coverThis article explores human-thing-relations and what it means to turn something into »waste« through an ethnography of Self-Storage facilities. Self-Storage entrepreneurs rent out storage rooms for private use in huge buildings. These »Houses for things« might be the logical continuation of consumer society and are related to all other »Thing-spaces« (»Res-Topias«). Self-Storage houses turn out to be an extremely rewarding space for researching material culture, because the things that have arrived in Self-Storage spaces have undergone an intensive process: Self-Storage is based on negotiations, with one’s own self and with others, it demands a reflexive handling of things and their use. The practice of Self-Storage generates a »Self of Self-Storage«, which answered itself questions regarding its past, present, and future. A literary technique from the 18th century –the so called »Zimmerreise« – is applied here for the first time as an ethnographic method to »make things talk«.

The title of this paper is Restopia. Self-Storage as urban practice. What do I mean with the term Restopia? I mean: Thing-spaces. There are classical ones as Gaston Bachelard describes them beautifully: like attics, cellars, corners, drawers… and then there are the maybe less beautiful ones: the fridges, trashcans, lockers and landfills. If you look into the different Thing-spaces of the self, things develop, despite their superficial randomness, an emergent narrative. They stand side by side, one above the other, are left at six and seven, in specific order, they are in boxes, in drawers, in basements, on shelves. They come from different periods of life. Relics and trash, treasures and miscellany keep in touch with (almost forgotten) parts of the past. All Restopias are spaces where things collect. And each collection room is epistemic space. The collection of our own belongings is no exception. It’s the classical arrangement of the musée sentimental: props of everyday life, personal mementos narrate witnessed history.

These assemblages of things that keep us company every day provide stability. Rilke describes a friendship with his things, when he polishes the furniture: »Politeness tinged with mischief was my reaction to the friendliness of these objects, which seemed happy to be so well treated.«[2] It is these self-created assemblages that make letting go of things difficult (sometimes against all economic and pragmatic reason). The creation of the »human house« restricts the freedom of movement. This relates to an anecdote of Paul Zamecnik Hans-Jörg Rheinberger tells to describe the experience of epistemic systems and the character of experimental practice: »Once there was a man who wanted to try out a new boomerang. But found himself unable to through away the old one successfully.«[3]

It is complicated to change the category of an object with which one has shared a piece of life from »object in use« to »waste« without some transition, consideration, coincidence. Many still possess their teddy bear from childhood days, even if it most often resides in hidden boxes or the long-abandoned parents’ house. With almost every new mobile phone bought, an old one disappears in a drawer. Over time some things will accumulate value, while others will lose it.

The things that we possess have their own relations, biographies, they create their own spaces, their own time and their own issues of style. Between the keeping and the disposing of these things emerge new entropic systems of spatial distributions, which are kept in balance through the use of energy. Jean Baudrilliard writes in »The System of Objects«: »It is in this sense that the environment of private objects and their possession (collection being the most extreme instance) is a dimension of our life which, through imaginary, is absolutely essential. Just as essential as dreams.«[4] So, where to put the things we possess? Or do the things possess us?

What is Self-Storage? A short Self-Storage-Topography:

My research was on a very specific type of Restopias, these thing spaces: Self-Storage houses. Self-Storage is a huge service industry in the USA, but a relatively new phenomenon in Germany (and »old« Europe in general). It has the highest growth rates in the commercial real estate market. Self-Storage entrepreneurs rent out storage rooms for private use in huge buildings. In Germany these are usually new build multistoried buildings on high-traffic roads in urban locations. They are up to seven floors high, cover several thousand square meters and are recognizable by their outdoor advertising from quite a distance. One company advertises its service with the slogan: »Like a hotel – but for things.«

The Self-Storage interior system is based on containers in scale, shape and texture. Corrugated sheets divide the building’s interiors into thousands of uniform spaces of different sizes. Self-Storage buildings emanate the distinct coolness and strangeness typical of »non-places« (the »non-lieux« of Marc Augé) such as motorways, petrol stations and shopping centers. The »non-places« Augé speaks of do not create social relations, but rather »entirely new experiences and ordeals of solitude« and uniformity. Instead of the »organically social« of the anthropological place these »non-places« generate a form of »solitary contractuality«[5]. The Self-Storage customers seldom meet – actually they do not meet at all, they just run into each other from time to time. Sometimes, tenants can be seen in the parking lot, at the loading ramps or elevators. But the corridors are mostly deserted. Only the video surveillance provides a sense of connection with the world in the maze of identical corridors. One can describe Self-Storage buildings as places of isolation and loneliness. The only interaction takes place with the branch manager, who sits as guardian at the entrance of these houses; like the last and only bastion of humanity in these titanic places of things – and »object-centered sociality«[6].

The things inside the Self-Storage compartments are not recorded in inventory lists and locked away as is the case in freight forwarding. Self-Storage characteristically allows immediate, undocumented access to the things for their owners. The space and the things in it are organized and managed by the customer him- or herself. This makes the relationship between Self-Storage customers and Self-Storage operators very special and delicate. Operators provide rooms in their houses. They provide an infrastructure, a discreet cover within which everything (or at least almost everything) is possible. This makes them vulnerable. Operators need to trust and distrust their customers at the same time. They hope that customers store the right, good, harmless and lawful things that do not carry pests into the house. Just occasionally they wonder about strange smells flowing up from those compartments that are open on top.

