The Joy of Clutter or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Stuff
At first, I didn’t know what to think of the recent minimalism “craze.” In retrospect, I realize this ambivalence was a result of framing the subject in dichotomous terms, i.e. either Good or Bad. On the one hand, unbridled truckling consumerism struck me as clearly a bad thing for us, the teeming Gordian-knotted imbroglio of humans, oceans, animals, dirt, plants, etc. all of us sharing a fragile tiny speck in cosmos. On the other, I felt horrified by the clutter-shaming trends that have emerged in the epoch of Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” which encourages us to conflate clutter with your non-“best life.”
In her vade mecum, “Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life,” the divine bovine says: “A well-known architect named someone or other once said, ‘Less is more.’ That is the silliest thing I have ever heard. Less is less.”
This sentiment resonates with me. Perhaps it’s because I’m a bit of a jolly slob; I admit, my home is in no danger of gracing the pages of Architectural Digest. A bricolage of eclectic items, most of which once belonged to someone else, children’s toys spanning centuries, plants galore, and books, TONS of books, here, there, and everywhere, all lounge around. I like it this way, and (I’m fortunate that) my family doesn’t mind. This ludic anarchistic feel of my home is what I consider, in the words of Wittgenstein’s sister, “house-embodied logic.” There is a logic at work, though I doubt it’s readily apparent to anyone else. “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” I feel like my living space is a physical extension of my brain, a kind of magic mirror that helps me to create, think, reminisce, and generally stroll and flâneuse around the streets of my imagination. Like the blind horse and lame rider, I don’t know where “it” ends and “I” begin.
Maybe I’m being defensive I thought. My walls resemble the amazing Peruvian-jungle-ayahuasca-inspired artwork of shaman Pablo Amaringo instead of those sleek white and glass assemblages. So what? It’s just a matter of personal preference, not a value judgment.
Then… it occurred to me: what was actually offending my sensibilities is way minimalism is being “sold.” Like here’s this one-size-fits-all-yup-this-is-a-no-brainer-guaranteed solution to a problem that most of us didn’t know they even had, e.g. books like “Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat?” (yes, that’s a real book by a real author which, according to Publisher’s Marketplace, earned a real seven-figure deal) which posits a connection between having too much “junk in the trunk” and too many things laying around your home. It gives one pause to wonder: what the <insert your favorite expletive> is going on here?
Pierre Bourdieu suggested that an indicator of “making it” in the academic field happens when scholars try to finagle your name into an adjective. Perhaps more appropriately for Marie Kondo, her name has been turned into an eponymous verb; just in case you’re out of the loop, to “KonMari” means to throw out everything, and I mean everything that doesn’t “spark joy.” I think this is horrible advice, and I’ll shall tell you why, and I’ll lean upon the lens of feminist new materialism (because I just wrote a paper on it and it’s pretty handy) to do so, but first, I want to clarify: this critique is not directed at Ms. Kondo personally. There is a stupendous amount of ad hominin criticism flailing around in the public psyche right now, and I refuse to add to it. However, I’ll ask your permission to poke some gentle fun. You see, she advocates throwing out things that serve a purpose that could be served by another household item. This line of thinking lead her to discard her screwdriver. Next, she tries to use a ruler to tighten a loose screw. Lo and behold, a broken ruler — which almost reduced Ms. Kondo to tears — and inspired her to write an encomium to the screw driver:
“Dear old screwdriver, I may not use you much, but when I need you, why, you’re a genius. Thanks to you, I have put this shelf together in no time. You have saved my fingernails too. I would have ruined them if I had used them to turn the screws. And what a design! Strong, vigorous, and cool to the touch, with a modern air that makes you really stand out.”
