Second quarter.

I seem to have missed three months. And I acquired heaps of new things in that time. Most of it was while travelling, though, and I did tell myself all bets were off while overseas. The trip itself was, though not an object, a very resource-intensive luxury, and by far the most expensive thing I’ve bought all year, but then visiting my relatives also felt like a social necessity.

Purchases, Shanghai:

  • one pair of prescription glasses (which I don’t need just yet but my current ones are beginning to fall apart and I figured I’d need new ones before the next time I could afford to go overseas — they are about a tenth of the price in China that they are here!)
  • one pair of prescription sunglasses (this will be the first time in about ten years I have had sunglasses — I didn’t miss them but now that I have them I realise how much my eyes were straining in sunlight)
  • a shirt, two dresses, a pair of shoes, two necklaces, some underwear (no excuse at all)
  • this book
  • a postcard by a Chinese artist whose name I’ve forgotten and I’m too lazy to take it off my wall to check
  • two ShanghaiPRIDE badges
  • a pair of woollen tights because it suddenly got really cold one day

Other acquisitions

  • a new laptop (gift from my grandparents — amazing!)
  • a bag and a jewellery box from my aunt
  • a bag and scarf from my other aunt

Purchases/acquisitions, Kuala Lumpur

  • this book (I really like the first story and a couple of others, there are some terrible ones too though)
  • some comics/zines by Shieko
  • sticker for an awesome band Shh…Diam! (which I think is also designed by Shieko)
  • 5000 mosquito bites

The laptop is a pretty big deal — and it makes this project kind of redundant, given that it was probably at the top of the list of new things I was considering. It does put me and Felix on a bit of a more equal footing — not that it’s a competition but he came into this project with a new bike, laptop, PSP and other tech while I had a bike I bought five years ago that’s probably 30 years old, Felix’s old laptop, and Felix’s old iPod. For me technology is a bit harder to buy second-hand compared to things like furniture or clothes, because I don’t have the knowledge to judge its quality or the skills to fix it, so I prefer to buy something new with a warranty.

In other news, Felix and I have been struggling with not buying the newspaper, especially on Saturdays, so we keep going out for coffee just so we can do the crossword. It’s been really sweet, actually, making a proper date of it, but obviously it’s not really in the spirit of reducing consumption. I think one effect of the No New Year project is that my extravagant impulses are re-directed towards food (to the detriment of seafood sustainability, it has to be said). Felix and I have told our families not to buy us presents this year, but I think it would be easy to do gifts with No New Year in mind – second-hand goods, or food, or tickets to events.

I had planned an awesome date with Felix on the weekend, where we would go to ACMI Screen Worlds exhibit where you can film yourselves and have a flip book made of your stop-motion scene. And then we realised that the flipbook would be a NNY violation, but this was a case where the idea of the date was almost as good as doing it — which isn’t true for most things, especially not food (I’m reading Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina at the moment, and it has a scene where they’re really hungry and talk about all the things they could be eating – so dissatisfying). In any case, ACMI is always a great date, especially the Mediatheque where you can grab a booth and watch full feature length films for free. My friends disapprove of movie dates but I like them, though probably more when you already know someone. Maybe one day I’ll make a guide for free or cheap dates in Melbourne.

I’ve also resolved some of the issues I had in previous posts. My housemate found some earphones for me in a bin, and gave me her old mobile phone. We also managed to furnish our living room and replace the kitchenware we needed with all second-hand goods. The furniture is pretty exciting: we got a red vinyl four-seater sofa bed, two matching armchairs, a hunter green upholstered three-seater sofa and matching armchair for $60 – that’s averages out at $6 per seat which is pretty good I think. It’d definitely be possible to acquire that amount of furniture for free (from Freecycle, Gumtree or roadside hard rubbish) but given neither of us own cars, it was too hard to co-ordinate it with opportunities to borrow transport, plus we wanted something we really liked — when you live up several flights of very narrow stairs, all furniture is a commitment.

