One Person’s Trash….

Scott Herring’s new book The Hoarders: Material Deviance in Modern American Culture (2014) counters the pathological understanding of hoarding that currently dominates popular science and reality television. In an effort to understand how the figure of the hoarder became such a unilaterally feared spectacle of material life, Herring offers several concise case studies in a genealogy of hoarding in the U.S.: the Collyer brothers’ Harlem brownstone in the 1930s, Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, the rise of professional clutterologists such as Sandra Felton in the 80s and 90s, and Big and Little Edie Beale of Grey Gardens (1975) fame. Each of these historical moments represents a turning point in the emergence of what Herring calls material deviance: “the social constructions of an aberrant relationship with your things” (6). Gathering an archive that spans the twentieth century, Herring “approach[es] hoarding as a unique moral panic over material goods, or an object panic whereby forms of social deviance attach not only to interpersonal behaviors but also to material ones” (7, emphasis in original). Such a move enables him to show how hoarding achieved its status as a mental illness with a diagnosis in the DSM-5, and how a number of cottage industries sprang up to help hundreds of people clean out cluttered homes.   

What I find most compelling about Herring’s book is that its interest in materiality is explicitly ethical. It builds on material culture studies’ premise that things have social lives, and that things are integral not only to how we relate to each other, but also to how we relate to ourselves. Herring calls attention to the fact that the worth of an individual’s life is often judged according to the value (and quantity, and order—or lack thereof) of their things. He writes, “This book ethically maintains that there is no natural relation to our objects….What counts as an acceptable material life? Who decides?” (17, emphasis in original). By denaturalizing such thingly relations, Herring opens up “material life” to speculative possibilities, allowing us to reconsider what we might mean when we claim that there are normal or appropriate uses of objects. What  would we learn if we resisted judgement about why people are attracted to certain kinds of stuff, and lots of it? What if we held off on diagnosing people’s material lives and instead remained open to the different forms our modes of relating with things could take? Drawing on the frameworks of queer and disability studies, as well as an emergent body of work putatively known as “thing theory,” Herring makes the case that hoarders aren’t “crazy” but instead entertain non-normative relationships with materiality.

Herring is clearly developing strains of thought from his previous work,  Queering the Underworld: Slumming, Literature, and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History (2007) and Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism (2010), both of which explore the ways class, race, and queerness are intimately bound up with ideas about space and place. While The Hoarders is less overtly preoccupied with queer cultural production than his other books, and also markedly less literary in its focus, similar tensions between the rural and the (sub)urban run throughout. He shows, for instance, that Homer and Langley Collyer became local and national newspaper sensations in the 30s and 40s for boobytrapping their Harlem mansion with piles of rubbish, and that they were portrayed as crazy for refusing to leave their address in the midst of black migration and white flight to the suburbs. Before and after their deaths in 1947, the two white brothers were increasingly conflated with their locale in the press; as Harlem transformed from a neighborhood characterized by white wealth to one presumed to be plagued by the “social disorganization” (24) of black and immigrant working class populations, the Collyers’ secret hoard shifted from a sign of opulence to pathological decrepitude in the public imaginary. As Herring writes, the social disease attributed to Harlem’s alleged decline became cemented as a mental one: “when the experts present [hoarding disorder] as a social impairment or as a public nuisance that leads to possible health risks for the social body, they give an unknowing nod to how disorganization theories of Harlem enabled a representational shift from hoarding as eccentric greediness to hoarding as a diseased pathology with racial and ethnic roots” (31).

