Do I Absolutely Need a Penguin Snow Mold? Sure.
Why owning stuff is deeply human — and at times, deeply joyful
Yes, I have stopped using plastic straws, and no, I don’t support runaway capitalism. But I just bought a penguin-shaped mold for making penguin-shaped snow sculptures, and damn does it add joy to my day. I’ve already used it to whip up a blizzard of perfectly beaked snow-guys. It definitely adds a touch of happy to the gruel of shoveling out the driveway — not to mention a moment of release from the difficulties of Covid life.
In spite of my many flaws, I’m not an especially materialistic person — and “retail therapy” is not really my thing. And yet, I find that even just looking at this whimsical little blob of plastic makes me smile. So it got me thinking: What is “stuff” and how do we relate to it? And how is it that stuff can sometimes bring us joy even when we know there is more to life than doodads and even when we know there are unjust socioeconomic structures enabling its production?
The answers undoubtedly sit somewhere in the intersections of economics, psychoanalysis, and political philosophy. Which is to say: There is no quick way to answer the “stuff” questions. That said, we can perhaps begin to crack the mystery of blue-winged snow toys by considering the complexity of the word “own.” On the one hand, “own” signals the ills of gas-guzzling Hummers, the inequities of 1%, and long-standing histories of oppression. On the other hand, “own” signals the possessive grammatical forms we use to point to who we are: my self; your self; our selves. When it comes to describing what it is like to be human, we talk about having our existence: In some sense, many of us resonate with the sentiment that “our being is ours” even as we recognize that our lives are intertwined with the world and the people around us, and even as we wrestle to remedy the fact that not all people had or have equal opportunities to take up their being as their own.
In this way, “own” signals the worst excesses and inequities but also the most basic parameters of life. Owning is not simply a site of capitalist rot; it is also a site of human hope. When thinkers from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Frantz Fanon to Gloria Anzaldua put forward any number of…