Tables and chairs, beds, mirrors, a clock to remind the happy couple of the passage of time, an armchair for an hour’s pleasant daydreaming, carpets to help the housewife keep the floors clean, linen tied with pretty ribbons in the cupboard and dresses of the latest fashion and hats with artificial flowers, pictures on the wall, glasses for everyday and others for wine and festive occasions. . . . Are we to hang our hearts on such little things? Yes, and without hesitation.
—Sigmund Freud in a letter to his fiancée, Martha
In this chapter, I look closely at the ways we talk about our attachment to inanimate objects. Among humans and other animals, attachment is laden with emotion, is target specific, and is characterized by an affectionate feeling of being connected to another.1 “Attachment” emerges etymologically from the old French atachier, to “fix” or “fasten,”2 connoting a physical tethering of two things often expressed positively as feeling bonded, connected, and coupled, or, negatively, as being stuck, trapped, or tied down by a ball and chain. Attachment is crucial, of course, to the health of infants and children, who require the feeling of safe belonging that strong familial and communal ties provide. Attachment is also important for parents; it fosters the sense of responsibility and obligation to one’s offspring that the survival of the species requires.
But humans do not only attach to other humans, of course. We attach to beloved pets, to familiar and sacred spaces, and to things. I’m certainly not unique, for example, in the deep attachment I feel for a sun-faded, lumpy assemblage of cotton and wool I’ve called Poohbear since he was given to me by a friend of my mom’s over forty years ago. As a toddler, Poohbear was for me what psychoanalysts would call a transitional object, in that he provided the bridge I needed as I detached from mom and dad to become a more autonomous individual. With these objects, attachment has the potential to inspire a sense of obligation, a sense of responsibility for the well-being of the object of one’s attachment. Poohbear, for example, is tucked safely away on a high shelf in my bedroom closet, his use value as a plaything usurped long ago by his current value as significant object.
How and why we attach to objects is a growing line of inquiry in industrial design scholarship. Ruth Mugge and her colleagues at the Delft University of Technology, for example, have conducted a number of studies attempting to understand why some products seem to endear themselves to us while others remain less significant, and hence are more easily replaced. On the basis of their findings, Mugge and colleagues propose four determinants of product attachment, as follows:
- Pleasure: the product provides pleasure
- Self-expression: the product expresses one’s unique identity
- Group affiliation: the product expresses one’s belonging to a group
- Memories: the product is a reminder of the past3
Designers working with an eye toward stimulating an emotional bond with the products they create are exploring a number of strategies to promote one or more of these qualities. Products provide pleasure, for instance, when they have aesthetic features above and beyond mere functionality. Fans of the iPhone, for example, cite its intuitive interface and its minimalist look as key reasons for their devotion. A plethora of customizable products allow consumers to tailor objects in ways they feel express their own personal identity, another main determinant of attachment. Following a concept popularized by Seth Godin in his 2008 book Tribes, brands like Nike and REI like to talk about their customer base as a brand tribe, in that they provide consumers a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves by way of affiliation with a particular company’s message or aesthetic.4 However, the final determinant, memory, appears to be the most powerful factor in product attachment, as a 2004 study by Schifferstein and Pelgrim shows.5 They found that when subjects explained why they had kept some objects for twenty years or more, it was because those objects were closely connected to a meaningful personal memory. In another study, Kleine and Baker explain that “special possessions, such as clothing, are among the cues that evoke autobiographical memory rehearsal.”6 They go on to note, “Autobiographical rehearsal is self-comforting and presents opportunities for self-encouragement or confrontation and resolution of life issues, as numerous examples in literature and poetry portray.”7
Although the autobiographical power of memory is clearly important in fostering emotional bonds to products, creating objects as meaningful as, say, Rosebud is to Charles Foster Kane in the 1941 film Citizen Kane, may be the hardest design nut to crack because “product-related memories usually develop independently from the product design and are difficult to influence by the designer.”8 However, as I will explore in chapter 4, many designers interested in promoting a more sustainable relationship to the objects in our lives are attempting to do just that: to create objects that encourage our commitment to care for, rather than discard them, over time. Such stewardship, I suspect, is possible only when we feel invested in an object to the degree that we care about its fate. We invest in objects all the time, of course, from the money we spend on them, to the time spent researching and acquiring them, to the space they take up in our homes. But in this current cultural moment, nearly everything is seen as disposable, yet nothing really is. Phones, coffee makers, clothes, and cars are subject to the incessant solicitation of the upgrade. In this environment, what inspires us to invest emotionally more in some objects than in others?
It’s worth noting that attachment isn’t always the most ethical response to objects. Some things, like consumer electronics, are necessarily transitory and should be designed with their safe disposal or repurposing in mind. However, as we know, so many of the objects that find themselves cast into dumpsters, landfills, and oceans are discarded not because they are no longer useful but because they are no longer wanted. As design scholar Jonathan Chapman puts it, “Waste is symptomatic of failed relationships.”9
This chapter starts a conversation that will continue throughout this book. Here I explore a variety of ways we value and attach to the things in our lives. I begin with hoarders, those who attach either so indiscriminately or so intensely that attachment has devolved into affliction. Like many of us, hoarders often cling to objects because they evoke memories from the past. However, testimonials from hoarders demonstrate that attachment can also be inspired by an object’s promise of a better future. The broken clock will again tell time, once we get around to fixing it. One day we’ll finally get those cobweb-covered skis out of the garage and slalom down the slopes. Those favorite jeans will surely fit again, once we dust off that treadmill in the basement. Potential—the notion that an object has latent capacities for future usefulness or beauty—is, like memory, intimately linked to identity, and it is therefore a powerful cause of attachment. If memory helps us create a coherent sense of self by providing fodder for our personal narrative, then potential allows us to envision an idealized version of ourselves yet to come. Whereas some objects are valuable because they remind us of what was, others are so because they inspire us to imagine what may be.
To further explore the role of memory and potential in our relationship to things, I look at the KonMari Method, a wildly popular approach to curating possessions that sees things as having a vitality that waxes and wanes in response to care or neglect. Hoarders cling to objects that either remind them of the past or help them imagine a better future. The KonMari Method, in contrast, is more focused on the present. It characterizes both memory and potential as psychological traps—deceitful distractions from the joyful here and now that threaten to drain our very life energy. Followers of the KonMari Method are encouraged to tune in mindfully to the objects they possess to see if they still inspire joy. If not, their owners must free themselves from this dead energy and discard them. Memories and future hopes are mere delusions that keep us mired in stagnant stuff we no longer want.
In both hoarding and the KonMari Method, an object’s role in either memorializing one’s past or animating one’s future is the standard for measuring its worth. However, that worth is assessed differently. For hoarders, objects are so meaningful that to discard them is unthinkable. The KonMari Method holds that any object’s value is necessarily ephemeral, and clinging to memories or fantasies stymies the dynamic process of letting go and living in the moment. The examples of relationships between people and their things described in this chapter may be extreme, even polar opposites. But their coinciding prevalence in the popular imagination is instructive. As different but related responses to the overabundance of consumer goods, they offer important insights to the power of memory and the potential to imbue our material world with a sense of vitality and meaning that demands an ethical response of us.
