It’s hard to live with some objects, and even harder to get rid of them
Image: By Konrad Klinkner for Real Life.
This essay is part of Home Icons, a series about the cultural and material histories of domestic objects. Read the others here.
I am troubled by this corkpull. For one, it has to live in a drawer with all the other handheld kitchen tools including the cutlery. The knives, forks, and spoons have their segmented tray, but everything else just jumbles around. There are two ladles, much to my annoyance. The whisk always gets other things stuck in its wiry loops, loose chopsticks and metal skewers jamming up the works. In terms of burdensomeness, the corkpull has them beat: Its thick bulk reads to me as something like arrogance, incommensurate with its simple, single task. It’s this Oxo guy. Black, textured plastic, brushed steel (truly the worst finish, my fingers shrivel just thinking about it) and a top piece that clicks out to reveal a separate tool for cutting the foil.
Of course, it works impeccably. Unlike the two perfectly serviceable and far suaver waiters’ friend wine openers that also live in the drawer, the Oxo is effortless. Place the huge unit on top of the naked cork, twist the upper handle while holding the main shaft in place, and the corkscrew descends. It swivels down smoothly to pierce the cork until — without any additional pressure from the twisting hand — the cork begins to lift, up and out with a very quiet pop. Great. I suppose I should be happy to own such a perfectly functional piece, no muss, no fuss, no danger of injury, but what can I say? It’s ugly and I don’t like it.
You may not be surprised to hear that it was a gift. Life would be simpler if it had never entered the house, but between the gift-ness and its unfortunate excellence at performing its single task, I haven’t been able to get rid of it. Marcel Mauss, in his inquiry into the anthropology of the gift, asks “What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?” The gift corkscrew is freighted with a psychic weight that can’t be directly repaid, but can’t be forgotten. Despite its aesthetic offenses and the anxiety it causes me, sending it on to the abyss of the Goodwill donation bin or the eternity of the landfill feels irresponsible. And so I’m stuck with it, the unwilling caretaker for this and a panoply of other shitty objects that found their way into my small apartment.
I should be happy to own such a perfectly functional piece, no muss, no fuss, no danger of injury, but what can I say? It’s ugly and I don’t like it
It’s hard to live with objects these days. I want to surround myself with tools that help me perform my daily tasks, or beautiful objects that are frivolous but nice to look at and touch. I want things that last a long time, that are easy to fix, and that didn’t damage the people who made them or the places their materials were extracted from. The Oxo corkpull and a thousand other objects in my drawers and closets feel like barely-tolerable stowaways, unwanted gifts foisted on me by the complex and inexorable machinations of an economic system bent on destruction. “Every single thing you see is future trash,” says Robin Nagle, anthropologist of material cultures and anthropologist-in-residence at the New York Department of Sanitation. This system that “not only generates so much trash, but relies upon the accelerating production of waste for its own perpetuation” is big and cruel. The corkpull is a tiny piece of flotsam on a tide of material that flows through ships, stores, houses, hands, and all I can do is try desperately to manage the rivulet running through my own life. I hate it here.
The Oxo Steel Corkpull (which appears to no longer be on the market) was part of Oxo’s extensive Good Grips line. You probably recognize them: Oxo has achieved incredible market penetration, one of the only brands of kitchen implements almost universally available at local hardware stores, fancy kitchen stores, and suburban Targets alike. In search of a pizza cutter? Oxo is likely to be the first one you come across. Citrus zester? Oxo. The chubby black handles and rubberized grips are instantly recognizable, if slightly annoying because of how much drawer space each stout item requires. The handles are chubby for a reason, though: accessibility. Industrial designer and businessman Sam Farber was spurred to design a better peeler in the 1990s after conversations with his wife Betsey, whose mild arthritis made it uncomfortable to use a conventional steel peeler. The first Oxo Good Grips tool (the now-legendary Swivel Peeler) was designed through a long R&D process with input from the American Arthritis Association and others. The fat, blunt profile that I resent so much on my corkpull? A game changer for many people previously excluded by kitchenware design. Oxo did inclusive design before there was a name for it, and got accessible peelers and can openers into a million kitchen drawers without most of us even noticing.
