Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Militant Minimalism

Lately, I've been looking around for more resources to improve small space living and I've run across some rather extreme notions and opinions which seem to be less about changing your space to support your "living" and more about shoehorning how you live into an aesthetic concept. While I absolutely respect the right of people to live their lives as they see fit and recognize that everyone has a different sense of style, sometimes, it seems that people go too far.

Before I progress any further, I'd like to address the notions that the uninitiated westerner seems to have developed about Japanese people and a minimalist aesthetic. There are some people, mainly your interior design types, who seem to think the Japanese are all sitting in bare rooms with the odd elegantly placed item here and there while viewing their rock gardens with perfectly raked sand "waves" through a window and sipping green tea as they sit seiza-style (on your kneels with heels planted on buttocks) in a kimono. I'd like to be the first to say this image is unadulterated poppycock. Most Japanese people who live in houses have one room that might resemble this sort of thing and the vast majority live in places crammed to the gills with crap. If you don't believe me, check out Tokyo: A Certain Style by Kyoichi Tsuzuki. What I sometimes see through random open windows as I go around my neighborhood is clearly displayed in his book.

Getting back to these web sites that endorse decluttering though, I've read some pretty extreme views. One site decided to set up a gallery that any reader who had cleared his or her desk could post a picture on. The reason for this was to show off how various people had managed to tidy up one of the spaces that is often in an advanced state of chaos because it's where work is usually done. Reading some of the comments on these pages, it became clear that some people can't tell the difference between "uncluttered" and "empty".

One person remarked that she was appalled at what was being posted as she showed off her "desk" (actually, a small table) with a notebook computer, a desk lamp and a bud vase. Somewhere in this person's office space, there has to be the equivalent of her desk's portrait of Dorian Grey holding all the stuff she needs to do work at a desk so that she can snootily put down people who have the audacity to organize and tidy the stuff they use and actually keep at their desks. When this person needs to deal with her bills or any paperwork, I'm guessing she runs to a shameful, secret hidey-hole where she stashes unsightly paperwork, pens, notepaper, etc. and drags it all to the desk then and does her work. Eyes darting around nervously for witnesses, she then rapidly deposits it all back to it's holding pen so her barren desk is once again free of unsightly debris. Of course, I guess it's also possible that she doesn't do any actual work and just sits at her computer all day criticizing people who use their desks as desks.

This attitude was nothing though compared to some of the tips about getting rid of things you don't need in your apartment to declutter. One of the headings for one of the posts was something like "shoes are clutter". They weren't recommending you get rid of your Carrie Bradshaw-like collection of shoes in order to free your closet from the groaning burden of several hundred pairs of shoes. They were recommending you go barefoot if you could possibly manage to do so in order to have as few shoes as possible littering your home. I guess stepping on a tick and developing Lyme Disease in summer is just fine so long as you've got one less pair of shoes sullying your decor!

Another suggestion was that people could get rid of their beds and just sleep on the floor. Since I currently live in a culture where people often sleep on the floor out of necessity, I can see where this may have value if you live in a very small place. However, even in Japan, it seems a great many people sleep in beds if they have the space. The only ones who use futon are the ones who live in an apartment that has so few rooms that they still need to put their bedding away regularly to allow the space to serve double duty as both living and sleeping quarters or those who are older and just used to camping-style accommodations. The idea that one would sleep on the floor mainly to service a militant minimalist aesthetic rather than a philosophical wish to have few possessions, a desire to sleep on a hard surface or a space-induced need seems a step too far.

This sort of extremism is a good example of how many people are unable to find moderation in any thing in their lives. We either live in piled up messes or pristine vacant spaces. There's no logic or pragmatism applied to the notions people are applying. They seem to simply adopt a philosophy and live by it regardless of the potential consequences or practicality.


Kanagawa G said...

I agree, most places here in Japan are crammed floor to ceiling in junk, while the few places that actually have decent storage are usually filled to capacity. When we were looking at houses/condos a while back, the Mrs. and I got a unique (and often surprising)inside look into people's private spaces. Some would have made great material for the "gomi-yama" cleanup shows on TV.

In my attempt to cut down on desk clutter, I am attaching seldom used USB accessories, chargers, power strips, etc. the the UNDERSIDE of my desk where they can be easily reached yet are out of the way. I'd love somebody to try to match that to an aesthetic style....handyman?

