Biodegradable Couches

An amusing lit-crit prof cameo in this article from the NYTimes House & Home session about biodegradable furniture.

In any case, there is something quixotic and poignant about makers of home goods — particularly large home goods, like sofas — advertising their wares for their evanescence.

Their longevity, in the past, has always been part of the thing that gives them value,” said Bill Brown, chairman of the English department at the University of Chicago, best known for his work on “thing theory.”

He explained how the value of a piece of furniture you come in contact with often, like a dining room table or a sofa, draws much of its worth from that contact: the longer we keep it around, the more psychologically valuable it becomes. “We use the ‘object world’ to stabilize human life,” he said. “Hannah Arendt said that sitting at the same table grants man his sameness, which is to say his identity.”

The idea of biodegradable furniture, he said, seemed perverse and comic. “We all live such cluttered lives in which so much of what we have we’d be better off without, yet most of us are better off with our dining room tables or our sofas,” he said. To thing theorists like Mr. Brown, who poses a kind of “my furniture, myself” worldview, degradable home goods suggest an identity crisis.

It would be nice if some of the couches on front porches around town were biodegradable and would eventually melt in the rain. They would probably get really disgusting in the intermediate stage, though.

The plot of one of the greatest British novels, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, revolves in part around the dangerous desire for expensive furniture, by the way. Lydgate “did not mean to think of furniture at present; but whenever he did so it was to be feared that neither biology nor schemes of reform would lift him above the vulgarity of feeling that there would be an incompatibility in his furniture not being of the best” (ch 15).

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