Arjun Appadurai in The Social Life of Things, describes the socially relevant life of commodities. Commodities embody a value that can be exchanged and thus are defined as “things with a particular type of social potential, that are distinguishable from "products," "objects," "goods," "artefacts," and other sorts of things.” Quoting Georg Simmel, a commodity can be “any thing intended for exchange”, as value is never an inherent property of objects, but is a judgement made about them by subjects, driven by their desire to possess them. Politics is what creates the link between exchange and value, and these things have “no meanings apart from those that human transactions, attributions, and motivations endow them with.” Exchange, therefore, is the source of value, a formative phase of the commodities’ becoming; the circulation of things enlivens them. According to Appadurai “all efforts at defining commodities are doomed to sterility unless they illuminate commodities in motion”. An integrated part of the commodity pathway is what Appadurai calls the diversion of commodities, “the placement of objects and things in unlikely contexts”. Diversion occurs in and out of commoditization, when a thing is removed from its commodity pathway for different reasons, or when a thing formerly retrieved from its customary circuits, is re-commoditized after a long lapse. Taking from Appadurai’s work, it is possible to examine material cultures and the ways in which movements and migrations of populations have altered the meanings, uses and exchanges of the things they carried, sold or propagated, and the things they left behind.
But what happens to things when they are left behind and when no motion illuminates them anymore? When their customary circuits don’t overlap with trajectories of exchange, things, instead of a social life, reclaim a life. What happens when things, put it in Simmel’s terms, don’t “resist our desire to possess them” or when their economic value does not motivate any exchange of sacrifices? What happens, in a technological age of industrially proportioned consumption that produces an effluence of disposable consumer goods, when things deceive their programmed social potential? Beyond inscribed processes of mutability and mobility relevant to value exchange, the physical materiality of things is asserted.
For most of her life, Inès Chuquet suffered from what she described as persistent difficulty discarding possessions. Recently separated from the general category of obsessive-compulsive behaviours, hoarding disorder is designated as the compulsive urge to acquire unusually large amounts of properties and the inability to voluntarily get rid of those possessions without experiencing corresponding feelings of anxiety and mental anguish. Chuquet describes herself as incredibly eccentric and exceedingly reclusive. As far as she could remember, she always had a taste for collecting objects that had no obvious use to others. She remembers that her specialised collecting spiralled out of control when she received her first auction listings newsletter. Her hoarding practice progressively escalated from local yard sales to industrial storage spaces and hangars. She expressed contempt for the petty collector and showed interest only for wholesale, bulk giveaways, or anything that came in the hundreds; hoarding was a way of celebrating the industrial ambit of scavenging, and there was no better predilection terrain than harvesting the bulk of unsold comics.
Chuquet consistently visited cold, damp basements of defunct publishing houses, hangars, distributors’ storage places located in sprawls, and bought for pennies comic books by the hundreds, from the same print run. Chuquet asserted that these books might have failed from an industrial perspective; they didn’t make a profit, neither, given their declining use-value, have been discarded or recycled as a last redeeming attempt. During the years, she reportedly developed a very emotional relationship with the industry’s discards. In a personal exchange, Chuquet asserted that among many others, her collection contained 172 copies of Laff-a-Lympics 1980 Cartoon Annual, 220 Knockout Fun Book, 1958, 98 copies of the Old Yeller, 156 or so copies of Cufflinks (the number is imprecise as it is difficult to negotiate the thin line between a book and mildew cultivation). Indeed, poor storage conditions and the generally high humidity or dampness with occasional poor air circulation has favoured the growth of organic material and mould that lived off the book’s pulp. Most of the books she collected, at the opposite end of a museological or private capitalist ‘best practice’ collectability were in a dreadful condition, usually with broken joints, damaged sewing, distorted spines, and degenerative cover staining.
Entire pallets of books literally developed their own microclimatic cultivation of mould and mildew, according to the books’ paper properties, the printed ink’s quality and the materials of binding. Perfect binding, for example a binding technique where both cover and pages are stuck together at the spine edge by a thick layer of hot melt glue, combined with the use of poor quality, acidic paper printed in CMYK, was responsible for a powdery flaking layer of brown mildew developed in patch of spots distributed unevenly in areas where yellow ink coverage was substantial. In another instance, where books were stockpiled in a space that had insufficient airflow and has suffered minor floodings in the past, books developed a thin haze of a fuzzy growth evolving progressively, bottom to top, from red fungi to stingy greenish filaments. Chuquet boasted that she could immediately figure the exact year of the book’s fabrication and sometimes even the location of the printers suppliers, without opening the book.
Chuquet’s collection demonstrates that in temporalities of deep archiving, represented in castaway print commodities, things are before anything else matter, and that life, in the biological sense, continues to circulate, beyond the circuits of value negotiation. Given Chuquet’s claims against the advantages of building a subeconomy based on rarity and fetishization, what was unpredictable is how she became through the years a specialist in discard forensics; a branch of discard studies, that examines the recovery of enormous quantities of what Appadurai calls ex-commodities, defined as things retrieved, either temporarily or permanently from the commodity state, and treated as a physical evidence for establishing an industrial history of a medium.