Obsessive Consumption: What Did You Buy Today?

Obsessive Consumption: What Did You Buy Today?
Kate Bingaman-Burt
New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010

You don’t often come across a book of innocent-looking doodles that has the power to make you reflect on the deeper meaning of life. Kate Bingaman-Burt’s Obsessive Consumption does just that.

An assistant professor of Graphic Design at Portland State University, Burt documents her daily purchases of mundane everyday objects through a series of sketches. Depicting everything from credit-card statements to wedding bands, the endearingly cartoonish drawings are painfully honest and achingly funny. Grouped together in this tiny book, they offer an intimate diary of the author’s life.

The simple items depicted represent Bingaman-Burt’s uncensored joy of purchasing. Although the book does not intend to be intellectual, it implies a deeper dialogue of desire versus necessity in human nature. There are parallels between Obsessive Consumption and Andy Warhol’s pop art of the 1960s, which managed to turn these banal purchases into art. (It is almost surprising that Campbell’s soup cans or Brillo pads are nowhere to be found throughout this book.) But where Andy Warhol tended to glorify his subjects, Bingaman-Burt treats hers with honesty. Many of her purchases, such as screwdrivers and coffee filters, are decidedly unglamourous and entirely relatable – except perhaps for a pair of 99-cent plastic fangs “just for wearing around the house.”

Judging by the nature of her purchases, the author is far from being an eco-conscious consumer. Over-packaged celery bits packed in water are a far cry from buying local, organic food at the Farmer’s Market. And Bingaman-Burt admits: “Am I too lazy to cut my own celery? Yes.”

Though her work is not directly environmental in nature, it inspires people to re-evaluate their personal relationship with everyday consumerism. In Bingaman- Burt’s universe, the anarcho-neo-holiday “Buy Nothing Day” exists, but she bought a Diet Coke anyway. The book is almost the antithesis of Judith Levine’s anti-shopping manifesto, Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, yet it makes you want to at least record your own purchases to learn how you can improve your spending habits and environmental awareness in the marketplace.

The project begs the obvious question: “Are we what we buy?” Bingaman-Burt does not answer that question, but invites us to answer for ourselves. She doesn’t try to sell you a shiny new product, or finger-point at all the ills in the world caused by rampant consumerism. Instead, Bingaman-Burt simply commemorates the purchased goods that have passed through her life.

We are all consumers, and Obsessive Consumption serves to remind us that shopping is a simple activity that some people engage in for pleasure, some just for necessity. We may or may not be defined by the items that we choose to buy, but each item affects us individually, and the Earth as a whole.

Isabel Slone is a 20-year-old fashion-conscious undergrad student who would guiltily describe herself as an obsessive consumer.

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