On Packrats and Clutterbugs
People exhibit myriad responses to the massive deluge of consumer products available across the industrialized world. Negotiating this seeming world of plenty is a challenge for some more than others. In recent years, so-called hoarders have been thrust into the national spotlight, most prominently by way of no fewer than four documentary series airing on North American basic cable networks. Hoarders (2009–) aired for six seasons on A&E before moving to Lifetime. A&E reports that the series premiere of Hoarders was watched by 2.5 million viewers, and it was the most-watched premiere in the network’s history among the coveted demographic group of eighteen- to forty-nine-year-olds. The TLC network began running its own program on the subject, Hoarding: Buried Alive (2010–). The Discovery Life network has Hoarding: Behind Closed Doors (2015); Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network debuted Extreme Clutter! in 2011; and even Animal Planet offers a show featuring animal hoarders. Anthropologist Susan Lepselter, in her study on hoarding narratives in popular culture, argues that this “increasing collective fetish for the hoarder’s fetishes” highlights economic anxieties in these early decades of the twenty-first century: “In the manic depression surrounding crashes, foreclosures, and the secular jeremiads on consumer folly and greed, all occurring against years of confident neoliberalism and globalization, the hoarder’s monstrous accumulations loom with an increasingly ambivalent fascination.”10 Anthropologist Katie Kilroy-Marac puts it more simply: hoarding is “clearly having a moment of sorts.”11 Like much reality programming, these shows tend to offer up hoarders as targets for us to gawk at, to pity, and to gape at with appalled fascination at the obscene chaos of their homes.
Yet hoarding is a legitimate affliction. In 2013, when the American Psychological Association released the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, hoarding was for the first time listed as a disorder in its own right, rather than merely a symptom or subset of other disorders, such as schizophrenia or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Hoarding disorder is defined as “the excessive acquisition of and inability to discard objects, resulting in debilitating clutter.”12 Although its inclusion in the DSM-5 makes hoarding official, this description tells us little that’s not already out there in the cultural ether. Those who study it acknowledge that we have a long way to go in understanding the condition. Psychologist Randy Frost, who published the first systematic studies of the phenomenon as recently as the 1990s, describes hoarding as “a brand-new disorder, something we didn’t recognize before,” acknowledging, “We know nothing about it. And I’ve been doing this for 20 years. The field is wide open.”13
It’s estimated that 2 to 5 percent of the American population suffers from hoarding; that’s six to fifteen million people in the United States alone.14 These numbers could actually be much higher because the shame and secrecy associated with hoarding means that many hoarders do not seek treatment, thus making it difficult to diagnose. Further exacerbating the issue, hoarders are often reluctant or unable to identify themselves as such. Yale neuropsychologist David Tolin and his collaborators note that hoarders frequently exhibit “poor insight about the severity of their condition, leading to resistance of attempts by others to intervene.”15
Hoarding is considered pathological when an uncontrollable compulsion to acquire and save objects begins to negatively impact one’s family and work life, and one’s living space becomes debilitating. Tolin and his team conducted brain scans of hoarders and found that they demonstrated inhibited decision-making abilities, especially in the face of uncertain outcomes (for example, the possibility that one might need a particular newspaper clipping for future reference). Hoarders’ brain activity was compared to two control groups: those with OCD and neurotypical adult subjects. When asked to decide which from a collection of their possessions to discard, results of functional magnetic resonance imaging scans of hoarders showed that they were both slower and more reluctant to choose among the items than were control subjects. They appeared similarly attached to all of them.
Hoarders often also have OCD, anxiety disorders, and depression. However, unlike those syndromes, as Frost and Steketee note in Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, “In hoarding . . . we frequently see positive emotions propelling acquisition and saving.”16 When conducting their study, they found that despite the obvious negative effects of living among so much stuff, hoarders describe the genuine pleasure they take in being surrounded by their treasures. Frost and Steketee liken this pleasure to that of the safety and comfort of building a cocoon or bunker in which one ensconces oneself in a nest of one’s own making.
Pleasure is also to be had in the thrill of acquisition. Home shopping networks are popular among hoarders, as are thrift shops. Irene, a central figure in Stuff, describes her compulsion to shop: “That’s my thing. It’s what gives me joy. I get a real high from finding a bargain.”17 Irene’s belief that shopping gives her a high is echoed throughout scholarly and popular testimonials from hoarders. In a Dateline NBC special, for example, Phil describes being “in the zone” when buying a pair of left-handed golf clubs at a thrift shop, even though he already owns several sets of golf clubs and is right-handed.18 Frost and Steketee say that the hoarding clients they work with “often describe dissociative-like states, periods of time where they are so focused on the item they want to buy that they forget about the context of their lives—such as whether they have the money, space, or need for the item. Some people may have a tendency to experience this ‘flow state’ more readily than others, making them vulnerable to becoming compulsive buyers or hoarders.”19 This sense of being “in the zone” or “high” while shopping can, like drugs, alcohol, and even gambling offer a momentary respite from the problems in one’s life, as it focuses all one’s energy in the present moment. The surge one receives when, say, discovering a designer dress offered at a discount, or a finding a rare LP to add to one’s ever-expanding collection, puts a person squarely in the here and now of bodily and mental sensation. That state of presence allows one, however temporarily, to escape from a haunting past or the anxieties of an unknown future.
Hoarding behavior tends to fall on a spectrum. Some may be considered merely eccentric collectors, a shopaholic, packrat, or clutterbug. Others take hoarding to the painful extremes we see on cable television. But it goes without saying that difficulty exercising impulse control at the mall is not a challenge faced only by hoarders; nor are they the only ones among us who enjoy the thrill of hunting for and acquiring something new. Shopping for the fun of it or as a means of escape is a widely accepted, if derided, commonplace in modern consumer culture. Indeed, although it falls under the “humorous” category, “retail therapy” is an official entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, as is “shopaholic.”
