This paper (more of an essay, really) was originally delivered at the Birkbeck/London Consortium ‘Rubbish Symposium‘, 30th July 2011
Living at the very limit of his means, Philip K. Dick, a two-bit, pulp sci-fi author, was having a hard time maintaining his livelihood. It was the 1950s and Dick was living with his second wife, Kleo, in a run-down apartment in Berkley, California, surrounded by library books Dick later claimed they “could not afford to pay the fines on.”
In 1956, Dick had a short story published in a brand new pulp magazine: Satellite Science Fiction. Entitled, Pay for the Printer, the story contained a whole host of themes that would come to dominate his work
On an Earth gripped by nuclear winter, humankind has all but forgotten the skills of invention and craft. An alien, blob-like, species known as the Biltong co-habit Earth with the humans. They have an innate ability to ‘print’ things, popping out copies of any object they are shown from their formless bellies. The humans are enslaved not simply because everything is replicated for them, but, in a twist Dick was to use again and again in his later works, as the Biltong grow old and tired, each copied object resembles the original less and less. Eventually everything emerges as an indistinct, black mush. The short story ends with the Biltong themselves decaying, leaving humankind on a planet full of collapsed houses, cars with no doors, and bottles of whiskey that taste like anti-freeze.
In his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick gave a name to this crumbling, ceaseless, disorder of objects: Kipple. A vision of a pudding-like universe, in which obsolescent objects merge, featureless and identical, flooding every apartment complex from here to the pock-marked surface of Mars.
“No one can win against kipple,”
“It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.”
In kipple, Dick captured the process of entropy, and put it to work to describe the contradictions of mass-production and utility. Saved from the wreckage of the nuclear apocalypse, a host of original items – lawn mowers, woollen sweaters, cups of coffee – are in short supply. Nothing ‘new’ has been made for centuries. The Biltong must produce copies from copies made of copies – each replica seeded with errors will eventually resemble kipple.
Objects; things, are mortal; transient. The wrist-watch functions to mark the passing of time, until it finally runs down and becomes a memory of a wrist-watch: a skeleton, an icon, a piece of kipple. The butterfly emerges from its pupae in order to pass on its genes to another generation. Its demise – its kipple-isation – is programmed into its genetic code. A consequence of the lottery of biological inheritance. Both the wrist-watch and the butterfly have fulfilled their functions: I utilised the wrist-watch to mark time: the ‘genetic lottery’ utilised the butterfly to extend its lineage. Entropy is absolutely certain, and pure utility will always produce it.
In his book Genesis, Michel Serres, argues that objects are specific to the human lineage. Specific, not because of their utility, but because they indicate our drive to classify, categorise and order:
“The object, for us, makes history slow.”
Before things become kipple, they stand distinct from one another. Nature seems to us defined in a similar way, between a tiger and a zebra there appears a broad gap, indicated in the creatures’ inability to mate with one another; indicated by the claws of the tiger and the hooves of the zebra. But this gap is an illusion, as Michel Foucault neatly points out in The Order of Things:
“…all nature forms one great fabric in which beings resemble one another from one to the next…”
The dividing lines indicating categories of difference are always unreal, abstracted from the ‘great fabric’ of nature, and understood through human categories isolated in language.
Humans themselves are constituted by this great fabric: our culture and language lie on the same fabric. Our apparent mastery over creation comes from one simple quirk of our being: the tendency we exhibit to categorise, to cleave through the fabric of creation. For Philip K. Dick, this act is what separates us from the alien Biltong. They can merely copy, a repeated play of resemblance that with each iteration moves away from the ideal form. Humans, on the other hand, can do more than copy. They can take kipple and distinguish it from itself, endlessly, through categorisation and classification. Far from using things until they run down, humans build new relations, new meanings, carefully and slowly from the mush. New categories produce new things, produce newness. At least, that’s what Dick – a Platonic idealist – believed.
At the end of Pay for the Printer, a disparate group camp in the kipple-ised, sagging pudding of a formless city. One of the settlers has with him a crude wooden cup he has apparently cleaved himself with an even cruder, hand-made knife:
“You made this knife?” Fergesson asked, dazed.
