The Practice of Misuse
Rugged Consumerism in Contemporary American Culture
Raymond Malewitz


1 Misuse: From Aesthetics to Practice

[T]he street finds its own use for things.

—William Gibson, “Burning Chrome” (1981)

The demarcation between various possible uses is beautifully graded and hard to define, the more so as artifacts distill into and repercuss through the realm of culture into which they’ve been entered, the more so as they engage the receptive minds for whom they were presumably intended.

—Jonathan Lethem, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism” (2007)

Of the many insights that sociology has brought to bear upon the study of literature and culture, no idea has received more attention than the notion that the human body is socially, rather than naturally, constructed. Arguments for the social construction of race, class, and gender are well known. To these categories Queer Theory has added sexuality, Disability Studies has added health, Fat Studies has added body shape, and Animal Studies has added species. Such perspectives maintain that our identities are determined not by our “natural” biological origins but rather by our contingent, nurtured interactions within and between cultures, which, as Roland Barthes observes, “establish Nature itself as historical” (101).

It is therefore unsurprising that recent material culture scholars have used similar methods to understand the diverse objects that populate our world. That such objects are socially rather than naturally constructed is not, of course, a compelling new subject of critical inquiry. Nearly a century and a half has passed since Karl Marx introduced his theory of historical materialism in Capital (1867), and critics still look to it and to Georg Lukács’s nearly century-old History and Class Consciousness (1923) as powerful accounts of the ways in which commodities conceal their production histories beneath a reified sheen of ahistorical presence. But what is newly compelling about this sociological analogy is the notion that objects, like people, are subject to the contingencies of a continuing history rather than to the determinist logic of origin.

In place of perspectives centered on the collective production of goods, the new “thing theorists” probe what Arjun Appadurai calls the “social histories” of modern commodities, drawing attention to objects’ individualized fates after they pass beyond the site of initial market exchange.1 Like the textual work of New Historicism, Appadurai’s and other scholars’ thing theories thus challenge the various discourses of power that inhere within the very notion of an object’s original, historical use-value, and which sanction or prohibit certain types of human-object interactions.2 In The Practice of Everyday Life (1980), for example, Michel de Certeau argues that the “rationalized, expansionist, centralized, spectacular and clamorous production” that constitutes late capitalism seems to leave the modern public in a position of collective passivity, but he insists that such a grim outlook overlooks the ways that consumption can operate as a productive and subversive act. This “tactical” form of consumption (what he calls “la perruque,” or “the wig”) is “characterized by its ruses, its fragmentation (the result of circumstances), its poaching, its clandestine nature, its tireless but quiet activity, in short by its quasi-invisibility, since it shows itself not in its products (where would it place them?) but in an art for using those imposed upon it” (31). Likewise, Ken Alder insists that even if an object’s origins are known, its social value need not be yoked to the conditions dictated to it by its assembly:

[A] history of things encompasses much more than an account of what “they” can do for “us,” if only because the purposes things serve are unanticipated by those who design, make, and market them. Hence stories about things involve more than stories of generic utility. To reduce an object to its function involves more than a failure of attention; it is a slur on the ability of human ingenuity to repurpose the material world and on the power of things to reshape the contours of human experience. Who hasn’t bent a paper clip to some untoward end? (“Introduction to Focus,” 80–81)3

To correct these problems, Alder presents a thesory of materialism devoted to what he calls “thick things.” As the phrase suggests, Alder bases his investigation of material artifacts upon the methods of anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who argued that only “thick descriptions” could “capture the diverse layers of meaning with which different human agents imbued their actions and those of their fellows” (“Making Things the Same,” 503–504). In Geertz’s well-known argument, closing one’s eye can signify either a wink or a twitch: “The two movements are, as movements, identical; from an I-am-a-camera, ‘phenomenalistic’ observation of them alone, one could not tell which was twitch and which was wink, or indeed whether both or either was twitch or wink. Yet the difference, however unphotographable, between a twitch and a wink is vast; as anyone unfortunate enough to have had the first taken for the second knows” (6). Along similar lines, within Alder’s “thick thing” system, the significance of a given object is not dependent upon its preassigned function or upon its resemblance to other, identical objects that have been put to human use. Instead, its tactical meaning emerges as a function of a particular social situation or context that cannot be easily anticipated or abstractly modeled. Put simply, if I needed to bind the leaves of this chapter together, I could use a paper clip. If my Internet router stopped working, I could unbend that same paper clip and push it into the router’s reset hole to correct the problem.

