Elizabeth Chin is Professor of Media Design Practices at Art Center College of Design and the author of Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture. Her new book, My Life with Things, is a meditation on her relationship with consumer goods and a critical statement on the politics and method of anthropology in which she uses everyday items to intimately examine the ways consumption resonates with personal and social meaning.
Where did the idea for this project come from and how did it evolve?
The idea for the diary part initially began as a series of emails I sent out to a small group of friends.
This was in the early 2000s before blogs were even much of a thing. If I had started the project a few years later, it might just have been a blog, and the book might never have happened. Along the way, though, I became fascinated with thinking about Karl Marx and his relationship to consumption. I wondered what his personal relationship to things might have been, and this spurred me into exploring all kinds of things from the economy in secondhand clothes to lace-making and the ins and outs of carbuncles. I was interested in Marx and his family as people, not icons or two-dimensional figures. It was when I was exploring the world of pawn in Marx’s time that I also realized pawn had been so important for Native people in the U.S., and that sent me on a whole new exploration. The evolution of the book overall was never straightforward, and certainly was not the result of some sort of well-laid plan. It was a series of explorations and journeys that then had do be cobbled together into the book.
Was there a particular writer or scholar who inspired you to experiment with writing voice and the limits of ethnography?
Actually I think the main inspiration for experimenting with the writing was my father. My dad, Frank Chin, is a writer – all he does is to write. He’s written plays, novels, nonfiction. He writes every single day. Even after a devastating stroke he’s written several books. I grew up around writing, and I’ve always written and taken it seriously as a craft. I like to joke that in my family you don’t really grow up until you publish your first book. So because of that, my orientation toward writing has always had what I suppose might be called a writerly orientation that is concerned with the writing itself as a form of practice and expression.
In My Life with Things you are remarkably candid – almost shockingly so – about your personal life. Did you have any reservations about revealing that level of detail, or was it just a necessity of the project?
Early on I decided this project had to be done wholeheartedly and without self-censoring. Part of this was because that is really how I think the best work gets done, you just have to dive in and not worry while you’re doing the work whether or not it can be declared “good” or “acceptable” or “embarrassing.” I knew I had no hope of producing good work if I was actually trying to do good work. My goal was to be as honest as possible in producing the material; I knew I could always worry afterward whether anybody else should ever see it. In the book itself, there were some people who had to be edited out after the fact, and some events that had to be re-framed, as well. I made the choice to do this because to include them would have exposed very private moments without their consent. In this way I still stuck to the ethical code we use in any kind of ethnographic work: I did not have their permission to reveal a particular event, so including them was not ethical. I never felt I had the right to publish things about people in my life, even true things, which would be hurtful to them. Some of the most painful material does deal with my mother and her struggles with mental illness. She read the manuscript before it was published, and if she had asked me to remove those entries I would have.
How did you choose which of your things to write about? Are there any items that didn’t make the cut?
With the entries, I just would sit down and write about whatever came to mind. This meant that there were plenty of entries that were boring, or just never really went anywhere. Sometimes I was sure that some item I was writing about was just an amazing journey, but later it would be excruciating to read myself obsessing of some minute consumer decision or other. At other times I could see in the writing that I was trying to hard to make a workable entry. This is partly why it was so important to write and write and write. I knew there was no guarantee that every entry was going to have a life.
You close the book with the fictional account of Dr. ——, a hoarder/collector/consumer and anthropologist whose house—stuffed to the gills with things—explodes. Is there any overlap between yourself and Dr. ——?
Writing that section was a ball. I loved making fun of myself and making fun of anthropology. Like so many academics I tend to take myself so very seriously and every single tiny slight or ego poke can keep me boiling for weeks. I absolutely think that I could become a hoarder. My husband thinks I already am. For my part, I see many surfaces in my house that remain undecorated and under-occupied. Part of me would love to continue that piece of writing, turn it into a whole crazy novel.
What do you hope readers take away from this book, both in terms of your arguments and in the methodology and your writing voice?
For me this book has been about embracing a kind of fearlessness, and in a way that is the thing I hope people respond to most, the notion that fearlessness is possible, even in the midst of terrible depression, even while struggle to keep going is endless. As an undergraduate I attended NYU in the drama program, and I’ve danced very seriously all my life. In the performing arts, you have to be fearless as well, even in the midst of profound insecurity. When you are on stage and performing, you never reach the heights if you are working at being good. You have to get out there with all your training behind you and then throw it away and trust that somehow you’ll fly. This is my attempt at flying in my writing. Most of me is utterly terrified, but there was this other part of me that had to make the attempt, so I’m trusting that part while also planning to crawl into a hole for a while.