The route to lower impact does not require putting on a hair shirt. Nor does it entail making consumption less important. . . . We don’t need to be less materialist, as the standard formulation would have it, but more so. For it is only when we take the materiality of the world seriously that we can appreciate and preserve the resources on which spending depends.
—Juliet B. Schor, Plentitude: The New Economics of True Wealth
A young Japanese organizing consultant seems an unlikely avatar for our current cultural moment. Nevertheless, Marie Kondo has achieved global decluttering superstardom, ridiculous as such a label may sound to those who haven’t heard of her. That population is rapidly dwindling after the launch of her wildly popular Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo (2019–).1 Kondo has inspired countless headlines, analytical think pieces, and millions of posts and pictures shared on social media as disciples follow her trademarked KonMari Method to clean out their closets, garages, and bookcases, shedding the unused and unloved objects cluttering their homes.
Kondo’s celebrity bona fides were on full display when she walked the red carpet at the 2019 Oscars, generating nearly as much buzz as the nominees as she obliged Hollywood A-listers seeking selfies with her. That week she even cracked the top ten in a global TV Personalities ranking based on analytics from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Google Plus.2 As celebrated as Kondo is in the West, she is more so in her home country: “She’s so famous in Japan that she can no more ride the Tokyo subway than Beyoncé could.”3 It all started with Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (2014), which to date has sold more than eight million copies in over thirty countries and was on the New York Times bestseller list over three years. Kondo has struck a resounding chord in the cultural zeitgeist. She is at the center a global tidying frenzy as people search for a more meaningful relationship to their stuff.
Kondo’s popularity has much to teach us about the present state of consumer capitalism. What is it about her eccentric approach to tidying one’s home that has so captured the imagination of consumers, two decades into the twenty-first century? Netflix’s decision to drop all eight episodes of Tidying Up on New Year’s Day, just in time for resolution season, offers a clue. “Americans woke up on New Year’s Day, bloated in body and soul,” writes one Washington Post commentator, “and stumbled out of bed to survey their overstuffed post-holiday homes.”4 To our consumption disorder, a collective hangover that people seem desperate to remedy—KonMari offers a bracing antidote to such overindulgence, inviting people to consider that maybe, just maybe, they don’t need All. That. Stuff.
Perhaps the answer to “why Kondo now?” is because after decades of bingeing, of stuffing ourselves to excess with all the goodies and doodads that industrial capitalism can supply, Kondo offers a gentle, aesthetically pleasing, even charming way to purge. She prescribes a method for letting go—a purification ritual of sorts, a regimen of tidying as self-care. Kondo “has combined letting us throw stuff out with the very appealing idea of living a more simplistic life,” says Carl Cederström, a Swedish scholar who studies the wellness and self-help industries. “She has arrived during a time when life can feel overbearing. People want a simpler, cleaner life—a detox. . . . Kondo gives us a moral license to throw things away without guilt.”5
I will explore Kondo’s method for curating our possessions in depth in the following chapter. In short, she invites us to hold each object in our hands and ask ourselves the question, “Does it spark joy?” This deceptively simple formula contains within it an implicit confession: despite the best efforts of generations of advertisers, product designers, and increasingly sophisticated algorithms intended to persuade us otherwise, our emotional return on investment, consumerism’s ability to satisfy people’s quest for happiness, has failed to deliver. Despite the bingeing, despite the decades of promiscuous consumption, consumer capitalism’s promise of “better living through buying” seems to be saturated by false starts and failed efforts.
It’s not for lack of trying. We tried. We updated our phones every eleven months. We converted sneakers into a luxury good. We pursued lamps that were inexpensive facsimiles of the high-end styles featured in some shelter magazine or design blog or influencer’s Instagram post. We took these coveted objects home in convenient layers of cardboard, polymers, and supposedly disposable plastics. We built hills, then mountains, then entire floating continents of debris amassed through our efforts to satiate that hunger to belong and connect, to make a home in this world, with clothes, gadgets, and decor that expressed ourselves, one credit card swipe at a time.
Although the central thesis of the KonMari Method is about the importance of tuning into things that delight us, the emphasis is palpably more on letting go of things that don’t. This emphasis on disposal is demonstrated in her books and every episode of her show; Kondo’s pupils assemble mountains of trash bags filled with unwanted stuff as evidence of their self-discipline. This purge is repeated on Instagram and Twitter feeds (#konmari, #kondo, #tidyingup, #sparkjoy) across the globe as followers document piles of clothes and other discarded objects—piles that act as badges of honor as they clear their clutter. Although after decades of bingeing the purge was inevitable, I cannot help but wonder where all those piles ultimately end up after they have been deemed unworthy of lasting commitment.
Waste More, Want More
Today’s consumer culture has been propelled by our ability to produce and acquire objects more quickly and cheaply than ever before, as well as by a seemingly insatiable desire for more. All economies, capitalist or otherwise, produce waste. But perhaps no system has become so adept at hiding the magnitude of its waste generation as our contemporary mode of global capitalism. In the industrialized West, waste disappears into landfills, a world physically and cognitively apart from the hustle and bustle of urban life, and usually far removed from suburbia. It gets shipped out on barges, transported to lesser developed regions for processing, or dumped into an ocean to float miles and miles away from crowded human shores.
This may be about to change. At the close of 2017, China announced it would refuse imports of most forms of foreign waste. Its own growing middle class is now discarding quite enough to keep its factories stocked with adequate supplies of plastics, textiles, and mixed paper. Although the impacts of the ban are only beginning to emerge, they are predicted to be huge because many industrialized countries have relied on exporting their waste to developing regions without creating the necessary infrastructure to deal with it. In 2016, Chinese manufacturers imported “7.3m metric tonnes of waste plastics from developed countries including the U.K., the E.U., the U.S. and Japan.”6 Without China to process Western waste, where will it all go?
“Waste” is really just a pejorative term for excess, and excess is something capitalism generates in abundance. Georges Bataille dubs it “the accursed share,” a remainder to be addressed, managed, and processed through cultural rituals—a phenomenon I will discuss in the following chapter by way of an examination of hoarding narratives and a deeper exploration of the KonMari Method. Climate change may generate headlines, but the inconceivable amount of consumer waste generated daily is a driver of the environmental crisis we now find ourselves in. Perhaps this is because until now, the industrialized world has so shrewdly outsourced its waste management to developing countries, so the problem has remained in the shadows of our awareness, out of sight and out of mind. In the decades to come, however, the limits of our ability to handle the waste products of consumer culture will be increasingly harder to ignore. A study by the World Bank projects a 70 percent global increase in urban solid waste, “from 1.3 billion tonnes per year [in 2012] to 2.2 billion tonnes per year by 2025.”7 And we likely won’t reach peak garbage until about 2100. Until then, the volumes are expected to escalate daily.
Daniel Hoornweg, one of the researchers who authored the World Bank report, says he is less concerned about the environmental impacts of solid waste than he is about the larger consumer lifestyle it represents—the number of new products we regularly buy and the resources spent and the pollution created by their manufacture and distribution. “It shows how much of an impact we’re having globally, as a species, on the planet as a whole,” he observes.8 As a symptom of a larger global malady, consumer waste is certainly among the most striking. That said, waste is undeniably a devastating environmental harm in its own right. One obvious cause for alarm is that we humans largely aren’t dealing with all this waste properly. Much of the world’s waste doesn’t make it to a recycling facility at all. A “whopping percent” of plastic, for example, isn’t recycled—a fact that Great Britain’s Royal Statistical Society cited as its 2018 Statistic of the Year.9 Much of this debris ends up in the world’s oceans. You are likely familiar with the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a giant mass of plastic waste discovered in the 1990s floating in the North Pacific. Although difficult to measure, scientists estimate it spans nearly a million square miles, three times the size of France.10 In summer 2017, it was confirmed that another patch, approximately one and a half times the size of Texas, is floating in a remote area of the South Pacific.
In 2015, a team of researchers set out to quantify for the first time how much plastic has been produced globally and where it is now. (Plastic takes more than four hundred years to disintegrate.) The researchers were shocked by what their analysis revealed: “Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent has been recycled. The vast majority—79 percent—is accumulating in landfills or sloughing off in the natural environment as litter. Meaning: at some point, much of it ends up in the oceans, the final sink.”11 These garbage patches are like tumors spreading across the Pacific, plastic dead zones increasingly inhospitable to marine life. A 2016 report from the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean, pound for pound, than fish.12
Sense and Sensibility: Raising Consciousness
The central rhetorical move performed by those hoping to mobilize people to address the environmental impacts of consumer culture has been to raise awareness—to urge us to foster an environmental consciousness, to see the error of our greedy, wasteful ways, to course correct before it’s too late. Since 1970, for example, the world has celebrated Earth Day on April 22. Earth Day was inspired in part by the first photographic image of Earth, an image now known as “Earthrise,” which was taken by Apollo 8 astronauts as they entered the moon’s orbit on Christmas Eve 1968. The big blue marble floats, vulnerable and alone, driving home the reality that we’re all in this together, and that at least for the foreseeable future, this is the only home we’ve got. As command module pilot Jim Lovell notes in a live broadcast, “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”13 Earth Day activities include demonstrations, educational programs, and major global initiatives. The recycling campaigns of Earth Day 1990 contributed to huge increases in recycling efforts, for example, and Earth Day 2016 was the day 174 countries and the European Union signed the United Nations’ Paris Agreement to reduce carbon emissions.14 For all the successes we’ve seen in educating the larger public about the dangers of climate change, deforestation, pollution, and overpopulation, when it comes to our consumption practices—arguably the most significant contributor to the problem of waste—mere consciousness raising feels terribly inadequate.
Part of the reason for this is that we in the West have become so damned good at rendering our waste invisible, or at least artfully contained, an issue I’ll take up in chapter 1. But I suggest that a more powerful reason that the effort to mitigate consumer waste remains such a conundrum is the nature of what it’s up against: the interconnected industries whose sole raison d’être is to sell us more things. The design industry creates countless objects that seduce the eye and excite the senses. The advertising industry delights us with fantasy worlds that we are invited to inhabit, or it threatens us with nightmares to be avoided; the price of entry or security is our acquisition of this or that product. Social media influencers and their corporate sponsors ensure that brands are constantly streaming through our various feeds, creating the sense that everybody is using, wearing, or watching them—and so should we. The sheer magnitude of commercial images and messages that the average American is exposed to is widely documented and widely varying—anywhere between 2,000 and 10,000 ad and brand exposures a day, depending on whom you ask. The nature of these images and stories is largely emotional; they play on our fears and capitalize on our desires. They comfort, soothe, tantalize, and stimulate. In such a world, conspicuous consumption is built in part on inconspicuous waste.
In the face of the wily seductions and titillations produced by those tasked with getting us to buy stuff, a sober, reasoned call to consciousness is a tough sell. Most consciousness-raising campaigns use the cold-shower approach, which is based on the assumption that if we only knew the facts about the issue at hand, we would wake up and, with clear eyes, change our behavior accordingly. But this is a problematic assumption. As Peter Sloterdijk observes, we may know perfectly well, for example, that our consumption practices are not sustainable, yet we keep consuming anyway.15 We know, but perhaps we don’t care—at least not enough.
Many visual artists are attempting to change that. Vik Muñiz, for example, an artist based in Brooklyn, returned to his native Brazil to develop an art project featuring local waste pickers, known as catadores, who collect valuable recyclables in the world’s largest garbage dump, which is located outside Rio de Janeiro. As documented in Lucy Walker’s 2010 Oscar-nominated film about the project, Waste Land, Muñiz took photographs of the catadores and then collaborated with them to create large-scale collages of the portraits on the floor of a nearby warehouse, using the recyclable materials they collected as their medium. The resulting photographs of the trash portraits were sold at auction, garnering over $250,000, all of which Muñiz gave to the catadores’ co-op, along with the prize monies Waste Land earned at multiple film festivals.
An exchange in the film captures well Muñiz’s mission of inviting people to see both trash and those who work with it in a new way. Speaking to the group of catadores who will become his subjects and collaborators, Muñiz describes the tendency of museumgoers to lean in and out, moving closer and farther from a work of art, modifying their gaze as they take it in. “Have you seen this? Everyone does it. . . . They go like this, and then they go back, then maybe take a little step back, and then they see the image. Imagine it’s a beautiful landscape with a lake and a man fishing. They look and they see the man fishing, and then they lean and everything vanishes and becomes paint. They see the material. They move away and see the image. Then they get closer and see the material. They move away and they see the idea. They get closer and see just the material.” One of the catadores laughs, responding, “I bet you get people staying longer at your exhibits than anyone does. They will spend so much time looking at the image, because then they will see the leather, the piano, they will look at everything. They will spend hours looking at the same picture.” Muñiz agrees: “The moment when one thing turns into another is the most beautiful moment . . . a combination of sound transforms into music . . . and that applies to everything. That moment is really magical.”16 The transformative moment that Muñiz describes, a moment when our perspective shifts ever so slightly, allows us to see the material world in a different way; in this case, we can see the interconnectedness between garbage and the people whom society often treats as garbage. This transformation of perspective is key if we are to find and cultivate new ways of knowing and new ways of making meaning.
Seattle-based artist Chris Jordan’s work is another attempt to shift our collective perspective about consumer practices. Jordan made a name for himself making art out of the data indicators of consumer waste. His series of photomontages, Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait, is intended to impress upon viewers the sheer scale of our waste production—a difficult task given the fact that so many of us have no sense of how much waste we produce, let alone where it goes. For this series, Jordan assembles smaller photographs of everyday objects such as plastic bottles, Barbie dolls, telephones, cigarette butts, and aluminum cans, which he then multiplies and compiles into larger composite prints to quantify graphically, even beautifully, the otherwise dry statistics of terrible realities.
For Jordan, the problem with much environmentalist rhetoric is that it doesn’t adequately move the collective will. “There is a broken aspect to the world of activism and environmentalism,” he explains. “The typical approach of activists is to say ‘Here is the problem and here is the solution.’ Then they say, ‘You should all go do the solution,’ with their fingers wagging.” The tendency of environmentalists to repeatedly barrage people with statistics in the hopes they may change their behavior misses the point, says Jordan:
We can’t make meaning out of these enormous statistics. And so that’s what I’m trying to do with my work, is to take these numbers, these statistics from the raw language of data and to translate them into a more universal visual language that can be felt. Because my belief is that if we can feel these issues, if we can feel these things more deeply then they’ll matter to us more than they do now. [Only then can we answer the question,] “How do we change?”17
If Running the Numbers is about learning to see the sheer scale of environmental waste differently, Jordan’s 2017 project, Albatross, is an intimate and repugnant close-up of the devastation wrought by human consumption. Over a number of years, Jordan and a film crew visited Midway Island in a remote part of the Pacific, nearly 2,000 miles from any continent, and roughly halfway between North America and Asia. The beaches of the island are awash in debris from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a reported twenty tons a year. It is also home to nearly 1.5 million Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis), who are dying in huge numbers from ingesting the waste. Nearly a third of albatross chicks die before reaching maturity. Jordan’s heartbreaking images focus on the starved corpses of these once beautiful birds, their bellies full of cigarette lighters, bottle caps, and drinking straws.