Alder supplements this analogy by foregrounding the fungible nature of material substances: “The material world is lumpy, recalcitrant and inconsistent. Connections come apart; parts wear out; things break” (503). When an object breaks down, it cannot function in the way that its creators intended. As related scholars in the field of “rubbish theory” suggest, in the moment at which an object sheds its original use-value and is classified as waste, it effectively disappears from the socioeconomic landscape. Michael Thompson explains this phenomenon in his discussion of the difference between what he calls “transient” objects, which seem to lose their value over time, and “durable” objects, which preserve or even gain value as they age:

In an ideal world, free of nature’s negative attitude, [a transient] object would reach zero value and zero expected life-span at the same instant, and then, like Mark Twain’s “one hoss shay,” disappear into dust. But in reality, it usually does not do this; it just continues to exist in a timeless and valueless limbo where at some later date (if it has not by that time turned, or been made, into dust) it has the chance of being discovered . . . and successfully transferred to durability. (9–10)4

Any conscientious recycler or tinkerer knows that an object’s lost functionality need not mean that that object has ceased to function; it can gain a new “durability” by simply changing functions. In this sense, Thompson argues, “rubbish is socially defined” and “responds to social pressures” (11). Any “thick” story of objects thus acknowledges that objects can (and often must) change over time, and that such changes come about at the intersection of creative human minds, unstable material substances, and chemical and physical laws.

These playful events not only have the capacity to destabilize the social categories that allow for easy partitions between valuable materials and rubbish; they can also serve as emergent sites of resistance to economic policies that enforce such environmentally and socially damaging beliefs. To this end, a politics of creative consumption can be and has been hybridized with the older collective materialisms operative within Marxist traditions. Evan Watkins offers a good model for this collectivizing of tactical behaviors in his important book Throwaways: Work Culture and Consumer Education (1993). Watkins argues that the “technoideological” societies of late capitalism express their power not only through the production of novel gadgets but also by the ways that they designate certain postproduction objects and social groups as obsolete rather than durable. “[I]n this master narrative of residual, obsolete survivals from the past,” he argues, “[technoideology] generates its own rationale for the stratification of the social field” (25). If this is the case, it stands to reason that an oppositional politics might concern itself not only with recognizing the ways that this ideology operates—how it justifies the marginalization of minorities, women, and other economically disenfranchised groups by linking them to “obsolete” commodities and modes of production—but also with putting into practice alternative strategies of human-object interactions that might call attention to the power dynamics governing these associations. As Watkins suggests, “the ‘stuff’ of both material and cultural junk can . . . be patched, repaired, reshaped, rapidly distributed, and deployed” to “break the links of survival narratives that equate the obsolete with the fading past, the residual, the nostalgic, the politically ineffective” (40). Activities that might seem reducible to individual whim—the specific repair or reshaping of a particular object by a particular person—might be redeployed in such a way as to reanimate a collective, oppositional politics that is so often also classified as nostalgic or obsolete.5