I was thinking the other day how speaking honestly and explicitly about money can be really powerful, how so much economic injustice is buried by this idea that talking about money is bad taste. I think this is mostly a (Western) middle class aesthetic — like in Mad Men (S2E7) when Sally Draper asks her mother, “Are we rich?” and Betty replies that they’re comfortable but it’s impolite to talk about money. My family are fairly open about money — I grew up hearing the bill read out at the end of a meal, and whenever I received red envelopes from relatives, my parents would count the cash so they could ensure they were giving an equivalent amount — but I’ve still been taught a lot of values about money that I’m starting to reject.

Most of them are about being (or seeming) respectable, which is really about not seeming desperately poor — for example, you don’t go through bins or squat or steal because we’re not that poor. And I think there’s something to be said for that, when it’s understood as something like, don’t take things from people who need it more, but it can also be this way to stop poor people from getting what they need out of a sense of pride. When it’s institutionalised — eg when welfare programs means-test or demand other evidence of poverty — it means poorer people suffer extra surveillance and have to trade “pride” and privacy for getting material goods they need.

The inverse is that if you pay for something, you don’t have to account for it — you don’t have to prove why you need it or deserve it — especially if you’re the one “making” the money. I think sometimes when people first start getting paid for work they often pick up this kind of thinking, even if they don’t believe in capitalism, even if deep down they know that having a paycheck in your name doesn’t translate to having “earned” anything. And really the people who are most held to account for their spending aren’t landed gentry or celebrity heiresses or lottery winners or those who did well with stocks, they’re people on welfare. But obviously if you’ve been up all day and night scrubbing dishes or sucking cock or whatever, it does feel like you have to have earned something. Whatever it is, it probably isn’t the right to more resources. I’m not saying that everyone should give away everything they earn — I don’t — but I do think we like to compare our extravagances to those who are far wealthier than us, because it’s inconvenient to think about people who are much poorer instead.

Another thing: good taste is irrelevant — as a justification for spending money, if we’re talking about capitalism and poverty. I mean, throwing a steampunk themed party in a reproduction dirigible where the invitations are in period-authentic type is just as obscene, in this regard, as any tacky wedding with a crystal-laden gown that detaches to show off the bridal g-string and a procession of Hummer limos. They might differ in terms of environmental impact, I don’t have the knowledge to offer you a comparison.

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Second month.

I still haven’t bought anything new, but mostly because I have been procrastinating from various tasks that would have required first-round consumption.

Audrey, my darling bicycle, is well wrecked — Felix tried to fix her but just broke her harder — and I’ve left her chained up at the station for almost three weeks because I haven’t had the time, money or inclination to take her for repairs given the rain. (I am, sheepishly but stolidly, a fair weather cyclist.) I might go to the bike repair workshop at Loophole to get a used wheel but it will take a lot longer than giving her over to a bike shop, and possibly still result in failure.

When it comes to manual tasks, I oscillate between being an obsessive perfectionist and a flaky slob. I will lace boots so that every cross is flat and facing the same direction; organise my bookshelf alphabetically by author, then chronologically by first publication date; and make elaborate paper cuts and cards and wrap gifts with surgical precision; but sew zips on with sloppy darning stitches; get halfway on greasing my chain and give up; or start making soup and get hungry and eat the half-sautéed ingredients. Okay, after writing that it’s obvious that I’m pedantic about the logic and aesthetics of things, blasé about restoring things to good working order, and terribly terribly impatient.

Anyhow, my headphones are also broken, but they work if I twiddle them a bit and it discourages me from listening to music while riding, which is probably good for my safety. Also my housemate is moving out, so there’ll be quite a few things ey’s taking with em that I need to replace, but I have a couple more weeks to prepare for that. I’ll start looking out for things in op shops, on Freecycle and in hard rubbish. My phone stopped working for two days as well, but it seems alright again, so let’s hope it holds up, especially as Felix and I have already exhausted the supply of spare phones among our networks this year.

