When will America get its shit together?
No, I don’t mean by this the sort of rhetorical plea that readers expect as a matter of course in journals of opinion—be it the calls for banking regulation and climate action in The Nation or Mother Jones, or the periodic fever dreams of “national greatness” and shamefully atrophied civic and military duty that break out in the pages of the Weekly Standard or National Review.
The shit of which I speak, rather, is of the prosaic (though not quite literal) variety: Possessions. Housewares, clothes, and gadgets. Relentlessly accumulating Amazon packaging. Stuff.
There is, it seems, a raging crisis of careless acquisition and chaotic storage afoot in the land, even eight years into the austerity-addled “recovery” from the economic calamity of 2008 and in the wake of a generation’s worth of wage stagnation and steadily worsening inequalities of wealth and income. More precisely, there’s a movement afoot to orient us more serenely and mindfully (as the present mass-therapeutic term of art would have it) amid our storehouses of stuff—to coax forth a Platonic balance between the things we love and the streamlined, clean, and open domestic spaces we crave. They call it decluttering, and true to its unassuming-yet-officious name, it has quietly set up shop everywhere.
The lead prophet of today’s decluttering movement is, oddly enough, a young Japanese clutter consultant named Marie Kondo. Her first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, was a surprise mega-bestseller last year, toting up global sales of more than three million. Kondo and the movement she represents seem incapable of generating any bad press. The simple precepts of her decluttering approach—called the KonMari method—make a truly restorative and meditative living space seem eminently attainable and (yes) magical. She counsels, first of all, that clutter-trapped consumers should liberate themselves in one huge purge—not via the incremental, one-space-at-a-time bursts of cleaning activity traditionally favored by professional organizers, life coaches, and the like. “If you tidy up in one shot, rather than little-by-little, you can dramatically change your mind-set,” Kondo avows in one of her many trademark bursts of bold-faced imperative. “A change so profound that it touches your emotions will irresistibly affect your way of thinking and your lifestyle habits.”
Decluttering, by its own ineluctable logic, ushers its devotees into a new life of spiritual introspection.
But for all her big-picture lifestyle cheerleading, Kondo also zeroes in on obsessively detailed instructions for home maintenance, such as optimal modes of toiletry storage and living-room feng shui. She tutors her readers at great length in new canons of clothes storage and folding: to spare wrinkles and unsightly garment sprawl, clothes should be carefully formed into vertically cantilevered lozenge-shaped parcels, plump in the center and narrow at the edges, and lined up in standing sequence in their home drawers, boxes, and cubbies to save space.
What really animates the KonMari war on clutter, though, is a pronounced spiritual fervor. Kondo’s chief directive is that, when her clients start to clear their homes of exasperating detritus, they should hold each item under review in their hands. If they still feel a thrill of possession surge through the object and into their person—if it “sparks joy” in the beholder—then it has earned the right to remain. Anything failing the spark-joy test has to go.
And decluttering, by its own ineluctable logic, ushers its devotees into a new life of spiritual introspection. “When your room is clean and uncluttered,” Kondo writes, “you have no choice but to examine your inner state. . . . From the moment you start tidying . . . your life will start to change.”
This simple inward standard, by Kondo’s account, has yielded amazing results: “A dramatic reorganization of the home causes correspondingly dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective,” she announces in still more emphatic bold-faced type, and goes on to cite former clients who found the courage, once they had decluttered, to launch new careers, terminate miserable marriages (or revive flailing ones), lose weight, and discover hidden reserves of energy and earning power. Not surprisingly, her follow-up book, released in the United States in January, is called Spark Joy.
But a closer look at the Kondo craze indicates that, like many self-help gospels, it promotes the liberationist dogmas of the restless spirit over against the disciplines of an engaged mind. In particular, Marie Kondo has it in for the acres of space taken up by the inert, unsightly display of books. In striking contrast to Kondo’s celebration of the psychic liberations secured by serenely curated empty living space, books are treated as nothing more than brutally functionalist household accessories in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. When books come in for the spark-joy test, Kondo writes, it’s a mistake to assess their life-changing value by picking them up and starting to read them.
The criterion . . . is whether or not [the book] gives you a thrill of pleasure when you touch it. Remember, I said when you touch it. Make sure you don’t start reading it. Reading clouds your judgment. Instead of asking yourself what you feel, you’ll start asking whether you need that book or not.
In fact, Kondo counsels, you should get out of the habit of thinking about books as books at all:
Books are essentially paper—sheets of paper printed with letters and bound together. Their true purpose is to be read, to convey the information to their readers. It’s the information they contain that has meaning. There is no meaning in their just being on your shelves. You read books for the experience of reading. Books you have read have already been experienced and their content is inside you, even if you don’t remember.
