Open House: An Exploration of Ownership
Taylor Simpson — May 15th, 2017
20 min read
what is ownership?
definition, to own:
1. formal, to possess
2. informal, to take pride in
There are two definitions of the verb “to own” explored in this project. The first is to possess, and the second, informal definition is to take pride in, as in “I owned that game.” The latter is not typically used in relation to ownership of objects, but I propose that it should. In America, a country focused on mass-production and consumerism, people tend to accumulate objects without considering why they chose to keep those objects in their lives. Consumer researcher Russell Belk and expert-organizer Marie Kondo are challenging this notion, suggesting that objects are reflections of ourselves and even impact our well-being.
Being “one’s own” also has connotations of independence, strength, and confidence, i.e. acting with pride in oneself. By being mindful of what we choose to put in our spaces—objects that we see, touch, smell, wear, and use to support us every day—pride can be produced. I use the word mindful because far more important than the physical senses I mentioned, is the mind. The mind works like a web. An object is not just an object, but all of its associations too—memories, people, places, emotions, etc. So often, feelings other than pride intrude on ownership because of these associations.
“Relationships with objects are never two-way (person-thing), but always three-way (person-thing-person).”
Russell Belk, "Possessions and the Extended Self," 1988
how physical ownership happens
To understand why it is difficult to get rid of objects, we must understand the different ways we can attain them. Purchasing is the most common. The hope when we buy something is that it fulfills a want or need. But when there is a need, it doesn’t always mean there is money or time to buy the right thing. This often results in getting the job done without satisfying every hope for what that object could be. Wanting is usually transient, and when the object is purchased and the adrenaline rush is over, you have the object but may not want it as you did before. Wanting is difficult in itself, sometimes induced by ulterior motives. It is not always the object itself we want, but what it can give: beauty, style, credibility, status. In a perfect world we would want an object for our own fulfillment, and not to influence others’ opinions of us.
Receiving objects can also come with unwanted emotions, such as when we don’t like the gifts we receive, causing feelings of guilt to arise. Though people may think they are hurting the giver by getting rid of their gift, they are, more importantly, hurting themselves by not. In a more informal way, objects can also be passed down, ensuing similar feelings. An object that has sentimental value because it belonged to someone you know is not always a useful or beautiful object. There can also be a sense of obligation and pressure if the object is rare or is a part of family history or tradition. Additionally, expensive purchases or gifts come with the caveat of not wanting to waste money by giving them up.
When possessions are found, on the side of the road or left behind by someone else, we have a choice to take them or leave them. When objects are free, it’s much easier to make a rash decision and be left with an object that frankly doesn’t work well, is in bad condition, or sits in a closet unused. It does, however, seem easier to get rid of these objects because there is less worry about losing money.
Objects can also be created. Through his Two Treatises of Government, John Locke formally proposed that we own our labor, and therefore the products of our labor, because we own ourselves. But “Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) provide a more psychological explanation in suggesting that we invest ‘psychic energy’ in an object to which we have directed our efforts, time, and attention” (Belk). This psychic energy makes it difficult to discard of items created by hand. Instead of a lost money situation, it is a lost time situation and a lost effort situation. And in the case of objects created by others, there is an added layer of sentimentality and respect attached, leading back to the guilt problem.
To sum up why it is difficult to discard of objects, no matter how they were acquired, I think Sartre was right when he said, “Hell is other people.” We often think we are letting down someone else when getting rid of something, or even letting down ourselves. In her book the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, decluttering guru Marie Kondo has a more general view, saying that “when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.” People, money, tradition, effort, all of these contribute to attachment and fear.
When an object becomes a burden, emotionally or physically, it should be discarded. For comprehensive guidance on discarding, I highly recommended reading Marie Kondo. Her prime measurement for decision making regarding decluttering is holding the object and asking, “Does this spark joy?” At the root of this philosophy, Kondo is interested in creating spaces that make their owners happy. As discussed previously, being surrounded by objects that incite good memories and confidence incites happiness. Being surrounded by objects that don’t have positive asssociations can incite sadness, anger, shame, etc. When discarding, Kondo is also interested in the roles objects play in our lives:
“When you come across something that you cannot part with, think carefully about its true purpose in your life. You’ll be surprised at how many of the things you possess have already fulfilled their role. By acknowledging their contribution and letting them go with gratitude, you will be able to truly put the things you own, and your life, in order. In the end, all that will remain are the things that you really treasure. To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose.”
Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, 2014
By role, Kondo means the initial purpose of the object. Compare this to a toothbrush. You don’t use it for more than half a year (I hope), because eventually the bristles become bent out of shape and don’t clean teeth as well. This is a case where it’s easy to tell the object has fulfilled its role and should be discarded, but we aren’t usually attached to our toothbrushes either. Kondo’s prescription that “the space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past,” can help with more complicated concepts behind an object’s role. Because something was loved in the past does not mean it has to be loved now. That an object once evoked joy means its purpose has been fulfilled. Role also comes by way of action for Kondo. For gifts, the purpose is to be received; for purchases, it is the act of buying. Put this way, less pressure is placed on the aftermath of those actions and the associations that come with them—what matters is how you feel about the object now.