At the same time, as Fredric Jameson reminds us in The Political Unconscious (1981), we should be skeptical of any activity that is presented in and of itself as a Utopian demystification of the problems of false consciousness, particularly one that is predicated on individual rather than collective action (286). After all, within certain historical contexts, the supposedly liberating model outlined by Watkins could amount to little more than political displacement or a projection of social inequalities onto objects in need of rescue or repair: fix the object and you have fixed the social problem. Indeed, Watkins argues that such activities are frequently inscribed with pernicious race- and gender-based assumptions about the nature of production and consumption under the conditions of late capitalism. As he observes, creative acts of consumption often take on masculine characteristics in service-based economic systems that feminize labor practices. This “masculinization of consumer positionality” suggests that (as I shall also argue) the repair or repurposing of objects can reinforce or destabilize class, race, and gender privileges (55). Like most emergent social activities that constitute what Raymond Williams calls “structures of feeling,” creative repurposing can serve different ends based upon changes in social context. The incredible dexterity of late capitalism means that any attempt to collectivize the highly idiosyncratic refashionings of objects can result in those activities being “formalized, classified, and in many cases built into institutions and formations” that serve market ends (132). For example, during the 2012 presidential election, Ann Romney shrewdly altered her husband’s public identity from a dispassionate plutocrat to a heroic everyman by describing him as a do-it-yourself creative repurposer. In her speech to the Republican National Convention, Romney informed the audience that during the early years of their marriage, the couple “ate a lot of pasta and tuna fish. Our desk was a door propped up on sawhorses. Our dining room table was a fold down ironing board in the kitchen. Those were very special days” (Fox News). The overwhelmingly appreciative response from Republican delegates and from various media outlets offers clear testimony of the unstable political value of any “tactic” of creative repurposing.

But as Williams argues in Marxism and Literature (1977) and as Jameson argues in The Political Unconscious, it would also be shortsighted to dismiss the oppositional value of these activities outright, for to do so would overlook the complex web of desires that motivates tactical behaviors and renders them appealing to groups from both the political right and political left. Jameson observes, “[I]f the ideological function of mass culture is understood as a process whereby otherwise dangerous and protopolitical impulses are ‘managed’ and defused, rechanneled and offered spurious objects, then some preliminary step must also be theorized in which these same impulses—the raw material upon which the process works—are initially awakened within the very text [or, in this case, object] that seeks to still them” (Political Unconscious, 287). Political examinations of the creative repurposing of objects thus must be “thickened” according to the same dictates as Alder’s phenomenological “thick thing” analyses. These examinations must be able to distinguish between actions that appear identical in their general form but that reflect the “dangerous” impulses of politically oppositional desire, or the “defused” satisfactions of a false Utopia, or some combination of the two.6

In an effort to understand the diverse phenomenological and political perspectives that frame contemporary acts of creative repurposing, this book takes up Alder’s and Watkins’s challenge to set human postproduction ingenuity alongside the “power of things to reshape . . . human experience.” In the next four chapters, I chart the oppositional emergence and eventual ideological containment of new figures in late twentieth-century American material culture—“rugged consumers”—who creatively misuse, reuse, and repurpose the objects within their social environments to suit their idiosyncratic needs and desires. Through their fluid encounters with the material world, rugged consumers behave in constructivist ways toward objects, turning the aforementioned theories of object life spans into practices of misuse. Rugged consumerism has the potential to temporarily suspend the various networks of power that dictate the proper use of a given artifact and to allow those networks of power to be understood as contingent strategies that must be perpetually renewed and reinforced rather than naturalized processes that persist untroubled through time and space. At the same time, as Ann Romney’s politically savvy story suggests, this Utopian ideal is rarely met: most examples of rugged consumerism conceal rather than foreground the class-, race-, and gender-based problems to which they respond and thus support or ignore rather than challenge the cultural dominance of late capitalism. By analyzing both the rare convergences and common divergences between subjective material practices and collectivist politics, this study shows how rugged consumerism both recodes and reflects the dynamic social history of objects from the 1960s to the present.