A field of tension arises for the operators, caught between on the one hand a service industry imperative to respond discreetly and openly to their individual customers needs – and on the other hand their responsibility to serve the common good and to ensure the safety of all customers and all goods. The operators however have no legal access to the rented rooms. They can only control the corridors and common areas of their facilities. In most buildings video surveillance is the interface between public and private space, between operator and customer, it defines the boundary of intimacy. The video surveillance capacity is advertised as a reassuring surplus for those customers preoccupied by security: »Our house is under video surveillance.« But in fact, by providing insights into their corridors, it (mostly) serves to reassure worried operators, whose concerns are well founded, given that corpses, drugs and explosives have been found in Self-Storage rooms. The cameras observe the ways of customers and the ways of things. On the monitors pop up those Self-Storage practices that are acted out in front of open compartment doors. Since Self-Storage compartments themselves usually have no electricity, no light and are not set up as walk-in rooms, they are commonly accessed (if they are accessed) with the door wide open. The corridor is necessarily involved, when customers bring things to, search in or get things from their compartment. Things are stacked, placed and rearranged in front of the compartment in the corridor, becoming briefly visible before disappearing again into the dark.

The territories of the customers and the territories of the operators collide, spatially and legally, at the boundary materialised by the corrugated sheets. There is a complex system of outsides and insides in these houses. Although the customers only rent tiny spaces in these giant Self-Storage buildings – often less than one square meter – they experience the edifice itself as a part of their rooms, premises and practices. For operators, the spatial experience is another. They have built these gigantic structures, mapped them, measured them up to the very last centimeter and yet large areas of their houses remain inaccessible and opaque. Under their roofs are hidden areas, thousands of personal rooms, small niches for other selves. For Self-Storage operators – as well as for the ethnologist – the Bachelard theorem applies: »There will always be more things in a closed box, than in an open box.(…) He who buries a treasure buries himself with it.«[7]

Methods: An ethnographic perspective/ »Zimmerreise«

What I produced is an ethnography of these »houses for things«. How do these houses work? Who is using them? The initial question for this research was: Why houses for things? Because this feels very strange, when you start to think about it. What kinds of societies build in their centers houses exclusively for things? And because I looked at these Self-Storage houses from the perspective of an ethnologist the next question was: What would we think about this society, if it weren’t our own? What if for example Lévi-Strauss or Malinowski encountered this practice after a long trip over unknown oceans and trough perilous tropical forests? What if they had come across such huge Thing-Houses in the middle of unfamiliar cities? It would certainly have been a cause of wonder: the size of the buildings and their minute internal subdivision/ the exclusion of all living things /the perception of large public spaces created by huge billboards, that, in turn, invite to create nothing but isolated private islands in these houses/ the existence of hundreds of Thing-rooms without invitation to their owners/ the payment of a significant obolus, but to profane ends/ a communal practice that generates no community/ a society that promotes consumerism while simultaneously feeling weighted down and restricted by things and so on.

In my work I approached the Self-Storage field gradually. I had to begin by conducting basic research. There is hardly any literature on this phenomenon. So I searched a lot of Blogs, corporate sites and advertising campaigns worldwide and made a first cultural-historical description of these houses, of their history, development, operating mode and their myths. A big part of my work was architecture, the modus operandi of the Self-Storage entrepreneurs, the »doing Self-Storage« aspects. I explored the architecture, their position in the (urban) landscape, their interior, the practices of the operators (with their issues of security and control) and finally the Self-Storage rooms, the practices of the customers – and the things.

My research locations were 14 Self-Storage facilities in two German cities, Berlin and Munich. I went there in different roles for the fieldwork. To get a first impression of the practices of the users, I for example worked behind the office desk of a Berlin Self-Storage-facility.[8]

For the narrative interviews with Self-Storage customers I used a literary technique from the 18th Century: The so called »Zimmerreise« and applied it for the first time as an ethnographic method. The creator of the »Zimmerreise«, Xavier de Maistre, used a house arrest, that he was placed under for a prohibited duel, to embark on a 42 day long journey through his own room. This »journey around my room«[9] was a bestseller in 1796 and spawned many imitators who traveled their rooms, gardens, desks and pockets. I was inspired to use the »Zimmerreise« as an ethnographic method upon reading germanist Bernd Stiegler’s description, how the attitude of these trips – to see the treasury with new eyes, to perceive the familiar with the eyes of traveler, to take a step back from one’s own reality – corresponds rather well to the stance Foucault later termed the »ethnological gaze«.[10] With exact perception, at the flaneurs pace of introspection, things begin to speak.[11]