Along with mental burden, objects can also be a physical burden. Objects take up a lot of space, and often sit in those spaces for most of their lives unused. For example, I have lived in five different cities in the past four years, and moved four times just while living in Baltimore. Despite this, there were still objects that mostly sat in storage unused before I went through my own process of discarding. I held onto many of these objects because I thought they might (emphasis on the might) be useful in the future, or I never finished reading them or using them to their full potential. In other cases I held onto clothes I used to love or gifts I didn’t really like but that were from people I love. That mental energy translated into physical effort multiple times, carrying boxes into new living spaces.
Objects can also be a physical burden in the everyday, moving them around in order to access other objects. On keeping things organized, the ‘one touch rule’ is essential. Let’s say you’re coming home and decide to put your jacket on the back of your desk chair, but later you need the bag that is also hanging on the chair so you move the jacket to the doorknob. Then, you need to leave the room so you remove the jacket from the doorknob and finally hang it up. That took four touches, as opposed to just coming home and hanging up the jacket using one touch. While I admit I’m not the best at following this rule, I do think it’s helpful for for noticing what objects are constantly getting in the way. A combination of being better about putting things back where they belong and discarding of objects can help.
The way in which we get rid of objects is important too, especially considering the current climate, both politically and physically. It’s easy to throw away objects we don’t want, but it’s better practice to consider all other options first. Recycling is simple and encompasses a wide range of products, including electronics. For non-recyclable objects in relatively decent condition, one option is to donate to second-hand stores and homeless shelters. If interested in helping a neighborhood community, objects can be left on the curb for free, letting passersby take what they want. Throwing an object in the trash should always be the last option, going to landfills and contributing to pollution. In relation to other people, Marie Kondo advises not handing down an object to relatives or friends unless they absolutely want the object. To understand this, all you have to do is imagine something that was passed on to you that you didn’t want.
Despite all the talk about ways ownership can go wrong, there are positive examples of ownership, i.e. meaningful objects. Objects can be extremely useful for completing tasks by the hand or less concretely, in the mind. In the article “Possessions and the Extended Self,” consumer behavior and marketing scholar Russell Belk proposes:
“Objects in our possession literally can extend self, as when a tool or weapon allows us to do things of which we would otherwise be incapable. Possessions can also symbolically extend self, as when a uniform or trophy allows us to convince ourselves (and perhaps others) that we can be a different person than we would be without them.”
Russell Belk, “Possessions and the Extended Self,” 1988
The adjective ‘useful’ can then be applied to completing mental tasks, not just physical. If an object reminds you of an amazing vacation you had and makes you smile, or incites confidence, isn’t it useful? Admiring an object for its beauty is also a form of positive ownership. Like the word useful, beauty has multiple definitions. For some, beauty may simply be about formal elements of the object, the touch, the shape, the smell. But for others, beauty is about the task that the object completes well, i.e. its usefulness. Practical objects, on the other hand, aren’t concerned with theory but rather what the object actually does. Of course, the same object will result in different reports of practicality, usefulness, and beauty from different owners.
As proposed earlier, pride should be the main feeling associated with possessions. There’s a sense of pride in saying “That’s mine” because it’s your object. But, that only happens when a possession is meaningful, providing value beyond the everyday object. If one has pride in the memories, people, or feelings associated with an object, those feelings will transfer to the object itself. The result of my ‘study’, if you will, of parsing through my own possessions is that I am now proud of all the objects I have kept, rather than ashamed or indifferent.
beyond physical ownership
For many millennials, digital ownership is just as important as physical objects. We grew up with videogames and computers, and phones became smarter as we did. We often get a bad rap for being glued to our technology, but to us, the web is as precious as our grandmother’s old box of photographs. Through social media, blogs, games, and files, our lives are stored on computers. They’re our cameras, our notebooks, our love letters, our toys, our art supplies. I learned a huge lesson on this when my own hard drive failed. I lost thousands of photographs, essays, and my digital artwork from three years of art school. It was devastating, as I’m sure it would be to lose my physical possessions in a fire.
Technology also provides an opportunity to consolidate. It’s easy to delete files and save memory, as well as add to that memory through turning physical objects into digital ones. For example, in the future I may not have any of the 495 physical objects listed in the bedroom section of the Open House website, but I will have the website documenting their presence. Phone photographs often work in this way, not being as physically precious as film photographs which have limited frames and costly production in comparison. Phones can instead document the day to day, from a silly Snapchat to an adventure across the world. They become a way to own our experiences, a form of mental ownership.
Similarly, objects from the past can be kept through mental ownership, and are perhaps just as important as physical objects. Though memory is imperfect, it is vast, and we store many bits and pieces throughout it. Possessions usually come to mind when thinking of the past. Your favorite blanket when you were a child, the clothes you loved but outgrew, the toys you played with. Through imagining what you want to own in the in the future and how they might play a role in your life, future possessions can be attained through mental ownership too. Past and future ownership then become part of the present, a part of the self, just invisible.