As should be clear from my opening framework, in themselves the abstracted behaviors that constitute rugged consumerism are not circumscribed by nation or time period. Indeed, the closest analog to the rugged consumer is Claude Lévi-Strauss’s much-celebrated bricoleur: “someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman” (16–17). In a passage from The Savage Mind (1962), Lévi-Strauss clarifies this “devious” work by distinguishing between the bricoleur and the engineer:

The “bricoleur” is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purposes of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with “whatever is at hand,” that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. (17)

Through engagement with material objects, the bricoleur, like the rugged consumer, views the world outside the prescribed limits of sanctioned use-values. Unlike the engineer, for whom each object is rigidly connected to a specialized task, the bricoleur’s object “is to be defined only by its potential use” and therefore comes to represent the bricoleur’s “poetry” (17–18, 21). As such, the bricoleur “‘speaks’ not only with things . . . but also through the medium of things: giving an account of his personality and life by the choices he makes between the limited possibilities” (21).7 Or as Michel de Certeau explains, instances of “tactical” consumption such as bricolage can be understood as speech acts, which, like Ferdinand de Saussure’s “parole,” are appropriated by users from some preestablished system, or “langue,” for a series of singular creative purposes (32–33).

Though the rugged consumer and the bricoleur share the same language system and the same tactical view of human-object interactions, their material utterances reflect important cultural differences. To use Lévi-Strauss’s term, the “poetry” of both the rugged consumer and the bricoleur amounts to a fantastic space within which the rules of proper object use are at least temporarily suspended. But whereas Lévi-Strauss’s and de Certeau’s bricoleurs constitute nonspecific (and potentially transnational and, to an extent, genderless, transracial, and transhistorical) forms of these activities, this book presents rugged consumerism as a left- and right-libertarian response to economic and political developments within the United States during the contemporary period of its history. This libertarian inflection—skeptical of both traditional political institutions and (in its pre-neoliberal state) globalized corporate capitalism—is most visible in the way that rugged consumers position their “poetry” alongside the intertwined American myths of primal nature and rugged individualism. Embedded within a culture in which the only readily available platform for collective action is a network of consumer behaviors—using objects in the ways that everyone else uses them—rugged consumers, either as individuals or as small communities, respond by reimagining consumption as an idiosyncratic, productive, and critical enterprise. Whether in literature or popular culture, American rugged consumers thus become mediating figures between mythic models of productive self-sufficiency conceived during the country’s older frontier history and the modern interdependent realities that characterize the country’s transition to a neoliberal globalized economy. Finally, in their desires to mythically (and, at times, practically) respond to the catastrophic economic, social, and environmental effects of American consumer culture, rugged consumers simultaneously embody and critique that culture.

I also use the terms rugged consumer and rugged consumerism to signal some differences between my approach to American material culture and the important contributions of other critics who concentrate on a similar cultural landscape but whose work is situated at the purely phenomenological end of “thing theory” discourse. Though my aim in this study is less a new theory of things than a historical account of human-object practices by certain groups within the United States during the contemporary period, my account draws upon the useful terms and methods established by these earlier models. As such, I begin with a brief overview of this thing theory and a briefer account of its appropriateness to my work before I turn to my primary subject.

The Aesthetics of Misuse

The recent resurgence of material culture in American Studies is due in part to the work that Bill Brown has undertaken in theorizing things. Through his editorial work for the award-winning 2001 special issue of Critical Inquiry entitled “Things” and his 2003 study of late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century American literature, A Sense of Things, Brown provides a new framework for understanding the place of material objects during the modern era of American cultural history. In “Thing Theory” (2001), for example, Brown argues that the emergence of material culture studies in the late twentieth century signals an attempt by some critics to overcome the dizzying excess of theory-making. “Fat chance,” he replies. “For even the most coarse and commonsensical things, mere things, perpetually pose a problem because of the specific unspecificity that ‘things’ denotes. . . . Taking the side of things hardly puts a stop to that thing called theory” (3).

