Category Archives: Books

Decluttering and Its Discontents

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.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” gets the Silent Treatment from Some Radio Stations


The debate over the perennial holiday song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” heated up this year, rather than just withering away in the face of sheer insignificance, as I had hoped. In fact, the only thing possibly more annoying than nixing a perfectly good song is the ensuing whining about political correctness that it provokes. I’ll grant that it’s hypocritical to single out “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for criticism. Anybody who enjoys literally any genre of popular music with lyrics should probably start with a bunch of other stuff if they are intent on being censorious.

My book, Drink Spiking and Predatory Drugging: A Modern History (2016) only deals with the newfound discomfort with this song in passing. I haven’t written about it extensively; I’ve only commented to my friends I found the whole campaign against the song wrong-headed. Since then, there’s been some very good writing about the topic. Mainly: listen more closely.

I liked  Cammila Collar’s take on this at Medium, which rightly recommends listening closely enough to realize that the female singer is looking for a way to stay, not to leave, and that she’s joking around when she asks, “what’s in this drink?” Collar and other writers on the topic, some of whom I mention in my book, also plead for greater attention to the historical context of the song, where ideas about shame and propriety greatly thwarted women’s desires and leisure activities. In the ensuing years, not surprisingly, role-reversing renditions have emerged, keeping the original lyrics intact. (If you want a little soundtrack for this  blog post, I recommend the Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s 2013 version.)

Let’s also understand the drugs-and-alcohol-related context of the joke the duet singers share. It’s true, as Collar and others said, that “what’s in this drink?” was a common joke at the time when people wanted to account for their own bolder-than-usual, sillier-than-usual, or more-at-ease-than-usual behavior in all kinds of social settings, not just in potentially romantic or sexual ones. Throughout the song, she’s also mocking and rejecting an expected gender role: appointed schoolmarm of the evening, disciplinarian of the wily male. The song also came about during a new era of pharmaceuticals, and with it a new post-Prohibition sense of ease with alcohol, too — and sometimes a blithe attitude about their combination. And thus, jokes.

In my book, I wrote: 

After Prohibition, the liquor industry sought to re-domesticate the image of alcohol as a wholesome accompaniment to a social evening at home. While drinking slowly became more acceptable for middle-class women, the consumption gap [where men drank considerably more than women in the US] of pre-Prohibition returned. In advertising, women were often shown serving alcohol rather than consuming it. In this milder way, women once again seen as limiters and keepers in alcohol-serving environments – not people who were at risk, except under exceptional circumstances, of overindulging themselves, but not the grim-faced disapprovers of the Temperance era, either. A permanent shift had taken place in norms around drinking and women’s propriety. There was, by and large, nothing now deviant about it.

[See Lori Rotskoff’s history, Love on the Rocks: Men, Women and Alcohol in Post-World War II America

Beginning in 2012 and reprised every holiday season since, a sort of silly claim has emerged that the 1944 Frank Loesser holiday tune,“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is actually “rapey” in part because the dialogue contained the line, “what’s in this drink?” In its own context, this actually makes no sense. First, it’s clearly not a song about someone genuinely worried about being drugged, but simply someone teasing her companion and humoring her own increasing desire to stay with him longer. Her quarrels (and ultimately mocking tone) are with the shaming voices that might disapprove. What it does reveal is both a relaxed attitude about her freedom to go or to stay, and about alcohol itself, and the mild disinhibition that everyone seeks from it. The drink (plus the “half a drink more” that she asks for) seems to make her go through the motions of propriety, in an increasingly joking way, of the what-will-people-think variety without diverting her from what she really wants.

It is difficult, however, for modern ears to pick this up unless you have an understanding of both transitioning gender roles at the time and perhaps a maybe too relaxed attitude about alcohol, drugs, and mixing the two at the time for both sexes. Barbiturates and chloral hydrate still appeared in a number of pharmaceutical products, and at the time there was still generally too little concern about their mixture….While I’ve suggested that this may have a lot to do with lessening fear of alcohol itself and its rekindled association with sociability rather than social pathology, it also has to do with the techno-utopian view of tranquilizers coming onto the market. [pages 89-91]

The mass marketing of tranquilizers in the post-war period (as this song gained popularity) created a halo around these products, and it was not yet common for doctors to warn patients sternly about mixing these drugs with alcohol.

