Category Archives: Consumers and Consumption

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.

*      *       *

And a shoutout to a comic classic rejoinder to it all, by Felipe Torres Medina.

Slides from ESS 2019: paper – Decluttering and Its Discontents

Eight trash bags full of clothing to be donatedMuch like the other attendees and presenters at the 89th Annual Meeting of the Eastern Sociological Society in Boston (March 14-17), I had a little set of slides to go with my paper, but technology in the meeting section of the hotel was spotty. So we improvised, gathering around the digital hearth (my rickety laptop) when we couldn’t get the projector to talk to any devices. This paper is part of my larger project on self-storage in the US. A summary: from Paper Session 322: Status and Consumption. US national publications fielded a spate of anti-decluttering, first-person essays in the past two years, preoccupied with the problem of “clutter shaming.” There’s very little work in sociology in the US on stuff management. Self-help literature, paradoxically, advises individual-level management techniques but treats it as a social problem. Growth of the self-storage industry is often cited. Self-storage industry’s marketing materials (to potential customers and investors) have increasingly picked up on similar defensive themes about the too-much-stuff problem. It tries to enlist academic psychology in the process, awkwardly.

“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.