Friday, 4 February 2011

On junk

There used to be a place in the centre of Liverpool called Quiggins, a converted warehouse accommodating several ‘antique’ shops which would buy and sell ‘large or small items: anything considered’. The floorspace was sizeable enough to contain huge piles of junk, and the shops were something of a dumping ground for house-clearers who would rather not hire a skip or go to the tip. I remember coming across objects there that were surely unsellable: a naked doll with one eye and no arms, a deflated spacehopper caked in dirt, a single roller skate, a typewriter with no carriage return and several keys missing, an unstrung wooden tennis racket, some wrought-iron steps leading up into thin air. These random collections of stuff seemed like a testament to the levelling effect of junk: outmoded fads and celebrity merchandise suffer the same fate as more mundane household goods, as they are all shoved in a bargain bucket and stamped with a handwritten sticker for 15p. The term bric-à-brac, which comes from the French phrase, à bric et à brac [at random], captures this emphasis on casual abandonment and fortuitous survival. These objects are disconcerting because they are located at the end of a temporal process which, caught up in the cyclical rhythms of daily habit, we were not even aware was occurring. Amidst the leftover material of daily life, we encounter the unsettling evidence that routines have histories.

Christine Finn, a British archaeologist, investigated the durability of everyday ephemera by undertaking a year’s fieldwork in the unlikely site of Silicon Valley, California. Finn’s research examines the climate of easy disposability created by this boom-and-bust, high-turnover environment. The tech workers who populate the area are constantly exchanging jobs, houses and lifestyles, filling their living spaces with geek playthings and other transient objects, and even demolishing perfectly presentable homes in smart areas to make way for swanky rebuilds. Finn practises a kind of anticipatory archaeology, imagining how she would sift the evidence of the Siliconites’ lives after some hypothetical ‘e-Pompeii’. She suggests that the material remains would be confusing to archaeologists, who tend to look for singular explanations about the lives of dwellers in the surviving debris - the smudge of black on pottery providing evidence of a hearth, for example. They would be puzzled by the apparently wanton destruction of objects with no evidence of fire, war or earthquake, and would find it hard to disentangle the evidence of individual lives from that of an accelerated marketplace in designer lifestyles which ‘creates a bewildering array of cross-temporal and cross-cultural objects’.

As the ultimate expression of Silicon Valley’s throwaway culture, Finn shows how the state-of-the-art computer can become a mundane object and then a technological dinosaur within a scarily short period. For Finn, old computers are interesting because, apart from the few self-confessed geeks who run the chaotic computer museums that she visits, people do not generally value them as nostalgia objects. Last year’s model is passed down the market chain to a less fussy user, before being ransacked for its few valuable spare parts or ending up abandoned in a garage or landfill site. The obsolete PC becomes detached from its original context, ‘intriguingly anonymous’ apart from the personal histories encrypted in its indestructible hard drive.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Let me begin with the invisibility and blindness of the suburbs … The suburbs present us with a negation of the present; a landscape consumed by its past and its future. Hence the two foci of the suburbs: the nostalgic and the technological. A butterchurn fashioned into an electric light, a refrigerator covered by children’s drawings, the industrial “park,” the insurance company’s “campus.”’ - Susan Stewart, On Longing


  1. I've often wondered what future archaeologists would make of our civilisation from the bits and pieces that they may uncover, assuming some terrible disaster wiped us out. It's interesting that much of the ephemera out of which one could build a picture of our cultural obsessions has been thrown away because it was so everyday - I'm thinking of things like mail order catalogues (the earliest versions of Kays and Traffords for instance - do any survive?) and all manner of info prior to electronic storage. I was an obsessive collector as a kid and once had an extensive collection of lollipop wrappers, which became so full of goo in time that they had to be got rid of. Incidentally, there are places that recycle computer hardware so putting your old PC in a skip is not the best option.

  2. *gasps in horror* - Do you mean Quiggins is no longer there?!? I really loved going there as a student!(12 years ago - eeek!) There's a fairly good place in Manchester 'Affleck's Palace' which is similar in nature.

  3. It is funny how we are asked time and time again to recycle and make things last as long as we can. With newer and newer technologies available, people are almost encouraged to have the new and get rid of the old. Where all this stuff ends up, I don't know.

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