Together with my interview partners I therefore went on this journey, we gave ourselves over to imagination and crossed the Self-Storage compartments from »east to west«. The »ethnological gaze« applied to their (usually heretofor unreflexive) everyday practices often led to a type of serene amazement. It was a unique interview situation, almost psychoanalytic. Talking about the Self-Storage space and the things in it created a particular narrative of their history and relationships that was more immediate than the long-practiced »Who am I«-responses to biographical questions. The importance of things in biographies was undeniable in all these interviews. The relationship with our matter is not a matter-of-fact, it is a matter-of-relation, a matter-of-emotion, a matter-of-memory. The material presence of things raise not just practical questions of use, care and disposal, but it is often the starting point of an intimate, sentimental relationship, of a »devotion to things«[12]. The british anthropologist Daniel Miller stated »that possessions often remain profound and usually the closer our relationships are with objects, the closer our relationships are with people.«[13] This makes it all the more clear why it is difficult – in cases of doubt – to let go of the things that we’ve cited.

What would we be without the things we own? I will use a work of the artist Michael Landy to illustrate my point. He radically raises this issue of our connection to our things. In February 2001, he created a material inventory of his life. His entire property consisted of exactly 7,227 objects. Books, kitchen utensils, CDs, tickets, photos, clocks, papers and furniture, a car and a birth certificate, clothes and art … All these things were then broken down into their component parts and completely destroyed by ten »employees« on an assembly line set up in a gallery space. Landy sees this work as »a reflection on the inner relationship between individual ownership and identity. A meditation on the nature and value of things and the core of today’s consumption.«[14] It was a radical experiment, suitably titled: »Breakdown«. It raised the question of what remains when there is nothing (no-thing) left. The artist fell into a serious depression after the completion of this work.

But in spite of the importance of things, there are fewer and fewer thing-spaces in cities. In urban architecture things hardly find space. In residential houses, the attics are bright and become luxury condos, the lumber-rooms, pantries and cellars have disappeared. These days whole neighborhoods are built without basements for reasons of cost.

At the same time, most people own more things than ever never before in history. There is a flood of things in today’s consumerist societies leading to a competition between things and people for space, both on streets and in houses. »Houses for things« might be the logical continuation of consumer society.

And finally, in addition to there beeing less thing space, and more things, there is also more mobility. The thing-carousel is speeding up. Jobs and relationships are increasingly mobile. A new job in another city, a year abroad, a new relationship, a divorce, a move, a death in the family, all these situations release things, bring them into circulation or turn them into surplus.

The distribution of objects in space has been reorganized, to the same extent as dwelling structures and CVs have been reorganized. Self-Storage is an industry that benefits from the acceleration in all areas of life, from changes to lifestyles and from incisions in biographies.

At the same time the ideology regarding things couldn’t be clearer. Books have titles such as: »It’s all too much. An easy plan for living a richer life with less stuff«, »Throw Out Fifty Things. Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life«, »Clutter Busting. Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back« or simply »Simplify your life«. In such a context Self-Storage maybe helping to resolve inner dilemmas: Self-Storage-rooms might be spaces of »Ent-Sorgung« (in german »Entsorgung« has the meaning disposal, but also de-worrying) that create a gap between things and their owners, to keep both at distance. A Self-Storage customer in my research described it like this: »Self-Storage allows one to have and not to own, to possess and not really be burdened with possession. It is a way to break free without separating completely. It is kind of fake separation. And I think that’s the reason why a lot of people use it.« With Self-Storage one can free up space for new things, one can be light and mobile – and at the same time preserve the old, the accrual, the collection. A very postmodern solution, in that sense that it allows both: keeping and getting rid of.

Each Self-Storage room undergoes through an individual process of appropriation and use. The uses of these spaces are complex, infinitely varied and highly diverse. Self-Storage as practice – as »selfstoring« – creates individual functions of the similar and neutral (committed for contractual use) spaces. Each of these multifarious rooms takes on a different function and a different meaning. There are pragmatic as well as poetic spaces in these houses. There are rooms that have a private, intimate character as well as rooms that are commercially used by many. For some Self-Storers their room has become an important part of life, for others it is a temporary solution, a useful box. Like Karin Knorr Cetina one might say, there are »object-centered« relations and »tool-centered« ones.[15] Often these rooms are tools serving spatial extension, and at least as often they are the exact opposite: tools of spatial limitation.

There are many things to say about Self-Storage as it is a monadic topic per se, but I want to focus in the context of this publication on issues and aspects of the relationship with things and on they are turned into »waste«. Self-Storage is an ideal empirical field in which such practices can be seen and researched. Self-Storage rooms are a new negotiating space for the relationship with things – including letting them go.

Topographies of Trash? Dead end of consumerism vs. poetic strategies

At the beginning of my research I was tempted to look at Self-Storage houses as the dead end of turbo consumerism, as part of digestive systems for the treasures of capitalism, as the cloaca maxima of consumer society. I thought these houses would be both absurd and decadent. But when I looked at the practices of the Self-Storage users, I found something completely different: often there was a quite poetic and incredibly meaningful usage of the Self-Storage space.