Brown frames the problem of theorizing “things” through Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological studies of human-object relationships. In Being and Time (1927), Heidegger distinguishes between two ways of perceiving objects: as purposeful “equipment” with an accompanying Zuhandenheit (“readiness-to-hand”) and as purposeless substances with an accompanying Vorhandenheit (“presence-at-hand”). To illustrate the difference between these two modes of human-object relationships, Heidegger proposes two different ways that a laborer might encounter a hammer. In the first case, a skilled laborer grasps the hammer and begins to put it to some purpose. While doing so, the laborer quickly becomes absorbed in the work and the phenomenological distinctions between the hammer and the hand that holds it begin to dissolve. Much like an athlete in a proverbial zone, the laborer thus experiences what Heidegger calls the “totality” of the object in its “in-order-to-do”-ness: the hammer is understood through its “serviceability, conduciveness, usability, manipulability” with respect to some human will (Being and Time, 97). This mystical condition holds only for situations in which the laborer knows how to use the hammer and the hammer maintains its material integrity. When the hammer is wielded by a laborer unused to hammering or when it is broken, damaged, or rendered unusable within the context of a work-event, the tool ceases to be a prosthetic extension of human being and instead becomes, for Heidegger, “conspicuous” and “obtrusive.” At this time, its Vorhandenheit emerges from its Zuhandenheit as an abstracted thing of contemplation separate from the objecthood that once characterized it (102, 103).

While Heidegger insists that objects experienced in their Vorhandenheit constitute an “inauthentic” experience of the world, the “conspicuous” event of an object breaking down offers compensation for this loss by enabling the laborer to decipher the essence of “in-order-to-do”-ness or “towards-this” that makes up the animating force of all human-object interactions: “[W]hen an assignment has been disturbed . . . we catch sight of the ‘towards-this’ itself, and along with it everything connected with the work—the whole ‘workshop’—as that wherein concern always dwells” (105).8 Brown reaches the same conclusion:

We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the window gets filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily. The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relationship to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation. (“Thing Theory,” 4)

Heidegger’s and Brown’s theories of things thus operate through mathematical subtraction. If a physical substance is both a thing and an object, the thing appears out of the substance only when that substance’s original use-value has been removed or suspended. In other words, a thing appears when the object no longer can appear.

When analyzing material artifacts, Brown, like Heidegger, is less interested in the economic division between an object’s exchange-value and its use-value than he is in phenomenological distinction between the experience of the “object” and the experience of the “thing.” Indeed, Brown’s argument conflates the two poles of a commodity, beginning with use-value (“when they stop working for us”) and transitioning seamlessly to exchange-value (“their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition”) without attending to the deep chasm between these two ways of perceiving material artifacts. Nevertheless, his phenomenological approach to theorizing things dovetails Marxist approaches in terms of both theories’ preoccupation with the social conditions that prevent “authentic” interactions with material entities and the possible contexts out of which those “authentic” interactions might return.9 For example, in History and Class Consciousness, Georg Lukács localizes the sensation of what Heidegger and Brown would classify as present-at-hand to a specific moment within world history corresponding to the development of rationalized capitalist economies. Within an economic context organized through the logic of reification, Lukács argues, all objects are viewed through a perspective that “conceals above all the immediate—qualitative and material—character of things as things.” In other words, through the process of reification, capitalism dissolves the relationship between an object and its “in-order-to-do”-ness. But whereas, within Heidegger’s system, the broken hammer provided the occasion for insight into the nature of an object; the laborer under capitalism receives no recompense in the form of a purified understanding of “towards-this”-itself. Likewise, the consumer of an artifact can certainly make use of it, but the open, mystical authenticity of the object’s use-value is disturbed by its value as an object of exchange. Indeed, though he does not use these terms, Lukács’s arguments suggest that this very “towards-this”-itself is what withers under the logic of capitalist economies. The concealment of things, he maintains, is the necessary product of an economic system that translates material entities that cannot be equated into abstract, disembodied commodities subject to mathematical relations:10 “When use-values appear universally as commodities they acquire a new objectivity, a new substantiality which they did not possess in an age of episodic exchange and which destroys their original and authentic substantiality” (92). Quoting Marx, he concludes that like the landowner’s property, which “means nothing [to the landowner] but ground rent” and “los[es] any of its inherent qualities such as its fertility,” “even the individual object which man confronts directly, either as producer or consumer, is distorted in its objectivity by its commodity character” (92–93). Under this system, the only way for the “thing as thing” to return in its “original and authentic substantiality” is for the object to exit the economic stage; in short, the object must be rendered economically worthless but substantively useful.

