Tim Jelfs is assistant professor of American studies at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and the author of The Argument about Things in the 1980s: Goods and Garbage in an Age of Neoliberalism—a contribution to WVU Press’s publishing programs in environmental humanities and studies of US culture. Here he talks about eight cultural moments that inform his book.
When did the 1980s begin? One of the arguments The Argument about Things in the 1980s makes is that such a simple question is quite hard to answer. If it’s worthwhile—as I think it is—to frame the 1980s as part of a longer “age of neoliberalism,” it’s tricky to pinpoint the exact origins of that era.
But something certainly happened in the 1970s, and Carter’s famous speech is an example of it: the intensification of a centuries-old argument about things in American life, in which Americans debate the proper place of material things in their existence. It’s as old as the Puritans—older, in fact—and Carter’s speech is a great illustration of what one tradition within it can look and sound like.
The United States, remember, was in the midst of the second oil shock and economic stagflation—stagnant growth combined with inflation—when Carter declared on national television that “[W]e’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.” As I explain in the book, I consider that a less-than-helpful spiritualization of a material crisis, but it’s also a great example of the argument about things that I try to trace across various discursive and cultural spheres throughout the “long 1980s.”
Jeff Koons is a bit of a problem, isn’t he? For some, he has merely been functioning as a kind of Andy Warhol tribute act for decades now, picking away at the seam between art and commerce in provocative but not necessarily original ways. Some critics absolutely loathe him and his work. Jed Perl wrote a particularly blistering piece in the New York Review of Books, for example. I have mixed feelings—indeed, I think the mixing of feelings in us is very much the point of Koons’s work—but I also have a genuine fondness for some of the work in “The New,” his breakthrough New York exhibition, which ran in May and June of 1980.
The Perspex-encased vacuum cleaners are particularly striking. Lit up in their transparent cases, they end up looking like alien spacecraft or religious icons. Are they a comment on planned obsolescence, or a less ironic mediation on the aesthetic mysteries at the heart of late capitalist life? Or are they perhaps something else entirely? As I argue in book, the uncertainty they provoke is very much the point.
The debut novel of one of the greatest living novelists appeared in 1980. It’s a work of historical fiction set in Idaho in the 1950s. Weirdly, though, it is still to my mind very deeply invested in the argument about things in the 1980s. Robinson’s novel is full of meditations on the lives of objects and the evanescence of all worldly things. Its lyricism is startling at times, and helps to frame the debate about things in truly cosmic terms, even while the individual things of its lifeworld are as often as not the small unnoticed clutter that collects in a house, or a house itself. One of its preoccupations is the power of the things we leave behind–the relics of any given life–but Robinson’s writing throughout the 1980s encourages us to consider that power on the level of a whole culture, or species, even.
This documentary haunts me. I remember listening to a fairly recent episode of On the Media, in which Brooke Gladstone was reporting on poverty in the 21st-century US. She interviewed a woman in Cleveland, Ohio, who was selling her blood plasma to pay for a bus fare to get to the hospital. It reminded me of a Mary Ellen Mark photograph I had seen from a 1983 Life magazine story about homeless runaways in Seattle, in which you can see how this homeless boy, Mike, lies about his age so he can get $30 per week for his plasma. Mark’s husband, Martin Bell, later collaborated with her to film Streetwise, about the same kids.
I find the existence of a market in plasma objectionable enough, but to think that the poor and destitute populations of the United States find themselves in such analogous situations today as they did three and a half decades ago speaks to the failure of the neoliberal experiment. It’s also one of the reasons that I posit that whenever they began, the 1980s have still not ended: we’re stuck in them. In the popular imagination, they may have been all about big hair, shoulder pads, and Wall Street, but the lived realities of the poor tell us a fundamentally different story. When we compare then and now, and the recession of the early 1980s to the Great Recession of our own times, we can see how little has changed in fundamental material terms.
I wonder how many Americans who lived through it recall the voyage of the Mobro 4000? In 1987, it hauled the most famous 6 million pounds of garbage in the world as it journeyed up and down the Atlantic seaboard looking for a port to accept its load. This was after the original, partly mob-financed deal to ship it to Morehead City in North Carolina fell through. This New York Times retro report covers the story well, but in the book, I’m interested in considering the wider cultural significance of the event.
What it told Americans was something relatively new: that the things of a throwaway culture survive far longer than much of the critical discourse on consumerism had previously acknowledged. That constitutes an important stream in the argument about things, which prompts Americans to think about what of their civilization will remain after it has gone. The garbage barge made news at the same time as medical waste was washing up on New Jersey beaches, oceanographers were positing the existence of what we now know as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and NASA was trying to figure out what to do with all the manmade debris orbiting the Earth after decades of the space program. Environmental despoliation is a stubborn material fact of the age, and events like the garbage barge, just like contemporary dispatches about the masses of plastic pooling in the Pacific Ocean, trouble us, albeit intermittently, on a deep cultural level.
Nicholson Baker is a wonderful writer and a more gifted controversialist than readers of his first novel, The Mezzanine, may have imagined when it appeared in 1988. It narrates the interior life of an office worker, Howie, during his lunch break, documenting his physical and psychological interactions with shoelaces, drinking straws, escalators, office supplies, and so on.
Something has always troubled me about how literary critics responded to the novel when it first appeared, however. The default assumption appeared to be that the narrative, which interweaves elements of literary and psychological bildungsroman into Howie’s thoughts and memories about things, had to be ironic. My sense is that it is not: that Howie, and even Baker, loves the paraphernalia of everyday life, just as he says he does. There’s an innocence about this love of things that gets slowly clouded, as Baker’s oeuvre develops, by the harrowing pain of the realization that the dream of an innocent love of things is compromised by US militarism and imperialism.
Spike Lee and Tom Wolfe, who it’s fair to say are not friends, presented alternative views of New York City in the 1980s. Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) rarely rises above the level of racist caricature, whilst Lee’s depiction of an urban riot in his native Bed-Stuy on the hottest day of the summer has, I think, more serious things to say on questions of race and class. Lee has spoken of his admiration of Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar (1978), which I also discuss in the book, and which, like Do the Right Thing, shows how racial divisions dilute class solidarity. Lee’s movie culminates with a trash can being hurled through a storefront window after Radio Raheem has been killed by the cops. It’s a much-debated scene, and one that raises still-relevant questions about a society that appears to many to value property more than some of its citizens’ lives.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and The Things They Carried (1990)
I consider these two remembering objects alongside one another in The Argument about Things in the 1980s. Vietnam was a huge cultural presence in the 1980s–just think of the Rambo movies. Both Maya Lin’s memorial and Tim O’Brien’s novel-cum-story collection stage the memorialization of the conflict through material culture. Lin’s memorial was criticized for not telling a story, or not telling the right story about Vietnam, while O’Brien’s book is full of stories, narrated by means of material objects. What I try to investigate in this section of the book is the tremendous cultural weight the American war in Vietnam retained throughout the 1980s and the contrasting struggle to try to cast off that weight on the national and individual level.
My book ends with the Persian Gulf War of 1991, which looks quite different now than it did at the time: both a continuation of a long strategic involvement in the Middle East that had already contributed to the oil crises with which the book begins and the beginning of a new phase of that involvement from which the US seems unwilling or unable to extricate itself. What works like O’Brien’s The Things They Carried offer us is some sense of what it has been like to be a foot soldier of American empire over that period: a bearer of things, but also a thing oneself.