The joy of acquisition is certainly a component of hoarding, but emotional attachment to the things one already owns is its most pernicious characteristic, as it leads to the piles and squalor that inhibit a hoarder’s everyday life. Hoarders seem unable to part with things even after the thrill is gone or the item has outlived its usefulness. Hoarding appears to be an excess of attachment, a compulsion to see all of one’s possessions, however mundane, as significant. One group of psychologists suggests that the intense attachment to things that hoarders exhibit might best be characterized as “empathy in overdrive,” in that hoarders care so much for things and the memories associated with them that they become unable to distinguish or prioritize their respective value.20 For example, as part of their study, the researchers gifted small key chains to sixty-two subjects diagnosed with OCD, asking them to assess their attachment to the object at the time of receipt and then again one week later. They found that although most of the subjects grew somewhat attached to the key chain over the course of the week, those who tended to hoard described experiencing a kind of “love at first sight,” and were significantly attached to theirs right away.21
In reality, hoarders tend to belie the traditional stereotype of the miserly recluse. Testimonials from hoarders offered in scholarly and popular accounts tend to emphasize the empathetic quality of objects, which they see as powerful links to other people and experiences. Irene says she usually saves things because they might be useful or interesting to people she knows. “Instead of replacing people with possessions,” write Frost and Steketee, “Irene was using possessions to make connections between people and to the world at large.”22 In keeping with other research that finds hoarders to be exceptionally empathetic, Frost and Steketee point to the intuitive intelligence of hoarders, suggesting that even though hoarding is a painful mental disorder, “it may stem from an extraordinary ability. For hoarders, every object is rich in detail. We disregard the color and hue of a magazine cover as we search for the article inside. But if we paid attention, we might notice the soothing effect of the colors, and the meaning of the object would expand in the process. In this way, the physical world of hoarders is different and much more expansive than that of the rest of us.”23 For hoarders, the material world around them feels alive with meaning and promise, beginning with that feeling of love at first sight experienced at the moment of acquisition. That thrill inevitably passes, yet hoarders express an inability to let go of either the memory or the promise they attach to an object. Often hoarders attach to an object because they see it as a record of their relationship to a loved one who is now gone. One hoarder describes it as “keeping items that belong to dead loved ones to keep those persons around.”24 Another notes that she hoards “just to reminisce, just like listening to an old song brings back memories. Nostalgia.”25
Similarly, some hoarders see themselves as archivists of their family or the era in which they live—a responsibility they take very seriously. Debra describes herself as someone who fears change and wants to freeze time: “I don’t like forwards,” she says. “I like backwards.” Debra photographs things in order to preserve them: “Every second of my life I can document. If I want to remember it, I’ll take a picture.” She uses photography (up to thirty rolls of film in a month) as a way to capture the essence of things in order to cope with getting rid of things she cannot keep, like perishables. She even admits to photographing her trash.26 Hoarders like Debra see their possessions as priceless documents of their past; they feel that discarding their possessions would be to lose a bit of themselves. Others express feelings of responsibility to the objects they own. As Linda tells researchers, “The idea of jettisoning something that’s had long and faithful service and when it gets mucked up or a bit dottery, it seems cruel to throw it out.” Linda admits that her position “may be personalizing the object a bit,” but she nevertheless feels unable to separate from the objects at hand—in this case, a worn pair of shoes.27
In her memoir Coming Clean, Kimberly Rae Miller documents her childhood growing up with a father who hoarded. Like others, she observes the intense empathy and sense of connectedness that often underlies the affliction:
Many hoarders start hoarding as a form of connecting to other people. And so when they see something that reminds them of someone they love, they hold on to it. If it reminds them of a way they felt good, or a positive memory in their life, they hold on to it. A lot of hoarders are incredibly intelligent people, and they’re able to see things in ordinary objects that we wouldn’t necessarily see. And so, getting rid of those items is incredibly hard for them.28
Miller here captures a theme that repeatedly arises in interviews with people who hoard: that the objects serve as proxies; they represent emotions—toward loved ones, or experiences—that are simply too unbearable to discard. To get rid of something thus feels like committing a violent act to oneself and one’s memories. A worried Irene remarks, “If I throw too much away, there’ll be nothing left of me.” When attempting to clean out her home, Irene struggles to discard a “decades-old history book” and starts to cry: “I just feel like I want to die,” she says. “This is one of my treasure books. I know I haven’t looked at it in thirty years, but it feels like a part of me.” As Frost and Steketee explain, “Hoarded objects become part of the hoarder’s identity or personal history. In a sense, they come to define his or her identity.”29
If some treasured objects provide a link to the past, then others are valued for their promise of a better future. Lorraine describes the conflict she feels over her “clutterbug” tendencies, especially when it comes to her books: “To achieve my goal to get the house uncluttered, I have to get rid of some of them. But it’s very difficult to pick which ones to get rid of.”30 Part of the difficulty is that many hoarders believe that one day, they will eventually read all those stacks of magazines, or make a meal from one of the cookbooks piled in the corner, or have occasion to use the gadgets accumulating in the garage. This is why so many hoarders continue to keep things they don’t actually use. As one poster to an online hoarding website explains, “I truly believe that once I organize my house, I will finally be able to use all the items that have been ‘hidden’ or in piles or behind other things. So, I have blind faith that I will soon clean up, and that perpetuates the comforting and incorrect belief of future use.”31 Another fears squandering the latent value of her collection: “The Antiques Road Show is terrible for me. I hoard antiques, and fear selling them, because I might need the money some day.”32 A man named Ralph, interviewed by Frost and Steketee, holds onto everything he sees as having potential use to himself or other people, even a piece of an old broken venetian blind: “Most people would throw this out. Not me,” he tells them proudly. Ralph also insists on keeping an old bucket despite its hole, because for him, anything he could imagine a use for, even a bucket that could not hold water, was worth saving.33
Squandering the potential of objects—perhaps especially for those raised in poverty—is nothing less than a sin. One hoarder claims to avoid neighbors seeing her bringing in the groceries or taking out the trash for fear of being judged by others: “[My behavior] seems to be predicated on the idea that if people see what I bring in, consume, and discard, they will assume that I’m spendthrift, selfish, wasteful. I know that one bag of trash a week isn’t all that much, but I’m still petrified of being seen with it. As though I hadn’t made full use of the things I purchased.”34 Of Irene, Frost and Steketee write, “It was not [the objects’] use that she found reinforcing, but the idea of having them. Their potential appealed to her.”35 If some objects are prized as bearers of one’s history, then the insistence on an object’s potential, or the opportunities it affords, is also a central theme in hoarding discourse. Even if it is perpetually deferred, the object is seen either as a vehicle to a better life for oneself or as latent value yet to be realized. It is that potential—for connection, success, happiness—that is the source of the unbreakable bond hoarders feel for many of the objects they save. To discard an object is to abandon or sacrifice a relationship with the past and the future.
Sparking Joy and the Rise of a Curated Life
After the overwhelming success of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo published a manga version, as well as an illustrated companion book, Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up (2012). Time magazine named Kondo one of 2015’s most influential people, and the New Yorker, the New York Times, Le Monde, Fast Company, the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and the Economist are among the many publications to have offered profiles and long-form analyses assessing the influence of the KonMari Method for relating to one’s possessions. The movement she has inspired has only intensified. “To kondo” has become a verb used to describe the act of curating one’s possessions. Followers across the world, calling themselves “konverts,” use a variety of hashtags to share their tidying trials and triumphs on social media sites like Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, and Twitter. Popular television shows like Younger (2015–), Transparent (2014–19), and the Netflix Gilmore Girls reboot (2016) all make references to KonMari. NBC toyed with greenlighting a sitcom about a young woman attempting to get her life organized called—you guessed it—The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
In the end, Netflix won the right to capitalize on the Kondo craze, dropping eight episodes of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on New Year’s Day 2019. The format of the show features Kondo, along with her translator, visiting the homes of American families and guiding them in the process of assessing how they feel about the objects in their home. She gently works with them as they let go of those things that no longer delight them. The climax of each episode is less a big-reveal finale, with its familiar visual tropes of tidy closets and organized pantries so common to domestic makeover shows. Rather, the emotional engine of Tidying Up is the cathartic purge Kondo’s clients engage in as they struggle to face their messy demons. They bravely make the hard choices, then ultimately purge the excess stuff holding them back. A central theme of the show is detachment. People struggle to part with mementos and to discard outdated collections, but eventually they commit to the purge and make space for new, better things to come. The show frames tidying up as a sort of wellness cleanse for one’s home, a process of releasing the dead weight of objects lying dormant—or, worse, toxic and festering from lack of use.
Although the show’s families all live in the greater Los Angeles area, they are quite diverse: straight, gay, white, African American, Asian American, Latinx, young, middle-aged. One couple struggles with the clutter that comes from raising toddlers; another couple, empty nesters, face a house teeming with decades of memorabilia; twenty-something writers look to graduate into full-fledged adulthood; a recently widowed woman in her sixties takes a life-affirming step into an uncertain but hopeful future without her beloved husband, processing her grief by processing the possessions he left behind. Different as their life circumstances may be, the families in each episode represent important milestones, seasons of life that most of us face. With Kondo’s guidance, they discover how organizing their homes and discarding unwanted things can help them lead the lives they want.
