Don’t Think, Discard!
Dirty Furniture, Issue 4/6 – Closet
Today’s tidying evangelists would have us believe that throwing things out will make us happier, better people. I was asked by the editors of the excellent Dirty Furniture magazine to examine the latest mantras for overcoming clutter. This article was awarded the Design History Society Writing Prize, which, as I endeavored to point out in my acceptance comments, was due in no small part to the way it was edited. Academic journals, which often farm out their editing to peer reviewers, resulting in confused and compromised articles, have much to learn from editors like Elizabeth Glickfield and Anna Bates at Dirty Furniture, whose editing combines scholarly rigor with the ability to elicit an argument and nurture a well-shaped narrative.
Clutter, according to Marie Kondo, the 31-year-old Japanese guru of domestic organisation, is caused quite simply “by a failure to return things to where they belong.” Her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is packed full of reductive maxims and her eight million readers seemingly can”t get enough of them: its offshoots include an illustrated manual, journal and graphic novel, and KonMari Media Inc, the San Francisco-based startup Kondo co-founded in 2015, houses a growing empire of online courses, apps, checklists, a consultant certification system, seminars, and a trademarked “method.”
1 A System and a Philosophy
The KonMari Method is based on some key tenets: “Tidy by category, not by location;” “Do not even think of putting your things away until you have finished the process of discarding”; “The way to decide what to keep is to pick up each item and ask yourself, ‘Does this spark joy?;’” and “By neatly folding your clothes you can solve almost every problem related to storage.” Kondo recommends folding clothes origami-like into rectangles that can then be stored standing up rather than laid flat, and advocates rolling socks rather than balling them.
The runaway success of Kondo’s offerings has much to do with the carefully constructed visual and verbal language with which she imparts her instructions. Kondo writes like she tidies. Sentences are arranged like ordered cutlery drawers. They are stocked with incisive verbs for pinning down and slicing through your accumulated stuff-sprawl. Through their authoritative simplicity, these short declarative sentences and her line-drawn diagrams promise that organisation in one’s home will lead effortlessly to organisation in one’s life and mind. Devotees of the KonMari Method, which is posited as both “a system and a philosophy,” have written testimonials that attest to its success: “Your course taught me to see what I really need and what I don’t. So, I got a divorce. Now I feel much happier,” reports a satisfied customer. “Since cleaning up my apartment, I’ve been able to really increase my sales,” says another. One was “amazed to find that just throwing things away has changed me so much, I finally succeeded in losing ten pounds.”
Decluttering is heralded by Kondo, and a burgeoning industry of domestic organisation advice media, as the easy-to-swallow remedy we’ve all been seeking for our individual and collective disorder. It has become part of everyday parlance, popularised by a spate of reality TV programmes such as Hoarders, Extreme Clutter and Clutter Nutters, magazines like Real Simple and Martha Stewart Living, tidying-up advice titles that encumber bestseller lists for weeks at a time, stores like Muji, Ikea and The Container Store, online platforms like Apartment Therapy, social media personalities like @MinimalismLife, and the inevitable parodies of all of the above. The last couple of years alone has seen the publication of: The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own; Remodelista: The Organized Home; Year of No Clutter; Soulful Simplicity: How Living with Less Can Lead to So Much More; Decluttering at the Speed of Life: Winning Your Never-Ending Battle with Stuff; and Unstuffed: Decluttering Your Home, Mind and Soul. What Publishers Weekly characterises as the “tremendous appetite among the book-buying public for streamlining and simplifying” shows no sign of being satiated.