Oxo’s incredible success made it ubiquitous, and ubiquity makes anything boring. Oxo, in its market-dominating omnipresence, now smacks of Bed Bath and Beyond, suburban kitchens with oak cabinets and oversized kitchen islands. In all likelihood, this is why I hate the corkpull. “There is an economy of cultural goods, but it has a specific logic,” wrote Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction, his analysis of the hegemonic function and formation of cultural taste. Like many of my peers who came into apartment-furnishing adulthood in the era of Kinfolk magazine, the cast iron revival, and Best Made Company’s bespoke handpainted axes, I’m stuck with residual snobbery and a corny lust for beautiful-yet-authentic home goods.
Oxo did inclusive design before there was a name for it, and got accessible peelers and can openers into a million kitchen drawers without most of us noticing
In today’s visually-saturated, image-first era, the formation of taste is changing, as fancy schools and the opinions of patrician elders are no longer the key gatekeepers of visual discernment. Over the past decade, I have felt my taste and desire pulled along by the the algorithmic flow of Instagram ads and internet-enabled small-batch makers, getting weirder in one direction (a crappily hand-illustrated surrealist Garfield T-shirt? Sure) and more normie in the other (who doesn’t like a knock-off mid-century credenza). In this complex constellation of cool and uncool, good-weird and bad-weird, the Oxo corkscrew is a bit of a void. Unlike the elevated home goods companies whose neo-casserole dishes and linen sheets permeate my feed, Oxo isn’t out to trade on nostalgia or appeal to the rarefied taste of its audience. It’s just here to be regular. But at a time when any home object from trivet to coat hook can be called upon to signify taste, class, authenticity, or quirkiness, giving in to Oxo feels almost like a failure of curation.
For its refusal to signify, its bulk, and its sheer unnecessariness in my already-overstuffed drawer, I’ve been ready to ditch this corkpull for months. During the pandemic, though, it’s even more impossible than usual to get rid of things. After a year inside with all my objects, clutter has taken on a malevolent unruliness, tote bags procreating inside other tote bags and external hard drives with unknown contents taunting from the back of the closet. Boxes and paper grocery bags pile up along the hallway, full of things to be gotten rid of. But the thrift stores and donation drop-offs are still closed, or have limited hours. And you know that most of those things don’t get sold.
I know it’s not entirely my fault, this material glut that accumulates in drifts and droves, turning my apartment, and probably yours, into a way station for wayward objects. Discard studies, an emerging interdisciplinary field that centers on waste and cultures of wasting, provides a framing for thinking about this stuff and the trash it becomes. As scholar Max Liboiron notes, “modern waste is an economic strategy.” In the face of diminishing profits and opportunities for easy growth, American industry developed the idea of “disposability” via “planned obsolescence, single-use items, cheap materials, throw-away packaging, fashion, and conspicuous consumption.” Not all cheap items are disposable, but the convenience of urban trash collection, low cost of products, and difficulty of repairing many modern home goods means that disposing of things has come to feel natural, inevitable. And here I am, trying to stave off that inevitability and figure out how to shepherd a motley array of kitchen implements and old extension cords through an uncaring world. As Steven Phillips-Horst tweeted, on the aesthetic and moral wretchedness of a Container Store paper towel holder: “I’m meant to be this heinous dildo’s nanny between a Chinese factory and a Jersey landfill?? I’d rather die.”
Some economists and sustainability specialists believe we can design our way out of this material impasse. If dirt or waste are, as the refrain goes, “matter out of place,” then champions of the “circular economy” — as opposed to the extractive “linear” economy, where “take, make, waste” is the norm — seek to keep matter in place and in play, through reuse, repair, and recycling materials. In a circular system, products are designed so that materials that can’t be reused or repaired in their current form ideally become input for other processes — tin cans smelted and reshaped into new vessels, or modular components refashioned into new arrangements. At their most rigorous, circular economy models aim to decouple economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, designing to reduce waste from pre-production onwards.
Maybe there’s karma for materials, and my embarrassing ergonomic corkpull will be reborn into a new body, renewed and whole
The dream that objects can be cycled back into innocent inputs is powerful and poignant. Maybe there’s karma for materials, and my embarrassing ergonomic corkpull will be reborn into a new body, renewed and whole. I imagine my $10 Target toaster ratcheting apart like an exploded view diagram, each component labeled and registered and ready to be redeployed, flying off to a new home in some other toaster or modular appliance. Each rusty screw and plastic molecule valorized once again. More than likely, though, the toaster will end up in a landfill, its crummy electronic components and janky carapace too wretched to bother with.