Enthusiasm and ensuing carelessness about meprobamate [Miltown] is difficult to overstate …. Comedian Milton Berle, in the 1950s, once joked with his audiences that he was planning to change his name to Miltown Berle. There were even Miltown cocktails variations on the Bloody Mary and Martini that required a dose of the stuff. No worries! [pages 91-92]

[Also: See Andrea Tone’s book, The Age of Anxiety]

From a caution-bound contemporary standpoint, such practices (and jokes about them) seem reckless rather than “so very nice.” But that wasn’t how people saw it back then. We don’t have to see drinking, drugs, or even flirting exactly the same way to understand it. Kudos to the stations that have kept it in rotation.

New Excerpt: What’s in your Halloween Cache?

Here’s an excerpt from the book, Drink Spiking and Predatory Drugging: A Modern History, about the attractions of drug scarelore, especially involuntary drug ingestion as a “problem solver” for frightened parents. It almost always rears its head around Halloween, but never really goes away completely. – PD

[Book title is Drink Spiking and Predatory Drugging: A Modern History. Image of cocktail glass with mysterious swirl in it.]

The Points Interview: Pamela Donovan

“We’ve thrown off certain old mores over the last few decades, and now the proper girl ideal has been replaced by the smart girl ideal: freedom, but no room for error, and everything’s your fault.”

I did a Q & A about the book project over at the great Points blog. Thanks to Kyle Bridge and everyone at the blog, which focuses on the history of drugs and alcohol.

picture of ones and zeroes representing stored data

Thinking Beyond the Couch-Hero and the All-Seeing Eye: getting up to date on Surveillance and Sociology

Anyone who listens to podcasts and has thought about surveillance, privacy, and the shaping of the self in the age of the selfie, alongside the silent corporate algorithms that channel our digital lives, should be listening to Benjamen Walker’s new series on his podcast Theory of Everything. Walker’s first in this series is “Burning Down the Panopticon” which raises absolutely overdue questions about our tendency to analyze surveillance and privacy issues using Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon model, which supposes a 360-degree gaze of an all-seeing, all-judging eye as a metaphor for new and insidious forms of social control.  Michel Foucault, of course, also harnessed the idea in his book Discipline and Punish, and the Panopticon became quickly unmoored from its penological settings.

That wasn’t a dishonest unmooring – both Bentham and Foucault saw the model as one that would be relevant way beyond the penitentiary walls. Bentham, the utilitarian, saw good applications of the model’s spread and Foucault, mainly bad ones that would ultimately serve unfreedom in quiet but effective ways. We’d all learn to “work on our own” to shape a self that expected constant surveillance. I’ve thought about this issue a lot, but truthfully not very carefully, ever since I wrote about the rise of reality crime shows in the 1990s. In 1998, Mark Fishman, along with Grey Cavender put together an edited volume, Entertaining Crime: Television Reality Programs, with ten chapters on varying aspects of what was then a burgeoning and somewhat unique genre. My chapter, “Armed with the Power of Television” explored the genre’s pretention to becoming a kind of entertainment-based civic tool in the United States, where the public sector was under siege and yet authoritarian populism ruled the day despite (or maybe because of) dropping crime rates.

Foucault’s take on the modern Panopticon was that it more or less supplanted the spectacular forms of punishment – public tortures and executions, for instance. In their place, is the ever more precise and dossiered scientific surveillance of the criminalized population. With the rise in reality crime programs, which were often co-produced with law enforcement agencies, my argument in “Armed with the Power” was that a new place for spectacle had been formed, with the passive-yet-praised-as-active audience inculpated and feeling like the couch-heroes that they were.

There’s also the dimension of data, surveillance, and media production reinventing memory and working-copy reality, as well.  “Armed with the Power” did address this “media as omniscient” move in reality crime programming, but the examples and observations were brief, partly because I was genuinely surprised and disturbed by it, and partly because that’s all I had – an observation. I didn’t know what to make of it then. Now, I feel like I do – ubiquitous data gathering and surveillance, even the democratically gathered kind, maybe even more so now, attempts to fill in all the unknowns with its personalized curation. And so a videotape of street brawl, or a politician walking across the stage, or a manager making a comment to a staffer, means whatever you can convince others that it means.

