Tuesday, February 26, 2013

On cities, mountains, and hoarding.

I wrote this entry over two days while I was on my semester break in Denver.  I was sitting in a Starbuck's, amid the traffic noise, reading through articles to help with a revision of an anthology chapter I was working on. I found myself thinking again about place and topology. And I came to an unsurprising, but somewhat disappointing conclusion: I think better in cities. My mind can make high-end and productive connections so much more quickly when I'm surrounded by a more urban landscape. I find my thoughts more centered, more precise, and less encumbered by counter-productive meanderings.

The reason this is "disappointing" is a more personal one. For an academic who lives in the middle of the mountains, to know that my best thinking doesn't happen in the place where I live is concerning. What would I be like if I taught in an institution located someplace else? How different would my teaching be? I already know that my research would be more productive. So yes, there is something a little concerning there.

But academically, and in the scope of the chapter I'm working on, this is really par for the course in terms of the topological nature of distributed cognition. This also helps to prove an important point that I think a lot of scholars working on "thing theory" may be overlooking. It's quite tempting to look at the types of thoughts analogously with the types of spaces we're occupying at that moment. That is to say, it seems to make sense that if we're in someplace that is quiet, serene, and pastoral, that our thoughts should be similar. But think for a moment about people who visit places that are serene and quiet and find themselves even more stressed and agitated than they would be if they were in their more "native" environment. For me, being in downtown Denver doesn't give me more "cosmopolitan" thoughts. More accurately, the downtown atmosphere seems to match up to, and be more conducive to, a more native modality of thought. That is to say, i can concentrate on things more easily. I can sustain deeper, more complex thought for a longer period of time. At least -- and this is a very important caveat -- it seems that I can. It feels like that's the case. I feel more "me." It would be interesting to perform a more formalized study using various memory and concentration tasks. Perhaps in May.

In terms of the chapter I'm working on, however, I think it's important to move beyond what I mentioned above, and move away from characterizing types of thoughts per se and instead concentrate on the specific thought process that brings forth a specific self-ing one's specific lebesnwelt. Actually, a more accurate way to put it would to simply say "brings forth a particular, individual lebenswelt."

So, let's take the cultural construction of hoarders on reality television, for example. In most of the shows I've seen, the hoarders themselves seem to fall into two categories: 1) the hoarder who has come to the conclusion him or herself that he or she can no longer live the way in which they are living; or 2) the hoarder who has been thrust into an intervention due to some outside circumstance (i.e. a health/fire scare where rescuers could not get into the dwelling in a timely fashion; or a local municipality is threatening to condemn the property due to neighbors' complaints). In the former case, the hoarder is more self-aware and knows that how they are living is -- within the larger cultural framework -- "wrong." Even if they don't see their existence as uncomfortable or unsanitary, they have had some kind of insight or interaction that tells them that their own sense of "home" or "comfort" is somehow sociopathic. In the latter case, however, one can usually see a complete lack of awareness on the part of the hoarder that what they are doing is "wrong," "unhealthy," "sick," or "crazy." In fact, interventions for these hoarders have an added facet of difficulty, in that the hoarder fully and actively works against the team's efforts to help them clean things up.

But in both cases, there is a disconnect between the perception of it being wrong in terms of how "society" sees the issue and what the hoarder is actually feeling. That is to say, the hoarder feels at home in his or her hoard. It feels right to put more things in the home. The squalor and decomposing matter around them doesn't affect them in the ways it does an outsider. Yet, the hoarder is told that it is wrong and feels a certain kind of socially-instituted shame about their condition. And I'm sure that much of that is engineered as well by the reality television industry itself. If we were to really think about it, in many cases, the thing that separates a hoarder from a collector is socioeconomic standing and/or the perception of a culturally-constructed notion of "squalor." The millionaire who owns multiples of the same car, or who has a facility filled with "collections" is simply that, a collector -- probably because he or she can afford to keep the collection in perfect condition -- sans mummified animal carcases and rodent droppings.

But, in terms of the hoard itself, for whatever psychological reason, the hoard is intrinsically related to a sense of self and well-being. The stress from the removal of the hoard comes from the breakdown of that self and well-being. The hoarder's own habits and highly personal and protected "being" is suddenly held under scrutiny, and deemed "abnormal." Shame and/or resistance follows. Removal of the hoard becomes a highly stressful enterprise, causing the hoarder to often just shut down as the hoard is removed, or to actively thwart the efforts of the removal team. As viewers, this is where we often feel the most sense of superiority and when we get to judge the hoarder as being "crazy" or pity the mental illness that brings them there. However, we might be able to find a bit more compassion if we found ourselves having to voluntarily remove one of our own limbs. The "oneness" of our physical bodies is, in most cases, intrinsic to our senses of self. For psychological reasons, the sense of that bodily oneness for hoarders -- pathologically -- is more acutely distributed among the hoard.

I am hesitant, though, to put too much credence in the way in which reality television portrays the hoarder. That being said, the fact that the situation is specifically engineered by the producers of the show to bring about as much "drama" as possible, it is the very fact that the situation is so artificial that makes it compelling and useful to look at the role of the hoard. To present the hoarders' living situation in such an artificial, constructed manner -- constructed for consumption by an audience -- further highlights its pathology through multiple frames.

This entry has spanned two days. And now I find myself sitting in the same spot in the same Starbucks, facing a 4 hour drive back to the mountains. As I drive back over snow covered mountain passes, I probably won't be able to keep track of the shifts in the modality of my thinking. I'll just know that when I sit at my desk at home and look out over the breathtaking landscape, that something will be missing.