Kondo’s surge has generated some controversies, most importantly around the perceived racism in white people’s response to her massively popular show. Some have suggested her popularity is due in part to a fetishized orientalism; they suggest that people’s fascination with her is the latest instantiation in an ongoing habit of Westerners to turn to Asian cultures for the earthy spirituality they find lacking.36 Others have argued that the many critiques of Kondo (most vociferous were bibliophiles enraged by a mistaken belief that she mandates people keep only thirty books) fall back on retrograde “dragon lady” stereotypes that have long cast Asian women as possessing a mystical but severe power.37 These debates notwithstanding, the KonMari Method does have a decidedly Japanese sensibility to it, reinvigorating in modern consumers across the globe a traditional reverence for objects. Kondo’s method for streamlining one’s home is straightforward, but not necessarily easy. Rather than tidying by looking for things to get rid of, she argues, we should focus on what it is we want to keep. And how to decide what’s worth keeping? “Take each item in one’s hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’” she writes. “If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it. This is not only the simplest but also the most accurate yardstick by which to judge.”38 What follows this simple mandate is a systematic program in which readers are to go through their living space and, by category, not room, tackle their clothes, then books, then papers, then komono (miscellany), and finally mementos, in that order. Only once this first phase is complete, a process Kondo acknowledges may take several months, can one start deciding on appropriate places to store the joy-sparking possessions that made the cut.
The popularity of the KonMari Method is undoubtedly buoyed by the rising tide of interest in what I described earlier as meaningful minimalism. Kondo is a fellow traveler among the minimalism movement, to be sure. But what distinguishes her book as such a runaway hit with readers across the world is precisely that her approach doesn’t call for self-denial, restriction, or even actually minimalism. Instead, it encourages readers to forge a more intimate relationship with the objects in their lives. Throughout her books, lectures, interviews, and television show, Kondo affords inanimate objects a magical quality, a vital energy that, when appropriately fostered, has the power to make us a bit more magical, too. The German translation of the book’s title is Magic Cleaning, which captures its essence perfectly well, because Kondo’s liberal use of “magic” isn’t metaphorical. She means it. Her “Does it spark joy?” metric echoes the well-known criterion offered by nineteenth-century designer William Morris, a founder of the Arts and Crafts movement: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”39 But Kondo is less influenced by European Marxist maker movements than she is the devotional practices of Shintoism, the ancient Japanese religion for which spirits live not only in people but also in inanimate objects, including rivers, trees, shoes, and chopsticks.
As it happens, Kondo worked for five years at a Shinto shrine, where she sold charms called omamori, believed to offer protection or good luck. She writes that she loved visiting shrines as a child, especially collecting the small charms that she understands to be imbued with magic. However, she explains, “Please keep in mind that charms are not something you buy but something with which you are entrusted. They are effective only for one year after you receive them, so those that are past their expiration dates should be returned as soon as possible.”40 This key Shinto observation—the waxing and waning of vitality in all things—infuses Kondo’s approach to living with objects. Animism is one of its defining principles. Properly caring for the objects in our lives is important not only so they last longer but because they have feelings too. One should unpack one’s bag at the end of each day, for example, because it has spent all day benevolently supporting our needs. “What a hard worker!” she writes, “It would be cruel not to give it a break at least at home. Being packed all the time, even when not in use, must feel something like going to bed on a full stomach.”41 Our socks especially warrant TLC: “Never, ever tie up your stockings. Never, ever ball up your socks,” she admonishes. When inspecting one errant client’s sock drawer, she reports, “I pointed to the balled-up socks. ‘Look at them carefully. This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they can get any rest like that?’ That’s right,” she adds. “The socks and stockings stored in your drawer are essentially on holiday. They take a brutal beating in their daily work, trapped between your foot and your shoe, enduring pressure and friction to protect your precious feet. The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest.”42 When working with clients to curate their book collections on Tidying Up, Kondo suggests they first wake the books up, since they’ve been sleeping. She demonstrates this by putting her hand on a pile of books, then giving them a little shake to stir their energy.
As detailed as Kondo’s advice is for caring for the physical needs of objects—socks should be folded, not balled; T-shirts should be rolled and laid side by side in a drawer, not stacked—she suggests that to be true stewards of our possessions, we must also tend to the needs of their spirit by expressing gratitude for their service. When we are folding, for example, “we should put our heart into it, thanking our clothes for protecting our bodies,” as “folding is really a form of dialogue with our wardrobe,” noting the ritualized folding methods for traditional Japanese clothing like kimono and yukata.43 She describes the gratitude ritual she practices each day as she arrives home: “I’m home!” she announces to her empty house.44 “Thank you very much for your hard work,” she tells her shoes. “Good job!” she says as she hangs up her dress.45 Finally, “You did well. Have a good rest,” she says to her handbag.46 The whole process only takes five minutes, she assures readers, encouraging them to try it. A staple segment of her Netflix show involves Kondo “greeting the home,” paying her respects in a small ritual as she asks for its blessing. She kneels on the floor, closes her eyes, and sits silently for a few moments. As she finishes, she draws a small circle around her body with her fingertips, places her palms to the ground, and bows. After conducting this ritual with Margie, the grieving widow in episode 4, she assures Margie, “I will tell you, the feeling in this house is spectacular. So what I’d like you to remember as you go through this process is that you’re not alone; the house itself and all your belongings are there to support you and are with you.”
Discarded objects also deserve our respect, writes Kondo. “Can you truthfully say you treasure something buried so deeply in a closet or drawer that you have forgotten its existence?” she asks. “If things had feelings, they would certainly not be happy. Free them from the prison to which you have relegated them.”47 Although it may no longer set our heart sufficiently aflutter, each item has fulfilled the important function of showing us something about ourselves, and it should be thanked accordingly. Kondo encourages readers to take a moment and say, “Thank you for giving me joy when I bought you,” or “Thank you for teaching me what doesn’t suit me” before discarding an object or donating it so that it can perhaps spark joy in someone else.48 Although many of us may see the benefits of practicing gratitude, I suspect that for many readers, Kondo’s almost anthropomorphized view of objects may seem a bit too much. However, at a time when many people feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of mass-produced goods in their lives, I believe it’s also a large part of the appeal.
Kondo’s perspective isn’t new; in fact, it’s ancient. Mortuary rituals for everyday items at the end of their life span have been performed for millennia and are still common in Japan. As Angelika Kretschmer writes in her study of hari kuyō, or requiem services held for inanimate objects: “Kuyō rites for objects are presently carried out for items as diverse as needles, chopsticks, combs, dolls, clocks, personal seals (hanko), knives, shoes, scissors, and semiconductors.”49 But the Japanese are hardly alone in attributing human characteristics to nonhuman objects. Anthropologist Stewart Guthrie argues, for example, that religions writ large are “systematic anthropomorphism” and serve the function of domesticating the unpredictable, ultimately unknowable world, translating it into something familiar and thereby reducing our anxiety by anchoring us to something relatable.50 As Lyall Watson explains, in modern times, “such anthropomorphism is easy to understand, as it gives the engines which now run much of our lives a reassuringly human face.”51 Given that most of us living in globalized, industrial economies are forced to navigate a system in which the flow of products, information, and capital are far beyond our control or even comprehension, a discourse that personalizes the everyday products of that system may help to bring it all down to scale. If religious traditions historically served to make the world easier to understand through the anthropomorphization of objects, so too does the evangelical rhetoric of consumer culture, which increasingly suggests that every object has a personality and a story to tell. The gods may have changed, but the overriding logic has not.
For Kondo, the organizing function of objects—a kind of domestic jouissance—is key to one’s sense of well-being, as they serve as conduits that connect us to ourselves and the world. The Financial Times describes Kondo as an “intuitive economist” because she offers antidotes to the issues that eat at behavioral scientists, such as status quo bias, opportunity cost, or the problem of diminishing returns.52 Perhaps she is, but the psychology of choice Kondo offers sounds different from anything we might read in a consumer economics textbook.
