in addition to maybe being rather a drunk and a deadbeat,  a well known sinophile who had instilled in his young son an abiding love of pottery.

I have no way of knowing if this really happened the way that I remember it, or if I am getting any of the details right because I can’t verify that these vases and bowls exist, but the sentiment of what my grandfather said next continues to stick with me. “These pieces are a particular school of pottery called XXXX from the XXXX period. They are not flashy and grand like the ones that we just looked at. They are more everyday objects. Designed so that anyone seeing them would be compelled to pick them up, and hold them in their hands.” We stood peering through the glass, school children and museum goers quietly shuffling by, looking at these perfectly lit bowls on their neutral black velvet pedestals and – as advertised – I wanted to reach through the glass and hold the bowls in my own two hands. It seemed cosmically unfair that we were not allowed to touch them as intended, that now their only purpose was to leave millions of viewers with a sense of unfulfilled longing.

It almost doesn’t matter if there really are some small bowls in a crate in the Met catacombs that were specifically designed to be held and cherished as everyday tableware, a bright spark of the sacred in the mundane. Because somehow, in a conversation with my late grandfather almost 30 years ago, I got a glimpse of what lies at the heart of our relationship with the objects that we make and use and own. It is not only beauty, but it is the “I want it feeling.” It’s like the umami flavor but for stuff.

I’m not really a minimalist, but I have a non-standard relationship with material goods. It is partly the above story. Partly that my father is a craftsman and through him I have come to understand that all objects are the result of the time and skill a human has put into them. Partly it’s an acute sense of the monetary value of an object being in no way congruent with either its functional or emotional or tactile value. Partly it is a recognition that resources are not infinite and that accumulation of them in the form of things is not sustainable at accustomed levels. And certainly, it is that the distribution of resources is not even or equitable and not for good reasons, but for historically terrible reasons.  It is for all these reasons that I felt my entire Sunday morning derailed by an Instagram advertisement for a sink. 

It’s ridiculous that I find this sink as beautiful as I do. I’d be ashamed if I thought it would do any good. I have actually lived in a house with a sink like this and it was highly impractical.

Actually, it was a “sponsored” slider ad for a company called Rejuventation [who in no way has given me any money to say things that could be taken as both terribly flattering and unflattering, but – as always – I am happy to be paid regardless because that is what the world is made of]. Boy howdy, do those advertising algorithms know that they are doing. And, more to the point, I know that they know what they are doing because they are literally made of the on-trend, dopamine driven clicks of the consumer class [which is everyone]. Sometimes I imagine that the algorithms are sophisticated super-human hunters and we are their hapless prey. They lay their trap, salivating in the bushes as we walk by, aroused by the potential ad revenue we represent, waiting for the ultimate climax of satisfaction when we click “shop now.” The algorithm is only built to make us click “shop now,” and it is a marvel of technical evolution. Every time I see an ad like this I am startled by the elegance of the world that advertising has wrought. Natural Selection has barely done better. And like the beautiful bowls behind the museum glass, a small tingle in my limbic system says to me “I want it.”

This sink, the Atlas Farmhouse sink with drain board, costs $2,783. I know because I put my phone down and opened an incognito browser on my laptop and typed it into the search box. This doesn’t really matter, the ad algorithm at Facebook [or Meta or whatever] is going to show me that Rejuvenation slider again, or it will show me sliders that have equivalent things in them that I will want just as badly for entirely unconscious reasons. I also know that despite my lurid personification of the algorithm it isn’t really that smart. If I bought the sink it would show me more and more advertisements for sinks because it can’t really tell the difference between interest in something I might buy and the instant disinterest in something I have just bought.  