To Kondo and her ilk, clutter is the undesirable or “other” portion of our population of domestic belongings. It is the gangs of migrant objects that have escaped from their holding cells of drawers, cupboards and Tupperware—the fugitive, wayward and uncategorisable manifestations of material deviance that roam free across the surfaces and lurk in the crevices of our homes. In their essay “Storage and Clutter: Discourses and Practices of Order in the Domestic World” Sociologists Saulo B Cwerner and Alan Metcalfe explain clutter as the “underside of storage,” matter out of place that blocks “the flows of everyday life.” In written accounts, things have been documented as lying about “in heaps or confusion” since the 1660s. And yet the perceived need for clutter’s elimination from the domestic sphere only came about in the mid-twentieth century as a result, no doubt, of the increasing availability of cheap, mass-produced and disposable goods, but also due to modernist influences in the home, as historian Grace Lees-Maffei argues in Design at Home: Domestic Advice Books in Britain and the USA since 1945. As the floor plan of homes became more open, and furniture less concealing, there were fewer places to put things away and so, over the latter part of the twentieth century—and with more vigour recently—the shortage of storage space combined with the influx of goods began to coalesce into a contemporary condition of possession overload, which one can find in the Urban Dictionary termed as “stuffitis.”
There has been much literature devoted to the problem of managing this more contemporary form of clutter. “Good housekeeping,” “home economics” or “domestic science,” as it has been variously termed, has long valued efficiency, often depicting the drudgery of housework as a scientific practice, chores as “procedures” and cleaning materials as “apparatus.” Then came the tendency to attach moral virtue to the condition of a well-kept, organised household. But the current iteration of the domestic advice genre, with its emphasis on simplicity, goes further and presents housework as not only easy but a lifestyle choice, even an “art form,” and with such miraculous by-products as mental and physical wellbeing. The popular-psychology rhetoric that pervades decluttering advice promises an antidote for both domestic and mental chaos. This psychotherapeutic conceptualisation—that merely rolling socks correctly can lead you to become a slim, detoxed, emotionally stable, healthy, confident, successful (insert your appropriate life goal) person—has helped to relocate the genre from back-of-store “home decoration” shelves to front-and-centre spaces reserved for “self-help” literature.
4 A Zen Monk in Training
A recent addition to this pile of pseudo-psychological quackery is goodbye, things: on minimalist living (the title wilfully set without capitalisation, as if to indicate that even its lower-case type is taking up less space in the world). Written by Fumio Sasaki, the book is structured around a list of seventy tips to “help you say goodbye to your things,” which are personalised with anecdotes about his own journey from self-loathing maximalism to self-fulfilled minimalism. Inspired by Steve Jobs’s regular donning of the same clothes (“a black turtleneck by Issey Miyake, Levi’s 501s, and a pair of New Balance sneakers,” the author notes approvingly), Sasaki urges us, in tip number two, to find our own “unique uniform.” (His newly adopted “signature style” involves white shirts and black jeans.) Other tips celebrate the catharsis of throwing away nostalgic mementoes: “those sea shells you picked up on the beach when you were a toddler,” “the books that opened up your eyes to the world when you were a child.” Apparently, “there isn’t a single item you’ll regret throwing away.”
The book is prefaced by a series of short photo-essays that present the apartments and possessions of model minimalists. The mixed homage to the aesthetics of Monocle magazine and Muji is apparent in the muted palettes, careful framing, gridded layout and reverential tone of these photo-essays. Sasaki’s own 20-square-metre apartment is featured, with its sparse home comforts: a mattress on the floor, a small hand towel, liquid soap for the bathroom and eight pieces of metal tableware in the kitchen. Fun times! The most extreme of the cases is that of Kouta Itou, who lives out of his backpack containing 24 items, which Sasaki has photographed and arranged in a grid, with captions.
Sasaki claims that getting rid of his furniture made him feel like “a Zen monk in training,” and this kind of monastic-ascetic reference is not uncommon in these texts; indeed, if the current rash of decluttering, self-help literature is framed in digestible bullet points and enumerated lists, it is also sugar-coated with mystical qualities such as “magic,” “celebration,” “sparks” and “joy.” Kondo references Shinto spiritualism and feng shui when she advises us to thank our objects before discarding them.
