Blog Post: On Materialism and Materiality


One of the things that connects my own practices—an artist, cook, gardener—is a shared emphasis physicality, on, if you will, immanence. It seems to me that we live in a world that is increasingly divorced from materials and simple physical actions. Haven’t we all become accustomed to automatic faucets, light switches, and doors, to the point where we sometimes stand motionless, waiting for them to act on our behalf? (Am I the only one who feels a slight embarrassment when I realize that this faucet is still the kind you have to turn on yourself?) I am amazed, though I shouldn’t be, at the number of people I meet who don’t have what I consider to be basic physical skills. Some real-life examples: how to grate a carrot, how to cut lines of text from a newspaper, how to sew on a button.

Beyond this strange turning-away from the simple physical actions, we live in a state of profound ignorance about our environment. I don’t only mean an understanding of our ecosystem and how it functions. I mean the natural world’s material presence. In the United States, it’s perfectly possible to go for one’s whole life without having to think about where raw materials originate, the processes they are subjected to, or where our waste goes. One of my theories about our overuse of gasoline lies in the fact that we never actually see it: the transfer from pump to gas tank is invisible, with no sense of the weight or volume of the fluid on which we so depend. We’re also sadly divorced from a sense of connection with our larger natural environments. A high-school student I tutor recently told me she didn’t know which season was which. That would be understandable if we lived in L.A., but she’s lived her whole life here in Chicago.

In the rarefied world of art school, where I spend much of my time, people do use materials and cultivate physical skills. Yet the disconnection with the environment often manifests in a resistance to anything that references the “natural.” By way of example, I am currently working on a piece that uses rawhide. The skins will be used as a projection screen, in what’s meant to be a melding of the analogue and the digital. I don’t know which is more pronounced: the fact that many of my fellow artists can’t recognize rawhide as a material, or the level of resistance from those who do. With the exception of one vegan, it is not concern for the animal’s life that is the issue. It’s the fact that the material is “primal.” I am ok with the fact I’m using skins because I’ve gone to lengths to ensure that they’re ethically-sourced. As a material for making, rawhide has a long history, and that history continues today. But connection with what is perceived as an older way of being is an embarrassment when one could (and should, these responses imply) be focusing on the world of contemporary pop culture with its concomitant irony, self-aware positioning, and consumerism—in short, with its sheer manufacturedness. Although such projects are certainly valid, one might ask why mere use and reference to “natural” materials is considered both an irrelevant cliché and a cause for aesthetic shame.

People often tell me that I am “not materialistic.” They are usually referring to my resistance to consumer culture and my propensity for holding onto objects I already have instead of buying new ones, even when those objects are, in their opinion, way past needing to be replaced. It’s true that, with a few notable exceptions, I don’t often care about acquiring new products or using objects as status symbols. Ok, I am inordinately attached to my iPhone. But I also mend my clothes, try to buy resale, and have no shame about foraging useful materials other people discard. However, this doesn’t mean I’m not materialistic. I’ve realized lately that I am—in some ways, profoundly so.

My attachment to the things I already have was recently driven home to me by life with my roommate’s dog. Suffice it to say that he has a chewing problem. Lately, he’s destroyed quite a few of my things. My distress over this doesn’t correspond to the monetary value of these objects. I realized that I am attached to a thing because of its connection to someone I care about, or my shared history with it, or its simple functionality. I love my afghan because my former partner’s mother made it for me in my favorite color; my full-length winter cloak because of the occasions on which I’ve worn it and because made it with my own hands, on my ancient-but-sturdy Singer sewing machine. Sometimes, I love an object for its sheer misfit-ness. The distorted ceramic bowls my best friend made in college are a perfect example. The glaze bubbled and burst, rendering the two bowls semi-functional, crater-covered monsters. She gave them to me as castoffs, and I love them equally for their deformity, the fact that she made them, and the beautiful color and texture of the translucent blue glaze.

When I use an object that was a gift from the maker, that person is present to me in my memory and, by extension, in my daily existence. If I take the time to examine the object, I can search out the small imperfections that give evidence of the human hand and skill that went into its making. Such is the immanent presence of attention, of skill, of love. I also have an inordinate fondness for objects that are sturdy and useful, for my widemouth jars and the kitchen scissors I use on a daily basis. We have a shared history—one of comfort and sustenance. All of these objects have a familiarity that grounds me in my otherwise overwhelming daily existence.

A friend once referred to my practice of hanging up my laundry in my pantry as “living like Little House on the Prairie.” It’s not like I churn my own butter, fashion my own doorlatches, slaughter pigs, or even chop firewood to heat my rented Chicago condo. (The condo association prohibits public laundry-hanging; apparently, it’s low-class.) I’m not a Luddite, and I won’t be taking a hammer to my MacBook anytime soon. But hanging laundry is a process that grounds me. Of course, I enjoy the knowledge that I’m saving energy, but beyond this, I find a simple calm in the action of pinning up the laundry, in the cyclical harvesting of my shirts from the line in the mornings. The agricultural way in which I think of this is process is largely unconscious but not, I think, accidental. Like gardening, laundry-hanging is a way of connecting myself to the temporal cycles and physical world around me.

In short, I’m far from the Buddhist ideal of detachment, and, for better or worse, I don’t aspire to it. If radicalism means, as etymology would have it, getting to the root, then I propose that we cultivate a radical form of gratitude to the material world and to the physical actions that allow us to participate in it. This is materialism of a different kind. It is about valuing things for their co-participation in and co-creation of our lives. To do so is to depart from Western ideas about mastery. It is to disavow dominion-theology, to begin dismantling hierarchies and distinctions between what is living and what is not. “When you begin to treat things as embodied,” a Pagan friend once said, “they begin to respond in kind.” Whether or not you agree, it’s indisputable that these philosophies of mastery-over and detachment-from have resulted in the destruction of natural environments, the pollution and human exploitation spawned by capitalism. Using handmade objects, cultivating skills, participating in simple actions—these practices are subversive. They are even, in a small way, radical.

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