While Brown seems less concerned with the political implications of this process than with the aesthetic consequences of thing-making, he reaches similar conclusions in his later account of “misuse value.” In A Sense of Things, he distinguishes between two types of human-object interactions: “apperceptive” interactions, which “foreclos[e] sensuous experience in order to render the physical world phenomenal,” and “the experience of the thing,” which “call[s] our attention to brute physicality” through the “interruption of habit” (76). Brown clarifies this distinction through a short passage from William James’s Principles of Psychology (1890) in which James accesses the thingness of a painting by turning it upside down. Brown concludes: “The difference between the apperceptive constitution of the thing, in what we might call its objecthood, and the experience of the thing, in what we might call its thinghood, emerges in the moment (and no doubt only as a moment) of re-objectification that results from a kind of misuse—turning the picture bottom up, standing on one’s head” (A Sense of Things, 76). Just as a broken drill becomes a mysterious thing through the suspension of habitual use, James’s actions sever the link between a painting and its socially constructed value. The painting, in short, becomes a thing.

In contrast to Brown’s and Lukács’s earlier models of an object’s habitual or ideological deformation, this latter example suggests that individuals might intentionally direct the process of thing-making. The earlier examples of objects breaking down suggest that the thing confronts its user through its refusal to be used or sold as a viable commodity. Within such frameworks, the only way to for an individual to obtain insight into the “thingness” of the thing is through historical accident: as long as the drill continues to function, it remains an object.11 In Brown’s description, however, James intentionally misuses a preexistent object to create a new human-object relationship and thus a new thing. By turning the painting upside down, Brown argues, James also overturns the social relationships that inhere within the painting, and in the brief transition between one human-object relationship and another, the thing comes into view.

Consistent with his earlier work, in Brown’s analysis of William James’s story, the physical actions that constitute misuse seem incidental to the intellectual products of misuse, which, in turn, compose Brown’s genealogy of protomodernism. Through analyses of James and later Frank Norris, he argues that nineteenth-century American representations of object misuse forecast an “aesthetic that will come to energize the modernist capacity to call our attention to objects—be it the urinal that becomes Duchamp’s Fountain, or the bicycle seat that becomes Picasso’s Bull, or the refuse that attains formal brilliance in a Walker Evans photograph, or the ‘broken/pieces of a green/bottle’ that assume luminosity in William Carlos Williams’s ‘Between Walls’” (A Sense of Things, 78). In this sense, Brown’s theory accords with modernist techniques of defamiliarization outlined by early twentieth-century formalists such as Victor Shklovsky, who observes: “After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it—hence we cannot say anything significant about it. Art removes objects from the automatism of perception” (13). Like Shklovsky’s work, Brown’s focus remains firmly grounded in the formalist project of modernism, which “teaches us that finding a new place for detritus, recycling it into some new scene, confers new value on it” (A Sense of Things, 78). As his examples make clear, the “recycl[ed]” object’s “new scene” is the scene of art, and the “new value” is aesthetic in origin and in outcome.

In contrast to this modernist or protomodernist model of intentional misuse, the practices of misuse that will be explored in this study of late twentieth-century American culture yield objects that cannot be understood as exclusively aesthetic. Likewise, the rugged consumers who reassemble the world around them cannot be understood as artists, at least in the high modernist sense of the word. Instead, the actions that I call rugged consumerism reapply the repurposed aesthetic examined by phenomenological thing theories to the realm of practical. My analysis will thus bend backward toward the sociological investigations of objects outlined at the beginning of this chapter and toward the political interpretation of human-object interactions outlined by Lukács at the same time as it draws upon the useful terms established by Brown’s and Heidegger’s thing theories. To signal this hybridized method and some of its consequences, I begin my account of rugged consumerism with a populist story of object misuse that is more in keeping with Alder’s “thick” description of historical things and Watkins’s obsolete “throwaways” than with the aesthetic projects of Picasso, Duchamp, and Williams.