If she is an intuitive economist, then she is also something of a therapist: “The whole point in both discarding and keeping things is to be happy.”53 Kondo’s method and its legions of followers are situated squarely within what can only be called the happiness trend, a cultural juggernaut too massive to cover adequately here. What’s relevant for our purposes is that KonMari, the personal organization industry—and object acquisition, curation, and storage in general—is one of the more populated lanes in the race to more happiness, wellness, and meaning that is currently underway in the more affluent and aspirational segments of U.S. culture. Proper management of one’s possessions, as we’ve seen in the minimalist movements discussed earlier, is often cast as moral righteousness. Kilroy-Marac explains, “As the visible absence of clutter signals affluence, it may also signal virtue; the two are, in fact, closely intertwined. In the pages of home and lifestyle magazines like Real Simple and in larger public conversations about the merits of moderation, self-regulation, and self-discipline amidst endless possibilities for acquisition and accumulation.”54 She likens the discussion to the contemporary conversation about obesity: “As with talk about thinness versus fatness, talk about the proper and improper accumulation of stuff plays into a ‘virtue discourse’ (Halse 2009); those who consume too much or cannot manage their object worlds are seen as being out of control, lazy, and undisciplined.”55 Connections between discipline, well-being, and happiness pervade the culture right now, as evidenced by the booming popularity of books, wearable devices, and apps, all designed to help us track our exercise, calorie intake, sleep quality, mindfulness, and other good-for-us habits. Kondo even released Life-Changing Magic—A Journal in which to log one’s tidying-up travails, peppered with such Kondoisms as “Letting go is even more important than adding” and “I can think of no greater happiness in life than to be surrounded only by the things I love.”56
This latest instantiation of the quantified self resonates with a long tradition in Western culture. Classical scholars of rhetoric, such as Aristotle and Isocrates, for example, advocate the idea that everyday habits can lead to virtue, which in turn leads to happiness. Likewise, Benjamin Franklin, an ardent habit tracker, charts his progress via a system he created on several behaviors that he thinks contribute to virtues he wants to cultivate in himself: moderation, order, and cleanliness. In fact, Franklin’s famous system is the model for writer Gretchen Rubin, who for her 2009 book The Happiness Project spent a year measuring her progress on twelve measurable goals in various areas (parenting, marriage, self-fulfillment, and so on). Perhaps you’ve heard the anecdote that one key to happiness is to make your bed every day? That comes from Rubin, who parlays that nugget, along with her enthusiastic testimonial about the happiness-generating power of an organized closet, into her second best seller, Happier at Home, which are followed by Better Than Before (2015) and The Four Tendencies (2017), not to mention a variety of happiness-related products such as a Happiness Project journal, coloring book, and a podcast called Happier. Her 2019 best seller, Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness, provides her alternative to the KonMari Method.
As important as discipline is to success with Kondo’s method, she adamantly parts ways with the microhabits strategy advocated by most happiness gurus like Rubin.57 Although Kondo and Rubin agree that clutter (and an unmade bed) is a surefire happiness buster, Kondo rejects the popular notion that meticulously tracked, incremental change is the best path to the good life. Although infused with heavy doses of magical language, Kondo is unyielding in her insistence that tidying up be done in one fell swoop, what she calls a marathon, which may take days or even months. What’s more, it must be done by category, not location. “If you have never succeeded in staying tidy to date, you will find it next to impossible to develop the habit of tidying a little at a time” she writes. “People cannot change their habits without first changing their way of thinking.”58 “The root of the problem lies in the mind,” she writes elsewhere.59 The big purging and organizing marathon Kondo advocates is meant to serve as a kind of reboot for one’s mind, which has been erroneously clinging to objects that no longer serve. Unlike the more neuropsychology-based “habits beget mind-set” strategy, Kondo’s philosophy has more in common with the magical thinking of the law of attraction approach, popularized by the film The Secret (2006), in which one has to first change his or her thinking, or get into the flow, before taking action. Her gentle tone notwithstanding, Kondo is something of an organizing drill sergeant, demanding that readers check sentimentality at the door and follow her model to the letter. One must trust and give oneself over fully to the process in order to realize the life-changing magic of tidying up.
The order in which Kondo’s readers are to tackle the process—clothes, books, papers, miscellany, and mementos—is itself an escalation from those things least likely to inspire emotional attachment to those that will make choosing more difficult. Unused clothing and books, for example, are valued for their as yet unrealized potential. However, although it may be difficult to admit that we’re unlikely to ever wear that trendy dress bought on a whim, or read the book on a topic that no longer interests us, the evidence is right there before our eyes, as these items lie dormant on the shelf or in the closet. Papers and miscellaneous items also hold the value of potential future usefulness, but their utility can be assessed relatively easily. “Starting with mementos,” however, “spells certain failure,” Kondo warns. “Things that bring back memories, such as photos, are not the place for beginners to start.” If one adheres to the prescribed order, however, the psyche will be adequately prepared for the tough stuff later on: “As you gradually work toward the harder categories, you will be honing your decision-making skills,” she assures her readers.60
Throughout Kondo’s rhetoric, we hear the familiar slogan: Be present. An in-this-moment mindfulness is the most powerful weapon against clutter, she tells readers again and again. Although she doesn’t address the extremes of hoarding directly, Kondo’s targets are on the one hand a backward-looking sentimentality, and on the other hand a misguided belief in the utility of stockpiling objects for future use. These twin dragons of nostalgia and potential haunt those who suffer from an incapacitating reluctance to discard. Both have the tendency to take us out of the joyful now and mire us in the dead energy of past regrets or anxieties about the future.
Compared to the calcified stuckness of hoarding, Kondo certainly advocates a more fluid relationship to objects: If it doesn’t spark joy, say thank you, and let it go. Unlike hoarders, who finds that discarding belongings is like losing a bit of themselves, Kondo promises that “truly precious memories will never vanish even if you discard the objects associated with them.” Importantly, she continues, “We live in the present. No matter how wonderful things used to be, we cannot live in the past. The joy and excitement we feel here and now are more important.”61 Releasing those things that no longer serve you allows you to “process your past”: “If you just stow these things away in a drawer or cardboard box, before you realize it, your past will become a weight that holds you back and keeps you from living in the here and now.”62
Kondo is equally adamant that saving things for future use is taxing on the psyche. She tells a story of one of her clients, a young woman she calls M, who was making good progress, having filled thirty bags with items to discard or donate—that is, until her mother came into the room. M’s mother began rummaging through the bags, rescuing items of potential use. Kondo relays the ensuing conversation:
“Oh my, are you going to throw that away?” she said, pointing to a pink yoga mat on top of the pile.
“I haven’t used it in two years.”
“Really? Well, maybe I’ll use it then,” said the mother before collecting a few more things to keep.
Kondo continues, “When the room was quiet again, I sipped my iced tea and asked M, ‘So how often does your mother do yoga?’”
“I’ve never seen her do any.”63
For Kondo, latent potential is useless in this present moment: “I highly recommend that you get rid of excess stock all at once. Give it away to friends who need it, recycle it, or take it to a donation shop. You may think this is a waste of money, but reducing your stock and relieving yourself of the burden of excess is the quickest and most effective way to put your things in order.”64 She tells several stories of clients who have stockpiled massive amounts of things like toilet paper and toothbrushes—more than they could reasonably use. The stories are amusing, but only because her clients don’t seem to exhibit the truly pathological symptoms of those who struggle with hoarding. But their reasons for stocking up are the same: the comfort of feeling that they are prepared, just in case. Kondo argues that such an orientation to the future diminishes one’s happiness in the present: “For people who stockpile, I don’t think there is any amount that would make them feel secure.”65 An Atlantic writer aptly describes her position as a rejoinder to the economic concept of opportunity cost: “The mental and physical toll of keeping an unused item around is greater than throwing it out.”66
The Past and Future Value of Things
At first glance, the KonMari decluttering method may seem to occupy the opposite pole from hoarding if we were to think of the two practices on some sort of linear attachment spectrum, and in many ways it does. However, from a rhetorical perspective—that is, looking at the tropes, or linguistic commonplaces used in the popular conversation surrounding both—it seems that much unites these two responses to the current tsunami of stuff and the clutter it leaves in its wake.
