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'The Promise of Things' by Ruth Quibell (book review)

A few years ago we took the kids to a wonderful Circus Oz production called, But Wait, There’s More, a show built around the theme of consumerism. “Stuff, stuff, stuff. If you don’t have enough stuff, ask your parents for more stuff.” It was telling that a circus show could be built on our obsession with new things. Then there was the time Michael Landy, a London artist, memorably destroyed each and every one of his personal belongings in his performance art piece titled ‘Break Down’ (2001).

So many of us are engaged in the battle of the bulge, and this time it’s not with our thighs. It’s with cupboards that won’t shut, drawers that spill out, rooms that refuse to be organised, benchtops that will not clear. Too. Much. Stuff. Decluttering has now become a catchword. So many books offer advice on how to go about it, how to make your space a minimalist haven, and how to let go. We are told we ought to put out, move on, eliminate those items that don’t ‘spark joy’. That through the process of decluttering, we will experience a euphoric sense of peace and well-being – almost as if there is an actual end-point. It’s a seductive call, but one that becomes problematic when people feel compelled to replacewhat they have with new things that might bring them this joy – and we are changeable creatures. What brings us joy one day may not the next.

And then, just in the nick of time, Ruth Quibell comes along with this beautiful little book, ‘The Promise of Things’ (MUP, 2016). Rather than simply disparage our obsession with material possessions, Ruth takes a long hard look at what it is that fuels our desire to accumulate. You can hear her frustration with stuff, especially when the time comes to relocate. But you can also hear her conflict. She certainly doesn’t condone hoarding, but there is more to this, to our material desires, and you get a sense of it in the title. We buy things, we keep things, we make things and we consume things for the promise of what they’ll give us in return. Some give us memories, some give us a route back to another version of ourselves, some give us hope for the future, some ground us, some lift us, some provide connection with someone else, there are myriad reasons. And Quibell argues that to view an object’s worth only by either its practical use to us, or the joy it sparks in us, is not embracing all that is human about us.

Quibell, a philosopher and academic herself, turns to philosophers of yesterday, to artists like Matisse and Michael Landy, to writers like Georges Perec, Virginia Woolf and Marie Kondo. She scrutinises what it means to want to keep something. And she has unflinchingly looked at her own behaviours - at the wardrobe she wasn’t able to relinquish, the op-shop finds that didn’t quite work, at the shoes she couldn’t refuse. She looks at our need to rehome and make gifts of meaningful objects. She discusses the current trend of returning to the handmade, the success of Etsy and similar sites, to the act of making. This book is altogether a fascinating exploration of stuff. Unlike Kondo, though, she is not trying to change your life by prescribing a set of activities. She instead gives you time – and permission to think and reflect on what your own things bring to you.

Jo Canham (2018) *This review appeared in Junkies Magazine.

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