Toiletries are something I’ve been thinking about. Cotton buds (q-tips), cosmetic wipes, emery boards — all things that are technically consumables, all things I don’t actually need. Should I just stop wearing make-up? Are there reusable alternatives? I do use a metal file instead of emery boards but I use a buffer for the tops which needs replacing every few months or so, and I have developed a bit of a thing for home pedicures.

Felix and I have talked about how hygiene is determined by social demands as well as practical needs — and social function is one way to measure health. But what about when those social demands are problematic? Don’t understandings of health that are based on social outcomes serve to calcify coercive norms of behaviour — eg, that a healthy person is one who is employed in the capitalist labour market, who enjoys the consumption of media and other ordinary pastimes, who has conventional relationships — rather than, say, health being measured as your capacity to engage in work, pleasure and relationships that are meaningful or enriching for you.

I think a conception of health wholly based on individual intention and desire can be problematic too (in how it would read psychosis, for example — but probably fine for neurosis), but probably not as much as one wholly based on social expectations. There is plenty of feminist analysis I could refer to here, on how the unholy marriage of patriarchy and capitalism produce the most rigid and sometimes violent beauty standards, but I’m not sure where to start. It comes up on Jezebel a lot — perhaps too much, at the expense of other issues. But maybe that’s my privilege talking — or at least, the particularities of my body and its experiences.

All this is a digression, because I know I don’t need to buff my nails. But I do need to wash, much more often than I need to wash in order to keep clean, in order to keep my job. And the level of grooming that’s expected of me as a woman in society generally is a lot higher than for men, and the scrutiny of my looks more intense. I’m in a social position where I can resist that pretty easily, but I’m sensitive to the pressure.

Anyhow, since No New Year began I have acquired a face wash, moisturiser with sunscreen, toothpaste, and nail polish remover. Luckily I don’t need disposable pads or tampons, as I use a menstrual cup in conjunction with cloth pads, and I don’t use perfume, deodorant, or any shaving/waxing products (though I have tweezers for eyebrows). I lost an eyeliner brush at some point, which I would like to replace, but I suppose I will hold out unless I can get one second hand (which seems unlikely — the only place I’ve seen used make-up brushes sold was on the Vogue forums which has since shut down its sale section).

I guess this is still the same problem I had last month: Do I want to alter my style/taste completely in order to lower my consumption? If I either grew my hair long or kept it shaved, and stopped wearing make-up completely, that would cancel many of my toiletry needs. If I give in to my bad skin, I could get by on just a toothbrush, toothpaste, and soap. I could actually ditch the soap and I would be fine. I wouldn’t lose my job, and I know enough hot crusty punks that it’s not going to affect my social life. And it would be pretty cool to have nothing in the bathroom except a toothbrush and toothpaste (maybe dental floss, too — I’ve had two unnecessary extractions already, and at 23, that’s not so great).

But right now I’m wearing pink and gold eyeshadow, metallic blue on my toes. And it looks real good, and I don’t want to give it up. It’s not essential to my livelihood or my identity. I could say that everyone needs nice things and I do think that’s true to a point, but I’m aware that this defence of decadence sounds like Amy on True Blood, the v addict who kills a vampire to drain him for his blood and says something like “a lot of bad things have happened in my life so I deserve this”. Except I haven’t had a lot of bad things happen in my life. Does everyone deserve nail polish?

I don’t know where I’m going with this. Maybe I’ll buy new make-up pads, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll buy them and feel guilty and then be annoyed because I’m fairly committed to not feeling guilty about consumer choices. Whatever.

Here are some things I’m definitely not going to buy, though I want them very much (helpfully, I can’t afford them anyway):

I don’t understand why I hated being dressed like a little girl when I was one and now it’s all I want. I think I would have had an easier time of this when I was eight and hated girly shit. On the flipside, femininity is famously crafty, and I’m sure I’ll find a way.