This insight not only renders books in general expendable as material objects, but also opens up the individual books that survive the initial spark-joy cut to further modification, since, having already been read and mentally ingested, they can provide only “moderate pleasure” anyway. Kondo is painfully specific about the measures to be taken here, and about the claustrally narcissistic rationale behind the next round of domestic book purging. Moderately pleasurable books, she notes, are “the hardest to discard.” But not to worry—your joyful feelings will guide you forward!
Although I felt no pressure to get rid of them, I could not overlook the fact that they only gave me moderate pleasure, particularly not when I was pursuing perfection in the field of tidying. I began to search for a way to let them go without regret, and eventually hit upon what I call the ‘bulk-reduction method.’ Realizing that what I really wanted to keep was not the book but certain information or specific words it contained, I decided that if I kept only what was necessary, I should be able to part with the rest.
A series of trial-and-error approaches to bulk book reduction ensues. Kondo first thought she could compile a handwritten, common-reader-style anthology devoted to information and specific words gleaned from her reading adventures. But that proved draining and time consuming. So on to Plan B: Xeroxing the passages she wanted to preserve from her home library and pasting them directly into a scrapbook. But this, too, was an irksome chore; better still, she found, to just go ahead and disfigure the damn things: “I finally decided to rip the relevant page out of the book,” whereupon she whisked the still-usable snatch of text into a file folder.
Public book burnings, for all their horrific anti-intellectual spectacle, at least respect the integrity of the book qua book, unlike Marie Kondo.
But this was Kondo’s next surprise: after mangling her forty-book library and carelessly filing the maimed bodies of text away, she discovered two years later that in all that time, she hadn’t consulted her file folders even once. Presto, another epiphany brought about by the miracle of tidying: “All that effort had just been to ease my own conscience.” And if you want to know the truth, “I have noticed that having fewer books actually increases the impact of the information I read. I recognize necessary information much more easily. . . . For books, timing is everything. The moment you first encounter a particular book is the right time to read it. To avoid missing that moment, I recommend that you keep your collection small.” (Emphasis, yet again, in the original.)
And I recommend that you, Marie Kondo, fuck right off. What our decluttering guru has declared here is not just war on my own expansive penchant for lining all available living quarters with books. Her breathtaking dictum amounts to a repeal of what the pioneering early-modern interpreters of the classics referred to as the test of time. In this view of things, artists and writers closely studied (and reverently copied and translated) published, painted, and sculpted works as a means of establishing contact with an uninterrupted cultural lineage stretching back to the earliest ancient Greco-Roman and biblical civilizations. This durable sense of historical continuity was in large part the point of a classical education—and the riot of stuff that came in for this treatment encompassed everything from the literary salons of London and Paris to the museums and ruins that marked the signposts of the old continental Grand Tour.
We would do well to adopt a similar historically informed appreciation of the more informal and makeshift accumulation of culture—and cultural objects—even in our rapidly dematerializing digital world. Indeed, if anything, we need to reverse the bankrupt reasoning that Kondo advances in support of the ritual banishment of a home library to argue for the opposite outcome. The more gadgetry, social-media groupthink, and vacant domestic spaces doubling as shrines to personal enlightenment crowd out the beleaguered stuff that makes up our common literary, philosophic, theological, and historical traditions, the more we must stand our ground on our shifting housebound snowdrifts of material culture.
There’s a reason, after all, that casually cutting out and filing away selected passages from books (even only “moderately pleasurable” ones) strikes our ears as just a short step away from the gruesome public rites of totalitarian thought control. Indeed, one could well argue that public book burnings, for all their horrific anti-intellectual spectacle, at least respect the integrity of the book qua book, together with the emancipatory promise of a life devoted to taking books seriously. Kondo, by contrast, downgrades books to mere lifestyle accessories, which will effectively spoil if not consumed promptly upon purchase, and are far better being cut up and moved primly out of view than being shared among friends, recommended to reading groups or book clubs, or serving as the occasion—as Kondo’s is here—for a critical essay or opinion piece.
What Price Joy?
Extreme though it may be, Kondo’s philistine self-complacency opens onto a whole curious other, dubiously spiritualized strain in the surprisingly extensive literature on American domestic order. In a market-dominated society rigidly organized around the continual titillation of consumer desire, it’s not unusual for your stuff to serve as a kind of surrogate placeholder for your general system of values—and indeed, for your most intimate sense of who you are in the world.
This involves more than the shallow rites of conspicuous consumption and pecuniary display (as Thorstein Veblen memorably dubbed the leisure class’s characteristic modes of material preening back in 1899). Purchasing power is social power, and very often, the most durable form of moral authority our culture recognizes. It’s no wonder, then, that Americans have long fetishized the careful arrangement of our domestic sphere as the wellspring of the core values of our civilization.
So what does it say, then, that the new millennial domestic cult now revolves around the near-total cessation of effort and the studied retreat from public life? Here is how Kondo describes the steady-state of perpetual tidiness that she has achieved and urges with true evangelical fervor on her readers:
The many days I spent tidying without seeing permanent results now seem hard to believe. In contrast, I feel happy and content. I have time to experience bliss in my quiet space, where even the air feels fresh and clean; time to sit and sip herbal tea while I reflect on my day. As I look around, my glance falls on a painting that I particularly love, purchased overseas, and a vase of fresh flowers in one corner. Although not large, the space I live in is graced with those things that speak to my heart. My lifestyle brings me joy.
My lifestyle brings me joy. This sentiment stretches far beyond the self-help/home-improvement niche that Kondo now lords over. The search for streamlined—yet also ostentatious—lifestyle simplicity has become a culture-wide obsession. The “tiny house” movement has drawn an ardent corps of environmentally conscious domestic tacticians who cram an austere cache of possessions into houses averaging around 200 square feet. (The average American house, by contrast, is more than ten times bigger, at 2,100 square feet.) While the people owning these diminutive properties have drastically reduced their environmental footprint, both by slashing their domestic intake of resources and by relying extensively on recycled construction materials, it’s a fallacy to assume that tiny-home dwellers are out to create a vanguard movement of responsible home construction, one that will eventually displace the American cult of sprawl and McMansion development.
Instead, like Kondo, they have embraced their minimalist aesthetic as an endlessly self-flattering expression of their own joyful, savvy, and problem-solving lifestyles. That’s one reason tiny houses tend to thrive in the rural interior, as opposed to the high-density urban neighborhoods that would benefit more directly from such space-saving contrivances: the enterprising genius of a tiny homeowner would be rudely crowded out in a typical city setting. No one can appreciate the quirky ingenuity of tiny-home dwellers when there are bigger, denser human settlements towering over them.
And because tiny houses are typically single-family homes—as opposed to apartment dwellings or mixed-use structures, which must of necessity be big, and functionally anonymous, spaces—their basic blueprint of domestic reform is a conservative and individualist one: “They are confirming the status quo, if shrinking it a little,” as the critic Kriston Capps argues.
The main reason tiny-house enthusiasts are so wedded to the status quo would seem to be that said status quo has been very, very good to them. In the viral infographic touting the movement online, the cubby-house cognoscenti proudly note that “tiny house people are twice as likely to have a master’s degree” compared to the members of the clueless, large-house-dwelling American public; what’s more, they have better credit, higher savings, and a more generous average income than the typical sap holding down a traditional mortgage on a spacious American home.
One sees the same spirit of smug condescension in more overtly politicized movements, such as the popular push to stigmatize rampant consumerism. The left-wing “culture-jamming” cooperative Adbusters, for example, promotes its annual “Buy Nothing” day—a rejoinder to the Black Friday battery of big-box retail sales—with this set of countervailing directives: “Draw something, sew something, cook something, sing something, build something, make something, buy nothing.” This body of lifestyle dictums fails entirely to register that nearly all these alternative pursuits typically involve major investments of time and resources that are in short supply for overextended Americans who live and work outside the charmed precincts of the knowledge economy (and are, into the bargain, given ample opportunity to “make” or “build” something, only not on their own time, and all too often for a pittance that’s well shy of a living wage). The anti-consumerists’ arch ethos of class contempt was conveyed much more directly in one of the posters that Adbusters promulgated for the 2015 holiday season: it shows a blissed-out Santa in a lotus-style meditation pose, serenely floating above a mall parking lot, over the smarmy, self-congratulatory legend, “This year, rise above it.”
The Vulgar Hoard
The barely concealed class animus running through the vogue for curated consumption stands out in especially high relief when the placid dogmas of decluttering are laid beside another recent popcult obsession—the reality TV boom in wayward, uncontrollable, and overwhelmingly lower-income hoarders.
The poor and downwardly mobile hoard, according to these voyeuristic depictions. Serene knowledge professionals, by contrast, need to be shown how to disencumber themselves of belongings as a spiritual discipline. “Hoarding” is a deep failing of character, one that can’t be remedied in any way that doesn’t involve a dramatic intervention by a SWAT team of psychological experts, life coaches, and reality TV crews. “Decluttering,” on the other hand, begs for a task entry on a to-do list, alongside “mate assortatively,” “shop artisanally,” and “procure AP tutors for the kids.”
The poor and downwardly mobile hoard, according to these voyeuristic depictions.
With this contrast in view, it’s especially instructive to compare the way hoarders are depicted in reality franchises with the present cable boomlet in tiny-house pseudo-documentaries. The latter bear inspirational titles and correspondingly can-do story lines: Tiny House Nation on FYI TV and the HGTV lineup of Tiny House Hunters, Tiny House Builders, and Tiny House, Big Living. Check out the hoarding fare on your cable provider’s viewing menu, and you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a spinoff of American Horror Story or The Walking Dead. There’s Hoarding: Buried Alive on the TLC network; Hoarders: Family Secrets on Lifetime; and even Confessions: Animal Hoarding on Animal Planet. A&E retired the genre-launching Hoarders in 2013 after a six-season run, perhaps because the title just wasn’t lurid and gothic enough. (Either way, A&E couldn’t stay out of the lucrative hoarder-voyeurism niche for long; the networked re-upped Hoarders this year.)
Weirdly, though, if you examine the hoarding disorder more closely, it’s the people on the extreme ends of the socioeconomic spectrum who seem most to be afflicted with it: the fabulously wealthy, who have feverishly piled up pelf for so long that they’ve lost any clear sense of when to leave off or just why they began in the first place, and the abjectly poor, who seem, amid all the cognitive travails associated with their condition, to have lost sight of how value works. As a result of their fundamental character impairments, poor hoarders—at least as they’re depicted in the voyeuristic annals of reality television—no longer can discern just what goods can yield decent exchange value in the market, and so begin accumulating junk indiscriminately.
The convergence of these hoarding reflexes was neatly captured in the 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles, in which Jackie Siegel, wife of a Florida-based real estate and time-share baron laid low by the 2008 Great Recession, sought to modify her luxe shopping lifestyle by venturing into a nearby Walmart. But instead of emerging from this chastened shopping environment with a more modest roster of goods appropriately scaled down to the rigors of life in post-meltdown America, Siegel only bought that much more lower-end junk, filling the garage in the family’s Miami compound with useless bikes, water-sports toys, and electronic gadgets. No longer held aloft by the asset bubbles of the early aughts, Siegel—herself a child of a modest middle-class upbringing—was becoming just another hoarder in the making: fair game to be stigmatized and ridiculed by the proper bourgeois accumulators who still honor fundamentalist capitalist virtues like delayed gratification, organizational prowess, and other modes of subdued pecuniary display. Siegel’s Walmart binges, very much by contrast, looked to be the Protestant spirit of capitalism run amok, no longer tethered to any scheme of divine election or any residual conceit of worldly asceticism or even productive labor—and teetering on the verge of the socioeconomic abyss. What else is there to do in such a plight but to keep piling up the totems of the good life that you can neither pay for nor use?
Perhaps a way to disentangle the curated consumption movement from its uglier, unstated class antagonisms would be to apply to the tasteful decluttered class some of the dispassionate and forensic psycho-social analysis that we currently reserve for down-market hoarders. For declutterers, it can be argued, are no less stuff fetishists than the vulgar hoarding horde. Indeed, by rigorously editing and customizing all the stuff that makes up their material lives, ardent declutterers are imbuing objects with far more elemental power than the careless hoarder who piles things up in precarious, ceiling-challenging towers. This is why Kondo and her adherents in the decluttering world always recur to the idea that tidying is much more than the thoughtful rearrangement of one’s living space; it is a spiritual discipline, exercised to bring about a life-shaking transformation, what Buddhists call the “revolution at the personality base.”
Maybe we should call it “conspicuous nonconsumption,” to update Thorstein Veblen’s Gilded Age pronouncements for the age of the tiny homeowner and diehard declutterer.
Hoarders largely suffer under the delusion that they are piling up stuff for future use. In this respect, hoarding, for all its obvious and baroque physical excess, still expresses a core mentality of scarcity—a fear that, come an emergency run on shopping bags or wooden spoons, one’s storehouse of life-sustaining goods will give out. Clutter, by contrast, doesn’t hint at any such misguided provisioning impulses or the specter of a total lapse of self-control. Its class provenance is telegraphed, first of all, by the ease of the path toward its correction. There are no film crews or omniscient psychological professionals marshaled against the clutter scourge. You don’t have to impose new schedules or any flagellant curbs on your consumer lifestyle, as Kondo purrs over and over again. “The key is to make the change so sudden that you experience a complete change of heart,” she writes in a burst of high-televangelist homiletics. From there on, the rest is simple: “From the moment you start tidying, you will be compelled to reset your life. As a result, your life will start to change . . . Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination.”
Decluttering, in other words, is a leisure pursuit. By its nature, it presupposes an economic position of abundance, even luxury. But it focuses not at all on the use-value of the objects under review; rather, the sole criterion for ditching or retaining an object under critical review is its capacity to expand the soulful energy reserves of the bearer—to “spark joy,” in Kondo’s pet phrase. Unlike more jaded, on-the-make self-help hucksters, Kondo is very much in earnest when she pledges that her method will produce “life-changing magic” in the decluttering devotee. And she likewise preaches a reverent respect for the spiritual lives of domestic objects themselves. Amid any given tidying frenzy, declutterers should “pause to say ‘thank you’ to the clothes you are wearing, to your pen or computer, your dishes and quilts, the bath and the kitchen,” she counsels in her new book, Spark Joy. “Without exception, the things in your home long to make you happy.”
Try telling that to any practiced hoarder, locked into the mania of acquisition-for-use’s sake—or to the head of any lower-middle-class household, scraping to get by on a raft of Walmart provisions far less expansive and elective than Jackie Siegel’s was—and you’ll be greeted with a bitter, disbelieving guffaw.
For all its spiritual pretensions, the decluttering faith doesn’t readily fit into the most familiar templates that have allowed us to interpret the intersection of capitalism and folk belief. It’s tempting to call its lovingly itemized ethos of the self’s enshrined material virtue “ascetic worldliness,” flipping the polarity of Max Weber’s famous characterization of the Protestant spirit at the dawn of capitalism’s first great dizzying growth spurt, back in the seventeenth century. Or maybe we should call it “conspicuous nonconsumption,” to update Thorstein Veblen’s wry, pseudo-anthropological Gilded Age pronouncements for the age of the tiny homeowner and diehard declutterer.
But neither of these coinages feels quite right. They don’t get at the weirdly antiseptic worldview at the heart of Kondo’s vision. At the end of the prayerful rearranging of objects to please the joy-seeking self, the self is transformed into just another object—a keystone indispensable to the decluttered domestic sphere, perhaps, but still inanimate, ultra-poised, and instrumental, rather than an obstreperous work in progress.
Kondo’s spiritual project harkens back to the much-studied, and maddeningly elusive, Melanesian tradition of the cargo cult.
No, Kondo’s spiritual project actually harkens back to a different strain of anthropological inquiry: the much-studied, and maddeningly elusive, Melanesian tradition of the cargo cult. Stated in simplest terms, Melanesian believers reacted to an influx of goods from the developed Western world—and the United States in particular, during Melanesia’s early colonial era and then the Second World War—by imbuing those goods with magical power. Subsequent crude caricatures of the cargo faith served as a kind of colonial shorthand for the ostensible religious backwardness of native populations—think, for example, of the immensely irritating and deeply offensive portrayal of the harum-scarum response of African tribespeople to unexpected contact with Western consumer culture, via a Coke bottle dropped mysteriously from the sky, in the 1980 South African cult film The Gods Must Be Crazy.
Cambridge University anthropologist Joel Robbins, a leading authority on Melanesian religion, observes that the longings expressed in the cargo tradition have zero to do with the credulous, bug-eyed simpletons of Western colonialist fable. Rather, Melanesians are “people who had long believed the material world is given by spiritual beings—ancestors—and that its abundance evidences good relations with them,” Robbins says. So the spectacle of Western material largesse, rather than prostrating awed Melanesians before it, prompted them to incorporate the shiny stuff deposited on Melanesian shores by the Allied powers into the existing framework of their faith. “When confronted with Western material culture that seems superior,” Robbins says, Melanesians “figure they must have disappointed their ancestors in the past, and need to find new, better rituals to get them to send the good stuff—and sometimes, to get rid of the white invaders.”
Those rituals embrace the bounty of globe-bestriding Western capitalism over against the strictures of traditional Melanesian worship—and it is this ingenious brand of syncretism that affords a key contact point between the cargo cult and the Kondo cult. Reinvesting the material world of manufactured commodities with the magical powers of cosmic purification is also an act of self-recreation—the very sort of sustained personal epiphany that Marie Kondo insists occurs as a natural byproduct of a serenely ordered domestic sphere. As the influential anthropologist Kenelm Burridge wrote in his 1960 study of the cargo phenomenon, Mandu, cargo worship’s “most significant theme . . . seems to be moral regeneration: the creation of a new man, the creation of new unities, the creation of a new society.”