So much of the advertising that I experience has this problem. I bought a biodegradable phone case from Pela [again, I am not being paid to advertise for them, but would take their money] about 6 months ago when I got my new iPhone [because the screen had been replaced already and was no longer readable or haptic and the programmed obsolesce was starting to really catch up with me]. At least 4 times a week I get an email ad from Pela even though I am highly [highly] unlikely to buy another phone case from them for at least 2 years. This isn’t because I don’t like my case, it’s because I have one and cannot imagine what I would need more than one phone case for. Even their “buy two” ad campaign that suggested I get a spare phone case so I could have one on my phone and one for when I needed to clean that one [as if it is not possible to wash and wear a single phone case] were not enough to convince me that I needed an additional phone case. However, I can imagine phone cases being like shoes and bags: you need one that’s brown and one that’s black, and one for when you really need to let your hair down after a bad break up so that people at the club know you like to have a good time – something with glitter or leopard print or feathers.

The advertisers in my inbox and feed know, as I do, that when I upgrade to the iPhone 15 or 16 that I will need a new phone case because the buttons will have moved 3 mm and/or the proprietary jack will be offset or completely changed or the overall width or thickness will have changed just enough that my current phone case does not fit. And we know I need a phone case because – holy shit – what if I drop my $1100 brand new iPhone and crack the corner. God forbid we make the damn things drop-proof. I have not even seen the statistics on cased or un-cased damage to smartphones [and I have looked]. Knowing that most people replace their phones more than I do, I can’t imagine that I live in a world where most phones wouldn’t be replaced before any damage the case might prevent is sustained. I actually have not dropped my phone jelly-side down since I bought it, and yet it has a case and a screen protector. New phone, new case, new cord, new near-daily barrage of advertisements in my inbox.

Because one of my mental stims is counting things [this is a whole entry on its own], I sometimes play this counting game when I visit other people’s houses and count the things in them. Think counting the books on your shelves or the drawer pulls on your cabinets, etc. This didn’t begin in a creepy or invasive way. I seriously count like everything and not even productively, just as a way to stim and be calm in unsettling situations like dinner parties with acquaintances. This is a value neutral exercise, so please continue to invite me over to your house, but about 10 years ago I started making an assumption that every discrete thing I could count costs $20, and began to do some math [math is also really relaxing]. Now I know that this breaks down quickly, right, because some things are more or less than $20. But it really does mostly shake out. 

To show you I am not a terrible troll, I will use my own house as an example, just my main bookshelf. I would count the bookshelf as 1, then count the “decor objects” like picture frames and [in my case] a lot of rocks and vases and skulls [there are 34], and then I would count the books themselves [95] for a grand total of 130 discrete objects at $20 per object = $2600. As rather a freak of nature I know the provenance of each of those 130 discrete objects and can tell you how I came to own each one and probably what it cost at time of purchase within 50 cents. About half the books were gifts or bought used for under $5, almost all the decor objects were found or bought at a thrift store for $2-8. The bookcase itself was $60 at a going out of business sale. All the bibles [there are 6] were stolen. None of the books cost more than $20 in reality except the last 4 books of the Harry Potter series, so this entire unit really cost more like $1560. The real world difference between the estimate and the cost here actually offsets the difference of assuming my couch and loveseat each cost $20. This fun trick is the reason that I tend to assume that $20 is the proper cost for every discrete thing. 

In my experience, the density of things in most people’s houses reads as roughly the same. Let’s say that in my living room it comes out to be about $25 per square foot. My living room is 325 square feet and I have 397 visible discrete things [this is not counting the record collection or the board games that no one can see because they are well stored]. I imagine that my cost is “less” for self serving reasons, it probably barely is. The only things that really make the total “cost” of things in a person’s house go up is 1. having a really big house, 2. having tremendous clutter, 3. displaying vast collections of things [if the records, board games and other concealed media in my living room were visible then discrete objects almost double], 4. having kids specifically with gendered toys [this often doubles the toys per kid].

Imagine the overhead on stuff when you zoom out to every home in the Global North. You need to do this because the assumption that every house is similarly stocked -and continues to restock – is what our global economy requires.

George Carlin [sage of our times] had this standup routine called Stuff. If you have vertigo at this point, go look that up and have a free laugh on me. I don’t say all of this because I am trying to be judgmental about other people, but I know that it probably does seem that way. And also it’s not very original to say “Americans have a lot of stuff.” We already know that. What interests me about other people’s stuff is what it means to them, why they have it, what they think it says about them to have it in their house. And this is because, as consumers, we have been told that our stuff – as if we are actual pack rats or bower birds – means something about us as individuals. It expresses our fitness or attractiveness to mates or something like that. This makes it seem like an inevitable natural consequence of our programming [it’s not].