First, as we have seen, the ways practitioners speak of both hoarding and the KonMari Method emphasize a kind of historicity of the object. Hoarders value the object’s role as document, verifying what was. In this, their relation to objects is much like semiotician Roland Barthes’s description of the testimonial power of the photograph: “In photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. . . . Every photograph is a certificate of presence. . . . An emanation of past reality . . . that-has-been.”67 For many of us, a departed loved one’s watch may be as powerful a “certificate of presence” as a snapshot. Hoarders, however, assign meaning almost indiscriminately. All the objects in their lives are afforded this certificate status. Those objects provide the ontological record of a historicity that in turn hoarders come to see as constitutive of themselves. The excess of objects thus serves as an organizing principle that lets them make sense of themselves and to themselves. To remove, recycle, or otherwise dispose of the objects would be akin to purging a treasured memory or amputating a limb. Indeed, Frost and Steketee report “several cases in which hoarders have committed suicide following a forced cleanout” because the person has lost the sense of order their collection provides.68
“Konverts,” in contrast, are encouraged to see objects as only transitory vehicles for history. That is, to prevent stagnation, one should keep the memory and discard the thing: “Just as the word implies, mementos are reminders of a time when these items gave us joy. . . . No matter how wonderful things used to be, we cannot live in the past. The joy and excitement we feel here and now are more important,” writes Kondo.69 Like shrine charms, all things eventually lose their vitality and must be released when they do. But if this seems like a strikingly different approach to the way objects constitute one’s history, it nonetheless hinges on what is only a marginally different approach to historicity itself. Here, as with hoarding, objects are vehicles for history. But unlike hoarders, konverts believe that objects tire, that they have a finite life span, and that their capacity to serve as media for memories is eventually exhausted.
A second dominant set of tropes is future oriented, focusing on the potentiality of objects. As we have seen, many hoarders emphasize the possibility that they may one day have use for the things they save. As Irene describes it, “Life is a river of opportunities. If I don’t grab everything interesting, I’ll lose out. Things will pass me by. The stuff I have is like a river. It flows into my house, and I try to keep it from flowing out. I want to stop it long enough to take advantage of it.”70 Irene sees objects as ripe with possibility, even as they may be literally rotting in the unused piles that litter her home. Readers of Aristotle may be reminded of his theory of forms, suggesting that all things have two dichotomous characteristics. Dunamis (often translated as the Latin potentia) refers to his observation that an object’s full “thinghood”—its potential—is embedded within it. Even if not yet realized, a thing has the power or capacity for change. Energeia (or actualitas in Latin) refers to the drive of all things to actualize themselves, to play out the role their form intends. In ways, some hoarders’ attachment to objects seems overdetermined by their potential to such a degree their actuality may be thwarted as a result.
If life is a river of potential, then for Kondo it’s one that must be allowed to flow freely, not bogged down by an obligation to the past or the future. That said, potentiality does play a large role in the KonMari Method. The value of objects is itself all about their potential to spark joy. Her book is filled with stories of clients who didn’t think a clutter-free, ordered home was possible before devoting themselves to the life-changing magic of KonMari. Although her refrain when it comes to saving things like unread books or unworn clothes is “‘sometime’ means ‘never,’” the real endgame (or telos) of the method is the promise of enjoying, once and for all, the clutter-free life of one’s dreams. Kondo holds up her own life as an aspirational potentiality for readers:
I never tidy my room. Why? Because it is already tidy. . . . I feel happy and content. I have time to experience bliss in my quiet space, where even the air feels fresh and clean; time to sit and sip herbal tea while I reflect on my day. As I look around, my glance falls on a painting that I particularly love, purchased overseas, and a vase of fresh flowers in one corner. Although not large, the space I live in is graced only with those things that speak to my heart. My lifestyle brings me joy. Wouldn’t you like to live this way, too?71
Unlike the rhetoric we hear from hoarders, Kondo discourages readers from getting mired in any one object’s past or future value. Instead, she asks them to evaluate only whether it still has the potential to spark joy. However, she implores them time and again to imagine for themselves a future life in which they are finally in complete control of their material environment.
Like hoarders, however, Kondo invites her followers to connect to objects in a way that for many contemporary consumers must seem meaningful, even spiritual. She affords them a vitality and depth that offer novel patterns of engagement. In this, the KonMari Method also encourages a kind of empathy in overdrive, particularly for those objects still up to the task of sparking joy in an individual.
Tuning into the objects in our lives is, for Kondo, a psychological, even corporeal, experience: “When you touch a piece of clothing, your body reacts. Its response to each item is different. Trust me and try it.”72 As she told an interviewer, “When you touch something that brings you joy, your body, it feels like it rises up, it gives you a really positive vibe. But when you touch something that you no longer need, or you know doesn’t give you a spark of joy, your body actually feels a little bit heavy, and low.”73 In her Netflix show, Kondo demonstrates for Frank and Matt, two young writers, the energy that surges in the body when an object sparks joy. She holds a shirt close to her chest, squeezes her eyes shut and then opens them wide, lifts onto her tiptoes, and makes a delighted “Szhoo!” sound as the two men chuckle and nod. Later Matt explains how he decided to keep a beloved book: “When I hold this I kind of feel this warm sensation, and it’s slowly dawned on me, just like, ‘Oh, this is what you’re supposed to be feeling when you have that spark of joy.’ The ones that I didn’t feel connected to, it was immediately clear that I was ready to let those ones go.”74 Kondo writes that when you’re done with the arduous process of ridding your home of extraneous items and you finally have things neatly organized, “you will feel your heart beat faster and the cells in your body buzz with energy.”75 Even the phrase “sparking joy,” which Kondo uses often, is an English translation of the more visceral Japanese word tokimeku, which means to “flutter, throb, or palpitate.” Only when we surround ourselves with things that literally make our heart sing, she suggests, will we experience the psychic, life-changing magic of tidying up.
The Accursed Share
So what’s going on here? What unites these two seemingly different responses to the problem of overconsumption? To better understand the mainstream repudiation of hoarding on the one hand and the remarkable popularity of the KonMari Method on the other, I turn to Georges Bataille’s influential concept of the accursed share. Bataille’s three-volume treatise, The Accursed Share, written in the 1940s, heavily influenced many late twentieth-century observers of consumer culture, such as Jean Baudrillard and Guy Debord. Bataille proposes that to better understand what he calls the general economy, analysts must look not only at production and scarcity but also at consumption and expenditure. Bataille argues that a society’s processes of consumption, or waste, tell us something important about that society. That is, analyzing what a culture considers luxurious will help us better diagnose the nature of the syndrome. Although we typically think of luxury as that which is exceedingly comfortable or extravagant, luxury is essentially what exceeds necessity. Indeed, the word luxury comes from the Latin luxus, “excess.” For Bataille, the accursed share referred to the excess energy of any system, “the remainder, or irrecuperable difference,” which cannot be easily contained.76
If modern capitalism can give us anything our hearts desire and our wallets can accommodate, it must by definition be producing more than we can possibly consume. As such, the accursed share is both the possibility of and a threat to our socioeconomic structure. For Bataille, the real question for any society is how to manage this excess, to dispel it, so that the rest of the system that benefits from that excess can remain intact.