The literary symbolism of the albatross isn’t lost on Jordan, who opens his documentary with a quote from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In the poem, after bearing the burden of the dead albatross around his neck as punishment, the mariner discovers a love for all creatures, even the “slimy things” of the sea that previously revolted him. As for Coleridge, it is love and a sense of compassion that brings Jordan to a deeper sense of the connectedness of all things: “I had the experience of falling deeply in love with the sentience and brilliance of the albatross,” he says.18
Sadly, although certainly a step in the right direction, kindling compassion for all the creatures of the earth is likely insufficient. In a world where waste exists at a level beyond the scale of human comprehension, the connection between the immediate enjoyment that comes from any individual act of acquisition and the consequences of the collective aggregation of waste can feel thin, even nonexistent. Awareness of the macro doesn’t necessarily imply an intensity of conviction at the level of the micro.
As Jordan’s work attests, we humans are bad at making personal meaning out of abstract statistics. Scientific evidence documenting environmental degradation, such as that offered by Al Gore in his Inconvenient Truth films, is crucial to our understanding of the problems we face. We cannot change what we do not measure. Yet as a basis for moving our collective will, facts alone are often inadequate. To be moved, we must care. We must feel the visceral, intimate connections between ourselves and the world around us. As I will argue in this book, an important but often overlooked piece of the “environment versus consumer culture” puzzle is that we need to care not just about the oceans, albatross, forests, and factory workers, but also about the vast network of human-made objects that share our world. Jordan, in his shift from visualizing data to visualizing waste, tends to focus on the object at one stage of its life cycle—the terminal stage of disposal. Although his work will undoubtedly move many by revealing what happens to a device that was once an integral part of daily activity, it does less to demonstrate why this new device was coveted enough to justify discarding the old. One art critic, commenting on Jordan’s work, notes, “Although Warhol’s soup cans confronted us with the ‘on the shelf’ stage of our obsession with consumption, that confrontation camouflaged the final stage of products, the disposal stage documented so vividly by Chris Jordan.”19 Jordan’s insistence on the motivating power of emotion is a crucial step in the right direction. However, this focus alone—exposing the devastating end result of the commodity fetishism that so fascinated Warhol—may be too narrow. Although it steers our attention from one stage in the life cycle of an object to another, what we need is to open up the object in all its complexity, which may call for a broader perspective still.
The work of artists such as Muñiz and Jordan offer important provocations, disruptive chinks in the gleaming veneer of consumer culture, alerting viewers to the human and environmental realities our practices beget. As Magna de França Santos, one of the catadores featured in Waste Land, puts it, “It’s easy for you to be sitting there at home in front of the television consuming whatever you want and tossing everything in the trash and leaving it out on the street for the garbage truck to take it away, but where does that garbage go?”20 As crucial as it is to consider what happens after we throw things away, I will argue throughout this book that if we are to open up new paths and possibilities, new forms of agency in relation to the material world we have constructed, then we need to imagine and amplify the myriad of moments in the lives of objects—inception, production, use, disposal, and all points in between. These moments each offer opportunities for new connections, new configurations, and perhaps new choices.
Toward an Opening Up of Objects
Objects do not merely exist as something we either use or discard. Like us, objects have their own life cycle—extraction, design, production, initial consumption and point of purchase, continued consumption or use, discarding or repurposing, and eventually disposal. For those of us who engage these objects as consumers, rather than as designers or developers or recyclers or disposal operators, most of this life cycle is obscured through an almost willful blindness. We know objects come from somewhere; we know they don’t disappear when we toss them into a nearby trash bin. But we often don’t need to think about these stages or care about them, unless we are motivated to become sufficiently aware, or more fundamentally if the object itself prompts us to value those other stages of the cycle, be they antecedent to the moment of acquisition or subsequent to it.
Indeed, when it comes to addressing the problems of consumption, our current approach looks to marshal the powers of the human subject to restrain the excesses of the object. This is what awareness and consciousness raising purport to accomplish, after all; apply enough independent cognitive processing, toss in informed analysis, understand the full range of opportunity costs, and the individual will draw conclusions that favor modifying behavior. The individual subject in this model is powerful and active—at least potentially so. But we know from decades of academic research and philosophical meditations on the question of subjectivity that human beings are certainly not autonomous, and rarely ever sovereign. The term “subject,” after all, comes from the Latin subjectus, “to place something under.” Today messages run over and through us from new and noisy channels; objects pile up and define the basic boundaries of our lives, including devices we use to connect with each other, fast fashions, plastic widgets, and the constantly upgraded miracles of science that listen, speak, buzz, slice, and dice. But as etymology tells us, “subject” also means “to expose to,” which reminds us we are also open and exposed—that is, inextricably and intimately connected—to the material world we are a part of. In that connection lies the possibility for a positive affective shift in how we relate to the world. As political philosopher Jane Bennett remarks, “Moments of sensuous enchantment with the everyday world—with nature but also with commodities and other cultural products—might augment the motivational energy needed to move selves from the endorsement of ethical principles to the actual practice of ethical behaviors.”21 Feelings are powerful rhetorical resources for inspiring new practices that recognize and account for our material vulnerabilities and ethical responsibilities.
If the attention that objects are receiving within the disparate worlds of academia, design studios, and policy think tanks is any indication, there is reason for hope that new paradigms are on the horizon. A primary sign that change is afoot is the sheer plethora of designers, scholars, makers, and consumers of various stripes who are attempting to articulate and put into practice new (and old!) approaches to how we engage objects. Fascinating and important conversations are emerging across our culture from people hailing from different backgrounds and skill sets, many with an eye toward how we might reimagine our lives with things.
In the academy, we’ve seen a promising materialist turn in a variety of fields—political theory, communication, philosophy, cultural studies, and literary studies, for example—each with differing but often related lines of thought. Anthropologists, for example, given their long-standing focus on artifacts as keys to understanding human collective life, were among the first to turn their attention to the cultural role of mass-produced objects. British anthropologist Daniel Miller, to cite a towering example, has contributed dozens of important studies of how we make meaning within material culture, beginning with Material Culture and Mass Consumption (1987), then more recent anthologies of his work in this area, Stuff (2009) and Consumption and Its Consequences (2012).
Actor–network theory, for its part, is an ongoing attempt to understand the social, manufactured, and natural world as an interconnected web of actants, based on the assumption that reality itself can only be understood through these multiple and shifting relationships in which, say, humans, smartphones, viruses, and mushrooms enjoy equal status as agents. The influential ANT, as it’s often called, led by philosophers of science and technology Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, and John Law, continues to offer new methods for charting the relationships between the semiotic and the material structures in which we live and to offer a valuable approach to understanding the agency of objects.
Object-oriented ontology has pursued a similar goal, seeking to reorient philosophical thought toward objects and to afford them a long overdue ontological status that is equal to that of humans—and everything else for that matter. As Ian Bogost, a chief advocate of the movement, puts it, “All things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally.”22 This observation is a central tenet of fellow object-oriented ontology proponent Levi Bryant’s argument in his concept of onticology, or a flat ontology in which all being is nothing but a dynamic system of objects of which we merely are a part.23
In the humanities and social sciences, this materialist turn acts as something of a corrective to the excesses of the linguistic turn and the attendant social constructivist approaches that dominated much of twentieth-century critical theory, and which continues today. As Diana Coole and Samantha Frost note, “While we recognize that radical constructivism has contributed considerable insight into the workings of power over recent years, we are also aware that an allergy to ‘the real’ [ . . . ] has had the consequence of dissuading critical inquirers from the more empirical kinds of investigation that material processes and structures require.”24 The cost of critical scholars’ “allergy” to the material world, they suggest, is a “nonreflexive habituality” that “imbues objects with familiarity that makes artifacts, commodities, and practices seem so natural that they are not questioned. It is in this sense that ideology or power operate most effectively when embedded in the material, practical horizons and institutions of everyday life.”25 Their book, and the larger new materialisms movement of which it is a part, is an attempt to interrupt this taken-for-grantedness of objects and to acknowledge that they have a vitality all their own with which we must reckon.