For example: In a Self-Storage facility in Munich I met a mother, Else, whose adult son drowned while trying to rescue his own child, that had fallen into the river Isar. The grandchild survived, the beloved son died. The pregnant wife of the son witnessed the accident and left Munich shortly thereafter, returning to her old homeland South America with her two children. The family’s apartment in Munich was liquidated. Else needed space for her son’s things, like the model ships he liked so much to build. Else now keeps these ships in a Self-Storage room and visits this room almost daily: »I am often here, to dust off and so, yes,« she told me. For Else’s mourning process the Self-Storage room is as important as the cemetery. Else visits her son’s ships, looks at them and – above all – touches them, because »they are things he has made with his hands. Here I can feel him.« Things are traces of our existence beyond death. In many cases to part with these traces of a loved one is anything but easy.

Self-Storage Houses are often connected to death. They offer a pragmatic solution to an urban dilemma: after a loved one has died, apartments have to be emptied quickly for reasons of costs, but letting go of a beloved dead’s persons assemblage of things often requires more time. In Berlin I met a widower, who was sitting in the corridor and sorting out the stuff of his recently deceased wife, shifting it from a large compartment into a smaller one over months.[16] As most of the day this was the only other person in the giant building, he was involving the branch manager in his grieving and separating process: Maybe she has use for a few of his wife’s things, for example her collection of buttons or her sewing kit? Trashing would be a shame. On her office video screens the branch manager could observe the widower at his workplace of mourning. For months he came in the morning with his thermos jug and started his work, as she hers. It was at this moment in the fieldwork that I first encountered a principle that would gain increasing importance: that of exchange. Because dealing with things always means dealing with relations.

The meaning is expanding here from disposing of to storing to keeping to exchanging. Self-Storage houses can become commemorative cultural places like museums, cemeteries, libraries and archives. And like them they can be important places of remembrance, or beholders of unloved objects. 12th Century author Kamo no Chomei’s statement applies: »It seems as if the master and the house are arguing over which of the two will pass away first.«[17] This is particularly evident when Else says: »If I could, I would keep the things one hundred years.«

The strong holding on applies especially to »family things«. These things can be linked to living or dead family members (even ones that are yet to be born). Family things are to be found in almost every Self-Storage room. Sometimes family things take up a large part of the room, like in Else’s room, sometimes there are only a few items. Mostly these items are described as particularly important. When it comes to family things it is not only about keeping, it is also about passing down. There is a hope that »perhaps one day the son will take the (grandmother’s) good dishes«.

Almost all Self-Storers in this research had great difficulty turning something immediately »into garbage«. At the same time they often had no problem whatsoever letting go of an object if they could pass it on to someone. Someone, who would need and appreciate it. When asked: »Why did you put your things into a Self-Storage compartment rather than throw them out or dispose of them?«, many answered: »If we had known someone…«. Because »if someone needs something«, it is usually no problem at all to pass things on and let them go. It is important that the object »comes into good hands«, to someone who »needs it«, »who appreciates it«, »who does not take it because of its value, but because he is an aficionado«. What matters, then, is not only passing on an object, but also sharing the social relations with this object. Things passed on must be preserved, their relational life pertained. Even if they are actually not really needed and used and one considers other things more beautiful. But the mother’s linens – the one from the closet trousseau she saved, the father’s tin collection, which he gathered over the years, are not easily put beside the dumpster – not to mention thrown in it. And if one were to give such items away, donate or sell them, again »first you would have to find someone…«, »a real collector not a dealer. To one who likes it, I would give it for free.«

Some Self-Storage rooms were generally aligned to passing and sharing. In others the potentially shareable things moved in gradually. Even in Else’s compartment more mundane stuff started complementing the sacred items over time: a table, a chair, other furniture. »Well, isn’t it so, I have acquaintances, neighbours and everyone has an emergency once in a while, and then I say, do you need a table, perhaps, or a closet? Then you can have it.« Self-Storage rooms are often turned into archives of gifts. These archives of gifts for children, friends, family, neighbours are usually marked by a generosity that certainly corresponds to the character of the potlatch, the indian gift-giving feast, but minus any flavour of competing to be the most magnanimous and without setting the battle of the »exessive consideration« of the potlatch in motion: »If someone needs something, he can have it.«

To preserve things »just in case«, also means to have the possibility to build a relationship through these things, to make connections, coalitions, »family«. The Maya in Mexico define a household as »kinsmen, living together in a house compound and sharing a single maize supply«[18]. The shared corn stock is differentiated in consumer societies and not only affects corn or food. But whoever has access to this stock belongs to the family, that’s for sure. (Family is meant here in the broad sense of »Wahlverwandschaften«: family, friends, acquaintances, neighbours.) Family membership is demonstrated through the exchange of things. »Family« includes all that may be requested: »What do you need, what is standing around unused somewhere, what do you not need to buy new.« »Family« is whoever has access to these Restopias.

The creativity of turning things into »waste«

Storing is just as identity-giving as sorting out, using and exchanging. What is part of our self image, our biography, what is a part of us? What is not or no longer is? What do we keep where? What is used, what is stored, what is disposed of? The process of sorting things out »forces objects into consciousness«, drawing us deep into the elaborate web that holds ourselves and all our relationships, our memories and the future.[19] Jean-Sébastien Marcoux describes this process along the »Casser Maison«-ritual in Montreal, Canada, where people who move into an old folks’ home empty their apartments and construct themselves in the  memory of others through the redistribution of their things. The entire environment is involved in this process in thought. »Perhaps someone may need it?« was also one of the central questions of my research.

