; ; 25 Jan 2017

On Tidying Up

A few thoughts about organising by Sophie Châtellier

A new year has started and, with the cold January winds bringing in the new, the old is now definitely in the past. The year is often portrayed as a newly born – a pure, unsoiled sheet, full of hopes and good intentions. Some incurable optimists see the start of the new calendar year as the start of a new life, in which all will be better, brighter and more successful than in the previous one. Resolutions are made to reach these great expectations, and many take this period to re-organise their life, and in extension, their stuff. Here are a few thoughts about this particularly doomed activity.

When we mean ‘tidy up’, we essentially mean ‘de-clutter’ our physical space. It is about discarding, and putting out of sight that which can’t be discarded yet. The increasing amount in organising literature available at the British Library shows that, at least in the West, ‘tidying up methods’ have gained in popularity in recent decades. Moreover, the increase in external storage container spaces for rent, such as the Yellow Box company, also ride the trend of emptying one’s domestic space by moving possessions to – theoretically – temporary storage spaces. In the last decade, especially in ethnography and social anthropology, research has been conducted on consumption patterns and our relationship to our possessions, especially with regards to disposal – but the area is still quite new to scholars of material culture. The sociologist Kevin Hetherington writes about consumer practices and disposal as fluid, continuous processes which ‘involves issues of managing social relations and their representation around themes of movement, transformation, incompleteness, and return.’ He suggests that ‘rather than see the rubbish bin as the archetypal conduit of disposal within consumer practices the door might be seen as a better example.’ Storage devices such as closets and chests, but also fridges and bins, are in-between spaces, conduits of disposal where items are held until their uncertain value state is addressed [1]. Sociologists Nicky Gregson and Vicky Beale’s research on the role of wardrobes in the home, suggests that these devices need to be thought of ‘not just as containers of memory, but as temporary holding places in the lives of clothes’. Neither the wardrobe, nor the rubbish bin are stable, bounded containers but ‘temporary, transitory, spatial junctures, holding places in the lives of things’ [2].

It hasn’t always been the case, but empty houses are now ‘trendy’, counter to the nineteenth century, where the display of one’s material wealth in the domestic sphere was a proof of professional and social success. The amount of novel, affordable objects was too tempting to prevent acquisition, despite the moral perception of the time that displaying too much wealth was decadent. Victorian ideals of interior were of an inward-looking home dedicated to comfort, self-reflection, social interaction and private spirituality. The Victorians ambivalent relationship to clutter led to the creation of spaces which enabled the moderation of display while not interfering with actual possession. The closet, architecture historian Henry Urbach argues, presents itself through its absence – especially when compared to wardrobes and other storage furnitures, whose presence is undeniable. However, its presence cannot either be completely erased. The spatiality of the closet, which is typically considered as invisible, hidden outside of the public realm of the room, can offer new opportunities for the representation of identity.

In his essay entitled ‘Closets, Clothes, Disclosure’, Urbach writes that the psychological meaning of storage, and its opposite, display, are closely linked with personal identity and the search thereof. Indeed, the home has increasingly become a space which crosses between the private and the public, rather than the distinction between them [3]. ‘Tidying up’ is seen as an act of purification and self-search, in a rapidly changing and materially complex world. Large corporations have capitalised on the need of ‘sorting’ one’s things, by offering storage solutions in every shape and form. Along with these storage-objects, they offer a lifestyle, an image of a perfectly de-cluttered life. Free of objects, disturbing smells and sights, the markers of our materially complex world, we are attracted to a home focused on the essentials, a place of return to oneself. Decluttering is the modern expression of the search of one’s ‘true’ identity and individuality expressed through the interior.

Storage and disposal are part of the human interaction with the material world, although  there are cultural differences in its practice. Anthropologist Inge Daniels describes the storage and disposal practices within the Japanese home in her ethnographic research on domestic material culture. By living with diverse families in Japan, she witnesses the difficulties encountered by individuals when having to part from certain ‘troublesome’ objects, such as traditional dolls or presents. The act of ridding oneself of possessions can induce personal and social anxiety, rather than being liberating and self-finding [4]. For instance, the ‘most organised woman in the world’ and worldwide tidying up sensation Marie Kondo advises to perform a thanking ritual for each item in the process of discarding, in order to overcome this anxiety laden act.

Marie Kondo, who dreams of ‘tidying up the world’ has reached international success. Between cluttered desktops – digital and real – overcrowded cities and landfills, it seems as if we have become mentally and physically cluttered up. The increased awareness of excess in material possessions, was perhaps was not as pervasive in previous generations. Tidying up for the new year offers a reassessment of our belongings and their connected memories, in extension, our lives so far. Consciously acknowledging the past, and discarding that which has become obsolete, is hard work. So, to all who have yet got it on their list, I wish you good luck. Happy new year!

1. Hetherington, Kevin, ‘Secondhandedness: Consumption, disposal, and absent presence’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, i, 22 (2004), p.157–173 
2. Gregson, Nicky and Vikki, Beale, ‘Wardrobe matter: The sorting, displacement and circulation of women’s clothing’, Geoforum, vi, 35 (2004), 689–700, p.689 
3. Urbach, Henry, ‘Closets, clothes, disclosure’, Assemblage, (1996), p.62–73
4. Sparke, Penny, The modern interior (London: Reaktion Books, United Kingdom, 2007)
5. Daniels, Inge, ‘The `Social Death’ of Unused Gifts’, Journal of Material Culture, Vol 14, Issue 3, July 2008, pp. 385 – 408

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