As it filters out into strategic plans and corporate discourse, the circular economy threatens to become subsumed by empty jargon, a wishful framework that serves to unburden producers of the responsibility to account for their material impacts. A few materials can be remade effectively — glass, for example, can theoretically be melted and recycled infinitely with no quality loss, as long as systems and markets are in place to facilitate it (which they aren’t — the U.S. glass recycling rate is only 33 percent). Most objects are made of mixed materials, though, which adds to the challenge of disassembly and reuse or recycling. Today I’m squishing my guts with a pair of 100-percent cotton Levi’s, which could conceivably be shredded and respun into new (lower quality, “down-cycled”) fabric, but many days my pants are a cotton-spandex-polyester mashup, a notably un-circular blend that’s likely to end up in the scrap heap. Still, my jeans and my stupid corkpull are almost beside the point. Municipal waste only makes up a small fraction of the country’s refuse — most waste is industrial, and most waste from consumer goods is produced during the mining and dying and assembly stages, long before the dishtowels and ballpoint pens make it to our shopping carts.
The artist Mike Kelley has a famous 1987 work called “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid.” It’s a large wall hanging, around 8 by 10 feet, constructed of dozens of handmade dolls and stuffed toys found at thrift stores and stitched together in a wonky melange over handmade afghan blankets. I think about it a lot. Mostly the title, which echoes in my head whenever I see a handmade quilt someone’s grandma sewed for them, or a hand-knit sweater. I used to knit. I know how long it takes (that’s why I no longer knit). “The hidden burden of the gift is that it calls for payback,” writes Kelley, “but the price is unspecified, repressed.” When I spot an heirloom quilt on a friend’s bed, I don’t envy them no matter how gorgeous the quilt. I’m relieved it’s not me sleeping under that unrequitable weight. For Kelley, the “uncanny aura” of the craft item is connected to time — the sheer duration of embodied labor-time required to knit, sew, saw or stitch by hand, especially in an era of industrial production that makes handcrafting an almost ostentatious choice. Unlike the commodity, the value of a handmade object is unclear, opaque. “The equation is not between time and money; it is a more obscure relationship drawn between time and commitment,” freighting the object with mysterious worth, and the receiver with an endless feeling of indebtedness.
As it filters out into strategic plans and corporate discourse, the circular economy threatens to become subsumed by empty jargon
In recent months, even a mass produced object will conjure that More Love Hours feeling in me — the poignance and horror of the material world labored over and offered up as a gift, a burden. I hold the corkpull, and I think of the prehistory of its materials extracted from the ground, the chemical manufacturing to form the plastic compounds, the digital piecework of design logistics, marketing, the molding and unfolding and packaging and shipping and handling and retail. It’s such a weight to hold in my hand. The hours aren’t love hours, necessarily — rather chemical hours and deep-time sedimentary hours, pain hours and R&D hours. More hours than I can ever repay.
Of the craft object, Kelley notes “the seeming contradiction that their emotional weight far exceeds the worth of the cheap and lowly materials from which they are constructed.” Now that I’m in the galaxy-brain mindset to sense these mineral-chemical-pain-sweat-deeptime hours, every damn object in the house drags on me like a thousand grim photo editorials of burning e-waste. Who put me in charge of these objects? Me, a fleeting flesh bag? There’s a Bjork song on Post which goes “All the modern things / Like cars and such / Have always existed” which is how I feel: I’m surrounded by metals and pottery and oak end tables that existed long before I did. As a transient, momentary blip compared with the long possible afterlives of these things (corkpulls and spoons and empty lip balm tubes) I’m just not up to the task.
This is not a healthy way to live. My disordered relationship to everyday objects feels like a kind of orthorexia: Object orthorexia. Orthorexia is an eating disorder where the sufferer has an extreme fixation with the “purity” of their foods or with rules-based eating to the extent that it’s harmful to their physical or mental health, sometimes to the degree that they lose too much weight, or retreat from public life. I imagine orthorexics picking up a radish and inspecting it for invisible dirt, shuddering at the thought that pesticides may have absorbed into its flesh, or imagining a malevolent food scientist splicing and modifying the radish genes. Object-wise, that’s pretty much where I’m at. Paralytic in the face of any piece of ephemera, calculating the carbon emissions, AWS server space, and copper wire required to bring it to me, and the transit hours and recycling sorter’s repetitive strain injury and future off-gassing inside the landfill that lie in its future.
