Cannibalizing Suburbia: Storage Wars and the Ruins of Affluence
Few reality TV shows are as fascinating and simultaneously unsettling as Storage Wars. Each week a circle of misanthropic auction hunters journey to a self-storage facility and bid on unidentified heaps of suburban detritus abandoned by our neighbors. What is perhaps most compelling about the premise—beyond the real but largely superficial curiosity about the valuables that may potentially lie in any given storage space—is the show’s unsettling picture of material cannibals picking over the remains of middle America.
Lauderdale Self Storage opened in Fort Lauderdale in 1958, and it may reasonably lay claim to being the first US self-storage facility. It was followed by a modest string of self-storage facilities in the 1960’s, and at the end of 1984 there were 6601 self-storage facilities in the US. The Self Storage Association reported in June 2013 that there are now roughly 48,500 self-storage facilities in the US (of 59,500 worldwide), accounting for 2.3 billion square feet at an occupancy rate of 85.3%. An astounding 8.96% of all American homes (10.8 million households) rent at least one storage space.
A rapidly increasing volume of domestic things appear to have found temporary refuge in self-storage facilities as families become overwhelmed by their goods, clean out parents’ homes, divorce or marry, downsize, or are foreclosed. Storage Wars may testify to the overflow of middle-class homes, but it simultaneously captures the myopic optimism that households believe their things will find a place. Storage Wars seems to confirm that the once-transitional nature of self-storage has now seen units transformed into permanent repositories, many of which are eventually forgotten or abandoned and sold off at public auction.
Conscious that most storage assemblages are an array of overwhelmingly worthless household things, Storage Wars nevertheless winks at us to enjoy the fantasy that abandoned storage spaces may be treasure chests of forgotten lucre. To suggest that the florescence of self-storage units reflects an amazing over-accumulation of things is to simply make a thinly veiled moral judgment about our misplaced attachment to stuff. Likewise, at some level Storage Wars shines an unflattering light on over-consumption, but the more interesting question it raises is why do we keep this stuff at all? Storage Wars reveals things people did not or could not part with, irrationally paying storage fees that make the spaces’ eventual abandonment even more mystifying.
Storage Wars illuminates the failures of idealized middle-class materiality, whose discards litter the storage space auctions with things in which we have simply lost interest. Because the series over-represents (or fakes) the valuables left behind in our wake, it leaves us especially befuddled by—yet never openly acknowledges—the absent owners who left their things behind. Instead, the things are redefined by the Storage Wars stars, a series of one-dimensional petty capitalists who are simplistic caricatures emotionally unaffected by any material things (or people). These characters do not need to be “real” at all: they are performing roles that hyperbolize certain acquisitive attributes familiar to many consumers, hoping to paint a compelling picture of the salvaging of middle-class trinkets. Even the auctions do not need to be “real.” Former cast member Dave Hester sued A&E in 2012, suggesting that the storage contents were orchestrated—in one episode, he alleged “a BMW mini car was found buried under a pile of trash,” planted by the producers, and after complaining to them he says he was fired. The storage spaces may well have been “salted,” but in reality TV we are only interested that the premise could be true.
The series skirts the mass of personal things that must be in many lockers—baby shoes, family photographs, mysterious heirlooms—because those things risk humanizing the lockers’ contents and making the cold rationality of its stars completely unbearable. In contrast, Antiques Roadshow is fascinated by a thing’s personal narrative in the hands of a collector, even though it clumsily punctuates that narrative with a judgment of exchange value. Storage Wars is brutal in its reduction of material meaning to nothing but exchange value, and its characters perform the role of heartless capitalist with persuasive zeal.
Storage Wars fancies itself to be about a circle of magnetic personalities who are competitive gamblers on a compelling auction stage, but they are the shallowest of characters who provoke nearly no sympathy. Nevertheless, the calculating, devious, and economically rational personalities make the series a strangely fascinating cannibalization of affluence’s ruins. That appeal is mirrored in the wave of comparable series it has spawned, including Auction Hunters, Storage Hunters, Storage Wars: Texas, Storage Wars: New York, and Storage Wars: Canada.
Archaeologically the series betrays no fascination with the meanings of things, avoiding loss and the bad fortune that delivered storage space trinkets to an auctioneer; instead, it is profoundly shaped by yet never addresses absence, both of the people who once had these things and the meanings now gone with those people. The producers may well realize that we may not have the courage to confront the latter; that is, as a performance of narcissists desperately seeking wealth in suburbia’s trash, Storage Wars is a mildly interesting distraction, but as a moral tale about middle-class materialism and the myriad tragedies revealed in abandoned storage spaces it would be very unpleasant.
All images from A&E Storage Wars page.