There’s misrepresentation, and factual nihilism, on the one hand, but the problems are now so much deeper – because they’re conjuring realities, not just distorting them — in the digital age. Walker points out the problems with using the Panopticon metaphor in the current situation. First, as he puts it, what happens when the “guard in the tower is disintermediated” and we routinely “compile our own files on ourselves” with every miniscule decision we make online, or at a payment register? Every electronic payment, loyalty card, social media like or post, every search on Google now added to Your Permanent Record.

The legacy of using the Panopticon metaphor to create a “simple minded” tale of government dragnet spying such as that uncovered by Edward Snowden is that we miss the big data guard tower that we are building for ourselves, through registration, online behavior and commerce.  I agree with Walker that the old model is not inaccurate, it’s just increasingly inadequate. Even when we use the Panopticon to explain our feelings of violation, or infringement, we keep forgetting to get back to the conversation about how all of this is shaping our behavior, our social relationships, and our sense of selves.

The world of surveillance studies needs to be reconsidered, although I’d have to say I’m way behind on my reading in this area. Appropriately, Amazon helped me out with many suggestions once I plugged a few names in. I’d already known the work of one of the most prolific writers and researchers in this area, David Lyon, Director of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University in Canada. I just started reading his book Surveillance after Snowden (2015). He also wrote a short piece for Time in which he spelled out how diffuse the problem is. Much of the data about ourselves that we deliver is done so seamlessly that we barely notice – we are asked to produce credentials for authorized usage for the most mundane of tasks. Social media, a less compulsory dimension, nonetheless evokes a sense of anxiety about our identity and social connections in us, even as it delivers to us terrific things we wouldn’t ever experience, or perhaps even access, otherwise.  Lyons, like Walker, would like to get back to that conversations of effects and costs. “It’s one thing to explain why people might self-surveil and another to ask the ethical question: Should we?”

Shoshanna Zuboff wrote a provocative article in Frankfurter Allgemeine in which she describes the emergence of surveillance capitalism, in which a significant source of profit extraction, business modeling, and new global economic development depends on storing data on our every move, certainly on-line, but increasingly off-line, too. “The assault on behavioral data is so sweeping,” she says “that it can no longer be circumscribed by the concept of privacy and its contests.”  Zuboff’s book, Master or Slave? The Fight for the Soul of Our Information Civilization, isn’t out until Summer 2017, and I’m looking forward to it.

The Panopticon model requires centralization – which seemed to be what was going on at the time when I thought about reality crime programs. But hasn’t in some ways the tendency been the opposite – to the centrifugal, the phone camera, the body cam, the home surveillance system?  Yet also the street protest on Periscope, being live Tweeted? A great democratic tribunal as Bentham also imagined, keeping the guard tower honest, checking the prerogatives of power? That’s what we keep hoping.  But so much data. So much epistemic distrust. Editing and curation by the dispersed forces who cannot agree on What Just Happened.

I don’t want to exaggerate the differences between the digital age and the media of the modernist print era. Print narrative can tell any number of stories, too, mutually exclusive ones, shaped for eager and loyal audiences. But data transforms reality now, too. The example that many of us are familiar with is the erroneous credit report, or the crossed digital wires that create an inter-mingling of someone else’s financial activities with our own. It’s not a true abstract of your financial life, but it may as well be. Is your Facebook page really you? People have noticed how we idealize in social media, but what about how it idealizes us?  Not long ago, I started getting mobile adverts for a cool home-goods store. I think I’d accurately describe it as my taste, only slightly better. It was convenient. It also gave me digital chills.

Media transformations were rudimentary in the 1990s and guesses about where the digital juggernaut was going often turned out to be spectacularly wrong. To me, it’s not surprising that the networked society has enabled more surveillance; but what is surprising is how much privacy we gave up so easily to commercial interests. In my case, I think I succumbed out of convenience and FOMO. And now we have reached a point where, with the exception of some always vigilant, advanced-skill hacker types, most people would be hard-pressed to figure out how not to leave a trail of digital bits, ripe for the harvesting, in even the most ordinary transactions.