That the vast accumulation of things removed from the Collyers’ home after their deaths was not deemed valuable, but instead considered an indiscriminate collection of curiosities, oddities, or trash (bundles of newspaper, smutty ephemera, bones, automobile parts, musical instruments, bottles, etc.), was used to further condemn the aging brothers as mad, even render them queer: “As much as the brothers were racialized by Harlemitis, then, they were just as much made queer by their weird relics. While such queerness was not entirely unrelated to sexual deviance…I spotlight a perversion associated more with material attachments than with eroticized bodies” (42-43). Herring’s next chapter picks up on the perversity of material attachments with Warhol’s nondescript boxes of everyday ephemera and collectibles, the sheer quantity of which scrambled dominant hierarchies of value imposed by cultural arbiters such as Sotheby’s auction. His final chapter expands on the deviance attributed to non-normative elderly relations with its analysis of popular media depictions of the Beales, mother and daughter cohabitants of a dilapidated Long Island estate and relatives of Jackie Kennedy. Herring shows that the Beales’ material deviance, with their preponderance of cats and garbage, came to stand in for unsuccessful aging as gerontological discourses proliferated in the late twentieth century.   

What particularly struck me were the parallels between the Collyers, described as “incestuous” (43) in some accounts, and the Beales, whose relationship was cast as suspect in comparison to Jackie Kennedy’s public marital success; their forms of shared domesticity were marked as failures due to the squalor in which they lived with their chosen companions. The Collyers were perceived as dangerous because of their inability to leave a site of urban risk, while the Beales’ home needed to be beautified because they were seen as a blight on the pastoral Long Island town that acts as a haven for the rich. In both of these cases, object panics about the quantity and quality of these people’s possessions seem to be spurred by fears surrounding the loss of class status and correspondingly an imperiled whiteness: a social (and spatial) order in danger of being displaced, a bourgeois American dream slipping away. Neither the Collyers nor the Beales (nor Warhol for that matter) were appropriately reproductive, and could not effectively channel whatever existed of their rumored wealth into a form heritable by a nuclear family—the kernel of heteronormative futurity. State agencies’ concerns about threats to public health and family efforts to control loved ones’ hoarding tendencies work together to secure this normative futurity, attempting to contain not only excessive materiality, but also forms of queer intimacy, dwelling, and care. They seek to regulate social life itself, presuming that the “eccentric recluses” who prefer the company of their (worthless) things are not adequately or productively social, and are therefore unhealthy. I think this is what is so useful about Herring’s argument: material life is social life, and vice versa; they co-produce each other such that material value cannot be divorced from social worth.

Taken together with Herring’s other work, The Hoarders suggests under-examined connections between queerness and class. This oeuvre implicitly challenges the image of the aspirational white gay man with impeccable taste that has come to dominate popular culture, in part due to the fame of aesthetes, artists, and “innovators” such as Warhol. In fact, I thought “taste” as a form of discrimination and distinction deserved further attention, and would have dovetailed nicely with an extended discussion of the diagnostic hegemony of the DSM, long a concern for queer and disability studies alike. How can we understand the mechanisms of taste and diagnosis as central to the disciplinary power of aesthetic regimes and their attendant value structures, and what might such an understanding enable us to learn about the intersections of queerness, class, and ability? How do these mechanisms organize social and material worlds, such that some people and things get sorted into the category of the valuable while others are discarded as trash, less than or outside of the human? These are questions that feminist and critical race theorists grapple with every day, and it is not hard to see these issues playing out all around us. #blacklivesmatter and #icantbreathe, as responses to the necropolitics enacted by militarized state policing and anti-black racism, are prime examples of campaigns to combat the uneven distribution of the value of human life. These activist tactics, while not within the scope of Herring’s project, show that the “mattering” of human lives is never given or settled, but is waged in violent struggles over entirely ordinary things: a bag of skittles, sagging jeans, a hoodie, a toy gun, a pack of cigarettes. Such objects have much to tell us about how we move through the world as racialized, classed, gendered, and (dis)abled beings—as social, embodied, material subjects, and as people who can be strategically denied meaningful subjectivities. With the concept of material deviance, Herring’s work provides an opening: a way to speculatively reimagine material social life in light of how things make their presence felt in the social, and how the social affects the shape of things.

To read the thingly and/as the social is a new materialist practice, one that affirms that “what matters” is a political, ethical, and aesthetic question.


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