Are You Your Stuff?

IfIWereAHoarder on tumbr brought the following advertisement for Norton to my attention:

Norton actually has a pretty interesting concept here: we are defined by our “stuff,” or our digital information. This isn’t really stuff as we might first understand it: objectifying it emphasizes the materiality of such texts, but at the same time, the video demonstrates the phenomenology of those texts by saying it’s “the stuff that connects you to people you love.” Hansen writes that the division of those concepts applied to media creates a theoretical oscillation between the two perspectives. But in the video, while the notion of “stuff” seems divorced from the individuality of the characters (which hearkens back to Tyler Durden’s axiom, “the things you own end up owning you “) it fails to incorporate the concept of that media as an extension of the user, in the McLuhan tradition. Hansen even goes a step further in championing that idea, writing that “digital code compromises the most recent and most complex stage of the ongoing evolution of technics.” It is, again in his words,  “an expansion of the very exteriorization that is constructive of the human”

Norton says, “you are your stuff,” and they’re right, but not exactly clear. The railroad didn’t change what people are essentially, but it “accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions” (McLuhan, 1964). Likewise, our stuff  changes the scale of our behavior, adding onto what already exists. In the thought of Regis Debray, new media doesn’t replace existing forms, but it augments them, changing “the whole social and economic system of media” in the process.

Our “stuff,” in Norton’s terms, is merely ourselves – but broken into pieces that can be lost or stolen. This raises questions about control over our identity – not just in a practical sense, but in a more abstract way. Do we own our information after we share it with others? If we lose our “stuff,” presumably it’s still ours, but when it’t stolen, do we still retain ownership? In the examples of cultural appropriation, the misuse of items and images traditional associated with one society raises concern for colonialist abuse. MyCultureIsNotATrend is one blogger who follows the unfortunate tendency of white and non-native peoples to use the “war bonnet” as a fashion statement. In other cases, we see where cultural commodification makes capitalist gains off of otherwise authentic artifacts. Industrial society constantly recycles the relevant artifacts of past societies in a desperate attempt to find authenticity in the now – even when it only travels a short distance into the past to do so. Douglas Haddow wrote about this three years ago in a lament about “hipster culture” where he said

We are a lost generation, desperately clinging to anything that feels real, but too afraid to become it ourselves. We are a defeated generation, resigned to the hypocrisy of those before us, who once sang songs of rebellion and now sell them back to us. We are the last generation, a culmination of all previous things, destroyed by the vapidity that surrounds us. The hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new.

We can also see this in Marianna Torgovnick’s writings about how “the West’s fascination with the primitive has to do with it’s own crises in identity.” This is nothing new. Whether one remember’s James Cameron’s Avatar or any example of the “noble savage” literary device, there is a little acknowledged tendency of modern society to acknowledge its flaws through the wistful cloying desperation for authenticity in a “magical negro” and other forms of romantic racism, stealing the identity and the image of other peoples while turning them into media products to be marketed and sold. I hesitate to mention the most ubiquitous example of this – Che Guevara.

This is not a critique of primitivism, but rather the clumsy and awkward way that people have manhandled the identities and cultural artifacts of other societies – whether it’s katanas (The Last Samurai), celtic imagery (by white supremacists), native african tribal fashions (this ad campaign), aboriginal dress (Russian ice skaters), Maori tribal tattoos (frat guys everywhere), and so on… the point being, that if our “stuff” really is us, then why are we so careless with other people’s stuff? Prior to digital information, physical artifacts functioned as a form of media. We can even understand cultural artifacts that functioned with significant social influence and meaningfulness as ancient technology – the type of technology that Joeseph Campbell explained the function of during various native social/spiritual rituals. Members of a tribe adopt a role and are transformed though the use of masks or other apparel. Their entire identity changes in such functions, until the ritual is resolved. Today, we non-primitives who rely on much more sophisticated methods (thanks to the evolution of technics) hang that older technology on the walls of our poorly decorated living spaces and buy them cheap from craft stores.

Mark Hansen, “Media Theory,” Theory, Culture & Society, 23(2-3) (2006): 297-306.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New American Library, 1964.
Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago: University of Chicago, (1990): 157-158
Joseph Campbell: Mythos I (Acacia, 2007).

2 thoughts on “Are You Your Stuff?

  1. Ever see/hear George Carlin’s routine on people and their ‘stuff’? So funny…and your headline reminded me of that and I had a laff even though ID theft and protection is very serious…..stuff.

  2. Pingback: PRISM and Future Power | MrLiterati

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