X Close

Cheap crap is who we are Our tat can seem trivial and wasteful but, a new book suggests, it tells us a lot about our culture

Cheap tat is a fundamental part of who we are. Credit: Omar Marques/Getty Images

Cheap tat is a fundamental part of who we are. Credit: Omar Marques/Getty Images

October 2, 2020   5 mins

Come with me into the kitchen. Come stare into the drawer of my bad conscience. You may have one too. Mine is so full it barely opens. Without any rummaging — without even disturbing its meniscus — I can observe a whole Sargasso Sea of semi-pointless artefacts. Key-rings, half-burnt birthday candles, 3-D glasses, dead batteries, biros of undetermined functionality, hand wipes from an airline I can’t recall ever having flown, a rubber joke-shop Jaffa Cake, the recipe book for the bread maker I haven’t used in three years, and some Romanian chocolate bar wrappers that are evidence of my as-yet-unrealised ambition to do a project on the history of East European confectionary. I could fill the screen with a list of this stuff. But we’ve both got things to do. Shopping, probably.

Thanks to the publication of a new, tightly-argued and rigorously theoretical study from the University of Chicago Press, I now have a word to describe the contents of the kitchen drawer. “Crap,” writes Wendy A Woloson, “is not a particular object but an existential state of being.”

Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America describes how we have learned to endure, accommodate and sometimes cherish the shortfall between our desires for slackly manufactured objects and the limited satisfactions they provide. “An object’s relative crappiness,” Woloson argues, “lies in the extent to which it offers false hope, was produced to hasten its own obsolescence, has no clear purpose, and/or has no emotional, utilitarian, or market value.” Her prose forms a Generation Game conveyor belt of tat: boob-shaped mugs, Hair-in-a-Can, chipboard bookcases, ceramic tributes to Princess Diana in gold vermeil and dishwasher-proof porcelain.

The success of such products can sometimes be a mystery to its manufacturers. I once interviewed the exploitation film-maker Herschell Gordon Lewis, a mild-manned mountebank best known for Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), a stalk’n’slash version of Brigadoon. In the early 1970s he left the movie business to make a proper fortune selling collectible souvenir crockery. “They are my natural bastard children,” he told me. “First we did a 12-plate series based on the Book of Genesis. It was so successful that in six months we were on to Exodus.”

The power of the object is outré and mysterious. During lockdown, it compelled me to blow the cost of a good night out (remember those?) on a successful auction bid for a box of Peter Wyngarde’s cufflinks. It has driven me to preserve a Doctor Who chew bar from 1982, which has now entered a state of deliquescence that could only be remedied by Lenin’s embalmers. It is the reason why I can spend a good hour hunkered over a penny falls machine, rolling dirty tuppences in the hope of dislodging a gonk.

Such acquisitions would make Marie Kondo jump on a chair and scream, but I think Karl Marx would have understood the impulse. “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood,” he wrote, in the first volume of Capital. “Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

It may be getting queerer. Marx’s commodity fetishism — the idea that manufactured objects carry an occult charge — thrives online. Wish.com, founded by the Warsaw-born billionaire Peter Szulczewski, is its temple of doom. Here, users can scroll through images of three billion reasonably priced but mysteriously unknowable objects, many of which seem to be the product of some as-yet-undeclared school of avant-garde art. A five-foot long bolster in the shape of a pig’s trotter. A sunflower-seed dispenser with a slot for your mobile phone. Pastry cutters that would allow the gingerbread man Kama Sutra to be your Bake-Off showstopper. Plastic earthworms that smell of fish. Penis shaped wineglasses. Penis-shaped anything. All for a few dollars each, plus postage and packing.

Who buys this stuff? Who makes it? Having no need for a bumless mankini or an $8 angle grinder, I’ve never used Wish. But I did once order some T-shirts from a pop-up ad on Facebook. They looked great on the catwalk model in the picture, but when they arrived, three months later, they turned out to be made of a vinyl material that smelled like a tent from the Early Learning Centre. They are, of course, under my bed in the original wrapping. Posting them back to China and trying to extract a refund would only extend and complicate the misery of the original transaction. It may be that such objects only exist because their sellers have made a calculation about the appetites and apathy of their buyers. Perhaps, in a re-education camp in Xinjiang province, Uighur inmates are breaking their fingernails stitching these garments, which will never be worn, but are mailed west and then despatched to landfill as part of a mechanism for converting clicks into cash.

Its sound like capitalism’s final and most grotesque mutational form, but it has a precedent. Woloson traces it back to the burgeoning consumer culture of the 18th century, but she also finds commerce of this kind where I first encountered it — the back pages of 1970s American superhero comics. The strip stories at the front offered colourful adventures involving radioactive spiders and invisible planes. But the weirdest weirdness happened in the small ads at the back, where boy voyeurs used X-Ray Spex to undress the lady next door, and Sea-Monkeys — pinkish, smiling creatures with crown-like antennae and fan-shaped tails — sported in front of their underwater castle home.

Those who actually sent their money discovered that X-Ray Spex contained feathers that made the viewer see blurry black lines that few would mistake for the real internal structure of the lady next door. Sea-Monkeys were brine shrimp mailed out in their dormant stage, from which, if you were lucky, they would revive, and go skittering about in a little tank. The man who patented both these products was Harold Braunhut, a former stunt motorcyclist whose other lines included the invisible goldfish — which was an empty glass bowl marked “invisible goldfish” — and a telescopic whip that he direct-marketed to the white supremacists of the Aryan Nation. There’s crap, and then there’s racist crap.

Is it possible to wash it all away? To live a life unencumbered by trashy, dubious and flimsy objects? In 2001, the artist Michael Landy performed a heroic and punishing experiment upon himself. The cataloguing and destruction of all 7,227 of his possessions. He shredded his passport and birth certificate. He broke down his clothes, an artwork by his friend Tracy Emin, and assorted kitchen drawer flotsam — batteries, copper coins, key-rings, plastic cutlery, felt-tip pens. A few years later, his appetite for divesting himself of objects not quite sated, he kindly gave me a copy of the inventory — a bound volume with the heft of a mid-century experimental novel. Along with most of my books and papers, its in the lock-up where I keep all the things I don’t have room for in our flat. There it sits, in storage, waiting to be part of a comfortable, book-lined life that, like most unpensioned participants in the gig economy, I’m pretty sure I’ll never be wealthy enough to have.

“Crap,” writes Wendy A Woloson, is “deeply revealing, laying bare in ways that nicer things cannot some of our deepest desires, drives, and anxieties: our crap, our selves.”

My access to the kitchen drawer remains unimpeded.

Matthew Sweet is a broadcaster and writer. His books include Inventing the Victorians and Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers and Themselves.


Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments