The anti-decluttering caucus of the terminally online “I am the Main Character” take-havers got a big boost this week. Bestselling tidying expert Marie Kondo revealed in an interview that having her third kid put straightening up around the house as a lower priority for her and her family than it had been, given her profession. The ongoing, frankly mysterious backlash against Kondo’s decluttering method started in earnest in 2016, after the 2014 English translation of her 2011 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.
It was weird from the beginning, since it seemed to focus on Kondo to the exclusion of dozens of other self-help offerings. “Her famous philosophy, in which she invites us to purchase and keep only the items that ‘spark joy,’ is frequently misinterpreted as a brutal demand that we throw out the majority of our belongings in pursuit of inner peace,” Kylie Cheung wrote in Salon. It’s true that if your book says it offers “life-changing magic” then perhaps the stakes are high already, and some pushback is inevitable. But in my estimation, the backlash so routinely misinterpreted her advice that I can’t see it as anything but willful and probably meaningful error. Her critics defensively insist that every item they own is full of meaning and fulfilling use and display a lot of paranoia about being “oppressed” by the mere existence of this slim self-help volume. They grab hold of their children’s artwork and treasured books defensively, as if she were coming for them. Meanwhile, the rest of the world that took a shot at the KonMari method got rid of, instead, a bunch of mismatched, unusable plastic containers and donated way too much unworn clothing and outgrown kids’ toys. Something lost in translation? Doubtful.
You can tell already that I find the backlash against decluttering suspiciously over-wrought, that it smacks of otherwise-low-stakes concern trolling (to tidy or not to tidy) and has basically gone altogether to a bad place. The concern troll is one who must problematize other people’s subjective takes and the sharing of them. Why would anyone care that materially overwhelmed people used Kondo’s advice to manage excess? As for anti-Kondoism going to a bad place, as both Cheung and Margaret Dilloway noted, some critics seem to be on a weird borderland between linking Kondo, in a convoluted manner, with cultural appropriation and actual xenophobia. Kondo’s critics, in some cases, complained about her doing Shinto wrong, or trafficking in Orientalism. The overlap here is both intriguing and disturbing.
Of course, there are also other reasons. SEO-driven concern trolling animates the strength of pundit reaction in a platformed world to some extent — there are a herd of situated takes with the words “Marie Kondo” in them that are probably just designed to pull in eyeballs. Many of them are tediously similar. There’s the common phoned-in critique that insists that other people’s decluttering efforts are solidifying an oppressive reign of minimalism, of either the aesthetic or perhaps anti-consumerist sort. The constant re-appearance of the term “shaming” doesn’t help, either. Aesthetic minimalism as a self-help goal isn’t a part of the Kon Mari message, as many have pointed out.
In our fraught consumer, housing, and cost-of-living-crisis environments, there are clear and provocative discomforts at being asked to look at the things you have in a serious way to see if they are serving your needs. But I also suspect there’s something about the KonMari method itself that’s driving it, too.
Having made my own piles and thanked a few hundred items for their service, I have a suspicion. There’s a deep, visceral reaction to the prospect of looking all your stuff square in the face – stuff that you accumulated or spent money on in a not-always-conscious way — and figuring out if you actually still want it. Believe me, the feeling is even more striking when you actually do it. To — yes, in homage to the phrase that launched many funny memes — see if the items are really “sparking joy” versus taking up space. But worse yet, once you get started, you end up contemplating how you (and I mean me) managed to get it, store it, not really use it, and yet keep it. Too much of it, everywhere, such that I couldn’t find the stuff I liked and wanted. I doubt I’m alone in this.
While decluttering literature generally presents itself as apolitical, neither it nor the backlash really is, after all. The backlash’s tendency to associate decluttering with aesthetic minimalism enables detractors to laud resistance to it as a badge of personal authenticity. My stuff, myself! Clutter, ergo, must mean joie de vivre! A busy and efflorescent mind! Right … right? Intentional or not, this precludes any fundamental questioning of the wisdom in the continued expansion of unprecedented personal accumulation — and its links to the very measurable, society-wide durable goods wave that has been accelerating since the mid-20th century.
You can certainly recoil at the visual language of spareness of some upscale interior design magazines as a conspicuous display of excess space in a housing market that has reached crisis-level unaffordability. Can’t and won’t argue there. But the widespread perceived problem of having too much — and thus the appeal of Kondo and other self-help gurus — seems to be coming from a roughly middle-class environment – thus the popularity of decluttering. Rent and daily life money are what we have too little of; plastic containers and half-functional furniture, though – too many.
IKEA’s sustainability officer suggested in 2016 that we were at “peak stuff” in the West, prompting new strategizing on the company’s part. If its customer base for cheaply made, some even say semi-disposable, furnishings sours on buying more of its kind of durable goods, where would that company be? IKEA may or may not follow through on its plans to retrieve, repurpose, and recycle its own products and re-orient supply materials from more sustainable sources, but one suspects they see something in their numbers warning them about a maximum being reached. Indeed, this may have to do with other factors beyond sustainability.
There’s a parallel here to Juliet Schor’s observation about the scholarly literature on consumption and culture, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, that took on a celebratory cast. What began as a pushback against the overly broad and often condescending claims about mass consumerism that came before it ended up precluding any serious questioning of consumption’s detrimental effects on well-being or the planet. This phase of cultural critique associated questioning of consumerism with joyless, abstemious finger-wagging. Though, mercifully, this particular moment in arts-and-letters has become passe, it seems to have been awakened in recent years in more public-facing publications. The simultaneous, but not identical, rise of lifestyle minimalism on the one hand and decluttering self-help books like Kondo’s and the also popular 2018 book by Margareta Magnusson, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, on the other provided the background to this notable backlash.
Whether in popular venues, or on a purely scholarly and analytic level, we need to make room to understand why Americans get, spend out for (often using credit), and retain items at a much higher level than other post-industrial, developed countries — the citizens of which are no slouches when it comes to overconsumption, either. Even with more space and larger homes than these other places, we soon find ourselves knee-deep in objects of dubious use and charm. It should really be okay to ask these kinds of questions about our material lives – planetary, psychological, and just practical. After all, it is clear from the popularity of both the lifestyle minimalism and decluttering genres that plenty of people are, in fact, asking those questions. And they were doing so even before the pandemic, a time which enabled many, for better or worse, to spend more quality time with our stuff.
Part of the problem, currently experienced by both declutterers and donation-bombarded thrift stores, as a direct result of the KonMari trend, is a kind of collective material overwhelmia. Kondo is actually blunt about this: “If you have lived in Japan or the United States all of your life, you have almost certainly been surrounded by far more than you need.”(p 124) Self-help approaches like Tidying Up and other similar advice systems constitute attempts to address an actual tangible macro-level problem that people experience on micro-level in their own lives.
Certainly, all of the usual concerns about such a distribution of critical and psychic attention pertain – individual and household decisions don’t tell the whole story. It’s a little churlish, however, to pretend that people trying to find practical ways to cope with the totality of this global problem are simply dupes of the world’s most bloodless interior designers or puritanical self-deniers. They’re probably also not somehow mistaken that they’ve got too much stuff they don’t like, can’t use, and don’t enjoy in their houses.
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And a shoutout to a comic classic rejoinder to it all, by Felipe Torres Medina.