There is, in addition to this crypto-revolutionary principle, an elegiac quality to the cargo cult—one that overlaps with other religious movements that process the stuff of “cultural stress” via ritualized upsurges in “religious revitalization,” in the terminology of psychological anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace. Here, too, there’s a strong and suggestive overlap with Kondo’s oddly brittle account of how the self needs to be effectively quarantined from troubling and upsetting material reminders of past distress. Where millenarian-style adherents of “cultural stress” faiths—the Sioux Ghost Dance of the late nineteenth century, most famously—sought to transmute their sense of psychic displacement into a climactic (if doomed) confrontation with the white European civilization that had marginalized them, the advanced-consumer cargo cult of Kondoism never stirs itself from a terminal defensive crouch.
Still, deeper psychic affinities abound, if one prods a bit beneath the surface of both cargoism and Kondoism. Efforts to psychologize cargo worship have been clumsy and misguided, but it’s still bracing to comb through them and pick up the echoes of Marie Kondo’s incantations of material enchantment. In speculating that cargo cultists suffered from a mild form of undiagnosed schizophrenia, for example, psychologists Ruth W. Lidz, Theodore Lidz, and Burton G. Burton-Bradley argued in a 1973 paper that cargo worshipers suffered from a deranging “double-bind” that short-circuited their understanding of ancestor-driven abundance: glittering images of material well-being, on the one hand, and tradition-enforcing ancestors on the other. In the face of this quandary, “failing to receive the cargo becomes a rejection” from the Ur-parents of Melanesian native religion—and the cargo believer seeks to dispel the rejection via a regimen of compulsive ritual grounded in a fantasy of “infantile omnipotence,” the psychologists suggested. “The origins of this repetition compulsion are probably found in circular relations of the sensori-motor period . . . in which the child seeks to achieve an effect by carrying out the movement that preceded the effect.” In other words: await the delivery of ancestor-sanctioned cargo; when it fails to materialize, continue to adopt new ritual responses—and then resume waiting. In the patois of American domestic consumer culture: lather, rinse, repeat.
Shorn of the discredited rhetoric of deep-seated developmental pathology, the Lidz team’s core diagnosis could double as a review of the Marie Kondo corpus: “The schizophrenic in the ensuing perplexity regresses to earlier types of egocentric cognition in which animistic and magical beliefs come to the fore, and he again fails to differentiate what is internal from what is external, and overestimates the efficacy of the thought and wish.”
As is the case for the idealized cargo believer, Kondo’s litany of totemized, love-bestowing possessions freely intermingles with her confessed frail sense of her own self and its fraught relationship to others. For all her revivalist-style exhortations on the immense psychic gains won by the tidying life, Kondo actually supplies a revealingly depersonalized account of her own life experience—one that, like the Lidz team’s account of cargo-cult worship’s underlying psychology, not merely hinges on the failure to differentiate between the spiritual auras of living things and inanimate ones, but also grants explicit psychic dominance to the world of stuff. “I still prefer to do things alone,” Kondo pauses to observe in a remarkable excursis on how tidying functions as a means of restoring decisiveness and self-confidence to the experience-battered human soul. The key spiritual dilemma for the declutterer, it appears, is not how to appease mercurial ancestors, but how to conquer one’s own sense of inner deadness. But in both cases, the answer materializes in, well, the sphere of the material:
Because I was poor at developing bonds of trust with people, I had an unusually strong attachment to things. I think that precisely because I did not feel comfortable exposing my weaknesses or my true feelings to others, my room and the things in it became very precious. I did not have to pretend or hide anything in front of them. It was material things and my house that taught me to appreciate unconditional love first, not my family or friends.
And when it comes time for Kondo to conquer her debilitating sense of inadequacy, the guiding message is conveyed via her mastery of the object-world:
I do . . . have confidence in my environment. When it comes to the things I own, the clothes I wear, the house I live in, and the people in my life, when it comes to my environment as a whole, though it may not seem particularly special to anyone else, I am confident and extremely grateful to be surrounded by what I love, by things and people that are, each and every one, special, precious, and exceedingly dear to me. The things and people that bring me joy support me. They give me confidence that I will be all right.
It speaks volumes about the chill narcissism of the decluttering faith that “people” are but an object-relations afterthought in Kondo’s paean to the healing properties of the arranged material life. They are always bringing up the rear in Kondo’s didactic evocations of the ways in which the tidying regime works its life-changing magic, and they always take the impersonal relative pronoun “that,” rather than “who” or “whom” as a result: “the things I own, the clothes I wear, the house I live in, the people in my life. . . ”; “things and people that are, each and every one . . .”; “things and people that bring me joy.” What could be a stronger vindication of the Lidz diagnosis of distorted “egocentric cognition in which animistic and magical beliefs come to the fore”—to say nothing of the distressing failure to “differentiate what is internal from what is external” amid fantasies of “infantile omnipotence”?
