Illustrations by Matthew Sorgie
This essay appears in our second print edition, Anti-Sisyphus.
“Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns,” declared President Jimmy Carter forty years ago, identifying a crisis in the American way of life. “But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” The speech was well-received, but, as we know all too well, a year later, Carter was defeated by Reagan. Instead of adopting policies to deal with the growing waste of consumerism, we’ve increasingly individualized the crisis.
Self-help books proliferate. Indeed, this Carter quote forms the epigram of the book New Minimalism: Decluttering and Design for Sustainable, Intentional Living, produced by a pair of bloggers turned consultants, that implores readers to “adopt the decluttering mindset.” The authors assert that examining our relationships with the products in our homes will bring us closer to the lives we want to lead. Socrates would be proud. Their vision insists that decluttering will free you not just from clutter, but also other received notions such as “working for a living.” With new minimalism, you can do the impossible: “live a trash-free life” and “retire at 30.” A decluttered life, then, explicitly stands in for freedom, and implicitly for class (or perhaps freedom from class, an illusion crafted for the dawning own-nothing, rent-everything age). Even as we celebrate private property, we are increasingly told that our stuff is a burden. This isn’t a paradox. It’s a natural byproduct of consumerism, and the problem is worse than ever.
Even consuming itself has become work. At the self-checkout, you can buy the best item for your needs—as identified by Consumer Reports or The Wirecutter or The Strategist. When you’re drowning in the condiment aisle, Serious Eats will tell you which mustard to buy. When we buy items sight unseen, drop-shipped from distant warehouses, buying guides and five-star reviews come to stand in for the reputation of brand names and union bugs. Review webpages are a cottage industry. Yet such overwhelming choice often deprives us of real agency when it comes to what fills our lives. Products are designed not for our needs but by the unfathomable logistics of a supply chain an ocean away, are sold via algorithmic data mining that clutters our digital lives, and arrive preposterously packaged to suit the needs of shipping and branding. Managing all of this is, increasingly, work, right alongside managing our identities.
This is work in the fullest sense, vital to keep us working and consuming, to keep systems of production flowing. Sociologists Kathryn Wheeler and Miriam Glucksmann have explored this at length in a study of household recycling, as we consumers warehouse and sort all the stuff that comes into and clutters our homes. Glucksmann identifies this as consumption work, a massive category of labor: “all work necessary for the purchase, use, re-use and disposal of consumption goods and services.”
Add in the work of our jobs, our commutes, care for our families, etc., and it’s little wonder that our houses are a mess—especially as capital makes them into waste transfer stations. It’s worth remembering that maintaining a household was once a (deeply gendered) full-time job for many, even as it was unpaid—this is still often the case. The promise of automation often fails to trickle down the economic ladder, leaving the richer more able to outsource this work to both maids and machines. A personal assistant can research and buy the best robot vacuum for your needs.
If you pay a professional cleaner, your house too can look as neat as the design magazines. But a magazine is a magazine. Design stores and photoshoots are carefully staged, sterile and free from the messiness of the lived world. This aspirational imagery is then fed to us relentlessly. Perhaps these images stand out in our otherwise maximalist culture, in which social media plays no small part. This contrast may contribute to the appeal of minimalism (“All publicity works upon anxiety,” observed John Berger), but a coat of paint is cheaper than a luxurious tapestry. A minimalist home isn’t inherently more or less virtuous, though it may be easier to keep clean, and it’s definitely trendy, at least for now.
Mary Douglas, in her study of cleanliness, wrote, “In chasing dirt, in papering, decorating, tidying we are not governed by anxiety to escape disease, but are positively re-ordering our environment, making it conform to an idea.” The imperative to keep a home tidy conflicts with the cultural insistence that we fill it with products. After all, it’s important to keep tidy—we need room for more things. Chasing minimalism thus enacts a whole set of values. Despite this, the choice to (de)clutter or not is a matter of taste: decorate your home however you like! Manage it as suits you. Do what feels good. If you need a break from the land of billboards and blockbusters, you’re allowed to take it. If you like clutter, keep your clutter. It’s okay for a home to look lived in.