5 Austerity Chic
According to architect and writer Pier Vittorio Aureli, in his essay “Less is Enough,” such examples of minimal living have evolved from “the transformation of the moral imperative of restraint into an easily recognisable aesthetic.” Writers like Sasaki and Kondo may draw on spiritual beliefs to give weight to their own “systems” and “philosophies,” but while asceticism, for example, is supposed to be about abstinence from worldly pleasures, self-discipline and, in Aureli’s words, “a willingness to sacrifice our present in order to earn our future,” its reappearance as “austerity chic”—a new style, encoded with the ideological rhetoric of spiritualism and the aesthetic of minimalist design—is a perversion of what ought to be a meaningful way of life.
Artist Noam Toran is also sceptical. In his essay “Immortality” he argues that the default mode of minimalism and simplification championed by design, and fetishized in books like Sasaki’s, is inadequate. Toran, whose films and installations uncover the uncanny and sometimes horrific qualities that emerge at the blurred interfaces between humans and domestic objects, depicts the typical designer as “a kind of moral guidance counsellor, superior and enlightened through education and hard work, dedicated at a near subconscious level to helping people towards betterment by designing the clutter out of their lives.” Echoing the ideas of architect Gerrard O’Carroll, Toran asserts the reductive design imperative is “complicit in a kind of hypocrisy, refusing to come to terms with the disorder of the human condition, at either a singular or societal scale.”
6 Throwing Away the Past
According to Kondo, “When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.” But to critics of Kondo and the rest of the anti-pack-rat pack, discarding clutter is the wholesale discarding of entirely plausible responses to the human experience of the passage of time.
Melinda E Pittman, a self-described “gero-punk,” writes on a gerontology blog about confronting the contents of her “crepuscular” cellar, and her realisation that the mouldering boxes brimming with “sixty plus years of mementos, show programs, newspaper articles, photos, posters, cassette tapes, even vinyl,” represent “years of experience and reflection”—in other words, these things selected, saved and imbued with meaning over a lifetime are part of her identity. “I imagine each of us,” she writes, “universalized, pressure-washed to remove the “past” and get on with the “future,” as if those states existed apart from each other. As if they had no cross-sectional vibrancy. The past’s jumble to be disposed of. Now.” She gives vent to an unfashionable spirit of dismay and bewilderment at the philosophical complexity of “letting things go.”
It’s hard to imagine what Kondo would make of the ageing artist’s lack of certainty, this voice that comes not just from the past, when we used to store things like letters and souvenirs, but also from the future, when we will be old, and today’s lumber may mean something different to us. Perhaps then, when algorithms will do our daily clutter-culling for us, and Alexa’s granddaughter will find our lost keys, we may actually want to spend time with possessions from our past, or need to resist the code’s selection criteria. There are plenty of others out there who, in the face of the minimalist mistral sweeping through our collective home, advocate clinging onto clutter. In an op-ed in The New York Times Dominique Browning writes, “we forage, root and rummage around in our stuff, because that is part of what it means to be human. We treasure. Why on earth would we get rid of our wonderful things?”
7 The Object’s Revenge
And even when we do want to discipline our clutter using the KonMari method, it doesn’t seem to sit and stay on command the way Kondo suggests it should. In fact, it often seems to be less a set of things that can be folded and stored away, and more like an unpleasant flatmate with whom one guardedly but resignedly cohabits. Writer Steve Baker personifies it thus in his essay “To Go About Noisily: Clutter, Writing and Design”: “clutter resists, clutter is stubborn, is always there, still there, still in the way…Clutter is the object’s revenge, on design and on the world.”
Sometimes clutter channels a more sinister kind of agency. In 1968, science-fiction writer Philip K Dick coined the term “kipple” to refer to the type of everyday detritus—“useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers”—which builds up around one with disturbingly animate properties. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? J R tells Pris that, “When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.” J R’s fight against kipple is set up in fatalistic terms that have implications far beyond the domestic sphere. He continues his diatribe, which is less paranoid than prescient when one considers such contemporary phenomena as the so-called Trash Island in the Pacific, the spam in one’s inbox and the accumulating constellations of space junk:
No one can win against kipple, except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I’ve sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple, for the time being. But eventually I’ll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over. It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.
