a rickety bridge of impossible crossing

when i ended my relationship with stuff

When I first decided I was breaking up with stuff, it was for purely selfish reasons.

It was the early 2010s, and I had just watched the movie Slacker for the first time. It's a little embarrassing to admit that such an inane movie had such a profound impact on the way I think about life, but well, life can be inane sometimes. The scene in question is this one (youtube link) but I'll briefly describe it here if you're not in the position to watch a video right now:

An old man and a young woman, presumably the man's daughter, are walking home with groceries. The old man is telling his daughter a typical long-winded old man joke-story, and his daughter is humoring him. When they get home, the front door is open. The camera moves to a stranger in their home, looking through a book and mumbling to himself. The man and his daughter, realizing something is off, peek in and try to figure out what's going on. The invader, caught off-guard, panics and draws a gun, which he points at the old man.

The old man relaxes. His posture is one of relief. "If you're here to steal something, you've come to the wrong place. Nothing much here. But look around, take whatever you want."

There's a pause, and the burglar isn't quite sure what to do. The man says "Why don't you let me put that up for you? It's really not necessary." The burglar allows the man to take his gun. "No one's going to call the police or anything. I hate the police more than you, probably. Never done me any good." He laughs.

Then he offers the robber a cup of coffee, they start walking around the house, he points out a portrait of Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who assassinated President McKinley. The old man starts talking about his anarchist beliefs, his dreams of pulling a Guy Fawkes on the Texas legislature, &c.

Leon Czolgosz

If there were 100 like him around today, it would change the world.

It wasn't an overnight transformation, but something about that scene stuck with me. The old man wasn't afraid. He knew the man with the gun wouldn't hurt him. He knew the man with the gun didn't want to hurt him. He was just desperate and afraid. The old man didn't have anything to fear. The worst that could happen would be that he loses some belongings, and that didn't matter, because he decided that his life would be more than what he owns.

This was much more effective at radicalizing me against stuff than Fight Club. In Fight Club, getting rid of stuff led to anger and senseless violence. In Slacker, it stood for peace and self-assurance. I wanted to be like the old man. I didn't want to be afraid.

It's not just thieves; if my home burns down, that would suck, but it would suck a lot less if I know I didn't lose anything important. If I lose my job and get evicted, that would be scary, but it would be a lot less scary if I know I didn't have to scramble to save the stuff in my apartment. If I didn't have to worry about the logistics of moving it all from one place to another. Life without stuff is a life of greater freedom and less anxiety across the board.

I've gone back and forth about what I think about Slacker as a whole, what it meant, what the point of it was, and I don't think it had a point. It doesn't really say anything about the nature of work or capitalism, it's just "haha look at these weirdos." That Richard Linklater might have considered himself one of those weirdos at the time doesn't count for much. There are characters who espouse radical ideas, but I don't think it's a radical film. It tries to present the characters neutrally, I think, but everyone talks in such a smarmy self-important way1 that none of the characters come across as sympathetic. The old anarchist is maybe the most sympathetic character in the movie, but it undermines even him by having his daughter suggest that he's mentally ill and a lot of what he says about his life is nonsense. Maybe Linklater felt like he had to throw that line in or there would be backlash and the movie would be banned. I mean, any mainstream movie having a character who praises an anarchist who assassinated a US president, that talks about anarchism as anything but Lord of the Flies-style mob rule, it seems hard to accept that it's not radical. I guess it is, in the sense that it got me thinking about this stuff at all, even if the movie doesn't necessarily endorse it. But that's just what I got out of it; someone else might very well think "look at all these losers, I don't want to be anything like them", which would make it anti-radical. I dunno. It's complicated. The fact that Linklater was friendly with Alex Jones as recently as 2006 (He gave Jones a cameo in A Scanner Darkly) makes me view Slacker differently than I might've. I don't think he's thought about his political beliefs all that critically.