“I can’t believe it. Where do you start? You have to have tools to make this. It’s a paradox!”
In his essay, The System of Collecting, Jean Baudrillard makes a case for the profound subjectivity produced in this apparent newness.
Once things are divested of their function and placed into a collection, they:
“…constitute themselves as a system, on the basis of which the subject seeks to piece together [their] world, [their] personal microcosm.”
The use-value of objects gives way to the passion of systematization, of order, sequence and the projected perfection of the complete set.
In the collection, function is replaced by exemplification. The limits of the collection dictate a paradigm of finality; of perfection. Each object – whether wrist-watch or butterfly – exists to define new orders. Once the blue butterfly is added to the collection it stands, alone, as an example of the class of blue butterflies to which the collection dictates it belongs. Placed alongside the yellow and green butterflies, the blue butterfly exists to constitute all three as a series. The entire series itself then becomes the example of all butterflies. A complete collection: a perfect catalogue. Perhaps, like Borges’ Library of Babel, or Plato’s ideal realm of forms, there exists a room somewhere with a catalogue of everything. An ocean of examples. Cosmic disorder re-constituted and classified as a finite catalogue, arranged for the grand cosmic collector’s singular pleasure.
The problem with catalogues is that absolutely anything can be collected and arranged. The zebra and the tiger may sit side-by-side if the collector is particularly interested in collecting mammals, striped quadrupeds or – a particularly broad collection – things that smell funny. Too much classification, too many cleaves in the fabric of creation, and order once again dissolves into kipple. Disorder arises when too many conditions of order have been imposed.
“[W]e must think of chaos not as a helter-skelter of worn-out and broken or halfheartedly realised things, like a junkyard or potter’s midden, but as a fluid mishmash of thinglessness in every lack of direction as if a blender had run amok. ‘AND’ is that sunderer. It stands between. It divides light from darkness.”
Collectors gather things about them in order to excerpt a mastery over the apparent disorder of creation. The collector attains true mastery over their microcosm. The narcissism of the individual extends to the precise limits of the catalogue he or she has arranged about them. Without AND language would function as nothing but pudding, each clause, condition or acting verb leaking into its partner, in an endless series. But the problem with AND, with classes, categories and order is that they can be cleaved anywhere.
Jorge Luis Borges exemplified this perfectly in a series of fictional lists he produced throughout his career. The most infamous, Michel Foucault claimed influenced him to write The Order of Things, the list refers to a “certain Chinese encyclopaedia” in which:
Animals are divided into
- belonging to the Emporer,
- sucking pigs,
- stray dogs,
- included in the present classification,
- drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
- et cetera,
- having just broken the water pitcher,
- that from a long way off look like flies…
In writing about his short story The Aleph, Borges also remarked:
“My chief problem in writing the story lay in… setting down of a limited catalog of endless things. The task, as is evident, is impossible, for such a chaotic enumeration can only be simulated, and every apparently haphazard element has to be linked to its neighbour either by secret association or by contrast.”
No class of things, no collection, no cleaving of kipple into nonkipple can escape the functions of either “association OR contrast…” The lists Borges compiled are worthy of note because they remind us of the binary contradiction classification always comes back to:
- Firstly, that all collections are arbitrary
- and Secondly, that a perfect collection of things is impossible, because, in the final instance there is only pudding “…in every lack of direction…”
Human narcissism – our apparent mastery over kipple – is an illusion. Collect too many things together, and you re-produce the conditions of chaos you tried so hard to avoid. When the act of collecting comes to take precedence over the microcosm of the collection, when the differentiation of things begins to break down: collectors cease being collectors and become hoarders. The hoard exemplifies chaos: the very thing the collector builds their catalogues in opposition to.
To tease apart what distinguishes the hoarder, from the collector, I’d like to introduce two new characters into this arbitrary list I have arranged about myself. Some of you may have heard of them, indeed, they are the brothers whom the syndrome of compulsive hoarding is named after.
Brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer lived in a mansion at 2078, Fifth Avenue, Manhattan. Sons of wealthy parents – their father was a respected gynaecologist, their mother a renowned opera singer – the brothers both attended Columbia University, where Homer studied law and Langley engineering. In 1933 Homer suffered a stroke which left him blind and unable to work at his law firm. As Langley began to devote his time entirely to looking after his helpless brother, both men became locked inside the mansion their family’s wealth and prestige had delivered. Over the following decade or so Langley would leave the house only at night. Wandering the streets of Manhattan, collecting water and provisions to sustain his needy brother, Langley’s routines became obsessive, giving his life a meaning above and beyond the streets of Harlem that were fast becoming run-down and decrepid.
But the clutter only went one way: into the house.
On March 21st 1947 the New York Police Department received an anonymous tip-off that there was a dead body in the Collyer mansion. Attempting to gain entry, police smashed down the front-door, only to be confronted with a solid wall of newspapers (which, Langley had claimed to reporter’s years earlier his brother “would read once his eyesight was restored”.) Finally, after climbing in through an upstairs window, a patrolman found the body of Homer – now 65 years old – slumped dead in his kippleised armchair. In the weeks that followed, police removed one hundred and thirty tons of rubbish from the house. Langley’s body was eventually discovered crushed and decomposing under an enormous mound of junk, lying only a few feet from where Homer had starved to death. Crawling through the detritus to reach his ailing brother, Langley had triggered one of his own booby traps, set in place to catch any robbers who attempted to steal the brother’s clutter.
The list of objects pulled from the brother’s house reads like a Borges original. From Wikipedia:
Items removed from the house included baby carriages, a doll carriage, rusted bicycles, old food, potato peelers, a collection of guns, glass chandeliers, bowling balls, camera equipment, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, a sawhorse, three dressmaking dummies, painted portraits, pinup girl photos, plaster busts, Mrs. Collyer’s hope chests, rusty bed springs, a kerosene stove, a child’s chair, more than 25,000 books (including thousands about medicine and engineering and more than 2,500 on law), human organs pickled in jars, eight live cats, the chassis of an old Model T Ford, tapestries, hundreds of yards of unused silks and fabric, clocks, 14 pianos (both grand and upright), a clavichord, two organs, banjos, violins, bugles, accordions, a gramophone and records, and countless bundles of newspapers and magazines.
Finally: There was also a great deal of rubbish.
A Time Magazine obituary from April 1947 said of the Collyer brothers:
“They were shy men, and showed little inclination to brave the noisy world.”
In a final ironic twist of kippleisation, the brothers themselves became mere examples within the system of clutter they had amassed. Langley especially had hoarded himself to death. His body, gnawed by rats, was hardly distinguishable from the kipple that fell on top of it. The noisy world had been replaced by the noise of the hoard: a collection so impossible to conceive, to cleave, to order, that it had dissolved once more to pure, featureless kipple.
Many hoarders achieve a similar fate to the Collyer brothers: their clutter eventually wiping them out in one final collapse of systemic disorder.
To finish, I want to return briefly to Philip K. Dick.
In the 1960s, fuelled by amphetamines and a debilitating paranoia, Dick wrote 24 novels, and hundreds of short stories, the duds and the classics mashed together into an indistinguishable hoard. UBIK, published in 1966, tells of a world which is itself degrading. Objects regress to previous forms, 3D televisions turn into black and white tube-sets, then stuttering reel projectors; credit cards slowly change into handfuls of rusted coins, impressed with the faces of Presidents long since deceased. Turning his back for a few minutes a character’s hover vehicle has degraded to become a bi-propeller airplane.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, another stand-out novel from the mid 60s, begins with this memo, “dictated by Leo Bulero immediately on his return from Mars”:
“I mean, after all; you have to consider we’re only made out of dust. That’s admittedly not much to go on and we shouldn’t forget that. But even considering, I mean it’s a sort of bad beginning, we’re not doing too bad. So I personally have faith that even in this lousy situation we’re faced with we can make it. You get me?”