The Energy of Objects: Loving and Loathing Our Material Things

In this engaging and creative discussion, writer and cultural critic Arielle Bernstein explores the emotional power of objects, from everyday things to precious mementos and historical documents.

March 1, 2017, 1 pm at 228 Battelle-Tompkins Hall


Arielle Bernstein learned the value of preserving material things from her Cuban-Jewish mother, who grew up under Fidel Castro, and whose own parents had immigrated from to Havana from Poland to escape the Holocaust. Clutter was seen as a source of warmth and comfort, from the cans of Café Bustelo that her mother would save for storage growing up, to the useful gifts of socks, toothbrushes, and jars of peanut butter, that her parents still bring her when they come to visit. Yet the messages she received from mainstream American culture taught her a different narrative, one in which clutter was seen as a source of shame, rather than joy. From advertisements that tell consumers they’ll be happier abandoning their old shoes, handbags, and electronics for the latest trend, to salacious shows like Hoarders that emphasize the way that unchecked keeping can manifest as mental illness, to spring cleaning articles in magazines that encourage readers to purge many of the same items they sold them over Christmas, American culture is consumed by both the allure and danger of material possessions.

In her book-in-progress CHASING EMPTY-AN AMERICAN HISTORY OF LOVING AND LOATHING OUR MATERIAL THINGS, Bernstein argues that today’s minimalist trend has been co-opted into just the latest consumer trend, one that sells products meant to replace old things with new ones, rather than simply scale back. While Marie Kondo and many other online minimalist gurus earnestly urge consumers to change their attitude towards material things, the advent of new minimalist products, from tiny houses, to minimalist shoes, to minimalist toothbrushes, has transformed minimalism into yet another consumable product.

This talk will offer a rich and compassionate look at the challenges of deciding which things to keep and which things to discard, and how the way in which minimalism has been co-opted by consumer culture ends up obscuring the power of preserving and valuing the things we choose to keep.

About our speaker

Arielle Bernstein is a writer, professor, and cultural critic who lives in Washington, DC and has been teaching in AU’s Writing Studies Program since 2008. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic , Slate Magazine, Salon, and The Rumpus, among other publications. She is represented by Christopher Rhodes at The Stuart Agency.

You can find her personal narratives and book, film reviews up at The Rumpus and  The Millions.

Additionally, her fiction has been featured in PANK 10Literary Orphans,  The PuritanThe Rattling Wall Issue 4Connotation Press and many other journals.


Follow her on Twitter: @NotoriousREL