Also, I nearly forgot: I paid for it before this project commenced, but I’m subscribed to Overland. So I was wrong, I have bought something new that’s in no way a consumable and I will renew my subscription even if it comes up before this project finishes: I think supporting new Australian writing and left-wing criticism is worthwhile, for sure. I’m really happy for Overland to be the only literature I buy. I guess I could donate money and read it at the library though. Hmm. Maybe I’ll do that.

First month.

So, as far as I can remember I haven’t bought anything new except consumables (food, drink, toiletries) but I haven’t really succeeded in cutting down unnecessary consumption either.

Yesterday I bought a dress, even though I have more dresses than I have friends, just because, well, I don’t have a vintage safari dress and it was $5. And I would probably have got more if they’d fit me (heads up, if you’re size 8-10, there’s two fabulous ball gowns at Lost & Found Market on Smith Street, for $10 each — one is strapless with a black velvet bodice and magenta taffeta trim and skirt, the other is long-sleeved, off-the-shoulder black velvet). My darling friend also bought me the killerest shoes when on holiday, which are no less an extravagance for being second-hand.

I agree with what Felix said about op shops operating as a pressure valve for any guilt we feel about new purchases. Op shops don’t represent, and have never represented, a closed cycle — the majority of goods sold are second-hand only, donated by their first owner, and in terms of clothing, usually only a few years old. Even if I never buy anything new, I usually only buy things that are effectively new — no holes or stains, not too faded or worn. (A princess aesthetic is less suited to this project than a punk’s, I think.) And though I take pretty good care of my things (I am still wearing a dress I had my Confirmation in, twelve years and many ideologies ago), I have to acknowledge that the things I donate to op shops tend to be in poorer condition than the things I purchase from them, if only slightly.

Op shops actually justify fast fashion, in many ways — though op shops have much more trouble selling last season’s chain-store threads compared to anything that can be classed “vintage” — because just the motion of tossing something that’s nearly new into the garbage might be enough to make us think more about our consumption. Putting your unwanted things into a donation bag instead of the bin gives away the responsibility for waste — in many cases, simply to the op shop staff, who throw out unmarketable items. Like any recycling system, op shops depend on the uptake of post-consumer waste, but (like most recycling systems), far more people contribute to the input than purchase the outputs.

My and Felix’s relationships to clothes make for an interesting comparison. I probably have ten times more clothes than ey does. The average length of time we’ve had each item is probably similar — I acquire new things all the time, but Felix doesn’t have anything old. I can’t remember the last time I wore through something, though Felix’s clothes are always falling to pieces. This is mostly because any one piece in my wardrobe is on such low rotation, but I think I do take better care of my things too. I polish my shoes, hem my trousers, replace buttons, and have shoes resoled (only in China though because here it costs more than my shoes ever do). But once things start to look ratty, I don’t wear them so much — I am aware that my style is less suited to environmental consciousness than others. And I don’t accept that it’s simply a style, a preference; I don’t accept depoliticising aesthetics in that way. I prefer to present myself in a way that is associated with higher class, greater wealth, and which requires more resources — regardless of the direct financial cost, I like to look expensive. I think that’s a problem.

The concept of style is clumsy when applied to what one wears: Arguably, designers have style, but a consumer’s aesthetics are more appropriately called taste. And taste is never quite individual. This is especially apparent when talking about taste in people, particularly lovers — I think everyone could quite easily critique what they find sexy, for example, by reference to popular constructions of sexiness. And it’s probably quite obvious that a taste for, say, the classic quilted Chanel handbag with the chain shoulder strap is not purely aesthetic (especially this season). But alternative tastes are equally situated within an aesthetic culture. This isn’t to say that your tastes aren’t genuine. I have never believed that knowing why you love what you love diminishes it. But I don’t think it’s possible to draw a line between one’s aesthetics and the status we try to achieve through our consumer identities. Less I shop therefore I am than you are what you buy. And I think this still goes for things you don’t pay for.