Bataille suggests that economic systems are defined, at least in part, by their public, rhetorical rituals for managing the dispensation of their surplus. He cites a number of historical examples of these rituals of expenditure. The Aztecs, for example, constructed huge pyramids upon which they sacrificed humans, “so that the sun might eat.”77 Bataille describes, in great detail, the elaborate rituals in which slaves (but also warriors, prisoners of war, lepers, and other victims) were publically sacrificed in a rhetorical display meant to appease the gods. These violences, writes Bataille, “combined in an economy that put nothing in reserve.”78 Even as sacrifice eventually became less brutal—when humans were replaced by the ritualized destruction of animals or plants—it maintained its wasteful character. To simply communally ingest these things as food, say at a ceremonial feast, would not suffice. Bataille writes, “The victim of the sacrifice cannot be consumed in the same way as a motor uses fuel.”79 Consumption of this sort would be too utilitarian, too instrumental to do the rhetorical work of wasting the accursed share—that is, to put on display the distinction between ourselves and that which we discard.
Following Marcel Mauss’s work on gift economies, Bataille, like Mauss, looks to the Pacific Northwest native tradition of the potlatch, a competitive gift-giving ceremony in which material possessions are given away or destroyed. The voluntary dispensing of property in the potlatch puts one’s prestige on display for others. As Bataille writes, “It is the constitution of a positive property of loss—from which springs nobility, honour, and rank in a hierarchy—that gives the institution its significant value.”80
How does the accursed share present itself in today’s consumer-driven economy in what has been called aesthetic capitalism? What public rituals has contemporary capitalism devised to deal with its excess? Understood in this light, KonMari and hoarding represent different sides of the same ritualistic coin. Kondo’s method essentially performs a highly aestheticized ritual of expenditure. She tells her readers that they should tune in to their possessions, take them into their hands, feel their pulsing or withering vitality, and decide whether or not they spark joy. On its face, this is admirable. If we are to stem the tsunami of ostensibly disposable but all too durable goods, we may indeed need to take things more seriously, not less. Perhaps Kondo’s rhetoric may a bit too out there for some, anthropomorphizing inanimate objects as she does, but she does encourage us to pause and consider the role possessions play in our daily lives. The popularity of her approach indicates that many people are hungry for a more meaningful relationship with their stuff. And this is a potentially fruitful avenue to pursue if we are to cultivate a more intentional approach to consumerism.
Ultimately, however, for all her talk about things, Kondo locates all agency in the human subject. Things are important in the KonMari Method, of course, as they are the material means through which we can explore our inner selves and construct a living environment that is attuned to our needs. There is a karmic, mystical quality to Kondo’s discourse that elevates tidying up to a deep, ritualistic dive into one’s psyche. She writes, “While not exactly a meditative state, there are times when I am cleaning that I can quietly commune with myself. The work of carefully considering each object I own to see whether it sparks joy inside me is like conversing with myself through the medium of my possessions.”81 In the KonMari Method, the process of taking your possessions in your hands, one by one, is framed as an occasion for self-exploration. The argument for the therapeutic benefits of tidying one’s home are on full display in her Netflix show, Tidying Up. In one episode, newlyweds Angela and Alishia describe going through the tidying-up process together. Angela: “It was really therapeutic in our relationship.” Alishia: “Look, this’ll change your life, seriously.” Angela adds: “And it’s not just about organization, it’s really a lifestyle change. And it really is therapeutic and it’ll change things in your life.” “Oh, yeah,” Alishia agrees, nodding. In another episode, Margie echoes the spiritual power of the process: “This process has been very therapeutic, I think. In many ways. It’s sort of a rebirth for me.” Margie’s daughter, Lucy, observes after her mom has purged her home of a truckload of old clothes and books, “You can even feel the air and the energy in the rooms has changed.”
Throughout her book, Kondo describes tidying as something of a ceremony, calling it “a special event,”82 a “once-in-a-lifetime task,”83 and “a rite of passage to a new life.”84 She even discourages followers from listening to music to pass the time while tidying, so they can more intimately connect with their things. The whole process should be treated as a sacred ritual. Tellingly, however, Kondo offers almost no specificity about the objects she discusses. We’re given no sense of why, specifically, the beloved painting that she bought overseas gives her joy. We’re told nothing of the material form of the dress she lovingly thanks at the end of the day. Is it the softness of its fabric? The flattering cut? The vibrant color? And when does the joy sparking moment occur? At point of purchase? Over time? Unlike hoarders, Kondo minimizes the role of objects as agents of story, either as mementos or as potentially useful and meaningful, but this resistance to signification does not seem to turn her attention to the material characteristics of the object form itself—at least not in the rhetoric of her massively popular book on the subject.
Perhaps Kondo neglects the material specificities of objects because, as she acknowledges, the discovery of what makes one’s heart palpitate is a highly subjective, one might even say narcissistic, operation. As such, her method offers no mechanism for decision making beyond the vague “does it spark joy” principle. Given that corporations spend billions of dollars each year to make their products and brands do just that, the KonMari model isn’t up to the task of slowing the ebb and flow of objects. Nor, really, is it meant to be. KonMari at its most ideal is a model for curation, not actually a method for addressing consumption per se. An object may thrill me today for reasons as diverse as it reminds me of my grandmother, I believe it is fashionably on trend, or its texture is pleasing to the touch. But given the fickleness of consumer culture, there’s nothing here to stem the almost bulimic process of binging and purging in a never-ending cycle of joyful desire and the inevitable obligation to discard. As with many binaries, the positive term of KonMari (keeping things that give you joy) is ultimately usurped by its negative term (discarding those things that don’t make the cut). The purifying ritual of elimination is KonMari’s defining characteristic.
Indeed, one need only spend a few minutes scanning the tens of thousands of Twitter and Instagram posts (hashtagged #KonMari) to see what really sparks joy in konverts. It is not beloved dresses, heirloom teacups, or cherished teddy bears. Instead, a dominant motif of the various #KonMari feeds are piles of Hefty bags full of unwanted items awaiting disposal—the proud result of a successful purge. And, of course, there are images of thousands of impeccably organized closets, spice racks, and chests of drawers filled with skillfully folded T-shirts and socks. These are the before and after shots of the accursed share dealt with “properly,” with empathy appropriately and ceremoniously reined in, the excesses of consumerism dressed in minimalist garb. Catharsis structures the process of expenditure for the konvert. It is the cleansing and ritualized release that provides excessive consumerism its alibi.
Bataille argues that humans are compelled to consume because it allows them to see themselves more as autonomous subjects than laboring objects at the mercy of an insecure future. “If I am no longer concerned about ‘what will be’ but about ‘what is,’” he writes, “what reason do I have to keep anything in reserve? I can at once, in disorder, make an instantaneous consumption of all that I possess. This useless consumption is what suits me, once my concern for the morrow is removed. And if I thus consume immoderately, I reveal to my fellow beings that which I am intimately: Consumption is the way in which separate beings communicate.”85 Recall Kondo’s admonishment of her clients who stockpile things like toilet paper or toothbrushes. These are people for whom anxieties about the future are precluding their bliss in the current moment. Like potlatch participants who get rid of possessions purely to show they have the ability to do so, Kondo and her followers celebrate less the actual objects they keep than the empowerment they enjoy when discarding the ones they no longer want. It is clear from Kondo’s writings and her Netflix show that this is not the intention. Her rehearsal of gratitude for the discarded objects has genuine potential for inspiring empathy and a new way of engaging with our possessions. But not everyone has the luxury of destroying the accursed share in this way. As many critics have pointed out, it’s easy to keep only those things that spark joy when you have the means to buy what you need when you need it. Other people might, by necessity, keep the tattered sweater missing half its buttons, or the toaster that smokes, or even the thirty rolls of toilet paper bought at a discount that will undoubtedly come in handy one day. One writer zeroes in on the classist nature of the trend, describing her reaction to KonMari as being “like that part in the Hunger Games when Katniss and Peeta are horrified to find that while people are starving in the districts, the people in the Capitol are binging and purging food for kicks.”
