The sentence “everything not saved will be lost” might evoke a sense of familiarity in some of you. While it initially related to video games saving screens, and specifically to Nintendo’s, it has come to symbolise an entire society’s attitude towards life and being. Human life is undeniably intertwined with that of the objects we surround ourselves with. Acknowledging but setting aside objects’ supportive role in our evolution, what is most interesting is how they have evolved to embody meaning in themselves. Throughout history, they have been symbols of sophistication and expressed status and even individual personalities. However, in the last decade our attitude to “stuff” has been slowly but surely challenged by the cultural wave of minimalism, decluttering and downsizing.
The Society of the Spectacle.
It would be a great shortcoming on my part to analyse this “minimalist” cultural wave without ever mentioning Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. In his book, the french philosopher discloses the central concepts of degradation of human life and commodity feticism. Most importantly, Debord names our current culture as one based on appearance and representations of social engagement, as everything that we once lived is now only representation. In my personal opinion, his view is certainly relevant, but outdated. As the society of the spectacle has taken over, appearance as become most important thus diminishing the importance of matter itself. The driving force behind both the previous mindset of “having” and the slowly rebuilding one of “being” is the impulse to make the intangible, tangible. In our search to experience the abstract, in the past we have relied on the concept of a buyable lifestyle, trusting that we could purchase what we wanted from life in form of symbols.
With this mindset in mind, marketing becomes incredibly relevant. Aspirational association or the connecting of our desires and wishes to, in this case, objects has been incredibly prominent in advertising since Marlboro introduction of lifestyle advertising. If one were to analyse today’s advertisements critically it would be quite clear how companies are now trying to sell us experiences and lifestyles rather than objects. Your wish to be happy and healthy is what makes you buy a certain brand of yogurt, even though the ad only showed a happy and healthy family. Minimizing and its relation to our “stuff” can also be clearly seen in advertisement. Image promotion is particularly relevant when talking about this wave. Entire brands, such as Muji, have been marketed and branded around the absence of objects rather than the objects they sell. Thus the paradox of owning less things and having less cluttered lives is being sold to us by companies trying to make us own more things is created.
In this mess of a societal context, in which we wish to go back to a life of “being” and not “having”, Marie Kondo shines as a leader. As Chris Lehmann stated, the KonMari Method developed as a “movement to orient us more serenely amid our storehouses of stuff”. The Japanese writer, now protagonist of a TV show, introduced the world to the joy of decluttering and getting rid of objects. The organising consultant makes use of and challenges our desire to possess tangible proof of our ephemeral experiences. We wish to own books we have already read as a reminder of that meaningful moment, which, according to Kondo, will still be embedded in our memory and being, regardless of our possession of the physical book. Kondo did not create the movement by herself but only built on a pre-existing wish held by mainly middle-class people.
The Appearance of Less
We have thus established how, according to Debord at least, we live in a society where appearances are fundamental. Additionally, humans have always shown an inclination for collecting mementos, physical and symbolic embodiments of ephemera experiences. Recently, there has been a movement focussing on reducing the stuff that we have collected so far as a species and as individuals. Marketing professionals have thus fished from this ideology of “less if better” to promote a more superficial “appearance of less”. The creation of tiny homes, which have financial and ecological reasons behind it, also shows how we are fascinated by the spectacle of less. On a more media level, Baudrillard’s System of Objects stated that we live in modern houses of glass, where the outside world penetrates our domestic universes as a spectacle. Applying this concept to our tentatives to collect experiences, our online lives have been supplementing that. Social media show images as a way to collect and show transience. We window shop online for inspiring experiences and behaviours, collecting and curating potential lives. However, what the minimalism and decluttering movement shows is the possibility that hyper-consumerism culture might be on its way out, as we we seek more meaningful experiences in life.
Cover: Pexels / Paula Schmidt / Final editor: Eva de Boer