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I am one and you are too? Narcissism, violence, lessons not learned, and the case of the Hot Chocolate rapist


On October 9, 2016, the Daily Mail (UK) reported the death of Harry Barkas, Australia’s so-called “hot chocolate rapist” who was convicted of drugging and assaulting women to whom he offered rides home from nightclubs. At the time, this offender’s exploits were covered as a serial rape case, rather than attempting to shoehorn it into the public drink spiking scare narrative. In Drink Spiking and Predatory Drugging: A Modern History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), I wrote about the failure of the press and other public health and safety communicators to learn about the nature of this crime from key American and Australian serial cases like Barkas’. Below, I provide an adapted excerpt from my book that refocuses on misplaced trust, context, and links to a chapter that discusses the dynamics of this crime.

From Chapter 6, Who and Where are the Druggers? 

(Other chapters are available as book previews at and Google Books)


[…] Chef John Xydias of Melbourne was accused of drugging, raping, and videotaping 13 women he had met through work. In some cases, he was introduced to his victims by a man named Harry Barkas, who was, at roughly the same time Xydias got caught, accused of being the “Hot Chocolate” rapist. Barkas, who worked in a medical clinic and had access to drugs, approached women as they left nightclubs and offered them a ride home. According to a 2008 Herald Sun article, he then offered them hot chocolate into which he had slipped tranquilizers and sleeping pills, including Rohypnol. Barkas was charged with a string of attacks between 1991 and 2005, and Xydias between 1995 and 2006. Both were in their mid-40s.

Xydias typically met women through the restaurant business, and Barkas sometimes did, too.  The Age, a newspaper in Melbourne, reported that one of Barkas’ victims worked at the same restaurant he did and regarded him as “an older brother or uncle.”   Xydias drugged and filmed many women while dressing them up and assaulting them. Upon sentencing in 2010, when he was convicted of 86 charges relating to 11 victims, he told the court that the women only lodged charges against him as vengeance for not continuing a relationship with them. Like other such serial offenders, he claimed that the acts were consensual and that the women were heavy drinkers and drug users.

While it may be the case that the reason nearly all of the men [accused of multiple attacks] say the acts were consensual is strictly a legal strategy—when the prosecution has a recording of your raping behavior, there are not that many defenses left—it is possible that pathological fantasy, on some level, has made this claim seem real to the offenders. They often see themselves as decadent nightlife hedonists who push the boundaries—so they think, well, why wouldn’t or shouldn’t their victims be? As in, I am one and you are, too. As edgeplay, they might even consider it relatively tame— “just” drugs. Xydias’ pre-sentence psychiatric report called him emotionally disconnected, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald.  Barkas’ report suggested a narcissistic personality disorder; his ability to be accountable for his actions was limited; he was suspected of many more assaults than he could be charged with due to lack of evidence.

There was some question of Xydias’ relationship to Barkas. Though they were childhood friends and frequented the same venues, they did not, apparently, offend against the same women. Barkas appears to have been more sporadic with his assaults, with a suspected cluster taking place in the mid-1990s and another right before his arrest, leaving a gap of more than a decade, according to the Herald Sun. Although police suspected there must have been more victims in between, that is not entirely clear. Barkas was sentenced to 13 years and Xydias, 28.

The legendary public-place drink spiking, followed by a carry-off and assault, as we have seen, has too many moving parts to really be very common. What we find in its place, much more commonly, is voluntary intoxication followed by misplaced trust, or coevolving with it, and then victimization in a private setting. As with acquaintance rape generally, it is really the moment of misplaced trust that is exploited by the assailant. Intoxication helps, of course, in reducing the ability to resist unwanted sex, and as such, is simply another tool to facilitate an act of violence. Drugging can make detail retention hazy enough that the victim questions what really happened, and may be more reluctant to report it, though this amnesia is not guaranteed, any more than it is with large amounts of alcohol or voluntary drug ingestion. Culture then piles on by blaming women who drink for anything that happens after. On both individual and collective level, the gaslighting begins. Some gaslighters are better at this sort of thing than others. [I continue in the book by talking about the US case of Jeffery Marsalis]

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The book is out (July 2016)

It’s a wide-ranging look at the spectre of the compromised drink, amidst the shifting cultural and gender politics of psycho-chemical treachery. A preview chapter is available at Google Books, and you can also “Look Inside” at Amazon. If your public, institutional, school, or university library hasn’t ordered it, you can make a request.

If you’d like to review the book for a news source or journal, contact