As stated before, we essentially own our experiences. This again brings us back to Locke’s theory of owning our labor. We do create our experiences after all. And we create our memories of those experiences. The self cannot be separated from that. In the end, ownership becomes a malleable thing, not just what we physically possess ourselves, but all the objects in the memories we possess too.
ownership and the extended self
“It seems an inescapable fact of modern life that we learn, define, and remind ourselves of who we are by our possessions.”
Russell Belk, "Possessions and the Extended Self," 1988
While objects are not physically a part of ourselves, they do play an important role in defining the self, and more specifically in what Russell Belk deems the extended self. In “Possessions and the Extended Self” he states, “The possessions central to self may be visualized in concentric layers around the core self, and will differ over individuals, over time, and over cultures that create shared symbolic meanings for different goods. That is, material possessions forming parts of our extended selves seem to form an anchor for our identities that reduces our fear that these identities will somehow be washed away.” For this reason, losing possessions feels like losing a part of the self. Multiple studies on what constitutes as part of the extended self indicate it includes more than just possessions:
“The greater the control we exercise, the more closely allied with self the object should become. This principle led McClelland to hypothesize the following hierarchy of most to least closely self-allied object categories: (1) me, my "free will," (2) my body, my conscience, (3) my belongings, (4) my friends, and (5) strangers, physical universe."
Russell Belk, “Possessions and the Extended Self,” 1988
To some degree, all of these are part of the extended self, from cell to space. In addition to control, Sartre contends that knowing an object is another way to incorporate it into the self. Gaining intimate knowledge of not just objects, but people, places, etc. allows us to perceive them as a part of the self without physically owning them.
“The possessions incorporated in extended self serve valuable functions to healthy personalities. One such function is acting as an objective manifestation of the self.”
Russell Belk, "Possessions and the Extended Self," 1988
Ownership is then a means of identity—we are what we own. Our objects are our interests, our desires, our mistakes, our symbols, and we should acknowledge and be proud of that. Belk adds, “Our accumulation of possessions provides a sense of past and tells us who we are, where we have come from, and perhaps where we are going.” Our objects also help us identify with others, as a group of people like hipsters or punk rockers, people in the same profession, or people living in the same neighborhood (which all think they own it). Identifying with others can also happen one on one because objects are all around us, and are therefore ubiquitous conversation topics. This is a good thing. Visiting someone’s home for the first time is a bit like playing detective, trying to learn more about them by seeing and asking about what they own and forming conclusions.
“If I am what I have and if what I have is lost, who then am I?”
Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be? The Nature of the Psyche, 1976
Already, there seem to be changes in the ways of ownership. With the rise of ride share companies like Lyft and Zipcar, what else besides cars will be included in shared ownership in the future? Clothes are already on the way, with companies like Rent the Runway allowing temporary ownership at a fraction of the clothing’s original cost. It’s difficult to imagine a world where nearly everything is shared, and perhaps impossible considering that consumerism and materialism (and white supremacy) are still running strong. America loves importing and producing goods, and Americans love buying them. This implies that most Americans have unnecessary possessions. In those cases Belk and Kondo would argue there is a decreased sense of self because the unused mass of objects clouds self-reflection. But worse than that are the environmental consequences of mass production and our throw-away society. If we keep using up and polluting valuable resources important to the health of our earth, ownership may not be a possibility at all.
With this exploration, I want to recognize that I come from a place of privilege and my opinions are formed by that. I am a white, able-bodied woman from the US, and the way that I assess what is important in ownership will not be everybody’s view. For purposes of this project and assessing what I own to create a space meaningful to me, I have met my goals. But I am curious, how does a blind person view ownership? A minority? A person in another country? Someone who is housing insecure? Though I am not rich, I certainly have privilege with money as well. My parents didn’t have trouble getting me the things I wanted at holidays or my birthday, and have helped provide for my college education. And because of that, I have been able to work well-paying jobs. Only 264 out of the 498 objects I own, a little more than half, were purchased by me. For many, that is not the case, as they are completely supporting themselves with only the necessities (if even that).
In any case, my hope is that moving forward, those of you reading this and those not, will be more conscious of the objects you own. Pay attention to the way you own them, physically and mentally, and appreciate where you have come and where you are going. Perhaps, if you’re feeling inspired, even recycle or donate a few objects you no longer find practical, beautiful, or part of your extended self. I’m not saying you should turn into a minimalist (I am by no means), but be present. And so, I leave you with this:
“How is it that a kitchen table we once admired in a shop window can later become the stable, silent foundation of family meals and conversations with friends? How can a house lose its status as a confronted object to become a virtual foundation of our life? All these questions lead us back to the body.”
Bernd Jager, "Body, House, City or the Intertwinings of Embodiment, Inhabitation, and Civilization,” 1983
1. Bernd Jager, "Body, House, City or the Intertwinings of Embodiment, Inhabitation, and Civilization,” 1983
2. Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be? The Nature of the Psyche, 1976
3. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, 1943
4. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, 1690
5. Marie Kondo, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, 2014
6. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton, The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self, 1981
7. Russell Belk, “Possessions and the Extended Self,” 1988