Experiences over stuff. This is a common maxim of the brand of secular spirituality currently in vogue among the knowing, one that instructs us that a snorkeling trip around the Great Barrier Reef is indisputably superior to the purchasing of an L-shaped couch from Crate and Barrel. The former offers transcendence, while the latter further confines us to the dullness of domestic life.
Writing in the New Republic, Phoebe Maltz Bovy takes issue with this privileging of experiences over stuff, anointing it “our era’s reigning banality.” She points to the ongoing fetishization of voluntary minimalism and argues that there is a sexist subtext to the idealization of such a lifestyle.
“Whether women are being encouraged to rid our homes of useless belongings, or urged to shop for new ones, the result is the same: Society continues to associate women with the home and the material, men with the outside and experiences. … An orientation towards stuff over experiences, moreover, gets cast either as recklessly materialist or, as Tony perceives it, an impediment to enjoying life. The only constant is that what women prefer, or are imagined to prefer, is thought inferior,” Maltz Bovy writes.
The Tony she refers to is the pseudonymous author of a personal essay recently published by Toronto Life, in which a 31-year-old single man who lives with his parents explains why he spends all his money on extravagant trips and at high-end restaurants and bars. “I’m seeing the world, plunging into rich, diverse experiences head-first. Would I be better off chained to a mortgage?” he asks. That there are other options never occurs to him.
Maltz Bovy finds his flagrant conspicuous consumption irritating—the first paragraph alone contains the phrases “penthouse suite,” “horse with artichokes and pecorino,” and “Lamborghini Gallardo”—but it’s his assumption that his life is somehow more meaningful because of his decision to avoid domestic responsibilities that really bothers her.
There’s that. And then there’s also that experiences aren’t the antithesis of stuff. Experiences are facilitated by stuff no more or less than domestic life is facilitated by stuff. It’s just different kinds of stuff. Tony makes this exceedingly easy to illustrate. There’s the planes, trains, and cars he uses to travel to destinations; the sheets he sleeps on, ironed and smoothed by the hands of hotel workers he will likely never see; the food he eats; the landmarks he visits; and the 170 different wines he tried within the past year. What’s more stuff-y than wine? Tony’s high credit card bills reflect a very perverse, and very now, take on minimalism. Nevertheless, his mindset is one with a long legacy in the West, and the adventurous frontiersmen and rugged individualists who have long defined us.
The first proponent of experience over stuff that many of us come into contact with is Henry David Thoreau, who so quotably “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.” But, as Kathryn Schultz enumerates in her glorious takedown of Thoreau published last year in the New Yorker, what “not life” really meant was engaging in “a fantasy about rustic life divorced from the reality of living in the woods, and, especially, a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.” In other words, it wasn’t so much stuff that he gave up—and while he did give up a lot of stuff, he got to choose what to live without—but people.
The Beats made the Thoreauvian agenda of routing out “not life” their own—and adapted it to a postwar consumerist America. Minimalism for them was seeking residence in the automobile and open road, which they would accessorize with cigarettes and women. (Both of which were disposed of, and replaced, with a near-equal ease.) The present day inheritor of this tradition is the regular traveler, a creature enabled by our age of affordable airfare and open borders, inspired, perhaps, by the highly produced peregrinations of Anthony Bourdain. His or her tastes might not run as expensive as Tony’s, but the insistence that experiences matter more than stuff endures. But as with those who came before, it’s the domestic, and not stuff, from which they are really rebelling.
In her new book Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?: A Story About Women and Economics, Swedish writer Katrine Marçal looks at how pioneering economist Adam Smith failed to take into account the domestic labor of women into his theories about capitalism. More than two centuries later, economists still ignore carework in favor of the more easily measurable activity of “self-motivated economic actors,” as Smith put it. It’s no surprise that we fail to culturally value all things domestic, considering that economists don’t quite know how to value them either.
I fell victim to the experiences over stuff paradigm in my early teens and spent much of my 20s trying to live up to Thoreauvian and Kerouacian notions of self-actualization. I’m now, at 36, about eight years into the “stuff” phase of my life (mortgage, husband, kid), and I have learned far more about myself during this period than I ever did while sojourning around the globe. Domestic stuff—our couch, our dining table, the bathtub, the dishwasher—don’t just serve as the backdrop to my life; they are the tools we use while engaging with one another, and ourselves. Experiences. I’m living what Thoreau would likely consider “not life,” and I find it far more life-affirming than anything I could achieve alone in a cabin in the woods. A pity Thoreau never gave it a shot.