Like most disordered eaters, my disordered relationship to objects is probably about a desire for control. A manifestation of my unresolvable relationship with the wretched extractive systems that brought this corkpull to me, its unwilling carer. “No ethical consumption under capitalism,” I tell myself. And yet the sense of vertigo and horror persists, flaring up any time I think about the sheer number of material, human, and energy inputs that converge in a single crappy kitchen implement. It makes it hard to live with things, and even harder to be rid of them.
This kind of vertiginous horror in the face of a seemingly cruel and infinite supply chain is reflected on a larger and more academic scale in the recent rise of critical logistics and supply chain studies. “If the corporate goal is to build a supply chain so seamless that its existence barely registers with consumers, such researchers seek to turn this process inside out, exposing the human and environmental costs obscured by slick design and packaging,” writes Jackie Brown in her recent essay surveying the field of supply studies. From mapping projects that follow the chemical, digital, material and labor inputs used in an Amazon Echo device upstream to their points of origin to genealogies of logistics that trace out the links between globalized production to militarization and collective violence, these projects seek to chart out small parts of a system so complex and flexible that it’s impossible for any individual to grasp.
Object-wise, orthorexic is pretty much where I’m at. Paralytic in the face of any piece of ephemera, calculating the carbon emissions, recycling sorters’ repetitive strain injuries, and future off-gassing that lie in its future
While the conclusions are different and the methods are more empirical, supply studies — especially those projects that seek to map specific supply chains or trace the provenance of particular objects — has something in common with other strains of contemporary conspiratorial thinking. In both critical logistics studies and the more Q-addled corners of the internet, people are driven to distraction trying to reverse-engineer a system that is purposely obscured, piecing together clues to see who’s behind the curtain and how we’re being screwed. This mode of paranoid reading, the “highly compelling tracing-and-exposure project” as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick describes in her famous essay, is a “position of terrible alertness,” of trying to uncover hidden connections and cruelty whose existence are assumed, if unseen. Emily Apter describes this paranoid orientation to logistics and globalization as “oneworldness,” referring to “a delirious aesthetics of systematicity; to the match between cognition and globalism that is held in place by the paranoid premise that ‘everything is connected.’”
Apter charts manifestations of oneworldness through the creative paranoia of Mark Lombardi, whose diagrammatic drawings of global political and economic scandals “painstakingly ‘follow the money’ through offshore bank accounts, shell companies, and pyramid schemes” to Y2K-era hacker films and Pynchon novels. Supply studies finds a slightly different conclusion in its tracing of shipping manifests and lithium mines: No one culprit, no conspiracy of globalists or monomaniacal billionaires, but an endlessly networked set of dependencies and nodes with nothing at the center. A hole in the world where all the money goes. Some supplies studies projects offer interventions or solutions, mapping chokepoints where capital could be disrupted and solidarity forged, or revealing fraud and injustice in the hope that knowledge, however terrible, might prompt action or change. Still, the cumulative effect of these painstaking network maps and incomplete atlases reveals logistics as a cthulic other, uncanny in its endlessness and inscrutability.
Where does this leave me? A tiny paranoid speck in an ocean of microplastics. Here in the house, surrounded by a constellation of objects I never really wanted but can’t discard, cursed to imagine their past lives and the lives of everyone that touched them. “Things sold still have a soul,” writes Mauss. “They are still followed around by their former owner, and they follow him also.” Like a disturbed child from a Victorian storybook I arrange these things in a circle around me — a mad hatter’s tea party — but instead of a litany of stuffed animals and spooky dolls I’m stewarding promotional Nalgene bottles, boxes of convenient sizes, and back-up spatulas. I suppose I just keep them. Hold them and hold onto them until they become sacred, accruing value through ritual and nostalgia and thought exercises that send me back in time and up the supply chain past supermarket cashiers and drill press operators and industrial designers and miners to the sedimentary layer on the ocean floor.
This story does have a happy ending. Last month, after seven years into our awkward relationship, the corkpull cracked apart in my hand as I was using it — its spring and other internal components exploding out, much like I’d fantasized, and ricocheting across the kitchen. I rounded up the pieces and put them in the trash, unburdened.
Kelly Pendergrast is a writer, researcher, and curator based in San Francisco. She works with ANTISTATIC on technology and environmental justice, and she writes about natures, visual culture, and laboring bodies.