An Introduction to Hoarding

by Rebecca Falkoff


Photograph by Paula Salischiker from the series

The spate of popular articles commenting on and participating in this developing corpus of cultural production tends to be characterized by two contradictory, if often overlapping paradigms. One the one hand, hoarding is framed as a response to material deprivation. On the other, it is understood to result from the excesses of the late capitalist mode of production. This latter paradigm is itself divided: the hoarder appears sometimes as a hapless participant in the excesses of consumerism and sometimes as figure of quiet dissent who refuses to accept the harrowing pace of loss mandated by planned obsolescence. Political theorist Jane Bennett sets out a similarly celebratory image. She understands the hoarder as uniquely able to heed the “call of things,” thus eroding the boundaries between him/herself and the world and challenging the entrenched duality between subject and object. The hoarder, she says, “is bad at subtraction” (246), an idea that is also central to contemporary medical discourse, which defines the “Hoarding Disorder” as follows:

A. Persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value.

B. This difficulty is due to strong urges to save items and/or distress associated with discarding.

C. The symptoms result in the accumulation of a large number of possessions that fill up and clutter active living areas of the home or workplace to the extent that their intended use is no longer possible. […]

D. The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning […].

The primary behavior to define the disorder, then, is not the act of acquiring—which is included in the diagnosis as an additional specification—but a failure to produce (or recognize) waste. It is, most basically, a difficulty discarding.

This difficulty discarding may result from a range of attitudes and/or beliefs, and the DSM-V is vague on the subject of motivation. In The Hoarding Handbook (2011), Bratiotis et al. write: “Those who hoard consider their possessions to have sentimental (emotional), instrumental (useful), or intrinsic (beauty) value” (4). Though they note that most people save objects for the same reasons, hoarders’ exceptional sensitivity to the sentimental, instrumental, and aesthetic qualities of objects results in their valuing material that extends well into the space of a larger cultural rejection. The diagnosis “Hoarding Disorder” thus falls within the theoretical terrain of fetish discourse elaborated by William Pietz insofar as it is most fundamentally a charge of misvaluation (be it economic, sexual, religious, or aesthetic) that is predicated upon a clash of perspectives. That is, inherent to the definition of hoarding above is a distance between the value a hoarder finds in objects and the larger cultural consensus. The hoarder, according to the diagnosis, either fails to recognize the “actual(absence of) value of objects, or fails to act properly in accordance with their value (by discarding them).

Finding some remnant of aesthetic, sentimental, or functional interest, value, or potential, where the larger social consensus finds none, we might describe the hoarder’s difficulty as an aversion to wasting: to parting with an object before its use is fully consumed, its beauty fully appreciated, or its sentimental value exhausted. As such, the split perspective that makes the diagnostic criteria a fetish discourse may echo the nuanced polysemy of the term “waste.” As a verb, “to waste” is to wrongly reject or discard, to consume recklessly. As a noun, “waste” is the substance rejected or discarded. In “Hoarding Disorder,” then, we find a refusal to accept the move from the judgment-laden verb, “to waste,” to the neutralized object of a larger social consent or coercion, “waste.”
This entry is from Discard Studies’ Compendium.


Benjamin, Walter, Hannah Arendt, and Harry Zohn. 1968. Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Bennett, Jane. 2012. “Powers of the Hoard: Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter.” Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, ed. J. Cohen (Washington, DC: Oliphaunt Books) 237-69.

Bratiotis, Christiana, Cristina Sorrentino Schmalisch, and Gail Steketee. 2011. The Hoarding Handbook: a Guide for Human Service Professionals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Frost, Randy, and Rachel Gross. 1993. “The hoarding of possessions.” Behaviour Research and Therapy. 31 (4): 367-382.

Frost, Randy and Gayle Steketee. 2010. Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.

Pietz, William. 1985. “The Problem of the Fetish, I” (Res 9).

American Psychiatric Association. 2013. “Hoarding Disorder.” DSM-V. Washington, DC.

Further Reading:

Frost, Randy and Gail Steketee. 2010. Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. Boston: Haughton Mifflin Harcourt.

Herring, Scott. 2011. “Collyer Curiosa: A Brief History of Hoarding.” Criticism. 53 (2).

Lepselter, Susan. (2011). “The disorder of things: Hoarding narratives in popular media.”Anthropological Quarterly, 84(4), 919-947.


Rebecca Falkoff is an assistant professor of Italian at New York University with a research focus on modern and contemporary Italian literature, experimentalist movements, gender and sexuality, psychoanalysis, and new materialism.

2 thoughts on “An Introduction to Hoarding

  1. The cartoon associated with this article is misleading. It’s true that low-income people who hoard will have problems as a result sooner than wealthy people, but hoarding is far from a respecter of social or economic class. Andy Warhol, Howard Hughes, the Seymour brothers, Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ aunt, the twins described in “Stuff” are all wealthy people whose hoarding spiraled out of control. In Warhol’s case, he may have suffered less as a result of hoarding (bcs the boxes he collected were sent off to a warehouse) but he was still a hoarder. I have been teaching classes on Overcoming Hoarding for years and telling students that wealthy people who hoard are more likely to never stop bcs there is no one who can exert pressure to make them want to do something about their problem.

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