8 A Paradox
So, is the best we can hope for to create a stasis? “As our appearance-oriented and materially socialized culture boxes me in, I hear the demands: “Pick up! Clear out! Clean up this mess!”” the gerontology blogger continues. “So I trace my finger through the dust accumulated, vacuum hose at ready, recycling bag at my feet. Paradox in the air.” At any one moment in early twenty-first century Western society, hundreds of thousands of home dwellers are replaying similar quandaries, many of them documented on blogs, Pinterest and Instagram. The successful minimalists boast about their monochrome five-item wardrobes and book-free bookshelves, with carefully styled and cropped images and cloying and nonsensical aphorisms (“When everyone is looking for more, we can look for less”), seemingly unfazed by the fact that their Tourette’s-like posting behaviours are adding “heaps or confusion” to that other area in our lives where unsummoned clutter builds—the digital spaces of our desktops and online feeds, which were once heralded as a kind of “clean” new world, but are becoming unmanageably clotted by what Waste author Brian Thill has called our “endlessly accumulated tabflab.”
9 Binge and Purge
Together, these oscillations between unthinking self-satisfaction and paralysing neurosis on the domestic scale epitomise a collective state of anxiety about clutter on a global scale. It is as if we had just noticed the tangible and mental fallout of an era in which the overproduction and overconsumption of products and information had been tolerated, and even celebrated, and decided that the only response must be to enter into a phase of frantic over-disposal. Getting rid of one’s stuff is the latest phase in conspicuous consumption. And that’s where we are today: caught in a binge-purge cycle that’s getting faster and more extreme. Indeed, Sasaki even makes reference to a very contemporary condition, the addiction to throwing things away, referred to elsewhere as “obsessive-compulsive spartanism” or “compulsive decluttering.”
Until recently we were happy to grab Big Gulps, disposable diapers, fast fashion and 24-hour online access to information. Now luxury comes in the form of restraint. The former allure of acquisition has been replaced by the current trend for asceticism. The industries of the contemporary moment are about deletion. Practices of reduction and elimination such as dieting, cleansing, detoxing, mindfulness, meditation, and internet or social media blocking, are materialised and monetised through club memberships, consultants, retreats, software, apps and books. Late capitalism may present the decluttering technique as a movement or philosophy or even mode of resistance, but in reality, decluttering is a lucrative salve for an illness capitalism exposed us to in the first place. Decluttering advocates that things be thrown “out” or “away,” but as environmental philosopher Timothy Morton argues, the imaginary concept of “away” is no longer tenable.
The trash scattered from an ever-accelerating cycle of production, consumption and disposal—that the decluttering discourse only greases—will come back to us. When we dutifully remove matter from the interior of our closet to the exterior of the street, where we are really disposing of it is into the future. In fact, clutter, with its ability to block the flows of domestic life, may be just the thing we need right now, to provide some necessary friction in that whirring machinery of capitalism, to help us conceive of the extent to which things, once made and bought, hang around in our homes, our dumps, our air and water, and ultimately in our geological strata—or, in Morton’s words, the relationship of things to their massive distribution in time, relative to humans.
10 Planetary Housework
The half-baked message of Sasaki’s treatise can be summarised by one of its own signposts along the path toward minimalist enlightenment: “Don’t think. Discard!” Aureli says: “If there is a real scarcity in the world (which the rhetoric of austerity does not mention at all), it is the scarcity of attention, which has now been consumed by a state of permanent distraction, driven by increasingly sophisticated means of communication and production.” Clutter, it is argued by the decluttering instruction discourse, distracts us from attending to our true selves. But its supernatural language, with its “sparks,” “joy” and “magic,” is also used to dazzle and divert us from our larger responsibility of keeping our planetary house in order; decluttering distracts us from the actual hard work of cleaning up the mess we have made.