Monday, May 13, 2013

The difference between belongings and possessions. The other day I was reading this interesting article about a project by Dutch photographer Niki Feijen to document abandoned houses. (The Daily Mail's politics are rotten, but it is really well set up for publishing lovely big pictures embedded in its stories rather than in tiresome clickbait galleries.)

I paused on a line in the story about how these buildings "now house only the crumbling belongings of their former occupants." I was struck by the word 'belongings', which we don't really seem to see much; we tend to describe our stuff as 'possessions' or even just as 'stuff'. I was thinking about how these words have different connotations.

When we speak of 'possessions', the emphasis is on our mastery of material goods, and our use of the things we own to make ourselves feel powerful. Alternatively, 'possession' alludes to the ways in which we allow objects to dominate us; how we fetishise them and obsessively collect and hoard them.

'Possession' developed in late Middle English from the Old French 'possesser' ("to occupy or hold"), which comes from the Latin 'possidere', a composite of 'potis' ("able, capable") and 'sedere' ("to sit").

But when we speak of 'belongings', we're speaking in a more comforting way about things that find a home with us. These objects are in the right place when we own them, and they help us fit into social groups and spaces. Our 'belongings' are totems, security blankets, things that reassure us that we, too, belong.

The word 'belong' comes from the Old English verb 'gelang' meaning "to be together with", with the addition of the intensifying prefix "be" (also seen in archaic words such as 'bedecked', 'bedazzled', 'begone').

When we speak of 'stuff', we're almost talking about filler: meaningless padding to fill the spaces around us and make us look bigger and better. But interestingly, 'stuff' has the same root meaning as 'belongings'. There was once an old-fashioned dress fabric named 'stuff', and it comes from the Middle English via the Old French 'estoffe' ("material, furniture"), 'estoffer' ("to equip or furnish") and ultimately from the Greek 'stuphein ("to draw together").

Lately I've been reading a lot of zombie/apocalyptic novels, and the movie 2012 was on TV on Saturday night. One thing I always notice in these stories – and in those of war refugees – is what they take with them. I'm the sort of person who gets anxious in a film that a character might forget his/her bag or have it stolen.

There is a 'funnie photo' in my parents' photo album of me, aged about five or six, asleep on the floor of my built-in wardrobe. To my parents I looked odd or cute. But I had fallen asleep there in fear and anxiety after reading a kids' book called Dinosaurs, Beware! It was meant to teach children safety rules, humorously using dinosaurs as the characters. My parents thought I'd love it because I loved dinosaurs.

Instead, I took it absolutely seriously as a manual on how to respond to crisis. There was a vignette in the book about how the dinosaur family had a plan if their house caught fire. They would take only their most important belongings and assemble outside on the lawn.

After reading this, I was gripped by anxiety about what I'd do if our house burned down, so I decided to make an 'emergency pack' of my most treasured possessions and keep it in my wardrobe, so it would be easy to grab quickly. I even had a blanket, in case we got cold at night outside our burned-down house. I must have fallen asleep in there, wrapped in this blanket, which is where my parents found and photographed me. I wonder if they ever took my worries seriously.

In extreme situations you have to make big decisions about which are your most important belongings: not just the most useful or exchange-valuable ones, but the ones that define you most and carry the most emotional weight. When someone is in a situation where they have to abandon their home – as documented by Feijen – it says a lot about these decisions that certain belongings are left behind.

Similarly, the objects memorialised by having been saved from the Titanic (sorry to get all re-Re-Obsession on you) reveals the totemic status an object can acquire because its owner had to decide it was valuable enough to rescue. And those recovered from the water or the undersea debris field – a stopped watch; a shoe; a porcelain doll – are poignant in a different way because their owners perished and were unable to cherish them. Instead, we must – and so must photographic projects like Feijen's.

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