An important influence on how many of us working in the area of material culture think about human–object relationships is Bennett’s Vibrant Matter (2010). In many ways a follow-up to The Enchantment of Modern Life (2001), in which Bennett promotes a reinvigoration of a premodern sense of enchantment and wonder as a means to open up new ethical possibilities, in Vibrant Matter Bennett turns her focus from humans’ experience of the world to the world itself. Bennett theorizes what she calls a “vital materialism” through which she aims to promote an ecological politics that attends more carefully to the powerful agency of nonhuman, even inanimate, beings. This “thing power,” as she describes it, is “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle.”26
Bennett’s innovative rethinking of matter provides a guiding posture from which I have attempted to think through, in a decidedly more practical way, what I will describe as an opening up of the life cycle of objects. As Bennett writes, “Why advocate for the vitality of matter? Because my hunch is that the image of dead and thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption.” She continues, “The figure of an intrinsically inanimate matter may be one of the impediments to the emergence of more ecological and more materially sustainable modes of production and consumption.”27 Indeed, our tendency to think of objects as lifeless, discrete, and existing only as instruments for our use or pleasure has produced one of the most challenging rhetorical obstacles to promoting practices that might reorient our engagements with them.
We know we shape and define objects, and we are increasingly recognizing the ways objects shape and define us. This moment of co-creation, the mutual definition between subjects and objects, can best be understood through the concept of attachment. Some of these attachments are strong, as when an object is sufficiently valuable, either emotionally or financially, that we are loath to part with it. Others are weaker, as with objects that are designed to be disposable, intended to become either functionally or aesthetically obsolete. But our capacity to think through those attachments, to cultivate a sense of agency among them, depends on our opening up space within the moment, event, or state of attachment itself, thereby creating opportunities for us to respond in new ways rather than merely reacting impulsively according to the well-worn paths of mass consumption.
When we attach to an object, we assign a value to it, and implicitly to our relationship with it. Sometimes assessing that value is simple and easily quantified. Other times it’s harder because the value is more sentimental and the standards of measure more idiosyncratic. Nevertheless, these moments of attachment offer fertile ground for intervention. Any meaningful conversation about the possibilities within aesthetic capitalism must include our careful consideration of the various alternative modalities of attachment available. Today objects exert influence and offer opportunities for engagement from their design to their disposal. These influences affect all of us, and these opportunities are available to all of us. Toward that end, this book is aimed at consumers, scholars, designers, and makers; it intends to explore the various ways we might connect with and respond to objects in ways other than those that tend to be prescribed by mainstream commercial discourse. With this in mind, I draw from the important scholarship being conducted on the topics at hand, and my own interpretations are informed by my training as a scholar of rhetoric. But my goal has been to establish an idiom and vocabulary accessible to readers who may not be engaged in specific academic conversations about things, objects, and materiality. If we are to change course in terms of the political, ethical, and environmental effects of consumerism, we must find new points of entry into our fabricated world, new platforms and venues upon which we might ascribe meaning, foster connections, and change and be changed vis-à-vis our consumption practices. For that, we need all hands on deck.
The central question of this book is, how might we manage the material excesses of consumer capitalism by building on, rather than repudiating, our attraction and attachment to objects? How might we, in practical ways, deepen our “sensuous enchantment” with even those commodified objects that often appear utterly mundane, or alternatively seductively deceitful? This question cannot be addressed simply by marshaling ever more awareness, or by placing faith in our own cognitive resources, or by assessing the goodness of our motivations. These are all necessary parts of the puzzle, to be sure, but they are not enough. For, as Bennett suggests, “if a set of moral principles is actually to be lived out, the right mood or landscape of affect has to be in place.”28 We must complement our intellectual awareness by cultivating a new affective landscape, in part through a thorough understanding of attachment, the process and mechanism by which a subject and object come together for any given period of time. Attachment is simultaneously a psychological process and a phenomenological one in that we project an assessment of value onto an object, and the object defines the nature and contours of our sense of value. In other words, attachment is the subject acting on and being acted upon by the objects that surround and define it.
Attachment, of course, is rarely permanent. Sometimes it’s most potent at the moment of attraction, when a connection feels alive with possibility. Inspiring attraction is the goal of most advertising and product design. Attachment is merely the word we give the act of connection itself, even if (as with many human relationships) that sense of connection doesn’t last forever. Although some moments of attachment are fleeting, others are far more durable. One of these isn’t inherently better than the other for identifying strategies and solutions for the problem of waste, but we need to understand instantiations of both to see how the process of attachment works in general so that we can promote design, objects, discourses, and consumption practices that facilitate an environmentally and psychologically healthier relationship between human beings and the ecosystem of objects in which we find ourselves. Attachment is one register on which we can create practices that open up—expose—both subjects and objects such that their mutual connectivity is felt more viscerally. As Bennett writes, “Our trash is not ‘away’ in landfills but generating lively streams of chemicals and volatile winds of methane as we speak.”29 We have too long allowed this reality to be obscured by the aesthetic rhetorics of the commercial persuasion industry, which is invested in focusing our attention on some aspects of our relationship to objects at the expense of others.
We are living in what Jeffrey Nealon has dubbed postpostmodernism.30 Updating Fredric Jameson’s famous analysis of postmodernism as the cultural logic of late capitalism, Nealon observes that we now live in an age defined by an intensified version of postmodernism, in which capitalism has so permeated every aspect of cultural life that rhetorics of liberation somewhat miss the point. There is no longer an outside to which we can escape. Gernot Böhme highlights a different dimension of the same contemporary scene: aesthetic capitalism.31 Cultural critic Steven Shaviro describes our current moment as an “age of aesthetics,”32 a phrase that describes the incredible sense that our just-in-time reality is increasingly designed and delivered to emphasize aesthetic potentials that prompt and define how we enjoy and negotiate the world around us. Today, most products are designed to produce a “right here, right now” form of attachment unconcerned with enduring commitment.
Every object that comes into existence is part of a larger and more granular and intricate network of communications. Saussure noted in his theory of signification that any signifier works in part by its not being any of the other signifiers in the larger available lexicon (a dog, in other words, is defined in part by its not being a cat).33 Objects today operate the same way. A particular phone, shirt, or car derives its value in part by what it is not (all those other phones, shirts, and vehicles that occupy their various market segments). At the same time, every object communicates directly with its user or consumer. Every object speaks in the languages of branding, industrial design, and material science. They carry within them a dialect and an accent composed of feel and footprint, form factor and function. Attachment, in other words, is an object-driven act of influence and persuasion.
This is why the perspective and practice of rhetoric, my primary discipline, provides such fertile ground from which to understand the nature and language of attachment. Rhetoric is the study of how humans think, feel, and do things, as well as how we interpret, identify with, and place value on messages, images, and objects. It is, among other things, a collaborative art of meaning making. Sherry Turkle notes that “we find it familiar to consider objects as useful or aesthetic, as necessities or vain indulgences. We are on less familiar ground when we consider objects as companions to our emotional lives or as provocations to thought. The notion of evocative objects brings together these two less familiar ideas, underscoring the inseparability of thought and feeling in our relationship to things. We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with.”34 Because attachment is both a psychological and phenomenological act (as well as intellectual, physical, and emotional), we need to better understand how we talk about and frame our interactions with objects, as well as the way these objects themselves speak to us through their own affects and languages—languages in which we could all afford to become more fluent.