Nevertheless, if you’re rich, even without staff, it’s easier to keep tidy; you don’t need to hang onto stuff. The rich can throw things out and replace them on demand. Anyone who’s ever lived in a college town is familiar with the tonnage discarded every summer break. Like fast fashion, most of this is cheap and not built to last; as the replacement cost goes down relative to your means, there are fewer variables that go into the “do I keep it?” equation. When an item is broken or just unneeded, you can junk it. Leave salvaging to the poor. So the minimalist home becomes an almost universal class signifier. Like a museum, the objects on display are “curated,” and the walls are perfectly white.
It’s ironic, then, that hoarding was once the exclusive province of rich eccentrics, from the bibliomaniacs who wanted to collect every book ever written to the Collyer brothers, isolated and found dead in their overflowing, booby-trapped mansion. Years earlier, when the bank had tried to foreclose on their home, Langley Collyer simply paid off the $6,700 mortgage debt (about $100,000 in today’s money). Their wealth enabled and protected them. More often, the rich still tend to keep their hoards tidy, in banks and museums, tended by staff, and guarded by, if not dragons, at least guard labor and security cameras. This is as they always have.
The rest of us, not being rich, buy things we don’t need because it feels good, or we buy in bulk to stock up—because the biggest is the cheapest, because having extra is comforting, because the future is uncertain. Or all of the above. This gross inefficiency turns our homes into warehouses.
In the United States, the most abundant, wealthy nation that the world has ever seen, we buy like there’s scarcity—and there is, imposed by the market. There’s no invisible hand, just chaos, as goods are allocated and distributed in all sorts of nonsense ways. One person eats foie gras, one uses a coupon to buy a dozen cans of tuna for a dollar, one goes hungry. Of course some of us need help managing our storehouses. Of course some of us go off the rails.
These contradictions—consumerist abundance, scarcity, and precarity, laid on the foundation of capitalism—seem to create hoarding. We can all experience the abundance of accumulation! And it’s easier than ever to hoard whatever, with the affective weight of every item increased, paradoxically, by their disposability, by the compulsions to waste-not, by the coercion to buy, by the incessant materiality of it all. How can anyone decide what to get rid of and what to keep?
For those exhausted by these decisions, Reader’s Digest’s Keep This Toss That offers exacting advice for most categories of household goods, common sense to cut through indecision: keep things in good condition that do their job well, throw away worn items, extras, and things you don’t love. Keep twelve neckties in versatile colors and patterns. From a critical distance, this advice is as obvious as it is absurd, setting out strict limits of consumption. Yet I own well more than twelve neckties, and can only recall wearing one of them in the last year.
Isolated in our nuclear units, our private lives overflow with stuff that could be the domain of the collective. Hoarding is both consumer malfunction and consequence. True wealth is to be found not in what we own, how much or how little, but in what we share, what we hold in common. When we’re no longer afraid of not having enough, when we work together to store the harvest for the lean times ahead, then we’re free—not of stuff, but of want and fear.
I don’t want to pathologize hoarding. That’s been done far too much as it is. It’s judged harshly by popular culture and carries a terrible stigma. But I also don’t want to diminish the heavy toll that hoarding can take, both on hoarders themselves and on those close to them. Stigma, as stigma usually does, makes things worse.
I like the metric suggested in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning that allows for self-identification: “If you can’t keep track of your things, then you know you have too many.” Unfortunately, our ability to rationally assess our needs is constantly distorted by capital. Regardless of how much stuff we have in our homes, regardless of how much you declutter, consumerism creates excess. If, as some say, every culture has its own ways of going mad, it’s even more important to look at the societal conditions that create these illnesses.
The DSM-5 categorizes hoarding as a compulsive disorder. It’s often linked to anxiety and depression. Hoarding behaviors, like other compulsions and addictions, reside on a spectrum. Countless people behave in ways that differ in degree but not in kind. We don’t label someone a hoarder until their behavior reaches some ill-defined zenith. To some extent, we all engage in unhealthy habits that, as part of a happy life with robust support systems, don’t interfere with the quality of our lives. It’s often when these supports drop away, or when there’s trauma to be coped with, that compulsions grow.
Under consumerism, “hoarding” thus defines the limits of healthy consumption for the rest of us. It instills fear when our houses start to get cluttered: that we, too, might be mad. Every episode of Hoarders disciplines us. Such behavior must be demonized to instill in workers the drive to remain healthy, orderly, able to consume more—but only just. Just healthy enough to exploit. We’re put to work managing our lives. The more time we’re forced to spend organizing our homes is less time we have to organize our workplaces.