I found this oddly touching, and amusing — not the fact that she discovered the hard way that the affordances of a screwdriver are different from those of a ruler — but her description! I’m amazed how the juxtaposition of Shinto animistic belief and feminist new materialisms present so many similarities, and yet lead me to such a different rendering of the situation. In keeping with her background in a Shinto temple, Ms. Kondo also thanks her socks and handbag. Considering verbal abuse I gave to the office printer this morning, I don’t find this strange.
To give a grossly oversimplified explanation of feminist new materialism — one that circumnavigates questions of newness, similarities to posthumanism, and a medley of other talk-until-the sun-comes-up topics which I’m currently working on translating from academia into a friendlier, more lay-accessible language — feminist new materialism seeks to leave anthropocentric materialism in the dust and grant agency beyond the realm of human mental volition. This means that our bodies get a non-incidental say, as do animals, plants, architecture, technologies, and other material objects, and even matter itself.
Hence, clutter can no longer be considered as inert passive stuff waiting for us to come along and show it a good time. From this vantage point, perceived hierarchies dissolve into complex webs of mutual causality and what theoretical physicist/feminist theorist Karen Barad calls intra-action. She says, “Language matters. Discourse matters. Culture matters. There is an important sense in which the only thing that does not seem to matter anymore is matter.”
Matter does matter. With the exception of DSM-5 hoarding scenarios in which one’s space becomes so filled to the brim with junk that it presents a detriment to well-being, I’m thinking that we shouldn’t let anyone make us feel bad about our stuff, whether exotic or plain, whether a lot or a little.
Take, for instance, the ethnographic work by Leela Fernandes, “In Producing Workers,” in which she explores the sociocultural and material conditions of jute shop workers in Calcutta. She found that the spatial proximity of their work, these woman-sewing-machine assemblages, who, on account of sitting so close (cluttered) to one another, worked against management’s goals to emphasize individual performance and accountability.
In expanding notions of agency beyond humans, we can dismantle assumptions and ask better questions about what we all really want to know, which is: what’s going on here? If one is willing to consider that matter has agency — and not in some kind of magical bracelet way — then the answer is there is A LOT going on and we cannot separate any one component and examine it in isolation. This intersectionality of consumerism, recycling, eating habits, waste, sentimentality, tradition, and more: it’s happening right now in our kitchens, living rooms, and bed rooms.
After thinking about it longer, and as I sit here and look around my house, I see that many things I own entered my life because I made some kind of connection with them. Yes, a few of these were fleeting what-was-I-thinking encounters, some were gifts, inheritances, that sort of thing, but most of them I acquired in mental/emotional/physical role of self-appointed museum curator. In my inner dialogue/fantasy, I’ve saved many of these items from destruction and/or lives of banal mediocrity. Yes, I realize some of them are kitschy. But to me they’re sui generis artifacts, and if they could talk, oh, the stories they would tell. Make-Liberace-blush church diva hats from the online estate sale of one of the first Black female professors in the US South, the Chinese jardinière (because nothing says it’s a 19th-century party like a portable goldfish bowl), the Troll dolls that hail from the days when my most pressing quotidian duty was brushing their hair, the old typewriter someone left at the dump(which ended up being the parts donor for an Enigma machine my son built for a school project), and the can of silver glitter spray paint (the woman at the craft store so disliked Mr. Trump that she managed to work a five-minute monologue into the transaction — self-checkout light flashing the whole time — about how, you know, the world has gone crazy when you need identification to buy sparkly paint).
What I’m saying is, minimalism/clutter, wherever we fall on this spectrum, is neither “good” nor “bad.” How could it be? Many have criticized minimalism as a privilege of the privileged. And I do suspect the last thing people who live paycheck-to-paycheck are thinking about is whether they have one colander too many, never mind when to take a day to purge their “non-joyous” items. So, in this sense, I want to close by meta-situating that concerns within the asymmetrical power/resource relations that characterize our current arrangements. Yes, stuff matters, but paradoxically, the ultimate luxuries are not those tangible items that index our positionalities, but rather, the time, capability, and peace of mind to philosophize about these things…