A Brief History of Commodity Fetishism
The object hasn’t always communicated in the same way across the historical evolution of capitalism. In many ways, we can look at the major theoretical engagements with capitalism as attempts to track the ways the object communicates particular social and cultural formations to its users. Karl Marx, for example, notes, “A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”35 As we think about the political and social life of objects, it makes sense to start with Marx, the thinker who first theorized objects as commodities. In Capital, Marx examines a phenomenon, unique to industrial capitalism, that he describes as “the fetishism of the commodity and its secret.”36 This famous concept—commodity fetishism—is central to Marx’s economic theory and remains among the most salient for the many scholars working in the ever-evolving Marxist tradition—a mode of analysis known as political economics or, more broadly, critical theory. Marx argues that under capitalism, commodities take on a mystical quality that obscures the social relations endemic to their production. For Marx, this obfuscation lends an undue magic to commodities, which leads to confusion over the abstract system of exploitation that determines their value. Under capitalism, objects garner their power not as a result of their use value but from their exchange value—that is, the place they hold in a larger economy.
For example, the use value of my new boots might be that they keep my feet warm and dry, or even that I like their style. Their exchange value, however, relates to what equivalent value the boots might fetch on an open market. They might be comparable in value to, say, a handbag, or a lamp. The boots might even, in the language of money—that “pure” commodity that has no use value except as a unit of exchange—“equal” ninety dollars. For most of us, the most valuable commodity we possess is our own labor, which we exchange for a wage that we then translate into other commodities that are valuable to us primarily for their usefulness. The burrito satisfies my hunger, the boots keep my feet warm and dry, the computer allows me to type this sentence.
The social dynamic that is obscured by exchange value, or the commodity form, for Marx, is this: when workers sell their labor, they turn their very life into a commodity, or a unit of exchange. This transaction—selling quantified chunks of their lives to the capitalist—alienates workers from their own self-determined engagement with and transformation of the material world. For Marx, this capacity to change the form of natural materials to satisfy one’s own needs is the essence of what it is to be human—what Marx calls Gattungswesen, “species-being.” However, under capitalism, the products of our own work become alien to us, mere commodities lining the pockets of the capitalist who controls the means of production. For Marx, this alienation from the things we make amounts to a fundamental separation from our very humanity.
From the consumer’s perspective, however, this sad tale of alienation—the clandestine secret that Marx claims is central to but concealed within the commodity form—is hidden from view. Although in reality the commodity is a physical product of material processes wrought by human hands within a larger political hierarchy, it is instead understood as a magical talisman, a totem imbued with meaning by those who see only its dazzling surfaces yet remain blind to the conditions of its emergence. “To find an analogy,” Marx writes, “we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of the commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.”37 For Marx, exchange value perverts and overwhelms use value—the traditional, precapitalist mode of the human–object relationship. Further, labor becomes increasingly mechanized and segmented as the capitalist strives to shave ever-more labor hours off the manufacturing process, a trend that further alienates workers from both the process and product of their work. In two short decades after Marx’s death, Henry Ford’s assembly line mode of production would evolve this mechanization and segmentation well beyond what Marx described. Nonetheless, for Marx, the factory is the stage upon which labor and the social relations that enable it are themselves objectified—that is, made into things to which we have increasingly limited access. All the while, commodity fetishism perpetuates a sense that the objects of our labor appear as if by magic, devoid of process or history.
Although he did not express it as such, commodity fetishism was essentially, and by necessity, a theorizing of attachment, a way of describing the character of the connection between humans and objects in Marx’s time. Fetishization is a form of attachment that operates through a kind of attention blindness. So attached and enthralled are we by the commodity form that the early life-cycle stage of production is glossed over in the process of exchange. This is a central part of Marx’s larger exploration into how value is established. Marxist theorists writing in the early decades of the twentieth century begin to develop Marx’s conception of the commodity form and to foreground its contribution to the cultural domination of the elite classes. Russian scholar I. I. Rubin declares, for example, “the theory of fetishism is, per se” to be “the basis of Marx’s entire economic system, and in particular of his theory of value.”38 Along with Rubin, the most notable of Marx’s early commentators are Antonio Gramsci and his critique of cultural hegemony, as well as (particularly relevant for our purposes here) Georg Lukács’s analysis of the reification of human society under capitalism. In History and Class Consciousness, published just months before Rubin’s essays on Marx’s theory of value, Lukács develops Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism to suggest that the commodity form is not confined only to the realm of production but that it now permeates “every expression of life” and “remould[s] it in its own image.”39 Reification, literally the thing-making (from the Latin word res) of human society, according to Lukács, is a direct outgrowth of the emergence of the commodity form:
The commodity can only be understood in its undistorted essence when it becomes the universal category of society as a whole. Only in this context does the reificiation produced by commodity relations assume decisive importance both for the objective evolution of society and for the stance adopted by men towards it. Only then does the commodity become crucial for the subjugation of men’s consciousness to the forms in which this reification finds expression and for their attempts to comprehend the process or to rebel against its disastrous effects and liberate themselves from servitude to the “second nature” so created.40
This “second nature,” like “ideology” or “hegemony” for Gramsci and those working in the critical tradition he inspired, refers to a phantom reality that, although a product of social hierarchies, is taken as a naturally occurring, objective phenomenon. Martin Jay suggests that for Lukács, reification means “the petrification of living processes into dead things, which appeared as an alien ‘second nature.’”41 In Lukács’s analysis, capitalism is an objectifying, thing-making machine. For Marx, the fetishization of commodities amounts to a veil or a mask (terms used often by both writers), concealing this reality. Revolution, then, calls for the “secret” of the commodity’s illusory sway to be revealed. Revolutions aside, what Lukács adds to the equation is important and more influential than his limited name recognition might reveal. Lukács’s analysis points to the fact that as capitalism evolves, all our attachments—our romantic relationships, our bodies, our spiritual life—become subject to commodification, to becoming objects from which we are increasingly alienated. In other words, the object, in its commodity form, mediates even subjective attachment.
From Production to Consumption
For all his exhaustive analyses of labor, commodities, economic value, and capital, Marx has little to say about consumers, the agents most contemporary students of capitalism understand to be the engine driving the global economy. In Marx’s era, capitalism is largely understood through the prism of production. Not until the 1960s would theorists focus their collective eye on what Jean Baudrillard terms the consumer society,42 in all its various manifestations. Intellectuals influenced by Marx—Baudrillard, Guy Debord, Pierre Bordieu, Roland Barthes, and Zygmunt Bauman, among others—develop ways of understanding consumerism from their varied Marxist-inflected perspectives. But as many ruefully observe, the revolution was not to come. What Debord terms “the society of the spectacle” proves too seductive.43
Debord, writing in 1967, stands at the precipice of the image-saturated, commercial-dominated world we live in today. Stridently in the Marxist “false consciousness” camp, Debord’s mission is to reveal to readers the mystifying role of mere representations shilling for corporate interests, which has come to stand in for authentic human interaction. Debord and his comrades are responding to an important shift in the logic of capitalism. As production processes become more efficient in the early decades of the twentieth century, manufacturers begin to seek new ways to distinguish their products from the rest through new designs and clever ad campaigns. Legions of psychoanalysts are brought in to help marketers figure out how to best align their products with consumers’ deepest desires. Here we begin to see attraction and attachment as central objects of the capitalist enterprise. Now that we could make so much stuff so quickly and so affordably, the question becomes how to mobilize desire for all that the marketplace has to offer.