Although it’s clearly less violent than human sacrifice, these public customs of tidying up, so enthusiastically shared on social networks, are not so unlike other public rituals for managing the accursed share. The KonMari Method ritualizes, aestheticizes, and even fetishizes disposal. Again and again in her book she notes that “people may call this wasteful, but . . .”86 In the most egregious example of this, she addresses the leftover artifacts of health fads to which readers may have fell victim: “Slimming belts, glass bottles for making kefir, a special blender for making tofu, a weight-loss machine that mimics the movement of horseback riding—it seems a waste to get rid of expensive items like these. . . . But you can let them go. The exhilaration you felt when you bought them is what counts.”87
In the end, in KonMari, the joy seems to lie in getting rid of stuff, not in the items we keep. Marie Kondo, as genuine and lovely as she is, ultimately functions as global capitalism’s Winston Wolfe, the fixer played by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction (1994) who was brought in to expertly clean up the bloody messes left behind by hit men Jules and Vincent. The trouble is, Kondo’s enormously popular method does nothing to stop the Hefty bags from piling up like so many corpses in a Tarantino film. She simply tidies up the scene of the crime, leaving only beautifully organized closets in her wake.
Hoarders, by contrast, represent a different response to overconsumption, one that seemingly fails to manage the excesses of modern consumer capitalism. I suspect that most of us consume too readily, but hoarders have a more difficult time letting go, and the evidence of their attachment is all too obvious. One role that hoarders—especially popular culture’s portrayals of hoarders—play is that of a cautionary tale; they offer examples of excess that allow the rest of us to feel normal. The “scariest reading of [the TV show] ‘Hoarders,’” writes Rob Walker, “is that these freakish piles of stuff it documents simply reflect what plenty of us consume as a matter of course. . . . Our ability to dispose of the evidence properly is what makes us normal.”88 Or, as the show’s producer puts it, “The line between the people on our show, who have very severe cases of the disorder, and, you know, most of the population, is kind of thin.”89
Without minimizing or distracting from the very real psychological causes that might induce hoarding to the point where it harms the hoarder or others, hoarding is worth our attention as an emergent symptom of advanced consumer capitalism. Like the rise of self-storage, extreme couponing, and stockpiling, hoarding suggests one means of responding to the massive onslaught of consumer goods in our everyday lives, as well as the ever-present images and voices imploring us to consume still better, bigger, and cooler stuff. As Kilroy-Marac puts it, “One thing hoarding discourses and images of hoarders might do is show us examples of what’s just too much,” thus allowing us to say, “Oh, we’re okay. I consume in a proper way, [whereas] that’s excessive; that’s pathological.”90 The popular fascination with hoarding may be explained by its role as the excessive alibi, the sign of a truly extreme relationship to objects that the rest of us can point to as counterevidence affirming our own, more moderate choices. Kilroy-Marac writes that hoarding disorder “hinges on stuff, it serves to distinguish supposedly normal late capitalist practices of accumulation, organization, and divestment from pathologized forms of being-with-things.”91 She notes that the disorder may be an example of what Ian Hacking has called “transient mental illness,” in that it emerges within a population within an “ecological niche.”92 In this way, we might see hoarding as one of the many manifestations of this particular moment in aesthetic capitalism. As Steketee suggests, “People hoard for the same reasons that everyone saves their stuff, just more so.”93 The disorder afflicts individual people, but it is also a symptom of the systemic ecological niche that dominates much of the industrialized world.
Jane Bennett writes, “Perhaps hoarding is the madness appropriate to us, to a political economy devoted to consumption, planned obsolescence, planned extraction of natural resources, and mountains of discarded waste.”94 The kind of behavior portrayed on shows like Hoarders (2009–13) and Hoarding: Buried Alive (2010–14) is certainly extreme, and many people have rightly questioned the ethics of exploiting mental illness for entertainment. But when we look at the way hoarders talk about their relationship to their possessions, we see that several themes overlap with those expressed in everyday discourse. By foregrounding the complicated relationship between people and things, hoarding tells us something important about where we find ourselves at this stage of globalized, mass-produced consumer culture. With so much stuff on offer, it becomes difficult to moor oneself, to decide how much is enough, and to figure out what has meaning and what does not. As neuropsychology is increasingly demonstrating, hoarders’ brains may be predisposed to an overattachment to things. But just because they may be the most vulnerable among us doesn’t mean we aren’t all subjected to the cultural conditions from which hoarding emerges. Put differently, hoarding tendencies may or may not be a modern phenomenon. Maybe they’ve always been there in a small handful of the population. But never before has there been such a plethora of things to acquire, and with such ease. Hoarders may be the canaries, but we are all just trying to find our way through the coal mine.
Ultimately, hoarders may be both an object of popular fascination and revulsion because they fail to adequately dispense with the accursed share. For the system to work, the excesses of consumer capitalism are supposed to go away, out of sight and out of mind. But hoarders essentially allow the landfill to take over the living room by refusing to destroy the evidence of acquisition gone awry. In fact, those cable TV shows devoted to hoarding nearly always end the same way: the hoarder is brought in line, and her home is normalized, often at great emotional cost. Indeed, the before and after shots, a staple of cable television, are essential to the narrative of a successful makeover, as they assure viewers that after a temporary deviance, all is again right in the world. If KonMari is defined by the cathartic purge, then hoarding is defined by disordered attachment, which is powered by empathy in overdrive for the objects that might otherwise make up the accursed share. Here it is cathexis, or the concentration of emotion, that threatens to disrupt the supposedly appropriate flow of objects: from factory to store to home to landfill.
While I acknowledge that hoarders exhibit a level of attachment that few of us likely aspire to, I want to suggest that much might be gained if more of us were to slow the purging impulse. Most depictions of hoarders in popular culture invite us to gawk at the pure oddity of the practice: “I just don’t understand how someone could live like that!” But researchers who are starting to understand hoarders describe them with tremendous compassion and even a degree of awe. Studies consistently suggest that hoarders are intensely observant of the unique and detailed qualities of objects; they often see them as nodes of connection and meaning within a larger network of humans and the rest of the material world. Again, their affliction has been described as a kind of empathy in overdrive. Merriam Webster’s dictionary offers two definitions of the word empathy, both of which are instructive here. First, empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” Perhaps we don’t have to fully understand hoarding in order to be sensitive to the plight of hoarders and perhaps listen more empathetically to what they have to tell us. But more to our point, empathy also means “the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.”95 This is the type of empathy that researchers tell us hoarders have in abundance, but that is a woefully scarce resource in our current mode of consumer culture. It may be that we care both too little and too much for the objects that surround us. We turn them into tokens, tools, or totems, always with the expectation that they are to do our bidding and are then expected to disappear when they are no longer useful or delightful. Empathy may be one step toward interrupting the dual fantasies that we are fully ever in control and that durable goods ever really disappear.
In the following chapter, we will visit what may be an unlikely, but familiar place: your local Target store. Target markets its objects as useful and delightful; it strives to create that joy-sparking attraction many consumers seek. As a so-called fast-design retailer, Target offers little in terms of slowing down the consumption–disposal cycle. However, Target’s decisive emphasis on design contributes to a mainstreaming of interest in and awareness of the material and formal components of objects. Although not sufficient in itself, awareness is an important first step in opening up our perception of the manufactured world, thereby potentially providing insight into the ways objects and meaning are made.