Forty years on from Carter’s speech, we seem as far from collective responsibility for this plague of stuff than ever. Drug manufacturers and the Sacklers deserve blame for the opioid crisis. Shouldn’t we begin to blame Amazon and the Waltons for hoarding? Decluttering experts want to cure us, as individuals, of society’s disease. At best, we can cultivate coping mechanisms and good habits. Some, like Fumio Sasaki, Japanese minimalist and author of Goodbye Things, cope by going beyond decluttering, dispossessing themselves of all but the essentials. For this, they are celebrated. But if we should take consumption to its extreme conclusion, we are called ill, when such excess should instead illuminate society’s illness. When wealth is hoarded by capitalists, it’s the natural order of things. When workers do it, it’s dysfunction.
Though material abundance is a definition of wealth, hoarders are often accused of seeing value where it doesn’t exist. Holding onto what society dubs trash must be a malfunction. A short-circuit in a necessary function of consumerism: disposability. The hoarder sees beyond the horizon of the landfill, to a life of stuff not governed by retail calendars, where all things realize their maximum useful potential. This is a just impulse. Yet consumerism renders it abject.
Of course, sometimes the stuff hoarded is valuable, or would be in a different context. Stacks of old newspapers are literally reams of information, but they’re also already archived. Rare antiques blend in with piles of kitsch, their exchange value hidden. Use value is rendered null by excess production and haphazard distribution. Like estate sales, dumpsters, and abandoned storage units, homes full of stuff are full of potential. Consumerism really has produced an enormous wealth of objects. Sometimes this potential is realized in exchange, sold through eBay and antique shops and scrapyards. Sometimes it’s realized through repair, or by transformation into art. In her film The Gleaners and I, Agnes Varda picks from the trash a clock with no hands and gives it a place of prominence in her home.
But realizing value from these scraps can in many cases require an enormous amount of effort or specialized knowledge. A house full of stuff can be mined if you’ve got enough time. Leftovers from the harvest can be gleaned, but you could just go to the supermarket. It’s work to bring it into the home, work to sort it, and work to get rid of it. If you put in the effort, though, sometimes you find a gem. As I declutter and dispose of things from my childhood, I find myself obsessing over these objects, trying to realize the value locked away in wonderful junk, trying to give these items a future. Waste not, want not.
Marie Kondo’s popular decluttering method, articulated in The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, asks people to hold each of their possessions in their hands and ask themselves if each item ‘sparks joy’—to take a moment to assess an item’s value and connect directly with its materiality. Her illustrated companion volume, Spark Joy, offers detailed instructions on storing all categories of household goods. Articles of clothing, for example, should be folded how they “want” to be. Kondo pays careful attention to the affordances of different objects and how people interact with them. There’s more than a touch of mysticism and Shinto in her method, identifying spirits in things and homes.
Kondo instructs clients and readers, when parting with objects, to thank things for serving their purpose. This resonant closure acknowledges that we have relationships with things, helping to sever attachment. Thanking a thing honors and acknowledges it, implicitly recognizing its trajectory beyond your possession and the countless hands that labored to create and will labor to dispose of it. If things are animate, it is workers who have shaped that animacy. Whether or not you ascribe animacy to things, attention to their materiality provides an opening onto their whole lives: from the field to the factory, the closet, the thrift store, the dump.
Taking Kondo’s method further, consumers might question things as they acquire them. I won’t declaim that you should “buy mindfully,” per New Minimalism, though doing so might help reduce your own household workload. No, the question must be asked prior to the point of sale. We must ask if the supply chain sparks joy. We must grab hold of it.
Perhaps hoarders are more in tune with the animism of things than the rest of us. We pickers, gleaners, hoarders, scrappers, salvagers, and thrifters see the potential of objects beyond the short lives afforded them by consumerism. We feed on scraps. We collect them. We understand that they’ve been used, but we’re content with that. Does this afterlife of stuff point to the afterlife of capitalism? Secondhand circulations defy the supply chain. Antiques are verified on the Roadshow and recuperated at auction. Old clothes are mended and restored and made trendy by bohemians. We’re trapped in the mines of our possessions by tantalizing abundance. Yet in that abundance is the promise of an alternative. With all this stuff, paradise should be within reach. ♦
Matthew Sekellick is a writer from upstate New York living in Philadelphia.