I studied fine art at university. I remember going to an exhibition by contemporary artist Barbara Kruger which was an installation of advertising-type signs making commentary about social issues, especially consumerism. I bought a mug at this exhibition which said ‘you want it, you buy it, you forget it’ and ‘we are slaves to the objects around us’ on the other side. There is a home in the popular imagination for this notion – the issue that people want things that once they acquire they are no longer particularly interested in. Socialist philosopher Karl Marx had a name for it: ‘commodity fetishism’. According to the father of socialism (and OK, Herr Marx is maybe not the best source of factual information, but definitely a source of interesting ideas), people ascribe more value to objects than they do to more significant and worthy things (like relationships etc). This commodity fetishism, according to Marx, makes us somehow less human. All fascinating stuff no doubt, but my interest in this topic is around my own attachment to objects as an Autistic person.
Whenever I bring out my Barbara Kruger coffee mug, I always disagree with the sentiment. For me, many of the objects I have gathered actually are important and deeply meaningful. When I buy (or am given) something I really love, I get joy from it from the rest of the time it is in my life. Some of you might have seen me in a documentary, along wth some other very awesome Autistic adults, a few years ago. The documentary is called Alone in a Crowded room. At one point in the film, I show off some of my ‘nice things’, -a sparkly scarf, a little translucent glass ornament, a holographic purse with alternating pictures of butterflies and flowers and some of the film director’s objects as I hadn’t brought enough of my own. I will admit that I still feel something of a fraud every time I see that sequence in the film because I have betrayed my own objects by pretending the director’s objects were mine….
…and I imagine that sentence might sound odd to a non-autistic person (and actually may sound odd to some autistic people too!). I have a different relationship with objects to the ‘norm’. I ascribe them with life and meaning which others may not. When I was a child, I would never input an easy sum to my calculator in case it thought I was an idiot. I knew logically that the calculator did not have sentience and wouldn’t really care if I entered 1+1, but it still bothered me. As an adult I tend to name my technology. I have had a procession of computer friends -Esmerelda the eMac, Molly the MacBook, Izzy the iPad 2, Stephanie the iPhone 6S and Alastair the MacBook Air to name a few. My devices are friends to me. I talk to them. I’m sure my colleagues at my responsible and quite formal job think I’m a little quirky Purky when I kindly utter words of encouragement to the printer or my PC. A couple of weeks ago my internet was slow at home and I uttered a plaintive and quite genuine cry of ‘why do you hate me Alastair?’ to my laptop.
I know this is probably a bit different but this is the world I inhabit. I also have a mental illness which plays havoc with my perception. One thing I experience a lot of most of the time is visual hallucinations and disturbances. It can be a perfect storm of weirdness! People in photographs are alive, much like in the world of Harry Potter, I can become terrified that all the things in my very thing-laden house will come alive and start to harass me or attack me. I see lots of black cats in my house additional to the actual one and all the ornaments and things seem imbued with life. The main problem with this is that very few other people with my mental illness seem to experience it so it is hard to make myself understood when I access help. I usually manage to deal with it but I spend a lot of my evenings being quite frightened. My idiosyncratic relationship with inanimate things can be problematic but I still choose to have a house which is decorated like a cross between an art gallery, a very busy antique shop and the Spiegeltent!
Like many other Autistic people, I have a genuine closeness to many of the objects in my life. It is not a commodity fetishism-type relationship, as described by Karl Marx or Barbara Kruger in which once the object is attained it loses its value. The meaningful objects in my life retain their meaning forever. I find my close relationship with objects can be devastating when the objects break, are stolen or lost. When I was 23 years old my partner at the time stole pretty much every object I owned and left me. Even now there is some regret and sadness. ‘What happened to that painting of the poppies i did in hospital? Why did I only get to use that donna with the purple elephant pattern once? Will I ever find one like it?’ It is odd because while it was indescribably awful to lose all my things it did put it into perspective, even for object-obsessed me. I know that those things are replaceable and if lost it is not really a tragedy. I know that when friends and family members are ‘lost’ it is a far more significant and permanent loss. If my house burned down, by far the worst loss would be my little black kitty and I would probably risk my own safety to save the little furry boy. I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t risk my life to save my Tiffany lamp!. Objects are friends, but friends are friends too and in my mind, while many objects have their own character and value, the human and feline beings in my life have that additional spark of character – a spirit and soul, that wonderful thing called life.
That’s all I have to say about this and thank you Alastair the MacBook Air for your assistance 🙂