I poke at the essay “The empty promises of Marie Kondo and the craze for minimalism”

I am on a weekly blogging schedule, and the essay “The empty promises of Marie Kondo and the craze for minimalism” seems like just the kind of thing I’ll enjoy poking.

Yes, I disagree with the main premise – that the KonMari Method or that ‘minimalism’ offers empty promises, especially since I think going through the KonMari method in my own home delivered everything that Marie Kondo promised. Yes, I am going to be very critical. Yet I am going to be critical with smiles and giggles, not with screaming and raging.

First of all, I agree with the hosts of the Spark Joy podcast that “Konmari equals minimalism/minimalism is KonMari” is a myth. KonMari and minimalism can definitely complement each other, but I have found many examples of minimalists who have broken some or even all of the core tenets of Marie Kondo’s philosophy, and there are people who faithfully follow all of the steps of the Konmari method who aren’t minimalists. Heck, I have a blog post about one of the philosophical differences between the Konmari method and minimalism. There is also this discussion of how they are different. It’s not just KonMari fans who say KonMari isn’t the same a minimalism; there are also many minimalists who say that KonMari isn’t minimalism (example). This essay in the Guardian, on the other hand, tends to conflate the Konmari method and minimalism. To mean, that weakens its arguments.

As I said in that previous blog post, I neither claim to be a minimalist nor claim to be a non-minimalist. You, my dear readers, may decide whether or not I am a minimalist; I’ll accept your judgement.

Now, to quote the essay in the guardian:

What the bloggers collectively called minimalism amounted to a kind of enlightened simplicity, a moral message combined with a particularly austere visual style. This style was displayed primarily on Instagram and Pinterest. Certain hallmarks of minimalist imagery emerged: clean white subway tiles, furniture in the style of Scandinavian midcentury modern, and clothing made of organic fabrics from brands that promised you would only ever need to buy one of each piece. Next to the products were monochromatic memes with slogans such as “Own less stuff. Find more purpose.” The trend wasn’t as subtle as its name suggested; minimalism was a brand to identify with as much as a way of coping with mess.

Okay, by this standard (which I know is a standard which many minimalists would not accept), I am definitely not a minimalist. I don’t attach a moral value to how much material stuff someone has, except in cases so extreme that the quantity (high or low) of stuff is obviously causing harm. And even in those cases, there is often a mental illness or some other factor which is not entirely under one’s control, so I would be cautious about moral judgement. I neither have nor want white subway tiles in my home. I neither have nor want Scandinavian midcentury modern furniture. I admit that I do have some clothing made of organic fabrics, though none of it came from brands which promise that I will only ever need to buy one of each piece – on the contrary, the brands I’ve bought organic fabrics from encourage buying multiples of the same item. I do agree that some people treat minimalism as brand to identify with; I don’t have a problem with that.

Also the essay features as its prime example the story of someone called Sonrisa Andersen who … is really happy with how minimalism has changed her life and worldview. Not someone I would pick to support the premise that minimalism and/or Marie Kondo offers ’empty promises’.

Another paragraph from the essay:

Yet my gut reaction to Kondo and the Minimalists was that it all seemed a little too convenient: just sort through your house or listen to a podcast, and happiness, satisfaction and peace of mind could all be yours. It was a blanket solution so vague that it could be applied to anyone and anything. You could use the Kondo method for your closet, your Facebook account or your boyfriend. Minimalism also seemed sometimes to be a form of individualism, an excuse to put yourself first by thinking, I shouldn’t have to deal with this person, place or thing because it doesn’t fit within my worldview. On an economic level, it was a commandment to live safely within your means versus pursuing dreamy aspirations or taking a leap of faith – not a particularly inspiring doctrine.

There is so much I disagree with here. And I can’t resist telling you what I disagree with, because keeping my thoughts to myself would be no fun.

First of all, I can tell just based on the first sentence, that the writer of this essay has never completed a full KonMari tidying festival. (Okay, technically, it might be the first impression of someone ~before~ they do a full KonMari tidying festival which they have updated at a later time … but I doubt that’s the case here). I have, and I would never describe it as ‘convenient’ let alone ‘too convenient’. Neither would just about anyone else I know about who has experienced a full KonMari tidying festival. We tend to describe the experience as ‘intense’ and ‘exhausting’, compare them to marathons, and say things like ‘I never want to go through this event at this intensity again in my life’. This is one of the main reasons I do not recommend the KonMari method for everyone – I think it is too demanding for some people in some circumstances.

