Culture

Existential hoarding

This CNN item about decluttering has sensible advice that few people, I suspect, would disagree with, as it fits the zeitgeist by seeming vaguely eco-conscious and consevationist. The author, Tsh Oxenreider, invites us to live as if we are always just about to move overseas:

Ask yourself, Is this thing worth hauling 6,000 miles across an ocean and in to a new home? Is it providing that much meaning and value to my life? If not, why bother having it now?

She argues that more is less, in that you have less to take care of or worry about. If you purge yourself of unnecessary things, each remaining object becomes more meaningful, glowing with the value of its being intentionally chosen. The gambit is to create an artificial scarcity for oneself, set limits to manufacture aura.

Living this way isn't about having nothing. It's about everything in your life having value. It's looking at all your belongings and knowing that you've given that thing permission to be there, that the item is truly adding value and beauty to your life. When you get rid of the things that don't matter, the things you do keep become that much more valuable, and you'll have more time and money to invest in quality over quantity.

It's an appealing fantasy. I imagine having that one bookshelf on which every book is one of the best and most powerful books I've ever read; I think of those apocryphal families of yore who only had a bible but knew it backwards and forwards and derived true spiritual nourishment from it as a result. I think of being able to imagine at some point eating every single thing in the refrigerator, or better yet, emptying it totally and eating only what I've bought fresh from the green grocer's on the way home from work each night. (Like I ever do that.) I think of empty closets, save for my all-purpose utilitarian uniform that I can wear at all times in any weather and always avoid the appearance of "trying to look cool." I'll be so free of objects that I will spend all my time in unfettered activity, really doing things -- though with only a few objects at hand it is likely to be the same sorts of things over and over, or it will involve me consuming disposable things or spending lavishly to access meaningful experiences. Or maybe not. Maybe I can convince myself that all I need is a guitar, a laptop, and a dream.

I want very much for Oxenreider's fantasy to be true. I want shedding belongings to generate a lasting and satisfying sense of having purified my life. I want to prove myself the sort of fortified and transcendent soul who can overcome the hegemony of advertising and conspicuous consumption and capitalist reification to see the true value of things, the value that stems from my ability to invest them with part of my own spirit. I can dispense with the vulgar lies of commerce and live a spare, Spartan minimalist life of meditation in a tastefully empty room like the one we see pictured in the article.

Yet when I try to live with that sort of rigor, I experience little lasting joy. When I've purged things in the past, the feeling of lightness that follows tends to be fleeting. Instead, entering into purging mode can sometimes open a yawning void in my life, not because I am ridding myself of things and worry I will feel their loss but because I start to see how little anything "really" means. What's the point in having anything? I'm just going to die anyway. Having a hoard of stuff to sort through and manage and muffle my existence also stifles my sense of mortality, for better or worse.

And perhaps because of how I've been conditioned to experience things, the thrill of getting rid of stuff -- unconsumption, as Rob Walker would have it -- ends up feeling much like the joys of acquiring it. That is, the pleasure is detached from the nature of the object itself, from the intentionality that is supposed to be so obvious within it. Instead the objects prompt multifarious fantasies, depending on where we are coming from, what we have been exposed to, what are particular situation is that moment. So it is not as simple as it might seem to get rid of the "unnecessary" things in our lives, because necessity is a moving target, much like our own sense of self, our own priorities. Sometimes it seems very useful to me to have every album by Grand Funk Railroad loaded and ready on my computer just in case; sometimes it seems like insane clutter preventing me from noticing the really great music I could be listening to.

Sometimes the meaning of things elapses -- revealing another scary truth about mortality. It doesn't mater how few things you have; your memory is going slip away. The things that seemed important will merely haunt us then, or we will remember things we didn't save but not remember why, or we'll cherish that lost moment of purging more than what we've kept. Maybe at the point when you can no longer remember why something was important to you, you just throw it away -- but then why was it ever saved in the first place? You save it because you are afraid to forget its meaning, and when you do start to forget, the item may seem more dear than ever in its obscure mystery. Hoarding can be a matter of luxuriating in that surfeit of mystery as much as it is a matter of suffocating on material goods.

I don't think my life is a matter of memories stored in goods, but I am afraid of it seeming as empty as that room in the photo. In my eagerness to purge, the danger is I'll shut everything out. I don't know if I can access a way of organizing my life that doesn't lump people and things together -- a way of living in which I don't need otherwise useless things to remind me of the people I want to keep in touch with. Theoretically, I should be able to have a purity of intention that doesn't require objects in this inefficient way, and I shouldn't think about collecting experiences as if they were things or objectifying the time I want to spend with others. But to live according to that theory, with little social support for it, is to risk the empty room becoming not tasteful and light but a void.

Oxenreider writes as though our intentions are constant, so close to the surface, so readily accessible, but she also writes as though only our individual tastes are at stake in those things. But usefulness and meaning are slippery, social concepts, and we end up implicating one another in our needs for things, multiplying those needs without being able to account for where they are coming from within us. It seems like this weird burden to have things, this inexplicable hoard we end up with through no will of our own. But in fact that is just the burden of being with others, refracted into miscellaneous odds and ends.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
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