The links with the things that surround us, those incurred by touch, practice and everyday life, turn the sorting out and disposing into a complex process. While sorting out »our quality as subjects, our competences, our personalities, depend on what we hold in our hands.«[20] This process involves the same creativity as the acquisition of things. It reaches an extreme complexity, since »things do not exist without being full of people, and the more modern and complicated they are, the more people swarm through them.« [21] This »being full of people«, as Latour says, relates to the past of things as well as to their future. They are acquired for a reason, fraught with memories and often with the wish to be passed on to someone.

To end the relationship with appropriated objects, to dispose of them, throwing them away – generally to unknit the bonds with these subject/objects – they must go through a process, I would like to describe as a process of »Abeignung« (»de-quiring«, as contrasted to »Aneignung«, acquiring – which is quite well researched in material culture studies and studies of consumer society[22]). The process of acquiring is thereby pursued in reverse: The object no longer belongs to the household as an aspect of tradition. It is no longer automatically taken for granted as a matter of course. It is eventually replaced, challenged or questioned by a new one, losing its »local significance« and »its association to a specific object area«[23]. It usually relocates to grubby corners, behind doors or into drawers, falling little by little out of use as it gets re-placed. It experiences a »gap of accommodation«[24] The matter-in-question parts with the existing framework of meanings, eventually losing its name. This material transformation and the passing evoke certain »gap practices«, states of uncertainty and limbo. By facilitating a transition and a space of letting go, Self-Storage spaces are closely associated with these complex practices of »Abeignung«.

Things are reasonably expected to be parts of the self. »This is a snakeskin jacket! And for me it’s a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom«, says Nicolas Cage as Sailor in the film »Wild at Heart«[25]. The psychoanalyst William Ronald Fairbarn writes, »The ego is unthinkable except as bound up with objects. It grows through relations with objects, both real and internal, like a plant through contact with soil, with water and with sunlight.«[26] Elaborate practices produce relationships with things that are »genuine ties«[27]. Karin Knorr Cetina writes: »The self as a structure of wanting is looping its desire through the object and back.«[28]. These relationships with objects gain greater and greater importance. Knorr Cetina continues: »Part of the epic character of the changes now in the making may have something to do with what I have called ›objectualization‹, an increased orientation toward objects as sources of the self, of relational intimacy, of shared subjectivity and social integration.«[29] This »objectualization« might eventually also explain why bonds with objects are often maintained against all economic reason. One Self-Storer describes it as follows: »It is probably so, that if you were to get rid of it and sooner or later on rebuy it, it would come out cheaper in the end. But there are things where one says, no, I don’t want to throw them away.« The inability to throw away appears as an anthropological constant. And Self-Storage consequently appears as a practice which allows to deal with it: facilitating both preserving things and parting with things.

The following symptoms are characteristic of this »Abeignungs«-process: not having used something for an usually long period of time, no longer beeing sure about it, wanting to sort something out »soon«, thinking »I might need it« (the characteristic idea of the craftsman)[30] or »I have to discover what I can do with it«, wanting to pass something on (»if I knew someone, who could use this«), keeping something »just in case«; and finally – separating from. Self-Storage rooms often function as a transformer during this »Abeignungs«-process. They put things in a limbo. In the process of »Abeignung« the relationship with these things is actively untightened. One deliberately undifferentiates things, makes them ordinary again. These »gap feelings«, for that these Selfstorage-spaces are containers (from »too good to throw away« to »perhaps someone may still need it«) help to dissolve the »genuine ties« and loops through objects.

One of these »gap practices« is a special (rare and extreme) Self-Storage phenomenon. I call it the »molt«. It begins when, upon moving-out from one’s apartment, rather than throwing out or otherwise disposing of one’s things, one shunts them almost exclusively into a frantically rented Self-Storage compartment. Here they are stacked, with the best intentions to visit them soon, to look after them, perhaps sort them out or discard them. The circumstances that caused these things to be dumped into the compartment were probably difficult, and already the first Self-Storage rent is damaging the account balance. But even in addition to losing one’s apartment one were to lose one’s job, and/or one’s partner, or even be sent to jail one would still yearn to at least be able to come back to this home one day, to this friendly society of familiar things and images. To leave these things definitively at this very moment seems an impossible act of treason. Economic reason capitulates in the presence of the nest. And there will be a solution, there has to … Sooner or later, the compartment rent falls badly in arrears. It is just too expensive. And possibly new things have already taken over the function of the stored things, become accustomed, familiar, and adopted. The relationship with the things in the compartment and the chapter in one’s life they embody are shed, unselfconsciously left behind, as is the skin of a molting snake. The Self-Storage space will eventually be opened up by the Self-Storage company, emptied, cleared, uncluttered. The cost of this specific »Abeignungsprozess« through a Self-Storage detour adds up to hundreds of euros; late fees and the cost of eviction are added to the unpaid rent. The »molt« is an expensive tactic. In return the detachment process is painless: no leaving your home at a garbage dump, no additional cold in sufficiently difficult times, no overt betrayal of things; they fade and drop by the wayside. Also in this sense, Self-Storage houses are places of »object-centered sociality« (or in this case, just pawn shops without return).