I really want this project to be something other than the ultimate in rebellious consumption for counter-cultural status, but I don’t have high hopes. I think there are still some choices that aren’t consumer choices, but late capitalism is constantly compressing that space.

x Gauche

P.S. If you click on one link in this entry, that last one is the best. Or for some light entertainment, watch Katy Perry versus Karl Marx.

Before shot.

I’m coming at this pretty differently to Felix.

Last year I started my first ever full-time job, and though the pay is pretty low and I’m working part-time now, I still have more money than I’ve ever had before. Having a dollar value for each hour of my labour means I know when it’s cheaper to buy something than acquire it another way, if I don’t take the environmental impact into consideration. I’ll confess that generally this influences my consumer choices less than the personal cost of alienating my labour — I’m not sure what rate of pay it would take for me to want to work five days a week, but I’ve never been paid enough for that to be worthwhile.

I also moved out of eco/anarcho world to a flat in the most bourgeois suburb, with a fabulous housemate and a very different lifestyle. We’re still relatively poor so it’s not that often we buy new things for the house, but mostly the motivation has been economic. In the lounge room I’m sitting in, all the furniture is from hard rubbish: two sofas, two coffee tables, a lamp, a cabinet, a bookshelf and a writing desk. But while most of our glasses on the liquor shelf are from op shops or garage sales, we do replenish our supply of martini glasses regularly with new ones. I haven’t gone dumpstering since I moved here, and after rent and bills, I probably spend most of my money on food — roughly a third on groceries and two-thirds on eating out.

I’ve also re-evaluated myself, and my relationship to politics-as-personal. At one point I felt really burnt out, resentful and suppressed — I felt like my life wasn’t mine, like I’d been submerged into this activist culture that didn’t really speak to me (though the initial immersion was intoxicating) and consisted more of rules than possibilities. What to eat, who to fuck, how to get there, when to talk. I felt like dreaming of utopian futures required living in a way that honoured pleasure as well as responsibility. I needed to resist discipline that wasn’t deliberate and wasn’t mine. I desperately, desperately needed not to be pure. To sluice the guilt off my body and feel the pulse of my own desires. And then, to decide.

But without making everything either ethical or unethical, subversive or problematic — I do want to think about how I live and its material impact. I want to be politically astute, if sometimes bad. As articulated in the first link to my own blog, I don’t believe every little thing matters, so my updates will be less a record of every purchase than general thoughts on living in consumer capitalism. I’m undertaking this project less as a promise to acquire nothing new for a year, than to commit to thinking more about production, consumption, waste, labour and capitalism. I’ve concentrated on politics of oppression for so long, I really need something that forces me to be more aware of economics and environment. I can’t justify these things being peripheral to my ideology any more — I couldn’t ever — and I’m excited about incorporating them into the core of my concept of justice.

So the before shot:

Practically, I’m well positioned for this project. I have a lot of privileges that enable me to undertake something like this, such as stable accommodation, a reliable income, a strong and extensive support network, no dependants, few commitments, high mobility and minimal special needs. If I had children, if I were squatting and didn’t have anywhere secure to store my things, if I didn’t have friends and family in Melbourne I could borrow things from, if I couldn’t easily spend a day scouring hard rubbish and op shops and wherever else, if I were living more hand-to-mouth and couldn’t plan ahead — any of these factors would make me much more reluctant to participate in this project; I probably wouldn’t consider it at all. This is possible because I’m young, fit, rich and free.

I also already have most things I’m likely to need for the next twelve months: most essentially, bed, bicycle, computer, washing machine and fridge. All of these things came to me second-hand, but having had stable income/accommodation/support et cetera has meant that I’ve been able to accumulate these things over time, and hold onto them. I’ve had the good fortune to never experience those common situations in which people lose their shit, like being kicked out of home or nasty ex-lovers or others who walk off wid alla yr stuff. Anti-consumerism is often framed as having very few possessions, but for any anti-consumerist practice that’s based on environmental and economic motivations rather than spiritual purity, it’s actually much easier if you have a few things to begin with — having a decent tool box and sewing kit, for example, mean that you can fix and alter stuff instead of buying it new.

