The other day, a post at Tenured Radical discussed a book about "Decluttering". It got me thinking about my relationship with messiness. I find the "clutter" rhetoric interesting - there are quite a few of these books around, there was a NYTimes profile the other day of a woman who people pay thousands of dollars to in order to help them declutter, and I've seen tv shows like Hoarders.
I'm conflicted about it because yes, I buy crap I don't need, but there are scales to judge household clutter and apparently I don't even rate as problematic! There is actually a National Study Group on Chronic Disorganisation, you can download their clutter scale and test yourself (hint: apparently if you don't have appliances piled up outside your house and pet faeces on the floor, you're doing ok).
Of course there's a gender dimension here. My lousy housekeeping is a negative reflection on me, in the way that it would not be of a man. Through commodification (and fetishisation) of "nest" culture - and the Martha Stewartisation of domestic culture, this has become another area in which women compete with one another. Of course, it always was, among houseproud housewives. But it seems like there was a period in which feminism to some meant abandoning household drudge work, throwing that apron on the floor, saying "to hell with this" and ordering a pizza. Now I feel under pressure to not only perform but enjoy various domestic tasks.
Adhering to the declutter ideal means that in fact we churn through an ever more rapid acquisition/use/disposal cycle - is it any wonder some of us are stuck in the middle? Just throwing perfectly good things away seems wasteful. At the same time, things are built to be expendable. Repair a household appliance? Given that I can buy a new toaster for $20, I'm not spending more than that to get someone else to fix it. So in the trash it goes.
It's not very environmental, either. I currently have two old laptops sitting in my office. They don't work, but I'm not sure about just slinging them in the skip at the back of my building. Is that what people do? I suppose so (I've never thrown away a mobile phone either...)
The declutter culture reduces items to their utility, rather than sentimental or other value. Of course, consumerism compels us to acquire so much stuff. But is it also something to do with social atomisation, that as we live more transitory lives (are you living in the same town where you were born?), are separated from older forms of community, that we imbue greater value to - and derive more of our identity from - the items we own, the things we can keep. Even the concept of self-storage is something that has emerged within the last 30 years. We have SO MUCH STUFF that it no longer fits in our houses, so we have to pay rent for our possessions to have their own space somewhere else.
The decluttered house, its austerely ascetic image featured in various nest magazines, is in fact a false image if it is only provided by rapid filling and emptying of trash cans, and the space to have a huge attic, or off-site warehouse space. It is in this way that clutter is also a class issue. Overconsumption of junk (or rather HOLDING onto that junk) is viewed in the same way as holding onto a few extra pounds around the hips, with the same sanctimonious pathologising.