Self-Storage requires calculations. The economization of urban space creates new forms of selectivity. In general only selected pieces move into the Self-Storage space, fragments of a particular life. And these things inevitably undergo an additional charge: on the one hand by their selection – and on the other by the constantly renewed expense of their storage. One enters into a game, betting that these things have value – or will have value again – and one raises the stakes monthly. Sooner or later the price of storing will exceed the value of the stored things. »Well, there might be ways and means to better invest the money,« says one Self-Storer in my research, »but then one is considering: do we need that or will we need that or just part of it or nothing at all? It is still like this after a good deal of thought. So you know the things are becoming more and more valuable.« He laughs. Considering Self-Storage as an urban practice, it can be stated: »We face something strange: a work. A product of the joint resources of mind and matter, each a stark revelation of man and the way he exploits his habitat. It is as customary and strange as anything of man’s output.«[31]

Perspectives for the remaining. The special relationship of Self-Storage rooms with time and space

Things in Self-Storage containers have been sorted out, categorized, decisions have been made. The Self-Storage container has been rented, contracts were entered into, rent has been paid. Some objects have been placed into storage, several have been thrown away and others have been passed on. Self-Storage facilities turn out as an extremely rewarding space for researching material cultures, because the object relations there feature a specific dimension: Self-Storage is based on negotiations, with oneself and others, it demands a reflexive handling of things and their use. What is banned or colonized? What will be needed in the future? What carries the past? The practice of Self-Storage generates a »Self of Self-Storage«, which answered itself questions regarding its past, present, and future. Sometimes this self is, like Rimbaud says, another, a banned other. (»Je est un autre.«) Self-Storage is an active biographical writing with things.

a)    Space: »folded territories«

Self-Storage facilities have a spatial connection to all the other rooms of the self. They are points of reference in this spatial network and – like the house or the apartment – are to be understood as an extension of the self into space. For some Self-Storers these rooms are extensions, expansions, satellite spaces. For others they are concentration, material nuclei of the self, »tristes entropiques«. Self-Storage houses maintain a complex network of relations, both internally and externally, ranging across the whole city and beyond.

Self-Storage facilities can be an instrument for temporarily exempting from the totality of all personal things. They are an invitation to a journey and at the same time places of return. They are part of the infrastructure of globalized societies. Self-Storage rooms form strategic cores for future expansion of the globalized individual. They create unalienable islands, reservations in a world that has become cluttered. On a subjective level, Self-Storage facilities are not only arsenals of mobility, they are also guarantors of their own order.

»Hello, I want to store a small apartment,« begins a clients’ telephone inquiry. Self-Storage compartments are space-condensates. They are not intended in two-dimensional area (as are living space or battle plans), but in volume as containers. Areas, such as this apartment, will be convolved into the compartment, stacked inside each other and folded over each other like maps of bygone lives. Always in the scale of 10:1. For a fifty-square-meter apartment one needs five square meters of Self-Storage space. Self-Storage space is layered space of »variable density«, as Michel de Certeau calls it, assembled, opaque, fragmentary: »They are composed with the world’s debris.«[32] In the hope that one-day these maps are unfolded again. Sometimes this never happens. Sometimes these territories are stripped off like the skin of a snake.

b)    Time in totality

Things in Self-Storage compartments are often the basis for projections, utopias, (secret) plans. Self-Storage compartments have an intense connection to time. They preserve things of the past, as well as things of the near (or utopian) future. George Kubler writes: »The number of ways for things to occupy time is probably no more unlimited than the number of ways in which matter occupies space.«[33]

Some objects include the time in its totality. They occupy past and future. And thus become some sort of biographical timekeepers. They move synchronously on a line of the subject, which is also described by Gilles Deleuze. It’s the difference between a »passive, or rather receptive, Ego (moi), which experiences changes in time. But, on the other hand, the ›I‹ (je) is an act which constantly carries out a synthesis of time, and of that which happens in time, by dividing up the present, the past and the future at every instant.«[34] This carrying out of the synthesis of time affects not only the self but also its things. They too are divided into yesterday, today, tomorrow. Storing, lagern, has two meanings in german. Lagern is to save, store, deposit, hoard, cellaring, categorize, stack. But lagern also means: to pause, sit down, take a rest. Lagern gives the ›I‹ (je), the subject of self-experience a little break.

To curate objects that are charged with our own history is not always that easy. Curating of our own things requires constant consumption and disposal decisions, time, money, a continuous order and update of feelings and the planned management of exhibition space and storage space. »Turning something into waste« is a complex thing. For though – or perhaps because – every thing has the potential, like Latour says, »to take hold of passersby and force them to play a role in its story«[35], many things live banished in the dark depths of closets, basement and attics. Like the stock of the squirrel these collections of the self are stored in spaces that belong exclusively to them, and wait there for the end of their winter. Sometimes they later become »trash«. Sometimes they become something else. Sometimes their value changes in other ways. Sometimes they become other people’s things, because someone became someone else.