For Debord, the resulting spectacle still smacks of a fundamental alienation. Desires are manufactured by those producing the goods—desires often dressed up as needs—and the act of consuming those goods only accelerates and intensifies the spectacle. The subject becomes a desiring machine, and individual consumers are further separated from the awareness they would need to combat or contest the evolution of capitalism.
But alienation, we should recall, is a term that emerged out of a much earlier understanding of attachment, one in which we fetishize the commodity so much that we forget the labor and human relations that produced it—so much so that we commoditize the totality of our social interactions. We are, for Marx and others, trapped within a logic of exchange, such that good old-fashioned use value, which would more closely tie us to the work inherent in the production of any product, is sublimated. In a world of spectacle, where desire is being manufactured as an additional value to shape and differentiate one product from another, we move beyond attachment as a simple fetishization of the object in its commodity form and toward something else—the object as a vehicle for motivation, or as a device for the consummation of desire. In such a world, the contours of alienation shift. What if, for example, the use value of the object is the satisfaction (or attempted satisfaction) of a given desire? What if the presence or ownership of the object is its own use?
Jean Baudrillard addresses this transformation in the commodity by suggesting the addition of a third dimension, outside of what Marx originally envisions in his analysis of the commodity form. In addition to exchange and use value, Baudrillard suggests the inclusion of sign value, a way to assess an object’s value as a signifier within the larger system of objects. In chapter 2, I further address the nature of sign value and its use in understanding the impact of contemporary design and celebrity designers, particularly in consumer products. For now, however, it is sufficient to note that Baudrillard offers the first formal, structural evolution of the commodity form beyond the original Marxist formulation. Although Lukács, Gramsci, and Debord add dimensions to the analysis of its consequences, Baudrillard suggests that the object Marx dubs the commodity has in fact become more structurally complicated since Marx’s original analysis.
The inclusion of sign value is an early stage of Baudrillard’s own career, which eventually evolves to an analytical structure that critiques Marx as wrong and insufficient. The problem for Baudrillard is Marx’s own fetishization of use value as the proper, more natural part of the object or commodity form, with exchange value acting as both the dominant term and the perversion of use value. As such, Baudrillard argues, it becomes easy to speak of alienation, of a warping of the natural relationship between our labor and our work, and between our social relations and our objects. Most commodities do not really represent needs, so they do not have natural uses. They have, as Baudrillard notes earlier, a signifying function, a sign value, and this creates the impression, or mediates the reality, of any particular use case for an object. “All critical theory depends on the analysis of the object form,” he argues, even as he suggests that Marx’s analysis is insufficient, even problematic, for addressing the capitalist formations of the 1970s.44
Instead, Baudrillard argues, we must turn away from analyses of the subject and toward analyses of the object: “It is no longer the desire of the subject, but the destiny of the object, which is at the center of the world.”45 The overabundance of objects, the omnipresent pervasiveness of design, the larger ecosystem of signification that surrounds and situates these objects and our interactions with them—these all generate new systems of meaning, where everything, every desire, every possibility can be realized (that is to say, made real). In this world, attachment has to be understood and appreciated in a far more nuanced manner because different object forms, within different ecosystems of meaning, will produce different orders of reality, create new degrees and types of satisfaction, and define novel and more varied forms of subjectivity. But we can no longer begin that analysis from the comfortable stability of the subject. We need to do so by focusing on objects themselves because these objects generate logics of attachment. When it comes to these objects, there are far more of them than there are of us.
Thanks to technological and system innovations, today’s global capitalism has become incredibly efficient at manufacturing and distributing durable goods. IKEA, which I will discuss in chapter 3, is just one of a number of global corporations contributing to and profiting from modern advances in factory production, data collection, and systems of distribution. Walmart, for example, uses big data analytics to optimize shipping routes, muscle down suppliers’ prices, and calibrate its global inventory down to the last pair of cheap sunglasses in its Milwaukee supercenter. Amazon’s use of KIVA robots to manage its warehouses allows it to stock more inventory and cut costs; the company’s extensive use of algorithms permits it to home in on purchasing habits with ever-increasing detail. These vast systems undoubtedly allow more objects to travel the globe with unprecedented speed and efficiency, which in all kinds of ways is terribly convenient for consumers who have the means to participate.
But how many of us, even in the most vestigial way, really understand the processes—of material extraction, production, distribution—that enable the objects we buy to arrive on our doorstep, or on the shelves of our local big box store, so quickly and so cheaply? If Nealon is right, if in this era of postpostmodernism there is no longer an outside to which we can escape, then we must recalibrate our analysis and our politics accordingly. But if the sensibility that dominates much consumerist discourse is any indication, few of us seem to want to escape. It sometimes seems as if we have collectively adopted the entitled visage of Veruca Salt, that spoiled little girl from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (picture the 1971 film version for greatest effect), who demands that her factory-owning father immediately grant her every wish, shrieking, “Don’t care how! I want it now!”
However, even if we don’t care how the objects we use, wear, and live with got here, or even where they’ll go when they no longer interest us, the residue of those systems and processes that brought them into being remains. Objects are imprinted with the legacy of their production. Consuming them amounts to an inheritance of sorts, and we do have some choice about what kinds of systems we want to inherit. Consumption is never an act of passive reception. Although it may be somewhat Pollyannaish to say so, and although it may ignore the realities of those who have less say in the objects they consume, the decisions we make as consumers are as consequential as the decisions we make as voters. When we choose, for example, to buy this pair of sneakers over that one, we inherit the entire political economy that makes the sneakers possible. What chemicals went into the glues and preservatives that hold them together? What were the working conditions of the young woman who stitched the uppers in a factory in some faraway land? How many fossil fuels were extracted and burned in order to get them from her hands to mine? There’s nothing in the form of mass-produced objects per se that reveals this inheritance. By design, they bear no explicit marks of the labor that went into their manufacture. Indeed, industrial manufacturing still depends on a certain degree of uniformity, a universality of form, in the objects it produces so efficiently.
A Tale of Two Trends: Stockpiling and Downsizing
Consumption and accumulation sometimes seem to have a momentum of their own while we’re just along for the ride. Members-only discount stores like Sam’s Club and Costco, as well as practices like extreme couponing—a practice documented in five seasons of its own reality show on TLC—allow people to accumulate massive stockpiles of extra merchandise, their garages and basements becoming miniwarehouses, housing years’ worth of nonperishable food and paper products, just in case. Consider too the meteoric rise of self-storage facilities, those clusters of windowless boxes that dot the American landscape. Self-storage is now a $24 billion a year industry.46 According to one account, “the industry boasts more domestic locations than McDonald’s, Subway and Jack in the Box combined.”47 Throughout most of its history, self-storage was intended as a short-term solution for people in the middle of a move who needed a temporary place to stash the things they would soon put in their new home. By 2007, however, according to a study by the Self Storage Association trade group, “fifty percent of renters were now simply storing what wouldn’t fit in their homes—even though the size of the average American house had almost doubled in the previous 50 years, to 2,300 square feet.”48 Although houses may be getting bigger, it is estimated that “seventy percent of home-owning Americans cannot park cars in their garages because there’s too much stuff,” and approximately one in ten American households has essentially annexed their homes with self-storage units to hold their surplus belongings.49 And either because of financial struggles or sheer indifference, thousands of these units are abandoned each year, creating a parasite market for those who compete for the contents at cash-only auctions. Perhaps not surprisingly, yet another popular reality show, A&E’s Storage Wars (2010–), along with its many spin-offs, chronicles the adventures of those hoping to profit from what others have left behind.