Old and in the Way
But where Melanesians resolved their ambivalent feelings about their ancestors by reimagining the reach of their material power, the ever-efficient Kondo has a simpler fix: abolish the past altogether. Nearly every object associated with the remorseless passage of time, in Kondo’s books, is earmarked for rapid disposal. The idea of the past is always Kryptonite to the practiced narcissist, bespeaking in vivid terms both the gradual ravages that time visits on the sacred, inviolate self and the stubborn endurance of an exterior world that has nothing to do with the self. Hence, Kondo’s jihad against the claims of one’s personal history is every bit as ruthless as her war on the printed word. “When you think about your future,” she asks rhetorically, “is it worth keeping mementos of things that you would otherwise forget?”
We live in the present. No matter how wonderful things used to be, we cannot live in the past. The joy and excitement we feel here and now are more important.
The relentless presentism of the spark-joy test consigns nearly every object bearing the taint of time’s passage to the developmental dustbin. Personal correspondence, for instance, like every other form of reading, becomes unbearably disruptive once it’s consumed: “The purpose of a letter is fulfilled the moment it is received. By now, the person who wrote it has long forgotten what he or she wrote and even the letter’s very existence.” Photographs, too, threaten to swamp the officiously narcissistic declutterer’s life with extraneous data from a dead and intrusive past: “Photographs exist only to show a specific event or time. . . . Really important things are not that great in number. Unexciting photos of scenery you can’t even place belong in the garbage.” This crude functionalist relationship to the past, holding that a failure to properly titillate us in the present is the permanent gauge of historical worth, opens out naturally onto a vision of the self actuating its own bliss in a historical vacuum:
It is not our memories but the person we have become because of those past experiences that we should treasure. This is the lesson these keepsakes teach us when we sort them. The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.
Far from striking a resounding note of confident liberation, this is a vision of the acquisitive self marooned on its own sense of diminishing importance in the world. Kondo the cargo totemist is right, however, in intuiting that the narrow palette of magical belongings possesses special powers of self-preservation. In navigating the treacherous strait of the self’s rapidly multiplying set of existential threats, certain objects prove a key source of orientation. Psychologist Donald Woods Winnicott famously explored the use of “transition objects” and the symbolic importance they acquire in the developing self’s struggles to individuate from the formative influences of family and infantile fantasy. Yet in cases such as cargo worship, the critical moment of transition is blocked: objects themselves become a principal source of misappropriated spiritual power in and of themselves—to borrow another simile from Buddhism, the finger pointing at the moon rather than the celestial body itself.
The idea of the past is always Kryptonite to the practiced narcissist.
When interpreters of the cargo faith wed this psychological account of its enduring appeal to the background struggles of native peoples against white colonialism, a rough theory of developmental progress—in the political sense of the term—ensues. It matters little, from this vantage, whether cargo believers are seen as members of a putatively backward society incorporating the gaudy stuff of capitalist mass production into a preexisting scheme of ancestor worship or as proto-revolutionaries trying to reimagine the bounty of an industrial economy without either the exploitation or appropriation foisted on them by foreign white rulers. In either scenario, the same basic lines of causation obtain: the stuff of white civilization, and the new rituals contrived to enact the worship of the stuff, represent a key mediating stage along a general arc of progress, either toward a spiritual accommodation to a colonialist status quo or a principled rejection of it.
But the decluttering vogue stands much of this reasoning on its head, suggesting strongly that the lines of causation run in the opposite direction: that rather than serving to school so-called primitive populations in how to be more spiritually and/or politically modern, the profusion of capitalist stuff is making the populations in its host societies more spiritually archaic and ritually totemist.
Of course, the granddaddy of modern socialist revolution, Karl Marx, suggested something of this nature was already happening in 1867, when he wrote, in the first volume of Capital, of the rampant “fetishism of the commodity” under bourgeois capitalism. But obdurate son of the rational Enlightenment that he was, Marx held that commodity fetishism was a fast-obsolescing form of obscurantism that took hold mainly among the intellectual acolytes of nineteenth-century political economy. As such, it worked chiefly to conceal the core defining features of exploitation that conspired in the commodity’s production—relations that would, by Marx’s own millenarian scheme of historical succession, come to be spontaneously exposed, and just as magically rectified, at the great moment of crisis resulting in capitalism’s overthrow.