Anyway, I kept thinking about that moment, and it made me think about what's important in my life, and what I really need to be happy, and I started making the shift towards intentional minimalism. I had already lived pretty minimally, because I don't drive, and when you count on the kindness of friends to help haul your stuff from one home to another on moving day, you tend to want to make their job as easy as possible. (I do, anyway.) Plus, even when I wasn't living in abject poverty, I still wasn't exactly raking it in, so my ability to acquire stuff never got out of control. I still wanted stuff, though. I still regretted not having more of it. I was still jealous of people who had, and felt bad about myself for being a have-not. Slacker was the beginning of my shift away from accumulationism.

It wasn't long after that I started really learning about capitalism, our economy, how much suffering is inflicted and sustained to make all this stuff possible. It became obvious that a drive to consume and accumulate was incompatible with a world hospitable to human life. So I thought about it, and tried to figure out what stuff I really need if I want to be happy.

I should clarify that when I say "stuff", that does not encompass what I feel are the basic necessities that any humane society should provide: healthy food, clean water, safe shelter, protection from the elements, sanitation, a comfortable and private place to sleep, clean and comfortable clothes. I'm not one of those anti-civ anarchists who lectures strangers about how we don't need washing machines because "body odor is a social construct". I mean it is, but I don't think it's one of the social constructs we need to force people to get over. If you think the way to save the planet is to tell people they should stop wanting hot showers and go back to washing clothes by hand when they wash them at all, then in my opinion your priorities are backwards. Nothing against the crustpunks, live the life you want to live, but if you wanna convince other people to join you, it's going to be an uphill battle.

Beyond the basic necessities, here's what I need to be happy:

...and that's pretty much it. An ebook reader is a nice bonus, and since they're cheap and last basically forever I'll throw that in too, but my laptop or Mp3 player can also double an ebook reader in a pinch. Same for a game controller; it's nice to have, but I can use the keyboard and/or mouse.

This isn't everything I own currently, but anything else is ultimately disposable, and any of these individual things can be replaced for $50-100. Computer and phone makers don't like it when you use the same one for a long time, and they make your life difficult if you try, but if your hardware is old enough and you have a little technical knowledge, you can get a nice long life out of them.

But even the stuff that goes in the backpack is just tools; any physical object I lose is a temporary setback. The important stuff is right here. What you're looking at. What truly matters, the stuff that makes me me, is what I read, and what I know, and what I think, and what I write, and what I say. That's all digital, it can be infinitely duplicated, I have backups all over the place, I never have to worry about losing any of it. No one can take it from me.

The internet connection and the comfortable place to sit are things I once felt confident I could always find. There are libraries everywhere, there are coffee shops and restaurants and parks and all kinds of nice places I could sit and work and play as long as I needed, as long as I didn't bother anyone. I even imagined that I might one day live sort of an itinerant lifestyle; If I can fit all the personal belongings I need in a backpack and a duffel bag, I can take my life anywhere. If I could figure out some way to get the money I need for the basic necessities without being rooted to a particular place, that, to me, would be true freedom.

Of course, I never expected a global pandemic. I never expected my society's murderous public health response. I never thought the political class would so happily sacrifice their constituents to the beast of accumulation, the death cult of economy. They didn't even put up a fight.

I never expected that even these extremely modest desires I allowed myself would be crushed, too. I can feel the specter of Ronald Wilson Reagan looking up at me from his dark throne. "So, you can be happy without stuff, can you? What do you think of this?" Maniacal laughter.

Yep, you got me. Now that I have to spend all my free time in my apartment, I wish I had some stuff. Good one, Ronnie. We all thought you were rotting away in hell, but we underestimated you. Of course if there was anyone who could usurp the devil and bring about the end times, it'd be you. 666 really was the number of the beast, after all 🦝

  1. Then again, that's how the characters in "Clerks" talk too, and they're meant to be sympathetic. Maybe that's just how everyone talked in the early 90s. Or early 90s indie comedies, anyway.↩

  2. Since then, I've discovered the joy of wireless earmuff headphones, and they've become one of my must-have items. The ability to curate my environmental sound experience has become so central to my mental wellbeing, I don't know how I ever got by without it. Luckily, these kinds of headphones aren't prohibitively expensive. My current kit includes 3M Worktunes Connect, they cost about 50 bucks, and they stay on my head at least half of my waking hours.↩

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