Clutter is good for you

Be careful what you purge. Today’s decluttering victim is tomorrow’s lost object, and lost objects are forever

By Rob Walker

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Published: Wed 4 Jan 2023, 8:09 PM

Last updated: Wed 4 Jan 2023, 8:13 PM

Several years before she died, my mother began sending me things — ostensibly significant objects. These included expected items like jewellery and photographs and also puzzling ones. For example, one afternoon I opened a package containing a carefully wrapped eight-inch-tall ceramic leprechaun that I don’t recall ever having seen. (My family has no connection to Ireland.) Not long after, she announced that she wanted to send along her collection of bird figurines, in which I had never expressed any special interest.

Clearly this was no longer about handing down heirlooms. It was about getting rid of objects — basically, a form of decluttering. I had to put a stop to it, and not just because these objects didn’t actually mean anything to me. Much more important: They did mean something to her. In fact, what I most enjoyed about her accumulation of bird figurines and ceramics and sand dollars from Texas beaches was her enjoyment of these things. Her un-self-conscious confidence about what she liked was one of her most admirable traits. So I persuaded her not only to keep her figurines but also to let herself continue to appreciate their presence. Because ultimately my mother’s urge to purge struck me as illuminating something misguided about our general relationship to material culture. In short: What we often dismiss as “clutter” — all those non-essential, often oddball objects that a third-party observer might write off as needless junk — can actually be good for us.

The villainisation of clutter has perhaps been most insistently pushed by the “tidying up” guru Marie Kondo. Its latest iteration pairs a yearning to neaten up pandemic cocoons with a trendy take on minimalism that equates the blank-space aesthetic with mindful sophistication. But the underlying vibe is a suspiciously familiar one. Yet again, minimalist scolds insist that we should repent of our materialist ways: Things, they are forever lecturing, just aren’t that important.

It seems hard to disagree. Yet it’s also hard to square that pronouncement with, to pick a recent example, the frenzy of attention around the auction of Joan Didion’s personal effects — which in addition to books and artworks included a box of loose buttons, a bunch of seashells and pebbles, a “miscellaneous group of eyewear,” and other items that one bluntly described as “junk,” and that even the auction house called ephemera.” The highbrow musing around this focused almost exclusively on the high prices fetched $10,000 for the collection of specs, $27,000 for a single pair of Celine Dion sunglasses or the possible motives of those who paid them. But what we might reflect on instead is the fact that she kept this stuff in the first place. Nobody demanded to know why Didion didn’t declutter — whether, say, all those paperweights (there were at least five) truly “sparked joy.”

There is, it turns out, a counter to the decluttering imperative — inevitably given the unattractive label — that frankly celebrates the human relationship to stuff. Search YouTube and you’ll find video tours of (mostly young) people’s extensive and colourful collections of stuffed toys, figurines, gewgaws and knickknacks. TikTok clips tagged #cluttercore, sharing what the home-design site Apartment Therapy described as “organized, nostalgic chaos,” have more than 80 million views.

As one cluttercore advocate argued to Architectural Digest, social media has fostered aesthetics that tend toward the neutral, the acceptable, the blandly, conformingly tasteful: an endless series of unobjectionable tidy backdrops “devoid of personal style.” Cluttercore, in contrast, wholly depends on idiosyncratic personality and rarefied interests, and thus “celebrates radical individuality.” In an era when imitation is everywhere, Architectural Digest asserted, so-called clutter represents something that “can’t be duplicated.”

Admittedly, some iterations of cluttercore verge on a candy-coloured version of straight-up hoarding, and obviously I am not defending mindless accumulation any more than a craft cocktail aficionado would defend binge drinking. But the point about individuality not only rings true; it hints at the reasons the instinct to appreciate clutter is correct, natural and frequently underrated.

The anti-clutter nags conflate two distinct forms of materialism. In behavioural psychology terms, “terminal materialism” refers to acquiring and valuing an object purely for its intrinsic properties — like a fancy new iPhone (that will inevitably become obsolete). The worthless-looking junk we hang on to often exemplifies instrumental materialism, valued for its connection to another person, a place, a time in our lives, a meaningful affiliation. These can take obvious forms — a wedding ring, a crucifix. But they can also be as eccentric and inscrutable as an abundance of paperweights or a ceramic leprechaun.

The objects one keeps close at hand “create permanence in the intimate life of a person,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who became known for the concept of “flow,” and the sociologist Eugene Rochberg-Halton wrote years ago in “The Meaning of Things,” an early, seminal dive into the psychology of materialism, “and therefore that are most involved in making up his or her identity.”

Their conclusions were based on surveying 82 families about a total of 1,694 meaningful domestic objects. “We found that things are cherished not because of the material comfort they provide,” they wrote, “but for the information they convey about the owner and his or her ties to others.” Moreover: “We began to notice that people who denied meanings to objects also lacked any close network of human relationships.”

That is not, of course, to suggest that minimalists are inhuman or that true connection depends on material totems. But these personal links between meaning and objects certainly challenge the familiar critique that material attachment is a function of hollow status signalling. Describing cluttercore as something for “those who have loads of items that each hold their own story,” Apartment Therapy added the crucial point that this means “things they love, no matter how wacky, minuscule, or unimportant it may seem to someone on the outside.” We might imagine an audience, however intimate, for the stories our clutter tells. But really, these are stories we’re telling ourselves.

And that’s fine — or more than fine. Because the objects you already own are much more likely to be interwoven with the people and experiences that give life meaning. That’s why your weird old clutter is probably more important than whatever It-object innovation you might acquire next. (Often, I suspect, the “decluttering” minimalist directive is actually a stealthy terminal-materialist argument that you need to clear out yesterday’s trendy, influencer-hyped joy-flops … so you can make room for tomorrow’s.)

More to the point, as I argued to my mother, nobody else will ever enjoy your clutter quite the way you do. For nearly a decade, I’ve taught an annual workshop on writing about objects for the design research department of New York’s School of Visual Arts. Scores of participants from around the world have invariably chosen subject-objects that most of us might dismiss as clutter — a coffee mug, a lighter, a poodle-shaped stick pin — and yet the tales they tell about them are deeply meaningful and serve as a helpful way for the students to introduce themselves.

More recently, I worked with the author and editor Joshua Glenn to explore his interest in a material culture category that doesn’t get much attention but offers a different take on decluttering: the meaning of objects we used to own. Specifically, we asked various writers and artists to tell us about the things they had lost — misplaced, broken, had stolen, thrown out, given away. A few even described willfully getting rid of stuff — a pair of walking shoes, a piece of macramé art, a Dodge Dart — only to long to see it again, or at least to lament the loss of the time it represented. In almost every scenario, nothing clarifies the instrumental value of an object more thoroughly than its definitive disappearance.

I’m sure you can think of a personal example: an object that’s gone missing from your life that you’d love to have back, or at least see again. But I wonder — would you have known, when this thing went AWOL, that you’d miss it? If my mother had shipped her bird figurine collection off to me, would she have glanced wistfully at the empty spots on the shelves where they were displayed?

I can only speculate. But the lesson I’ve taken is: Be careful what you purge. Today’s decluttering victim is tomorrow’s lost object, and lost objects are forever. That’s why I’m keeping my embarrassing ceramic leprechaun. I’m learning to appreciate it. It holds a connection for me — to my mother and to all her best intentions and instincts — that I never want to lose.

– This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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