Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hoarders and the Crisis in Capitalism

I really enjoy what some call "trash" tv. Some people upon hearing this look at me quite strangely. They wonder how someone with my education - I have a Ph.D. - could enjoy such pedantic, ridiculousness. I usually look back at them strangely, confused about how they could not enjoy trash tv. I imagine a part of such strange looks is the on-going struggles between "high" and "low" art where having a "higher" education than most of the world opens me up to understanding and appreciating "high" art and in doing so, leaving the vestiges of "low" art behind for the masses. Fortunately, I do not buy into the mystification that surrounds "high" art and therefore feel no need to posture like I get something most people cannot.

Now, don't get me wrong. I do enjoy what is called "high" art. I can watch foreign and independent films like any other and appreciate their differences from the "hollywood" cinema of today. I can even talk about them rather intelligently, much to the disdain of some of my friends who find such films mind-blowingly boring...which is usually the point. However, my heart lies with trashy tv and other forms of low art. There are perhaps two main reasons for this.

The first, I was raised in rural Iowa where there was not a lot of access to "high art". The closest thing we got to an independent or foreign film was Chocolat with Juliette Binoche, Dame Judi Dench, and Johnny Depp. Instead, I grew up on shows like Roseanne where I actually saw my own existence played out, except my parents were divorced and half of the family - my father's - are not working class. I more than often didn't get along with that side of the family and they more often than not pitied me for being from a "broken home". Broken as it may have been, it taught me the joys of trash. Perhaps, I realize later in life, it is trash that the masses have to embrace to illuminate alternatives to the capitalist American dream?

The second reason I enjoy trash is because of my most important idols is the Pope of Trash. I know, I know, I was raised Catholic and we are not meant to idolize, but I can't help it. At least I am idolizing someone with a nickname that include "pope"? Any way, John Waters is my idol for being the Pope of Trash, of showing me how to survive on the margins of respectibility or would it be the center of unrespectability? Either way, the Pope of Trash and his cinema have perverted my sensibilities to appreciate the innane, the perverse, the trashtatic revelry of queerness. Now, I might be able to sometime later be able to more carefully disintricate John Water's "trash" with contemporary corporate trash, but for now...I want to focus on one particular show that is often literally about trash, trash that has been hoarded, but in being hoarded illuminates the corporate trash that needs to be taken out.

Hoarders is that show that you really don't necessarily want to watch, but that you cannot turn off. I think for some such a show is watched to make one feel better about one's life. See honey, that is a real hoarder, I am not that bad. If anything, I am simply a fake hoarder. For others, such a show might be watched to reinforce stereotypes about various populations that are shown - often people from rural America. See honey rural American is filled with lazy people who do not know how to live a civilized life. And for others, not much thought is probably put into why such a show is watched, other than to pass the time. Some people's struggles are other people's entertainment.

I want to think about Hoarders in terms of how it exposes corporate hoarding. And this is what I think Hoarders is doing. Hoarders emerges at a time of incredible disparity between the rich and the poor - its first episode aired in August 2009 in the midst of the economic crisis. As a "documentary series" it focuses almost exclusively on the poor or middle class. Hoarding - or amassing a ton of "shit" - is pathologized as something that needs to be cured. Interventions are planned and the psychological problems of those hoarders are laid bare for all the viewing world to see. The vulnerabilities of an already vulnerable population are further exposed. Yet, such a move to focus attention on the plight of the poor grappling with daily survival takes away attention on the larger dare I say systemic issue of hoarding that has gotten the global economy in a tizzy.

You see, I think hoarding is ok if you are hoarding wealth. Well, I don't actually think hoarding wealth is ethical because of the ways it inhibits the possibility of inter-class relations. But, I do think we allow hoarding wealth because that is just a "part" of the capitalist system that goes unchecked. We might look to MTV Cribs for socially sanctioned hoarding, but even the celebrity culture of wealth usually pales in comparison to the wealthiest of the wealthy. Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, hedge fund managers, Wall Street moguls, and corporate CEOs have spent years hoarding their wealth so much that the disparity between the rich and the poor is forever widening. See "Plutocracy Reborn" for a number of charts that nicely lays out the economic argument historically. And with the political scene in Washington such disparity seems more likely to be protected than challenged and (scary word) redistributed.

It seems to me then that when thinking about Hoarders we should focus less on what we see on the show, but on what the show is not showing us. There has been an explicit choice to focus on the hoarding of the common person and their "mental illness". And many an anti-psychiatric theorist from Eric Fromm to Michel Foucault have shown the use of mental illness diagnoses as a method to discipline the masses. And this seems to allow for those whose hoarding is not simply an "individual" problem as shown in the series BUT whose hoarding has had dramatic consequences for society to continue to hoard with no humiliation involved. We do not humiliate the wealthy who have for all intensive purposes wrecked the global economy. We do not create a show about their excessive lives filled with cars, houses, trips, clothes, and more. Well, I take that back, we do create shows about such things - think the Real Housewives series on Bravo and Logo's The A-List, but such shows focus on the frivolity of women or gay men. They reinforce the stereotypes of such populations allowing some to express anger at such extreme examples of wealth when many are struggling to pay bills. Yet, the Real Housewives of any city and the gay men of New York are not the problems although they are implicated. Those behind the scenes, those where such wealth has been hoarded to fund such projects are part of the elite that have hoarded and whose hoarding is inevitably a big piece of the problem. And the show Hoarding inevitably exposes this in its unconscious.