Since I deleted my Facebook account a long time ago (and I never used Facebook much anyway), and I have never had a boyfriend, I have no comment on how the KonMari method and/or minimalism can apply to those. However, the fact that these principles can be applied to multiple facets of one’s life is, in my opinion, makes them more useful.

I do agree that both the KonMari method and minimalism can be regarded as forms of individualism, and that at least the KonMari method (I would not necessarily say the same about minimalism) encourages you to put yourself first. But I disagree with the characterization “I shouldn’t have to deal with this person, place or thing because it doesn’t fit within my worldview”. Marie Kondo’s books put a strong emphasis on both putting your needs first and taking personal responsibility. She says to concern yourself with tidying yourself, not with tidying others, which includes not making other people tidy up your mess. Given that in many households there is a very gendered division of labor, with most of the tidying work falling on the female household member(s), this is a feminist message (more details in this essay). To quote The Life Changing Magic of Tidying-Up “Don’t force people to tidy if they don’t want to. Only when we accept unconditionally people whose values differ from our own can we really say that we have finished tidying.” There is also a section in her second book about how we need to learn to tolerate the belongings of other member of the household, even if their belongings do not spark joy for us, and in the first book she makes it clear that we should never discard someone else’s possessions without their consent. This does not reflect a sentiment of “I shouldn’t have to deal with this person, place or thing because it doesn’t fit within my worldview.”

And I think “a commandment to live safely within your means versus pursuing dreamy aspirations or taking a leap of faith” flies in the face of the KonMari method. Like most people, the writer of this essay ignores that one of the key steps is imagining one’s ideal lifestyle, which is definitely a call to pursue dreamy aspirations and, for most people (including me) requires a leap of faith. For some people, it also requires taking significant economic risk. I would even say that attempting something as ambitious as a full KonMari tidying event requires some kind of leap of faith (and I know I’m not the only one who has said this).

One (or really two) of the minimalists this essay refers the most are Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus a.k.a. The Minimalists. I’ve read the book Everything That Remains and a few of their essays, but I’ve never listened to their podcasts or read their other books. To be honest, aside from a few highlights, I’m not impressed with their work. I don’t understand why they are so popular. Yet I don’t mind that they are popular. I don’t have any strong disagreements with their core philosophy.

However, I am seriously doubting that the writer of this essay read Everything That Remains, since according to the book, Joshua Fields Millburn was ordered to make a list of IIRC fifty employees to lay off, and he decided to put his name on the list. He did not have any other job or reliable source of income lined up when he made that choice, and IIRC he still was paying off old debts. If the writer of the essay in the Guardian considers that to be safely living within ones means, or refusing to take a leap of faith on an economic level, then he clearly does not understand what it is like to leave a job when one has dubious economic prospects and debt. IIRC, Millburn also decided to put his name on the lists of employees to be laid off because he did not think he was any more deserving of economic security than other employees at the company, and some of the other employees may have had even worse economic prospects than himself. This may be individualism, but it is an individualism which considers the well-being of other people.

I did find myself nodding in agreement with the part about minimalism in history. I especially agree with this paragraph:

Dissatisfaction with materialism and the usual rewards of society is not new, but minimalism is not an idea with a straightforward chronological history. It is more like a feeling that repeats in different times and places around the world. It is defined by the sense that the surrounding civilisation is excessive, and has thus lost some kind of original authenticity, which must be regained. The material world holds less meaning in these moments, and so accumulating more stuff loses its appeal.

Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve had similar thoughts myself.

Now back to the essay in the Guardian…

Through books, podcasts and designed objects, the idea of minimalism itself has also been commodified.

I agree, though I think it possible to embrace minimalism without embracing the commodification. And I think the commodification is, to some extent, a result of how our political-economic system is organized, and that it would be difficult for minimalism and/or the KonMari philosophy to be popular without being commodified.

After all of this agreement, I need to find something I disagree with.

Unless you are wealthy or creative enough to afford a lot of space, there are two responses to living in New York: one is overstuffing a tiny space that eventually becomes unbearable, the other is living like a minimalist. Without basements, spare closets or extra rooms to stash stuff in, you are always Kondoing.

Err, really? How does living in a small physical space make it necessary to create a vision of one’s ideal lifestyle? Because, you know, that’s an essential element of ‘Kondoing’. Though I’ve spent most of my life living in a house with a basement, when I was living in Taiwan, I didn’t have have a basement, spare closet, or extra room, and it certainly did not compel me to imagine my ideal lifestyle.