Storage is an important »element of the grammar of space«. Storing »raises issues of secrecy, memory, prestige, and knowledge that help construct the moral system within which the people live.«[36] Behind a functional shell Self-Storage rooms harbor the animated and the enigmatic. Storage spaces are an interaction of material culture, architectural form, shared knowledge and social space. Self-Storage facilities are gigantic reservoirs. Storage for yesterday’s remnants, which form the potential reserves for a tomorrow – or the potential trash of a tomorrow. Through their complex spatial entanglement and especially through their temporal entanglement they confront the self with a chorus of contradictory things full of possibilities and relations. Not only the things in them, even Self-Storage rooms themselves are »continually unfolding structures which combine presence and absence.«[37] Storage is a practice that believes in the future.

This article was published in: “Müll. Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven auf das Übrig-Gebliebene”, Christiane Lewe, Tim Othold, Nicolas Oxen (ed.), transcript Verlag, 09/2016, ISBN 978-3-8376-3327-6




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Bachelard, Gaston: The poetics of space, New York, 2014

Baudrilliard, Jean: The System of Objects, London 1996

Certeau. Michel de: The practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley 1988

Knorr-Cetina, Karin: Sociality with Objects. Social Relations in Postsocial Knowledge Societies, in: Theory, Culture and Society 14 (1997), 4, pp. 1-43

Chomei, Kamo no: Hojoki. Aufzeichnungen aus meiner Hütte, Frankfurt 1997

Deleuze, Gilles: Kant’s Critical Philosophy The Doctrine of the Faculties, London 1984

Fawcett, Chris: The new Japanese House. Ritual and Anti-Ritual. Patterns of Dwelling, Hampshire 1980

Gregson, Nicky: Living without things. Riding, Accomodation, Dwelling, Wantage 2007

Hahn, Hans Peter: Materielle Kultur. Eine Einführung, Berlin 2005

Hendon, Julia A.: Having and Holding. Memory, Knowledge and Social Relations, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 102, Nr. 1, März 2000, 42-53

Kubler, George: The shape of time. Remarks on the history of things, New Haven and London 2008

Latour, Bruno: The Berlin key or how to do words with things, in: P.M. Graves-Brown (ed.): Matter, Materiality and Modern Culture, London 1991

Latour, Bruno: On technical mediation – Philosophy, sociology, genealogy, in: Common Knowledge, Vol.3(2), p.29-64

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Marcoux, Jean-Sébastien: The ›Casser Maison‹ Ritual: Constructing the Self by Emptying the Home, in: Journal of Material Culture 2001/ 6, p. 213 – 235

Marcoux, Jean-Sébastien: The Refurbishment of Memory, in: Miller, Daniel (Ed.): Home Possessions, London 2001, p. 69 – 86

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Stiegler, Bernd: Reisender Stillstand. Eine kleine Geschichte der Reisen im und um das Zimmer herum, Frankfurt 2010


Arte: Gegenangriff. Wirtschaft im Fadenkreuz der Kunst, Sendung vom 26.04.2011

Wild at Heart, (USA 1990, R.: David Lynch)

[1] The paper is based on my magister thesis »Restopia. Self-Storage als urbane Praktik«. And is published in: »Müll. Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven auf das Übrig-Gebliebene«,
herausgegeben von Christiane Lewe, Tim Othold, Nicolas Oxen, Transcript Verlag 2016

[2] Quoted after: Gaston Bachelard: The poetics of space, New York, 2014, p. 90.

[3] Hans-Jörg Rheinberger: Iteration, Berlin 2005, p. 52. (transl. Burke Barrett)

[4] Jean Baudrilliard: The System of Objects, London 1996, p. 103.

[5] Marc Augé: Non-Places. An introduction to supermodernity, London 2008 p. 75-76.

[6] Karin Knorr Cetina: Sociality with Objects. Social Relations in Postsocial Knowledge Societies, in: Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 14(4), p. 1-30, p. 12.

[7] Gaston Bachelard: The poetics of space, New York, 2014, p. 108-109.

[8]I would like to thank the Self-Storage company »MyPlace Selfstorage« for their open arms and their serious interest in this research.

[9] Xavier de Maistre: Die Reise um mein Zimmer, Leipzig 1991

[10] Bernd Stiegler: Reisender Stillstand. Eine kleine Geschichte der Reisen im und um das Zimmer herum, Frankfurt 2010.

[11] »An advantage of this unusual perspective is that sometimes these apparently mute forms can be made to speak more easily and eloquently to the nature of relationships that can those with persons.« and »Surely if we can learn to listen to these things we have access to an authentic other voice. Yes, also contrived, but in a different way from that of language«, writes Daniel Miller, whose book »The comfort of things« was fundamental for my work. In this book Miller portrays the residents of a street in London by way of their things. This uncovers portraits of »cosmologies« with specific values and relations which reflect a relationship to things and thus a relation to the world. Daniel Miller: The comfort of things, Cambridge 2008. (Quotes ibid. p. 286 and p. 1.)