Thanks, but No Thanks
There’s clearly no such master code of mass liberation locked somewhere deep inside the present American fetish of the mystic commodity. Once it’s detached from these interpretive schemas of progress, the new fastidiousness of the decluttering era doesn’t obey any law outside its own chosen canons of worship. Rather than eventuating in any recognizable mode of modern liberation, the curated cult of Western stuff seems to be leading back toward an animistic faith in the magical ability of selectively venerated totems to heal, to balance, and to express core truths of the soul not otherwise available to unenlightened consumers and life arrangers. This explains the overtly religious cast of Kondo-ism. Toward the end of her new book, Kondo quotes a correspondent who came to the end of a particularly difficult and time-consuming decluttering mission. “I feel like I’ve been reborn,” the client enthuses. “Wherever I look, all I see are things that spark joy. I feel a tenderness for everything in my life and am just so thankful!”
And then comes Kondo’s homiletic gloss:
When I receive letters like this, my mind fills with images of the senders’ future as they move on to the next stage of their lives. Living mindfully in a beautiful space, they will now be able to give up any habits they’ve always wanted to quit, to see clearly what they really want to achieve, and to do what it takes to get there.
Allowing for all obvious differences of gender and cultural provenance, this could have been the wind-up to a positive-thinking seminar from success guru Tony Robbins, or a positive-believing sermon by the great smiling apostle of the prosperity gospel, Joel Osteen. These prophets, too, harp on the fine points of personal presentation and aspirational owning; they also stress that, by surrounding oneself with the symbolic trappings of an earnestly striving and believing life—a high-end McMansion or a power-wardrobe—one can summon forth the elusive soul-winning truths of the great trickster/bitch goddess known as American success.
As well they might. What’s being fetishized, in the arena of cargo belief, isn’t the production of goods under capitalism, but rather the charismatic aura they’re held to share at the point of their end use—their mana, to use another piece of sociological jargon cribbed from the great mystic theorist of social organicism, Émile Durkheim.
In this regard, it’s instructive to ponder just how different manuals of hermetic self-improvement such as Kondo’s, or the overlapping gospels of Messrs. Robbins and Osteen, would look if they were actually to focus on a form of gratitude that could be reciprocated—on thanking, that is, the workers who produce the precious goods that the self chooses to surround itself with. Perhaps then a sort of mystic solidarity could take hold among the possessors of material bounty that would stretch beyond the dogmatically circumscribed boundaries of our domestic sphere. Perhaps the self, and the objects that give it decisive shape, could actually envision new ways for the mana of the consumer marketplace to reverse its critical charge, and spurn the longstanding scarcity-based cult of American cargo worship—including, most emphatically, the austerity-minded rites of the decluttering self.
How about thanking the workers who produce the precious goods that the self chooses to surround itself with?
Perhaps instead of tortuously mythologizing all the objects and possessions that we mistakenly intuit as the fount of our sacred individuality—instead of fetishizing them as benevolent spirit-beings, folding them just so, and stacking them so as not to injure their own frail sense of self-worth—we could extend our imaginative sympathies to encompass those things we hold genuinely in common with the fellow citizens who make up our mass consumer republic: their claims—and ours—to less fastidiously individuated but infinitely more valuable social goods such as health care, affordable housing, cheap and abundant higher education, sustainable pension plans, and equitable job training. That these social goods are now jealously stockpiled as profit centers for our info-rentier class—or theorized, just as ruinously, as flat and interchangeable inputs of “human capital” by their retainers in the neoliberal social science academy—strikes me as a far more consequential form of clutter-cum-hoarding than any riot of untamed possessions now unspooling in any of our private living spaces.
Indeed, it’s rather breathtaking to take in the sheer volume of self-improving handbooks and tidying tracts that will inundate your browser the moment you type the phrase “Marie Kondo” into a Google or Amazon search window, in contrast to all the blatantly deteriorating public squalor that we are urged, over and over again (and especially, it seems, during our presidential election cycles), to meekly take for granted as the permanent order of things. You can always “spark joy” (a phrase that, I confess, feels much too close to “Arbeit Macht Frei” for my own personal comfort) as you chase down hundreds upon hundreds of brave new approaches to rearranging your domestic space or to conquering your untidy personal habits. But if you dare to dream of freely accessible health care or higher education—or even, these days, a unionized workforce, employee wages that keep pace with productivity, or a serviceable roads-and-bridges infrastructure—you’re a wild-eyed utopian, if not in fact a revolutionary.
None of this is to suggest that we carelessly substitute a shrill and outward-looking Stakhanovite cult of the Soviet model worker for the present, terminally inward-looking cargo cult of the decluttering class. It is, however, to suggest that the magical thinking we now are frenetically ascribing to the mystic arts of domestic space clearing is, among other things, tragically misplaced. The last thing that our nation of believers, schooled in the totalizing, doctrinaire battle against the care and maintenance of an American public sphere, needs to heed is the gospel assurance that the one true path to transcendent well being is all about getting their own houses in order.