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Quite a few years ago, I was tasked with removing the belongings of someone who had gained entry to a building, without permission, and used it to store … stuff. Bags and bags of it, crammed seemingly at random—with pages torn from newspapers and magazines, cold-medicine boxes (empty), coffee cups stained from use, socks, and much else now thankfully forgotten.

The individual in question had been warned that the space would be cleared out. This seemed like a formality. In any case, he did not respond. Chances are he had plenty more at home. Initially, I felt a a certain aggressive satisfaction at throwing this junk into a jumbo garbage can (with wheels), although the pleasure was short-lived. More bags soon turned up—deposited, like so many roach eggs, in any available nook: stashed in closets, under sinks, piled in corners and covered with blankets. Irritation and disgust took hold (there was a smell) but gave way, after a while, to a kind of unease. Probably it was in consequence of curiosity—involuntarily—about the state of mind expressed by the situation on display. Much time and effort had gone into gathering and storing this slice of chaos. Why? I wondered, but I also didn’t want to know.

This episode occurred a few years before an entire subgenre of reality television programming emerged to document the phenomenon of hoarding. At the time, that would not have been the word I used. My sense of the word was that hoarding applied to, for example, what a survivalist did with provisions. The urge to stockpile beef jerky and drinking water may seem outlandish, but at least it corresponds to an intelligible motive. Endless sacks of discarded and mostly useless stuff were another matter—another kind of matter, expelled from the social body but now incorporated into a solitary project of curating garbage.

As of the early 21st century, “hoarding” refers mainly to the obsessive sort of behavior, although the early days of the pandemic in 2020 saw the brief return of commodity hoarding, most memorably of toilet paper. In crisis, scarcity and hoarding reinforce one another. No such clear-cut economic logic accounts for the households depicted in the A&E cable channel’s Hoarders or its numerous imitations. But as Rebecca R. Falkoff indicates in her study Possessed: A Cultural History of Hoarding (Cornell University Press), the existence of an audience for such programs—or for numerous other depictions of the behavior, fictional and documentary—suggests that the spectacle of the hoarder has a hold on the imagination beyond whatever private compulsions are on display. (The author is an assistant professor of Italian studies at New York University.)

“Hoarding,” she writes, “marks a dangerous threshold at which control over objects cedes to a sense of helplessness before the material world.” The hoarder enacts, in all too literal way, the experience of being overwhelmed by possibilities for consumption and by fears of loss. The hoarder’s living space is the grotesque miniature of an unsustainable world system:

“To inhabit a present structured by the dread of a domestic avalanche or some similar catastrophe is a recital of what it means to be human in the Anthropocene, living in anticipation of an apocalypse of our own making.”

The hoarder has possessions—and is possessed, metaphorically, anyway. If not by a spirit, then what? In framing her analysis, Falkoff refers to the psychiatric literature on hoarding, though not to reduce the phenomenon to pathology. Instead, she elaborates on correspondences between the hoarder’s rationales for their behavior and attitudes expressed in literary and artistic works, mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries. Modernity brings into play intense and conflicting understandings of the relationship between value (economic, aesthetic, sentimental, etc.) and time.

The hoarder, pressed to discard some portion of the chaos they have accumulated, will protest that a given object has an irreplaceable connection to the past, still remains useful (even when the expiration date says otherwise) or is bound to have value in the future. Nineteenth-century poets and painters fixed on the precarious life of ragpickers as a kind of emblem of their own marginal place amid urban capitalism. André Breton, leader of the Surrealists, wrote of the flea market, “I go there often, searching for objects that can be found nowhere else: old fashioned, broken, useless, almost incomprehensible, even perverse.”

And Sherlock Holmes’s boundless attention to minute details was joined to a seemingly total indifference to the clutter of the space he shared with Watson—about which the doctor sometimes complained. To no avail: as with many another hoarder, the chaos was only apparent, if only to the detective himself. Falkoff writes,

“Whereas the industry of professional organizing (and much of contemporary hoarding discourse) presumes that home and mind mirror each other so that the organization of one brings order to the other; for Holmes, the mind is an orderly functional space that can dwell in a cluttered apartment and be supplemented by a well-ordered library.”

The book itself is something of a scholarly hoard, with information on the history of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and critical analyses of Italian authors alongside a closely observed treatment of CSI. In an episode called “House of Hoarders,” one of the forensic detectives explains an aspect of the deceased’s behavior in words taken, nearly word for word, from a scholarly volume on hoarding that the screenwriter presumably expected most of the viewers would never read. And fair enough, though Falkoff has.

While historicizing her subject, the author also tends to aestheticize it, so that real-life hoarders come to sound like outsider artists of a sort. This reader would have found it easier to credit the notion if not for the memory, much too vivid, of clearing out a hoard—exorcising the space, so speak, only be left feeling somewhat contaminated for a day or two.

But the book also gives due attention to social context, as when quoting a little speech given by one of the CSI investigators. He, at least, quotes his source:

“The philosopher Erich Fromm, he forecast a society that was obsessed with possessions … Unfortunately Fromm also predicted that a culture driven by commercialism like the one we live in today is doomed to the ‘having’ orientation, which leads to dissatisfaction and emptiness. When you consider that in 1960 there was no such thing as public storage in America; today there’s over two billion square feet dedicated to it. Makes you think he had a point.”

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