The rise of self-storage does not mean that we are all hoarders, those suffering from an affliction that I will discuss at some length in chapter 1; but it does suggest that lots of people feel too guilty or too attached to their stuff to part with it completely—at least until it’s been out of sight long enough to finally be out of mind. However, an episode of the popular ABC comedy Modern Family (2009–2020) highlights just how fraught this process of separation can be. A determined Claire enlists her family in a house-decluttering mission. Her three teenage children vehemently resist; her husband, Phil, protests, “All this stuff is packed with meaning!” before reluctantly donating some of their things to keep the domestic peace. By the episode’s end, Claire has a change of heart and tearfully regrets her clean sweep of her family’s mementos: “Years of stress cleaning has eradicated a lifetime of precious memories!” she cries.50 In typical sitcom fashion, all turns out well in the end, when Claire is delighted to discover that Phil has secretly maintained a self-storage unit to house all the beloved things she has insisted on donating over the years. For the Pritchetts—and I suspect for many modern families—self-storage offers a liminal space where objects can be placed in abeyance while their owners’ emotional ambivalence is resolved.
It’s not only the self-storage industry and those scavenging its forsaken detritus who are cashing in on our seemingly insatiable appetite for consumption—or in some cases consumption of consumption. So-called haul videos in which (predominantly) young women, surrounded by shopping bags from popular mall staples like Forever 21 and Sephora, share their most recent acquisitions, and unboxing videos, in which people enthusiastically remove new tech gadgets from their packaging, have proven surprisingly lucrative for those who make them and upload them to YouTube. Similarly, what might be termed collection porn, on websites like the Things Organized Neatly Tumblr (now a book), invites viewers to admire the carefully curated collections of other people’s stuff. Rob Walker explains the popularity of these sites: “It has become a cliché to talk of ‘curation’ as the great skill of the info-saturated online world, but probably what matters here is the overt display of that skill—the de facto announcement that someone is in charge. After too many years when stuff seemed to rule many lives, these things have been culled, sorted and mastered.”51 Tools for mastering stuff are themselves incredibly profitable, as evidenced by booming sales for retailers like Storables and the Container Store, which specialize in clutter management products, not to mention all the books, blogs, magazines, and reality TV shows devoted to how to effectively and stylishly corral one’s possessions. Perhaps not surprisingly, Marie Kondo now has her own brand of boxes, which retail for $89 for a set of three. Meanwhile, the National Association of Professional Organizers has seen its membership multiply tenfold, jumping from 400 to 4,000 in the last two decades.52 Modern consumers appear to be obsessed with buying, collecting, organizing, displaying, storing, and increasingly downsizing their belongings. It’s not just those whose tales of excess are featured on basic cable reality shows who have a complicated relationship to their stuff. We all do.
The massive quantity and diversity of affordable, (relatively) well-made products available force consumers in the industrialized world to negotiate what psychologist Barry Schwartz calls the “paradox of choice” like never before.53 Faced with advertising messages that are constantly telling us what products should mean, it has become increasingly difficult to determine what they might actually mean for ourselves. In response, another trend is afoot in consumer culture, one ostensibly all about uncomplicating one’s relationship to things. It’s no coincidence that stockpiling, haul videos, and the self-storage boom have arisen at the same cultural moment as the tiny house movement, capsule wardrobes, and other so-called voluntary simplicity practices. What anthropologist Katie Kilroy-Marac calls “consumption critical lifestyle movements” are on the rise as our awareness increases about the negative impacts of overconsumption on the environment and human rights, or simply our own sense of well-being. The popularity among Gen Xers and millennials of waste reduction trends such as “100 things” challenges illustrates our paradoxical relationship to the excesses of contemporary capitalism. “We’ve been asked to curtail our own consumption,” says Kilroy-Marac, “and yet we are all consumers. . . . We consume every day in all sorts of ways.”54 These kinds of mindful minimalism movements promote abstinence, or at least restraint, often dressed in aesthetic or even spiritual garb.
Books, magazines, and blogs challenging readers to pare down their possessions are everywhere, and their popularity seems to be growing every day. Take, for example, the 100 Things trend that emerged in the early 2010s, in which people challenged themselves and others to “break free from the confining habits of excessive consumerism” and reduce their personal possessions to just a hundred items. As 100 Things founder Dave Bruno explains, “A lot of people around the world feel ‘stuck in stuff.’ They feel like their closets and garages are too full of things that do not really make their lives much better.” Bruno’s method for getting unstuck plays off the well-known 3 Rs of environmentalism. His version encourages readers to “Reduce (some stuff); Refuse (more new stuff); Rejigger (life priorities).”55 Bruno chronicled his experiments on his blog, which he later published as a book. Like the KonMari followers we’ll meet in chapter 1, the #100TC community is still going strong, as people seek happiness by doing more with less. Similarly, Sheena Matheiken’s uniform project, in which she wore the same little black dress every day for a full year, embellishing her look with only thrifted, handmade, or donated accessories, is an attempt to promote what she calls sustainable fashion. By the end of a year wearing the same dress and posting her daily ensembles on her website, Matheiken claims to have received over two million hits and raised over $100,000 in donations for a foundation providing education to the children in India’s slums (http://www.theuniformproject.com/).
The most prominent voices of this latest instantiation of minimalism are undoubtedly Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who, in their blog, three books, TED talk, podcast, speaking engagements, and 2016 documentary film, are known as the Mimimalists. Feeling a sense of “lingering discontent,” the two white thirtysomething friends gave up their lucrative tech industry jobs, big homes, and luxury cars and moved to a modest cabin in Missoula, Montana, in search of a simpler and more meaningful way of life.56 Millburn came to minimalism a few years earlier, when his mother died and his marriage ended in the same month: “I sort of looked around at what had become my life’s focus, and I realized I didn’t know what was important anymore.” After purging most of his possessions, he says, “I started to feel freer, happier and lighter.”57 Nicodemus, inspired by his friend, says that as an early experiment, he put all his belongings in boxes and, for twenty-one days, removed things only as he needed them. In the end, 80 percent of his things remained boxed up, proving to himself how little of his stuff he actually uses.
As a lifestyle brand, the Minimalists are impeccable. Across their various platforms, the aesthetic and attitude of the Minimalists are orchestrated with a degree of consistency that would make Steve Jobs proud. Their message is coherent as well; the Boston Globe aptly describes it as “like Henry David Thoreau, but with Wi-Fi.”58 Like Marie Kondo and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the Minimalists emphasize the deep connection between our emotions and the degree of control we have over our possessions, pointing to the positive effects of downsizing on our sense of well-being: “Minimalists don’t focus on having less, less, less; rather, we focus on making room for more: more time, more passion, more experiences, more growth, more contribution, more contentment. More freedom. Clearing the clutter from life’s path helps us make that room.”59 Like Kondo, the Minimalists have amassed a huge and enthusiastic following. They regularly tour in the United States and abroad to promote their philosophy and various projects. More than 1,400 people RSVP’d to see them talk at a San Francisco bookstore, and their 2016 tour of ten cities to screen their documentary sold out months before its release. They claim that four million people read their blog, and their memoir, Everything that Remains, is a best seller. The breadth of the minimalism trend is too big to fully account for here. From the ongoing popularity of the midcentury modern design aesthetic, with its clean lines and less-is-more aesthetic, to the various experiments in simple living like Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man (a blog, book, and film), to people intentionally downsizing their lifestyles in myriad ways, a desire for order and simplicity is clearly one outgrowth of the excesses of contemporary consumer culture.