Roy said...

You've been reading Lifehack.org too much. I think you need to remove that one from your RSS feed.

I can't understand how these militant minimalists get rid of stuff like presents from other people, old photos, important documents, pharmaceuticals, accessories that come with your computer and electronics appliances etc etc.

Also, what happens if they need something like a bandage? They must either borrow one or go and get buy a box, use one and then throw away the rest?

I'm all for getting rid of clutter but I agree with you. I don't think it is possible to get rid of EVERYTHING and live a practical life.

Shawn said...

Hmm... does the timing of this post have anything to do with the fact that Lifehack seems to post a "declutter" tip every ten minutes these days?

Incidentally, I like the idea of having a single room in my house (which optimistically will have a room to spare some day) that is virtually devoid of furnishings simply as a relaxing station of sorts. Of course, that means the clutter from the rest of my house will have to work overtime to compensate.

Shari said...

Kanagawa g: I think attaching things to the underside of your desk is an excellent idea and I'd do it if I had the talent, tools, or type of desk that would tolerate it. I've seen people attach all their peripherals to peg boards so they could easily remove or move them if they needed to and that seemed like a good idea as well.

Roy: While it is certainly true that I've been reading Lifehack, this is one of those posts that has been "in the buffer" for awhile which has slowly developed through time. At any given time, I generally have one notion that hasn't found it's logical conclusion that takes awhile to get to. The oldest one took about 2 months before it found its way to completion. This one was probably around a month old.

This post was actually more related to getting a blog search button on my toolbar. Ever since I installed that, I've been searching for topics that suit my whims when I run out of material (I don't use an RSS feed, btw). I try hard not to read too many blogs regularly so the searching method is my main technique when I'm in the mood to read more than my bookmarks have to offer. Rest assured though, you remain bookmarked despite your hiatus! ;-)

It's funny that you mention gifts/mementos and what one should do because I have a method for student gifts. As long as I'm still teaching that student, I'll keep anything they give me whether I care greatly for it or not. This is related, of course, to my teaching at home since I display the gifts if they are decorative. Once the student stops taking my lessons, the item goes if I either don't like it all that much or it really has no easy place to rest. Of course, if I like it a lot, I keep it. :-)

Shawn: You and Roy are in mental sync. It makes me frightened for Roy if that may be the case. ;-)

I think that, in theory, a clear room to sit in and meditate sounds good but, in practice, I think such rooms may feel sterile and barren. The Japanese have such rooms mainly for their shrines and for various types of entertaining (when they can afford to have those rooms). I think that a well-organized place can be more relaxing than a minimalist space.

You don't really seem to have all that much junk (yet). You just are too lazy to put what you have away. ;-)

Jack said...

In all fairness, I'm pretty sure Unclutterer doesn't expect most people to take their "extreme minimalism mondays" (which is where I seem to remember the shoe thing from) seriously.

Beyond that, I agree with you. I'm not a person who has no stuff, I just try to make the most of putting my stuff in the space I have.

Overthinker said...

I like a minimalist space (ie pretty bare) myself, and ideally would have one almost monastic room, but it's not possible, and I end up with quite a bit of clutter Especially on my desk, and especially at the moment....

While I agree about some of the stuff you said, I think your comment that "The only ones who use futon are the ones who live in an apartment that has so few rooms that they still need to put their bedding away regularly to allow the space to serve double duty as both living and sleeping quarters or those who are older and just used to camping-style accommodations." is far too general. Aside from it not being true that the only people who use futons are the old and the cramped, the idea that futons are like "camping" or sleeping on a "hard surface" makes me think you must have had some very bad formative experiences with very bad quality futons. A good futon is about as far from camping and sleeping bags as staying in the Four Seasons is like sleeping in a tent.

Shari said...

My comment about futon use wasn't based only on my experiences but those of students who I've talked this over with. Only two of my current crop of 12 use futon and the other use beds. None of them have stated a preference for a futon because they find them less comfortable and a pain in the ass.

Also, in Tokyo, where there are roaches in summer, dust bugs, and other miscellaneous crawlies which spend most of their time at ground level, being on the floor is not very appealing.