I will concede that living in smaller did make me more careful about the quantity of stuff I collected, but that’s not the same thing as ‘Kondoing’ actually no, because I never came close to using my maximum storage space. Even during those months I was living in Taipei in a room that was only about 50 square feet, I never used all of my physical storage space – I could have brought in more stuff without overstuffing the room. The real limitation was that I knew I would probably move back to the United States and transporting stuff across the Pacific Ocean is expensive.

Kondo promises the illusion of choice. You decide what stays in your house, but she tells you exactly how it should be folded, stored and displayed – in other words, how you should relate to it.

Ummm, I don’t think this is an ‘illusion’, I think this is real choice. Deciding what stays in one’s home is important and real. And she actually does give considerable latitude in how to store and display one’s goods. Her folding method is very specific – but seriously, anyone can choose to ignore that. I use her folding method for my clothes (except the clothes that I hang, which is about half of my clothing), but I don’t use her folding method for my tarps/tents. So far she hasn’t come to me home telling me I’m doing it wrong. Kristen Ivey said in one of the Spark Joy podcasts (I forget which one) that, even though she is a KonMari superfan and a KonMari consultant, she only follows about 95% of Marie Kondo’s advice. I have yet to encounter anyone who follows 100% of what Marie Kondo advises in her books, and I don’t think even Marie Kondo herself expects people to adhere to 100% of her suggestions 100% of the time.

Also, I looked at the six basic rules again, and could not find any mention of ~how~ to fold, store, or display anything, just an emphatic exhortation not to think about storage solutions until discarding is finished. One could totally follow all six of these rules and fold, store, and display items in pretty much any way.

KonMari might be vaguely anti-capitalist, but then there is the fact that you have to buy a suite of Kondo books to practise it.

No you don’t. I haven’t bought a single one of her books, I borrowed them all from the library. And I’ve never had Netflix, so I haven’t seen the TV show or financially supported it in any way. (And to be honest, I don’t think Marie Kondo is anti-capitalist at all, as far as I can tell her philosophy is completely compatible with capitalism, though I think it would also be compatible with non-capitalist economic systems).

The literature of the minimalist lifestyle is an exercise in banality. It is saccharine and predigested, presented as self-help as much as a practical how-to guide. Each book contains an easy structure of epiphany and aftermath, recounting the crisis that leads its author to minimalism, the minimalist metamorphosis and then the positive ways the author’s life changed.

Wow. I actually agree with this. I think this is why I got tired of reading minimalism books.

But as Kondo conceives it, it is also a one-size-fits-all process that has a way of homogenising homes and erasing traces of personality or quirkiness, like the sprawling collection of Christmas decorations that one woman on the Netflix show was forced to decimate over the course of an episode. The overflow of nutcrackers and tinsel was a clear problem (as was her husband’s piles of baseball cards), but with their absence the home was sanitised and homogenised. Minimalist cleanliness is the state of acceptable normalcy that everyone must adhere to, no matter how boring it looks.

Like I said, I never saw the NetFlix show, but based on what I’ve read in Marie Kondo’s books, I’d be really surprised if she forced someone to decimate a sprawling collection of Christmas decorations, especially given that, as I mentioned earlier, she says it is very bad to discard someone else’s items without their consent. So, if you have seen the show, could you leave a comment telling me: Does Marie Kondo force someone to decimate a sprawling collection of Christmas decorations? Or does someone else do the forcing? Or does the owner of the Christmas decorations choose to decimate them of their own free will? Or none of the above?

Since I haven’t seen the show, I don’t know whether or not their home was homogenised. However, I disagree with the characterization that KonMari philosophy ~or~ minimalism means “the state of acceptable normalcy that everyone must adhere to, no matter how boring it looks.” I definitely do not think my post-KonMari tidying room looks boring (though I hope it’s clean … it’s at least clean-ish) and it also looks different from many other post-KonMari and ‘minimalist’ rooms. Rather than considering it a specific style, I consider the KonMari method a tool to more fully express my own style, which of course is going to be different from other people’s styles, even other people who have also used the KonMari method. Heck, in my opinion, my room looked more boring *before* I went through the KonMari method.

Similarly, we might be able to hold the iPhone in our hands, but we should also be aware that the network of its consequences is vast: server farms absorbing massive amounts of electricity, Chinese factories where workers die by suicide, devastated mud pit mines that produce tin. It is easy to feel like a minimalist when you can order food, summon a car or rent a room using a single brick of steel and silicon. But in reality, it is the opposite. We are taking advantage of a maximalist assemblage.

