Stores of knowledge: Academics look into self storage

By David on February 21st, 2012 | No Comments

Stores of knowledge: Academics look into self storage

Self storage is often viewed as a resolutely practical topic, of interest only to those who approach it as a customer, or try to make money out of it. Indeed, it could even be argued that there is something about the blandness of the modern self storage facility, the way they are so slavishly devoted to utility, which almost discourages trying to think about them in any sort of abstract way.

This is reflected in the lack of attention the self storage industry has received from academics, even in America, where its size and prominence make self storage hugely significant from both an economic and cultural point of view.

As a quick test, typing “self storage industry” into Google Scholar doesn’t return a single relevant article from the world of academia, whereas the search term “music industry” brings up thousands, despite the fact that, in America, the self storage industry is now the larger of the two.

However, there is some evidence that this may be changing, as a couple of American academics have recently put different elements of the self storage industry under the microscope.

A Marxist analysis of self storage

The Los Angeles Review of Books published an article on February 4 this year called Life in Storage by Peggy Kamuf, a teacher of French and comparative literature at the University of Southern California, which essentially offered a Marxist analysis of self storage.

The core theme of her argument was that we own two types of goods during our lives: commodities we can exchange for money, and goods we can’t exchange because they only have value to us as individuals (family heirlooms, photographs, and items which have particular memories associated with them).

She argues that the capitalist system tries to put a value on everything so it can be exchanged for money, and because self storage units are often used to store things we don’t want to get rid of for personal reasons, they facilitate the commodification of goods which have personal value to their owner, because the price people are willing to pay to keep things in self storage is indicative of the value they attach to what they store.

As it is the things we hold onto for sentimental reasons which give a meaning and narrative to our lives, self storage enables us to put a price on the things which have made us who we are as people. Therefore, we are “putting our life in storage”, as the title of her essay alludes.

She composed this argument in response to watching an episode of Storage Wars, the American reality-TV show which follows groups of self storage unit scavengers as they compete to buy the possessions of defaulted tenants from self storage companies at lien auctions. In these competitions, they are essentially stripping the life story contained in each self storage unit of its items that have exchangeable value, an example of how the capitalist system ultimately de-humanizes our concept of what value is.

She makes an interesting argument – although a look inside many self storage units would probably reveal that they contain little of either personal or monetary value! What people pay for self storage units may not reveal the value they attach to what they contain, so much as the cost (in money and time) they ascribe to the effort of clearing one out.

Are self storage lien rules legal?

The other academic to have recently written a paper on the self storage industry was also interested in lien auctions, although he examined them from a different perspective. Jeffrey D. Jones of the Lewis and Clark Law School argued that the way self storage firms conduct lien auctions of their defaulted tenant’s possessions breaches several key laws of property ownership.

The legal specifics of this are rather complicated, but his case hinges on the accusation that self storage lien auctions violate the right a tenant has to receive due process under the fifth amendment to the US constitution. This means that a defaulting tenant should have the right to sell off their own possessions and raise the money they owe when they default, rather than have their possessions confiscated by the person to whom they owe money.

This argument was considered by the US Supreme Court in 1978 when a warehouse tenant who’d had all her furniture sold off after defaulting on rent took the warehouse owners to court, but the court returned a judgement that her right to due process had not been violated (the name of the case was Flagg Bros. Inc. vs Brooks).

This is why, despite the objections of figures such as Mr Jones, US self storage companies remain free to go on holding lien auctions.

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