The most insidious thing about the Rejuvenation Instagram ad for the Atlas Farmhouse sink is that I was primed to think that it is beautiful and desirable, probably by some other lifestyle IG account that showed me some influencers who have a brand that overlaps considerably with the sort of person that I want to think of myself as, that represents a group I want to be included in. After all, other people do not see the same ads that I do because they are not going to buy the same things that I might buy. I see this sink and I am embraced by an idea of things made of real materials like enamel and cast iron, in a by-gone day when goods were durable and functional with a certain lived-in beauty of every day life. And how everything in my house needs to embody that aesthetic so I can have my friends compliment my decor when they come over for free-range chicken dinner.

I’ve made a bit of a study of the ads that appear in front of me on social media. I might look at them more than the content I have decided to follow, but definitely not in the way that they were intended – which is to make me buy things – but as an exercise in what sort of person the algorithm has determined me to be. Socially conscious? Check. Concerned with things like B Corp or GOTS or FSB certification? Check. Millennial pet owner? Check. Greenwashable? Check. In some ways this is not terrible because I do sometimes need to buy new things and it is nice to have some filters for my values pre-selected, but in other ways it’s almost like the algorithm thinks of me as susceptible to believing that our society can still buy whatever we want and make it to a zero waste future. And I know that that is not at all [even remotely] true.

Long-haired siamese cat on a window sill with cold-frosted lead glass window.
This is my cat, Bodhisattva [or Cheetie Bear], she wants to sell you the overwhelming feeling of hygge which requires a lot of handmade wool throws and CANDLES. I suspect, but cannot prove, that the algorithm shows me ads with this specific type of cat over, say, an orange tabby but it could just be apophenia. Those windows are original lead glass, you probably can get some at Rejuvenation for 5 grand. I can promise that if you do people will complement your good taste.

Because the internet is constantly confronting me with beautiful things that I want to pick up and own as a means of demonstrating my personal identity to other people, I am as trapped as anyone who doesn’t know that this is what the internet is doing to them. Advertising manufactures desire. I didn’t know that I desired a farmhouse sink, or a brass drawer pull shaped like a pineapple, or a hedge-hog shaped boot-scraper, or a sustainable wool-filled dog bed made in the USA – but it was there the whole time waiting for someone just like me. And almost everything in my house – and everyone else’s house – got there through this method. Billions of dollars of advertising to tell us what things we wanted to surround ourselves with to feel secure in our identities.

And all that is to say, I love beautiful things and I want them and I know that there is no nouveau-ascetic practice that can sustainably prevent me [and billions like me] from wanting an American lifestyle full of [choose your poison] vintage flour sack placemats, Funko Pop figures, Chelsea boots, kitchen placards about wine, MCM, athleisure, Yeti, and anything else that Amazon/Instagram/Facebook is going to tell you that you want to buy. 

The way out is not just never being on social media because advertising is really everywhere [though do some tuning on those ad preferences and tracking please]. Advertising is, as I have demonstrated, being in your friend’s house. The way out is deciding that the impulse to acquire things that communicate identity and in-group should be a race to acquire less. Obviously, I understand that this is not how we increase GDP, but that is a fundamental problem with the economics of growth being improperly aligned with the carrying capacity of the earth. In the short term, because of global supply problems, they say that if there were ever a Christmas not to buy gifts, this is it. You can – I know this from experience – make a personal brand out of being a contentious objector to consumerism. Because people know that our desire for things is a bit out of control, they really do respond to it. It might be hard, but not any harder than being overwhelmed by a house full of things that makes you feel vaguely like a horrible person who is part of the death of the biosphere. Rest assured, we are all a little that horrible person, and the real responsibility is larger than any one person anyway. 