In any case, I have more than a few things. I have enough clothes for not only the next year, but any occasion I’m likely to encounter, from glitterpunk queer balls to job interviews. Should my computer or phone break (both fairly likely), I have access to public libraries and my workplace and university and friends’ and parents’ houses. More importantly, I have access to some genius friends, between whom can probably fix anything in the world (and who I totally trust to fix the world, at that). So this should be really easy, on a physical level — it’ll be much harder to break my intellectual and psychological dependence on the first-pass economy, on the expectation that if I need something, I can just pay for it. Commerce is king of all. That thinking is hard to change. But, as always, I’m up for it.

– Gauche

Referencing myself, Tiger Beatdown, Ntozake Shange, and bastardising Herodotus.

Interview: Gauche on freeganism

Adolfo interviewed me for an article about dumpster diving and freeganism back in 2009. Here are my responses in the raw:

1. Do you think there is anything ‘wrong’ with what you’re doing (legally, morally, culturally)?

I don’t think there’s anything morally wrong with freeganism, and I think there’s plenty that’s good about it, though perhaps sometimes people are more righteous than they ought to be.

Legally there are some issues but I think they’re based in some very silly ideas about property. I can understand moral and legal concerns about going through someone’s trash if you’re opening their mail, but I think that’s a privacy concern, not a matter of theft which is what makes it legally problematic.

Culturally and aesthetically I find freeganism interesting — there’s a kind of grungy glamour around these practices, some of which I appreciate (there’s something beautiful and magical about reclaiming waste) and some of which I think is problematic as it somewhat romanticises poverty.

2. Why do you engage in freeganism? (Is it merely out of utility, a political statement, or a bit of both?)

A bit of both, for sure: I wouldn’t have had any furniture other than my bed in my first sharehouse if it weren’t for scrounging around hard rubbish. But sometimes it’s more work than it’s worth economically — for example organising a clothes swap party instead of buying some new things off the $5 table at Supre — and that’s when you’d need to have the political commitment to opt out of a cycle of needless consumerism.

3. Have you ever been given trouble by authorities/corporations because of your activities?

Not really — a couple of times I’ve been told off when dumpster-diving but you can just leave and go back later. Generally staff at supermarkets don’t care because they’re just working for a wage. If you explain what you’re doing, most people are more sympathetic to the idea of salvaging trash than protecting waste as property.

There’s a lot more chance of legal issues with squatting, because even though that’s reclaiming waste in a sense, people see real estate as being property you only give up through explicit legal means, not simple abandonment.

4. What got you started in freeganism/recycling/anti-consumerism?

I’ve always tried to re-use and recycle and increasingly since I was about 16 I’ve shopped vintage. But I’d say I started to think more about consumerism when I finished high school, moved out of home and became involved in the environment movement.

Coming both backwards from thinking about ethical production (eg fair trade, no sweat etc) and forwards from wanting a society where goods are produced on demand rather than the other way around is how I got to this position of feeling the most ethical consumerism is none.

5. Do you think you’ll keep doing it in the future?

Yep!

6. Any other thoughts?

Yeah, I want to add something about the politics of dumpster diving and squatting: I think minimising unnecessary production and consumption is a valuable political goal. But an equally important goal for me is for all people to have their needs met without duress. So while I think salvaging garbage can be an effective way to highlight the wastefulness of our society, I don’t want it to affect how we measure someone’s standard of living.

The dollar economy is incredibly dominant in our society, so in terms of governance I think we need to provide people with the means to acquire what they need through social services, or the money to purchase it through the market. The economy of salvage is unreliable, and more importantly it depends upon a cycle of waste I would rather see stopped at the point of production.