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November 28, 2021

Mandy Nolan’s Soapbox: Stuff theory

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A sculpture at Swell Called ‘Endless Consumption’

I think we’ve reached Peak Stuff. Ironically, we in the first world have most of the stuff, and we made it with stuff we took from people in the third world, aka ‘stuff quarries’.

People in the third world don’t have a lot of stuff. That’s why we politely called them ‘the third world’. To become a ‘first world’ you need a lot of stuff that you don’t actually need. Although not everyone in your first world can get their hands on stuff, because that’s the point of stuff. It’s aspirational.

The power of stuff only works when it drives you. That’s why homeless people scare us. They don’t have any stuff. People in the ‘third world’ used to be happy about not having stuff. Like Indigenous Australians before colonisation: a lot of them didn’t even know you needed stuff. Because they didn’t. Their cultures weren’t about stuff. Until we came in and ‘stuffed’ them up.

Thanks to globalisation, aka ‘stuff theory’, we introduced not just stuff, but it’s warmup acts, misery and depression, and a sense of the unfillable hole. You can’t sell stuff unless your buyer has a hole to put it in. The hole is one of the gifts of capitalism. Not in the belly; that’s starvation. That’s a real hole. The best holes to market to are the ones that don’t exist.

Stuff by its very definition is useless shit for an invisible ache. For capitalism to work all the people need a big existential hole in the core of their humanity. This is what marketing experts do best: they speak to our throbbing want, our sense of our alienation, disconnection and hopelessness, and they tell us about the new stuff they have to help tether us to meaning and joy in our emotional abyss. Like a safety raft made of stuff.

They show us pictures of happy people with their holes all filled up having fun with their new stuff. It makes me really want that stuff, even though I know it’s a trick.

Anyone who’s bought stuff knows that stuff doesn’t work like that. It’s only stuff you don’t have that will make you happy. I, like a lot of people, have too much stuff. I have an impressive hole. I’ve been putting stuff in it for years. Stuff I saw other people get so I had to have. Stuff I didn’t really want. Or stuff I did want in the shop because they know how to make stuff look so pretty that you just have to have it, but when I got it home I found I didn’t need it or actually like it. So I put that stuff in the cupboard with all the other stuff I don’t need.

I have stuff that people gave me on my birthdays. Stuff that I was given when a family member died. Stuff that I bought for the kids so they could get working on stuffing their unfillable holes.

Over the years I have really accumulated a shitload of stuff. I have a massive house that pretty well serves the purpose of being a giant expensive box for my stuff. Most of the stuff I have sits in cupboards and on bookshelves and in wardrobes. I even have stuff insurance in case anything happens to my stuff. So I can get all the stuff back again.

In all honesty I could put a very small amount of stuff in a suitcase and probably live a much happier life. A life less ‘stuffed up’. I imagine how much free time I would have without the ongoing maintenance, sorting, tiding up, discarding and then, of course, replacing of stuff.

What a strange world we have created. Or should I say ‘stuffed up’. We’re overstuffed. So many shops are full of stuff. New stuff every season. New stuff every week. Stuff on sale. Stuff in warehouses that won’t fit in shops that has to be sold online. Stuff arriving at your door. Stuff in planes, stuff on boats. Stuff in space. Stuff people don’t want any more on swap-and-sell websites. Free stuff on Gumtree. Stuff at the op shop. Stuff being buried in giant holes in the ground. Stuff floating out to sea. Stuff breaking down into nanoparticles and going into fish that we end up eating.

The stuff is inside us now. And still we want more stuff. Because our stupid economy is built on making, moving and selling stuff none of us actually needs. So maybe it’s time to start giving a stuff a miss. That’s the action we need to pull back on climate change. Let’s stop stuffing up, and start stuffing down.

I just need one more cushion first.

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  1. Most of the stuff in the ocean comes from 8 rivers in Asia and 2 in Africa, but that doesn’t fit with the anti-Western message. All of my stuff is carefully selected, or mostly. And the ads on your article are about perfect teeth. The stuff to worry about really is untested philosophy, untruths masqued as maxims.


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