[12] Daniel Miller: The comfort of things, Cambridge 2008, p. 21.

[13] Daniel Miller: The comfort of things, Cambridge 2008, p. 1.

[14] Arte: Gegenangriff. Wirtschaft im Fadenkreuz der Kunst, Sendung vom 26.04.2011. (transl. Petra Beck)

[15] Karin Knorr-Cetina: Sociality with Objects. Social Relations in Postsocial Knowledge Societies, in: Theory, Culture and Society 14 (1997), 4, pp. 1-43.

[16] The variety of possible Self-Storage uses includes many »subversive strategies«, such as trying to use the storage space not only as housing for things, but as housing for humans; like the widower or Else for their work of mourning. There are numerous documented cases in the US, where Selfstorers tried to transform these »hotels for things« into hotels for themselves. My research found that in almost every Self-Storage house there is a homeless person, who keeps their very last belongings there and tries to spend as much time as possible in the house, …

[17] Kamo no Chomei: Hojoki. Aufzeichnungen aus meiner Hütte, Frankfurt 1997, 7. (trans. Petra Beck)

[18] Bernardino de Sahagun quoted after: Julia A. Hendon: Having and Holding. Memory, Knowledge and Social Relations, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 102 (1), March 2000, 42 – 53, 46.

[19] Jean-Sébastien Marcoux: The ›Casser Maison‹ Ritual: Constructing the Self by Emptying the Home, in: Journal of Material Culture 2001/ 6, p. 213 – 235 and Jean-Sébastien Marcoux: The Refurbishment of Memory, in: Miller, Daniel (Ed.): Home Possessions, London 2001, p. 69 – 86.

[20] Bruno Latour: On technical mediation – Philosophy, sociology, genealogy, in: Common Knowledge, Vol.3(2), p.29-64, p. 31. Latour is describing here the materialistic position.

[21] Bruno Latour: The Berlin key or how to do words with things, in: P.M. Graves-Brown (ed.): Matter, Materiality and Modern Culture, London 1991, p. 3.

[22] Hans Peter Hahn: Materielle Kultur. Eine Einführung, Berlin 2005, p. 107.

[23] Hans Peter Hahn: Materielle Kultur. Eine Einführung, Berlin 2005, p.107.

[24] Nicky Gregson: Living without things. Riding, Accomodation, Dwelling, Wantage 2007, p. 161. ERGÄNZEN

[25] Nicolas Cage as »Sailor« in Wild at Heart, (USA 1990, R.: David Lynch)

[26] Willliam Ronald Fairbarn quoted after: Karin Knorr-Cetina: Sociality with Objects. Social Relations in Postsocial Knowledge Societies, in: Theory, Culture and Society 14 (1997), 4, pp. 1-43, p. 15.

[27] Karin Knorr-Cetina: Sociality with Objects. Social Relations in Postsocial Knowledge Societies, in: Theory, Culture and Society 14 (1997), 4, pp. 1-43, p. 12.

[28] Karin Knorr-Cetina: Sociality with Objects. Social Relations in Postsocial Knowledge Societies, in: Theory, Culture and Society 14 (1997), 4, pp. 1-43, p. 16.

[29] Karin Knorr-Cetina: Sociality with Objects. Social Relations in Postsocial Knowledge Societies, in: Theory, Culture and Society 14 (1997), 4, pp. 1-43, p. 23,

Relationships with objects seem to be more sustainable and reliable than human relationships, which more and more become unpredictable. For many it is way easier to say: »I love my iPhone! « then to speak with a similar fervor of their fellow men. »In this scenario, objects may simply be the risk winners of human relationship risks and failures, and of the larger post-social developments«, so Knorr Cetina (p. 23). And she even goes one step further: »A strong thesis of ›Objectualization‹ would imply that objects displace human beings as relationship partners and embedding environments, or that they increasingly mediate human relationships, making the latter dependent on the former. « (p. 1).

[30] Claude Lévi-Strauss: Das wilde Denken, Frankfurt 1997, 31.

[31] Chris Fawcett: The new Japanese House. Ritual and Anti-Ritual. Patterns of Dwelling, Hampshire 1980, p. 175.

[32] Michel de Certeau: The practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley 1988, p. 302.

[33] George Kubler: The shape of time. Remarks on the history of things, New Haven and London 2008, p. 88.

[34] Gilles Deleuze: Kant’s Critical Philosophy The Doctrine of the Faculties, London 1984, 8.

[35] Bruno Latour: On technical mediation – Philosophy, sociology, genealogy, in: Common Knowledge ,Vol.3(2), p.29-64, p. 31.

[36] Julia A. Hendon: Having and Holding. Memory, Knowledge and Social Relations, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 102, Nr. 1, März 2000, 42-53, 50.

[37] Karin Knorr-Cetina: Sociality with Objects. Social Relations in Postsocial Knowledge Societies, in: Theory, Culture and Society 14 (1997), 4, pp. 1-43, p. 15.