For all its well-meaning intentions, minimalism’s claim to be a path to the good life is not so simple; nor is it without its critics. Some find the minimalist movement oppressive, as they are simply too attached to their belongings and the memories they represent. Blogger Karen Bertelsen, inspired by the “virtuously clean-looking homes” that pervade certain regions of the Internet, says she made an ardent attempt at becoming a minimalist: “This is it,” she thinks. “I am a minimalist. This is how it’s going to be, everything calm from now on.” However, as Jacoba Urist reports, “Her venture into minimalism made her realize how much she enjoyed viewing the physical manifestations of memories, reliving moments through concrete reminders. ‘I want to see the drumsticks from the last Ramones show I went to in 1994, or the rock I picked up climbing a mountain in Vancouver,’ she said. ‘I want to see the titles of all the books I’ve read.’”60 This connection between our possessions and our memories is one I will explore throughout this book. Memories are one of the central reasons we decide to keep certain objects and not others. In chapter 4, I will look at the work of designers who are attempting to intensify the relationship between people and things, to write the capacity for meaning and sustainability into the very DNA of the object. Those promoting what Jonathan Chapman terms “emotionally durable design” are experimenting with ways to prolong the attachment we feel for objects, in the hope that we will be less inclined to discard them. Such an approach is not appropriate to all objects, of course, but as a mode of slowing down the effects of a fickle consumer culture, it’s a valuable step in the right direction.
Other critics of minimalism note the utter presumptuousness of attaching a kind of moral superiority to a practice that is possible only for those who can afford to ditch their belongings and buy new ones when they need to. “It has become an ostentatious ritual of consumerist self-sacrifice,” argues Kyle Chayka, pointing out that the most vocal proponents of minimalism tend to be well-to-do white guys in the tech industry. “People who have it all now seem to prefer having nothing at all.” He concludes, “This new minimalist lifestyle always seems to end in enabling new modes of consumption, a veritable excess of less. It’s not really minimal at all [ . . . ] The fetishized austerity and performative asceticism of minimalism is a kind of ongoing cultural sickness. We misinterpret material renunciation, austere aesthetics and blank, emptied spaces as symbols of capitalist absolution, when these trends really just provide us with further ways to serve our impulse to consume more, not less.”61 One need only peruse popular shelter blogs like Apartment Therapy or an issue of lifestyle magazines such as Real Simple or Dwell to see that Chayka has a point. The white walls, carefully curated collections, and austerely (but expensively) furnished homes they feature are often accessible only to those with ample disposable income. Joel Stillerman, author of The Sociology of Consumption (2015), suggests that minimalism is also a way for those in the upper socioeconomic classes to distinguish themselves from others, thereby demonstrating their refined taste and superior aesthetic literacy. “These people,” he says, “are making the statement that ‘I can afford to have less. I appreciate books and travel and good meals.’”62 Often the minimalist ethic is subsumed by a minimalist aesthetic and an expensive one at that.
This tension between ethics and aesthetics deserves careful attention as we try to assess the fate of the object in this era of aesthetic capitalism. The practices of consumers, designers, crafters, and makers of all sorts will be a central focus of the chapters that follow. We will look at design in its broadest sense—the art of creating objects that will prove to be useful, attractive, and potentially worthy of our attachment. The celebration of design is a central theme in contemporary commercial discourse. I will explore the relationship between industrial design, mass- and small-scale consumption, grassroots production such as crafting and making, and environmental sustainability. In doing so, I build on my work on the rhetoric and politics of consumerism, a theme that OurSpace: Resisting the Corporate Control of Culture (2007) explores in depth.
Whereas OurSpace is about the different types of political agency afforded in a marketplace defined by brands, the language and imagery of consumer culture, this book is about the agency afforded by the rhetorical character of things themselves. As prominent as the discourse of branding continues to be, what we now see in the foreground of contemporary commercial culture has increasingly less to do with branding products by way of hip or authoritative campaigns than with the poetic hybrid of form and function offered by the material objects themselves: their design. Design writer Steve Kroeter notes that whereas “branding was the most talked about business concept during the decade of the 1990s . . . design has evolved as the strategic initiative driving differentiation among brands.”63 As Kroeter suggests, to observe the rise of design in our current moment is certainly not to suggest that branding has gone away—far from it. But the focus of branding is shifting dramatically toward the formal components of products (their shape, texture, weight, footprint, etc.) more than the graphic and narrative discourses meant to create positive connotations with them. Tellingly, whereas marketers talk about brand identity, designers talk about the design DNA of objects themselves. Identity has to do with the stories we tell about things; DNA suggests something inherent to the thing itself.
With this in mind, in this book, I explore our relationship to the material objects we buy, collect, consume, and integrate into our daily lives, as well as the ways we make meaning, craft identities, inhabit lifestyles, and announce our politics through our relationships with and creative use of commodities. It is also a book about designers—a group who may be the most important, albeit underinvestigated, communicators of the contemporary age. Designers are material rhetoricians who conceive and plan everything, from automobiles to cities, from public spaces to commercial and political imagery. Ultimately this is an attempt to investigate the interfaces we confront in this material culture. Although the philosophical tradition has not always conceived it as such, questions of interfaces have governed much of rhetorical scholarship since the time of Plato. In contemporary parlance, an interface is a program that controls a display for a user; it is a sensory gateway that allows a user to interact with a system. If we live, as Baudrillard has suggested, within a system of objects, then design is the art of planning the way that users connect with those objects, and how we interface with this system.
An old folk saying notes that a fish would likely be the last to perceive water, as it is so ubiquitous to escape notice. In a similar vein, graphic designer Bruce Mau points out that although we live in a heavily designed world, for most of us, design is transparent. He writes, “The secret ambition of design is to become invisible, to be taken up into the culture, absorbed into the background. The highest order of success in design is to achieve ubiquity, to become banal.”64 Through investigating the discourse of design, it is my goal to make design visible by exploring the underlying strategies, politics, and aesthetics that produce our manufactured world. But it is also important to investigate, as I do in chapter 5, the ways that consumers are themselves redesigning the world of things.
The current apotheosis of design will play an important role in determining the fate of objects and the environment in which they, and we, exist. Two very different fates lie before us as we attempt to achieve some modicum of balance between our ecological and manufactured worlds. On one side of the scale is the assumption that design can continue to obscure, by promoting a frivolous mode of attachment, the larger life cycle of the object. It can continue to confine our attachment to those stages tied simply to the act of acquisition, that intoxicating but all too ephemeral moment of “I want it now!” exemplified by the voraciousness of Willy Wonka’s Veruca Salt. Here the object remains closed, discrete, fetishized, wholly other to ourselves. If this is our choice, then we can expect that our landfills and oceans, already teeming with the surfeit of our caprice, will increasingly suffer the burdens of excess.
On the other side of the scale, we can encourage modes of production, consumption, and use that allow objects to open up, thereby revealing their role in larger networks, systems, and ecologies. Here we can chart and coax an escalating dissolution of the object—from discrete and disposable to porous and hackable, to a node within a larger life span of which we are a part. On this side of things, we may come to better understand our own interconnectedness with the objects we encounter, such that we recognize our obligation to and responsibility for them, thereby becoming better stewards of the world we all inhabit. This side, as Juliet B. Schor suggests in the epigraph to this Introduction, asks us to be more materialist in our thinking rather than less so. This book is an attempt to understand these two options before us, to explore how they play out, and to place a thumb on the scale in favor of the latter.