Is it therefore a special reading which exculpates itself as a reading by posing every guilty reading the very question that unmasks its innocence, the mere question of its innocence: what is it to read?
Louis Althusser, Lire le capital, (15)1
1. Welcome to your Box
Perhaps you have one.2 Certainly, you’ve seen them as you drive your car from place to place. We refer to self-storage units that now litter on roads, around airports, or in the peripheral transit zones that constitute the spaces between cities. Some of you may have seen them from the bus or the train, but we do not advise visiting them using these modes of transport (assuming that there’s even a stop). Access to a truck or moving van is advised and it will be the pleasure of the staff at the higher end facilities to aid you in renting the vehicle that best suits your storage needs.
These uncanny spaces, faceless, nameless, but awaiting your personal, anonymous, or at least encrypted imprint, offer their users a neurotic compromise in the form of additional room to supplement their full up, no vacancy home and office spaces. You can use them to store things you don’t need or use anymore but that you just can’t sell, throwaway, or arrange to have whisked away by those who specialize in removal. This heavily secured compromise space is located in an indeterminate or yet to be determined zone between home and office, offering a halfway-house or loading zone between a home (residence) and office cubicle (work station). That said, these uneasy supplements, which seem to offer steady state storage, send you in the direction of home-lessness since they are rentals, and their contents subject to seizure in the event that you fail to meet your monthly obligation and void the contract you have signed to secure your stuff.3
Understandably, these units come in many different styles with sizes to fit the most modest or exorbitant of storage needs—appealing to consumers with any number of slogans drawn from the established scripts. “You deserve Extra Space,” opine the sympathetic folks at ExtraSpace.com.4 While PublicStorage.com offers you the certainty of “Another perfect fit”—their website pictures a rolling series of images of cut outs of everyday objects silhouetted against their units, this teletopical figure enabling you already to project your stuff into their otherwise faceless units, mentally freeing up space in your overcrowded home or office. And ecstasy of ecstasies, the instant you roll down that door on the unit, turn the key in the padlock or enter your code on the key pad, that mental cut out that you pictured on their screen will dissolve into the figure of a corrugated metal door and your stuff will be out of here but securely there—a post script to your busy life as the self-abbreviating folks at “PS” (the corporate logo of “PublicStorage.com,”) will simply box it all up.5
Aside from the security self-storage units offer and the democratization of warehousing space (live globally, store locally), the designers of the high end models, seem to have drunk deeply at the font of anthropologist Mary Douglas, mid-twentieth-century phenomenology, and taken as a rule of design that any indication of the presence of another, of dirt, or “matter out of place,” is simply unacceptable, unthinkable.6 This space is for you, their units say, for your stuff and for no one else’s. Indeed, the self storage unit offers itself as an overdeterminedly featureless box, an entirely forgettable container, or series of concentric boundaries (the unit, the corridor, the facility) each so secure, so anonymous, so unavailable to public access—no one will happen by your unit—so fundamentally boring, that you can forget about the permeability of boundaries, sink back in your arm or office chair, and get to work or doze off knowing that your stuff is secure.
Smaller and smaller technical devices that promise to store more and more data. Self-storage offers the same lure in brute low-tech, drive-to, box it up mode. Indeed, it is almost predictable that an online animated advertisement for a computer storage software program should take a hybrid image self-storage units, columbaria, filing boxes, and hotels as its model.
Take charge. Get your move on. Be proactive. “Calculate your storage savings.” You are, like most subjects, a “capital fellow.” 7 Why not then prosecute your advantage and embark on a feel-good Foucauldian regime of self-optimizing rationality that will make possible more use values.8 You will be happy. You will have more funTM. The promise of self-storage is always a phantasmatic sort of extended shelf-life as self-archivalization: there will always be enough space to store your stuff, enough time to tidy everything up, even wrap it up. “Life” will go on—and your life in particular.
It’s easy to read this promise of calculation and optimization as a call to a Freudian death drive impulse, offering the user little more than an overcoat of protection against an anxiety disorder which is less about keeping your things from being stolen than whether or not there will exist a search engine sufficient to finding and retrieving the nearly useless things and data you cannot delete and that never reach an expiration date.9 And so, your home comes to be directed by a future outside it, life redefined or made readable as what we call “shelf-life,” as the ongoing process of sorting, categorizing, making cuts, decisions, hollowed out in advance, in anticipation of a future that may or may not come but for which it would be irresponsible not to prepare. So you must ask yourself: ‘Are you prepared?’
Renting a self-storage unit then, is like preparing for your death, the unit a placeholder for a vault, pyramid, crypt, or time capsule. The self-storage unit resembles other kinds of storage spaces, libraries and pawnshops, but differs from them in that, because the mail system no longer works as a relay because there is no address to deliver the mail, the renter selects the contents to be stored and exercises a kind of sovereignty over the contents, deciding what has value (sentimental, cash or both) and hence stored, and what can be thrown away, donated, or sold. The migratory aspects of self-storage add to its singularity in that decisions about its contents are not permanent. Unlike a library, the contents of which are at least imagined to endure forever, if eventually only in digital form, and to be replaced when lost, if possible, the duration of the lives of the things stored has no fixed or predetermined duration, no fixed “shelf-life.” New things may be taken out, new things may be added; a storage unit may be exhausted and closed or additional units may be rented. It all depends on how much stuff it takes to free your “life” from the stuff that threatens arrest.
That’s the theory anyway. But how exactly should we categorize the appearance of these uncanny boxes, which have sprung up like so many de-accessorized motels waiting neither for persons nor their pets but for their stuff? How should we understand or better yet model the “event” that “self-storage” constitutes within the infrastructure of home, work, and play, or the doling out of somatic and psychic “events” such as birth, aging, dying, death? In a world in which the citizen-people-consumers of the West are induced to accrete more and more stuff, the appearance of self-storage units in the post-World War Two landscape may be judged an inevitable result of the confusion or cross-cutting of boundaries that results from late Capitalist or always Capitalist stop and flow mechanisms.10 Surely then these units merely represent a bit of extra space, a bit of respite for those of us who are doing our level best to get “well” in the world (input equals output) and so “reduce, re-use, recycle,” but who nevertheless remain on the grid. Surely, self-storage manifests merely as a hub on the way to the landfill, enabling you to place your various “things” in purgatory; some of them will be redeemed, some damned. It all depends on whose prayers get sung longest or loudest in your inner chantry or the chantry that is your family unit.
For us “self-storage” resonates then with any number of critical projects to inventory or analyze the adumbrated spaces and temporalities that make up our built worlds—most obviously with Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, but also with the cultural geography of David Harvey, Mike Davis, Edward Soja, Nicholas Entriken, and company, as well as the traveling theory of James Clifford, the monographs or singularity writings of Pierre Augé, and the exhaustive project to inventory France’s poetically named lieux de mémoire (places of memory) directed by Pierre Nora.11 That said, even as “self-storage” seems entirely congruent with theories of post-, super- or hyper-modernity, and so immediately readable, immediately available, at a reduced rate, if you like, and with negligible move in costs, for us to store or marshal our cultural studies “stuff,” we seek to maintain a critical uncertainty with regard to what exactly the “self-storage” event might be said to mean, might come to mean, or represent. Rather than taking the appearance of such units as a “matter of fact,” as one more thing to be noted and archived, we treat “self storage” as what Donna Haraway calls a “matter of concern,” a phenomenon that may (or may not) have the power to change the relationships between actors (persons, animals, tools, things) constituted in and by the various networks that constitute our common world.12