But still, consider the stuff. The only thing that changes supply is demand. Be conscious of advertising manufacturing demand in you. You’re more than a consumer, more than the books on your shelf, or your car, or your smartwatch. I find that the best solution is to change what characteristics things need to have in order to have that umami/I want it feeling. Then your choices are not about abstinence, which cannot be sustained, but about identity.

3 thoughts on “Curated: conjuring demand and identity

  1. Oddly enough, I was just having a conversation an hour ago, with my son, about stuff and consumerism and advertising. He works for a high tech advertising company. I feel conflicted about stuff. And an hour before that conversation with Mickey — also today — I was working on the newsletter for our art gallery, writing, urging our customers to consider giving art as a gift this year, instead of smartphones and other stuff that is probably sitting in a container on a cargo ship out in the ocean.

    I own an art gallery. I sell stuff.

    Reading this post, Jemma, it feels like you and I are riding the same wavelength today. I often resonate with what you write. I’m kinda curious about your counting thing. I’ve never done that. At least not in that exact way.

    But here. Let me try now: in our living room, which is approximately 1/5 of a 950sf house, there are four bookshelves, a futon sofa, coffee table two rocking chairs, two side tables, a floor lamp, a gate-leg dining table (we don’t have a dining room) two kitchen chairs, an old icebox that serves as a pedestal for art, and two ceiling lights. Oh, and a stack of 4 vintage suitcases that serves as an end table next to the sofa. Almost all of the furniture was handmade by Tim, and will last for hundreds of years.

    I stopped counting books when I got to 400. Oh, oops I forgot the 16 books on the coffee table. 70 objects that could be considered three dimensional art sculptures. An old mirror and 17 other pieces of art on the walls. A television. Two votive candles, a djembe drum, 6 board games, a chess set, dominoes and a set of pickup sticks. 28 skulls. 15 fossils, 38 rocks, and 12 various sizes of wood boxes that contain weird assortments of things like my sons’ baby teeth, owl pellets, marbles and mouse bones. A big basket of little kid toys (for when grandkids visit) Oh. And an odd collection of plastic farm animals lined up on one windowsill: a horse, calf, cow, sheep, rooster and hen with 3 chicks, two geese and a pig. They are all white.

    Wow. Writing that down makes me feel like a hoarder. But really I’m not. Our living room feels really spacious yet cozy. It’s warm. It’s real. Everything in this room (except maybe the tv) reflects our personalities, our connection to Nature, our love of art and beauty and learning. And besides the art, which we we were given, or made ourselves (we’re both artists) or bought from artists, almost everything else I inherited or found in thrift stores. I can’t even begin to assign a value to the contents of this one room in my home. Maybe using your $20/thing system would come close. But I’m afraid to do the math. I’ve always thought we live a simple life. I’m not so sure now — and it’s all relative.

    Anyway, thanks for another inspiring thoughtful post, Jemma.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Like you I love art and don’t want a truly minimalist existence. But I can’t always tell what non-functional objects are strictly for, which means it’s unclear to me how to tell when I am done amassing them. It seems like there’s no real reason to limit my collection of feathers, as an example, but I know people who feel that way about their collection of consumer goods (say shoes). Does that make my collection righteous or does a lack of a sense of “enoughness” for anyone mean that we’re all overdoing it? Because I know that if everyone didn’t stop the way Americans don’t I wonder about enough, and the forces all around us that try to make us forget that we have enough (like advertising). I will probably never get to the bottom of it.

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  2. Hmmm I never thought of equating my collection of skulls and bones with someone else’s collection of shoes. Or designer jeans. Or yard tools. I think about my stuff and what will or should happen to it when I die. Like, do my kids or grandkids want my journals and my bone collection? Does SOMEone out there want my books? Oh please, someone come get some books! My guess about my own stuff is that I have gotten to a point in my life (I’m 68) where I basically have enough. I don’t need to buy more stuff (except art. ahem. there’s that righteousness.) And … if someone were to just hand me an otter skull or a snake spine I wouldn’t turn it away… or if a little kid gives me a piece of gravel as a gift, it will definitely find a place on a windowsill. So maybe I don’t have the sense of enoughness I thought I had. Neither of us will ever get to the bottom of this thing.

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