Marie Kondo and the Culture of Austere Authenticity

I’ve been reading Marie Kondo’s book on decluttering your home. (I had to return it to the library before I finished, but by that point I had quite finished with it.) Some of the advice, like clean out like things, which entails pulling them all out and putting them together is actually smart. It means you aren’t doing the job in piecemeal fashion. So too is her advice to start with clothes first fairly astute; clothes are perhaps the most disposable item most people own and the least likely to have emotional attachment, unless you’re me, because I can frequently remember how I felt when I purchased something or wore it at a particularly time. Nonetheless, if you’re doing a full clean out of every corner of your house, starting with memorabilia will just slow you down, if speed and doing the whole house in a week is what you’re going for. I used her method for my annual closet clean out, and it was faster and allowed me to reorganize well enough that I don’t have anything in the guest bedroom closet any more.

Yet, much of her advice seems odd. I get the idea of being appreciative of being able to acquire items, but thanking those items individually before you get rid of them seems a bit too much. So too her praising of clients for discarding numerous trash bags full of things–where do these things go? I donate everything I can, recycle the rest, and sell some things too. I hate the idea of anything that can be reused ending up in a landfill. As the daughter of a jeweler, the granddaughter of a jeweler and an industrial sewing machine repairman, and the granddaughter of a pack rat (my maternal grandmother kept boxes long after the thing that came in the box had been discarded) and a crafter (my paternal grandmother made things out of old costume jewelry and neck ties), keeping things is a part of my DNA that I have to fight against. Especially since my memory works in such a way that I do attach emotion to object. I feel bad recycling birthday cards. I actually took all the old Christmas cards I had and turned them into a Christmas collage because I didn’t want to get rid of them. Cleaning out means me actively going you’ll never reuse, repair, or somehow make this thing useful because my grandfathers kept everything on the off chance it could be used to fix something else down the line.

Her attitude towards books and paper is also deeply disturbing to an academic. I don’t keep bills and the like, but my life is about paper objects. You don’t store books on a closet shelf just because they make your space look cluttered. (They only do so for people who don’t love books, I suppose.) And her point about you learning everything from a book when you’ve read it the first time is absurd. (She suggests getting rid of books after they’v e been read.) Re-reading always brings new knowledge. I love re-reading a book that has given me pleasure. I have several books I re-read every year because they make me feel loving towards the world. I may eventually have to buy new copies of these beloved and now somewhat battered tomes. I do regularly clean out my books too, but the ones I keep are friends and places I can dip back into for solace and knowledge. Even touching one can bring me back to a particular memory or emotion.

Well into the odd section on storage–where admittedly her sock folding advice works–I realized what my issue with the MariKondo method happened to be. Her odd style of discourse couldn’t hide a deep sense of smugness. It’s the smugness of juice cleanse acolytes or people who give up sugar or who go gluten free for reasons that have nothing to do with their health or the health of a family member. (I know a lot of people with celiac or gluten intolerance/allergies. None of them speak of giving up gluten as anything but a major lifestyle change that involves constant and tiring policing of food products. To be truly gluten free requires you to constantly educated those around you, including recalcitrant family members, or do all the cooking yourself.) It’s the idea of making austere choices in lifestyle, purifying your body of toxins (which is what your body’s systems do already), cleansing your life of all unnecessary things. It’s a smugness that cloaks itself in the discourse of health and mindfulness. It’s the same line as Elizabeth Cline discussed her work on fast fashion and why people find Gwyneth Paltrow’s goop annoying. It’s a position only possible if you’re really wealthy. A juice cleanse is ridiculously expensive, well more for three days for one person than you’d spend on groceries for two for the week. While the MariKondo method doesn’t advocate buying anything, (she even advocates reusing shoe boxes) it has the same tone of austerity that in effect masks great luxury. At a certain income bracket, you can get rid of everything but those few items that beautify your life because you can just buy more stuff. Working class people hold on to things because, like my grandparents, you never know how that thing you kept could help you out and thus save you money.

All of my grandparents lived through the Great Depression. They understood what having nothing looked like. Keeping stuff meant you never had to go without something. It’s the same rhetoric used against poor people–look at their supposed excesses, they buy luxury items with their welfare, etc. etc. All of it part of this post recession discourse that if you simply controlled your appetites, your consumption (both food and otherwise), you could lift yourself up out of whatever–poverty, depression, overconsumption. Your life would look perfect. You’d only buy perfect items that you could look up to, like an aesthete buying the perfect tea pot as a representation of the exquisitely designed artistic life. Buy authentic, hand crafted things versus the mass produced stuff you get at Walmart that realistically, working class people buy because they have to. It inherently denigrates working class habits and lifestyle. Only consume cult, high quality TV, not NCIS. White bread is bad, whole grains only and really no wheat. Seasonal fruit, etc. etc. I like seasonal fruit, mostly because it means I get cherries, but I’m under no illusion that seasonal only is reasonable for most people. Things and consumption habits do not make an authentic life. You can make your house look a certain way, dress a certain way, and maybe that brings you joy. I know fashion does make me happy, and I like my home feeling homey. But those things don’t make life more authentic. Connections, people, family, ideas, loving, joy, sadness, experiencing your life, no matter what your class position, that makes life authentic.

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