Actually, my experience is that minimalists pay a lot more attention to environmental and social impacts of their consumption than most consumers, and most minimalists will admit that they are still part of the political-economic system which promotes such environmental and social ills. I don’t see how minimalism contributes to these problems; if anything, I think minimalism is probably bringing us closer to reckoning with these environmental and social impacts.

Also, I have never owned an iPhone or any other smartphone, I only order food using an electronic device if I’m at some eatery which requires customers to interact with an electronic device (provided by the eatery, not me), I have only summoned cars using my voice and hand gestures (I call it ‘hailing a taxi’ or ‘hitchhiking’ depending on the situation), and I’ve rented many rooms in my life by talking face to face with a manager or talking to them with a landline phone. So if the essayist is trying to claim that only people who use smartphones to do these things are minimalists, I’m clearly not a minimalist, and if he’s claiming that minimalism is bad because minimalisms use smartphones, uh, I think there are a lot of non-minimalists who also use smartphones…

I deleted my Facebook account a long time ago, I’ve never had a Twitter account, I’ve never had a smartphone, I’ve never had subscription to Netflix or any other streaming service, I don’t even understand how Pinterest or Instagram work let alone spend any time on those websites … gee, it’s almost as if I’ve made my own kind of minimalism. It’s as if, rather than being some homogenous lifestyle, different minimalists choose to minimal in different ways. Or maybe, because I don’t fit the profile of the minimalist this article is creating, I’m not a minimalist after all. Like I said, I’m fine with either being labelled as a ‘minimalist’ or a ‘non-minimalist’ *giggle*

***

I wrote the first draft of this blog post before I realized it’s adapted from a book which will soon be published.

First of all, given that the writer claims that merely writing a book about one’s ideas and selling it means that something is commodified, well, he is also commodifying his ideas. I understand that he is also part of the political-economic forces which pushes people to commodify things to make a living, and I hope that, given that he is doing it too he fully appreciates why other people commodify ideas by writing books about them and selling them. And even if the writer himself has not thought this through, I bet some of the people working for the publisher have calculated that this book will sell more copies and make more money because it is about a popular cultural phenomenon.

Also … my biggest objection to this article is not the opinions so say as the strawmanning. He misrepresents what Marie Kondo and the Minimalists actually say in their writings. If he were just a casual essayist who had no expertise on the subject, some degree of misunderstanding would be understandable. But given that he has written a whole book about the cultural relevance of minimalism and presumably done research … and he still claims that the KonMari method is “a commandment to live safely within your means versus pursuing dreamy aspirations or taking a leap of faith” when the second rule (of of just six) is to imagine one’s ideal lifestyle??!! That’s a major misreading.

And the thing is, I really would like to read a book which explores the cultural phenomenon of minimalism and KonMari and decluttering and organizing and other related concepts and puts them into historical perspective. But because this writer misrepresents what Marie Kondo and the Minimalists say, I don’t think I can trust him to fairly represent other thinkers in his book. Which is a pity, and why it turns out I’m not ending this post with smiles and giggles after all.

2 thoughts on “I poke at the essay “The empty promises of Marie Kondo and the craze for minimalism”

  1. So, if you have seen the show, could you leave a comment telling me: Does Marie Kondo force someone to decimate a sprawling collection of Christmas decorations? Or does someone else do the forcing? Or does the owner of the Christmas decorations choose to decimate them of their own free will? Or none of the above?

    I went back to find that episode because I didn’t remember exactly what happened. So there was a conversation that went about like this:

    * Marie asks Wendy how she feels about having all those Christmas decorations
    * Wendy explains that Christmas decorations make her really happy
    * Marie asks “but what about the quantity?”
    * Wendy says she’s happy with the quantity
    * Then Marie nods and says “Well, I wouldn’t recommend storing them in plastic bags like this, because then they look like garbage.”

    Then it cuts to a segment showing Marie and her daughter sorting Christmas items where Marie explains how she recommends to store them (in clear plastic bins, so you can see what’s inside). And that’s it. I skipped through the rest of the episode and there isn’t really anything else in the episode that shows any Christmas items at all. We don’t even learn how they eventually end up storing them, how much they ended up tossing, nothing. During the final reveal of what the house looks like I didn’t see any of them anywhere, so I assume they must have found a good storage solution and kept them out of sight, since it wasn’t Christmas anymore.

    So no, there certainly wasn’t any coercion happening! I don’t know why the person who wrote that article assumed anyone was forced to throw them away.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.