What does a stockbroker in Istanbul navigating the rush of incoming trading figures have in common with a mother in Stockholm trying to organize a growing pile of baby clothes? They are both coping with excess or overflow. In a new book entitled Coping With Excess, Orvar Lofgren and his co-editor Barbara Czarniawska explore the ways in which institutions, corporations and individuals define and manage situations of ‘too much’ – too much information, too many choices, too many commodities or too many tasks.
In the following article, Orvar examines what ‘too much’ can mean when it comes to our homes.
The perfect future
When you got up this morning, did you notice the happy people gliding past outside? All dressed in the same practical white overalls and in a relaxed holiday mood, because they don’t have to work more than three days a week now.
Knock on the door of a typical contemporary home. Watch the minimalist and practical interiors, no furniture, but beds and table and chairs that by a button press emerge from the floor. Go into the kitchen and look at the electronic systems that have made cooking superfluous. Just press the button and your favourite dish is ready…
Well, this scenario is taken from future-gazing books of the 1960s and 1970s. Over the years I have been interested in this genre of utopias of future domestic life, forecasts for the new millennium made since the 1950s. Many of these predictions worked reasonably well for technologies of communication, but went totally wrong when it came to changes in habits, cultural values and emotions in domestic life.
What is striking in much of this future gazing is the dreams of a minimalist home life, uncluttered, spotless, and oh, so practical. No friction. People themselves are unstressed and sophisticated – very cool.
Too much of stuff, activities and feelings
Now it is 2014 and the future is here. It looks rather different. Domestic life in the 21st century was supposed to be cyber-light and friction-free, thanks to all the new technologies that would simplify people’s lives. Most Western homes are, however, more than ever veritable jungles of clumsy objects and gadgets, utensils and tools crammed into every available space. Cupboards and wardrobes are bursting, cellars and attics cluttered. Little gadgets let out green or angry red blips in the kitchen, electric cords create jungles under the tables. People devote a large amount of energy and resources to handling this abundance. Things are shuffled back and forth, rearranged, recycled. Every day, new objects enter the home and old ones are lost, forgotten or leave by the back door.
In an ongoing project on managing overflow an interdisciplinary group of us have been looking at ways people cope with excess. “It is simply too much” is a complaint that crops up in discussions of consumer behavior and sustainable living, of media flows and of the administration of both information and people. A great amount of time, resources and worry is spent trying to control such overloads. It is a topical issue in both private and public lives and discourses, but still little studied. The home is one arena we are looking at, and let me return now to this setting, which is not only flooded by stuff but also with activities and emotions.
What is a home?
… the anthropologist Mary Douglas once asked. Her answer was, not just a building with four walls, but an internal order with rules, rhythms and morals. The home is above all a web of routines, silent agreements and ingrained reflexes about “the way we do things here”. Homes can be seen as laboratories for developing new routines as well as safe havens for clinging to old ones. There are techniques of synchronizing, multitasking and sequencing, as well as constant whole- or half-hearted attempts to gain control and install some kind of order.
The home is not only crammed with stuff; it is also overflowing with feelings. Passion, boredom, guilt, longing, nagging irritation, explosions of home rage and moments of bliss try to co-exist with, and also charge, material objects (like that ugly sideboard we inherited from your father), as well as everyday activities. (Who has turned down the thermostat again? Where is my cell phone charger? and What are these towels doing on the bathroom floor?).
It is the constant clashes and recycling of these three dimensions which interests me. So I check all kinds of material – from interviews and surveys of domestic living to interior decoration magazines and total-make-over TV shows.
A moral economy
Returning to Mary Douglas, she discussed the home as an entanglement of conventions and totally incommensurable rights and duties. What she was describing is very much a moral economy, constantly tackling questions of solidarity, sharing and assistance, as well as questions of fairness. The home has to synchronize not only tasks and activities but also needs and longings.
It is a moral economy that produces many tensions, for example between individual aspirations and activities and “the family or household good”. There is a diffuse “we” often hovering in the background. “Do ‘we’ really need a new TV, a bigger house, dessert for dinner?”. Home is a site of constant wheeling and dealing, trying to make different priorities and interests co-habit.
The moral economy of the home also reflects different positions, and thus engages questions of class, gender and generation. It is rarely visible in grand declarations about rules, rights and duties, but hidden in mundane situations, which explains why seemingly trivial routines all of a sudden result in a flare of emotions. Power and hierarchies are reinforced or challenged.
By looking at the entanglements of commodities, practices and feelings inside the home, something more may be learnt about more consumption. Accommodating all the activities and projects, dreams and disappointments calls for constant creativity, but also produces many half-hearted attempts and unfinished projects. This is nothing new. Modern consumer history is full of such tensions, and in the background there are science fiction dreams of minimalist and rational living, a home under full control.
Orvar Löfgren is professor emeritus of European Ethnology at the University of Lund, Sweden. His research is focused on the cultural analysis of everyday life and he has written on national identities and transnational processes, as well as on consumption, media, culture and economy. Currently he is leading a project on “Managing overflow” together with Barbara Czarniawska.
Coping with Excess has recently been published by Edward Elgar Publishing.