Toward a New Materialism: The Domestic Spaces of “We Other Victorians”
The Netflix hit Tidying Up with Marie Kondo has inspired so many people to purge their homes of excess that there has been a noticeable increase both in the number of items donated to charity and in the purchase of storage totes and bins. Kondo’s approach hinges on evaluating whether a belonging sparks joy, and if not, thanking it for its service and discarding it, ideally through donation. Tidying Up encourages the viewers as well as the participants, who are reorganizing their homes according to Kondo's guidance and comprehensive, category-by-category method, to connect this evaluation of their belongings to broader aspects of their lives.
It can be a struggle for me to discard things that I no longer use or even truly enjoy. (What if I need this again? Or, what about its sentimental value? And am I honor-bound to hang onto every knickknack I’ve ever been given?) But I, too, have undertaken several major cleaning purges of my own apartment—none following all the strictures of the Kon-Mari Method, but all of which made my home feel more open and inviting. I have to admit, though, that while I did take some of the boxes and bags to the Women’s Center, a number of them have made it only as far as my storage closet—cast in a limbo while I decide what to donate, resell, or God forbid, bring back in.
This has, sadly, transformed my storage closet into a sort of “Freudian unconscious” for the rest of the apartment. Like the unconscious, as described in Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, the storage closet "represses" the objects from my past which no longer have a place in my day-to-day reality. Yet they are retained there, merely hidden in darkness (The lightbulb burned out). The storage closet facilitates my temporary “forgetting” (Freud 143) of these boxes. And because of my poorly conceived placement of them—or perhaps, an intriguing Freudian “displacement” (150)—it has also become impossible for me to reach my vacuum. With the exception of not having been vacuumed in a couple of months, though, the apartment itself is, on the whole, much improved!
The “Stuff” of American Dreams
The problem of having so much “stuff” that it overtakes our domestic spaces has been framed as a very American dilemma. An article in Time reports, “The typical American home is cluttered with possessions—and stressing us out.” Of course, this is a problem that requires a certain level of privilege; “all” of us could not, in fact, be indicted by the “we” in the title of the Atlantic essay “We Are All Accumulating Mountains of Things.” The privilege implied in even having this sort of problem seems to be seen as a facet of realizing the American Dream; you buy the house, and then you fill it up. Yet as depicted in the interior images of homes on Pinterest and Instagram feeds, in home and lifestyle magazines, and on shows like The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes, the idealized domestic space is materially-enriched while remaining exquisitely clutter-free (at least aside from a few jauntily placed knickknacks or throw pillows). If you try to recreate the domestic ideal in your own home by buying, say, a few of the same throw pillows—but hanging onto the old ones, just in case, or changing the new ones out again to fit a new season or trend—then, ironically, that ideal becomes increasingly unattainable with every purchase you make in its pursuit. So has the American Dream morphed into a Freudian wish-fulfillment-fueled nightmare?
“There’s no question that what it means to have achieved the American Dream has increased in material terms,” affirms economist and sociologist Juliet Schor in Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. Yet in keeping with the nature of dreams, consumers' contentment with their purchases tends to be ephemeral (e.g., the multiplying throw pillows). The best and newest products are soon replaced with even better ones, as the capitalist industrial machine drives trend turnover to accelerate. Conversely, as a reaction to this compulsive consumption, minimalism has gained traction—and along with it, so have trends such as the Capsule Wardrobe and the Kon-Mari Method. According to Schor, though, we are not materialistic enough; we don’t value the material that surrounds us. Her comments resonate with some of the voices in Thing Studies, underscoring the potential to theorize our affective encounters with objects in the same terms as our encounters with humans and nonhuman animals. Schor, in fact, proposes a “better" sort of materialism: possessing fewer things, but feeling a greater appreciation for them.
For much of the documentary, the camera follows Joshua Millburn, a workaholic/shopaholic-turned-minimalist, whose speeches sound promising, but whose apartment appears punitively sparse. With no art on the walls and a living room that appears to have been furnished with a single chair, it has all the charm of a prison cell. At one point, he confesses that he still feels guilty for missing important moments during his years as a workaholic, and it clicks: To me, at least, he calls to mind the Neitzchean figure of the “ascetic priest,” for whom ressentiment—resentment, potentially entrenched in class difference or one's powerlessness to change a situation—festers and becomes guilt (39). Asceticism is ressentiment turned inward—in this case, perhaps exchanging the risk of financial debt for an “internalization of the infinite debt” (AO 254).
In contrast to the dismal asceticism that haunts the fringes of extreme minimalism, the focus on the affective value of things—how they make us feel—has been foregrounded not only by the joy-sparking Kon-Mari test, but also by the Danish philosophy of hygge (pronounced “hoo-guh”). The philosophy is not new, but American interest in it is. According to Little Book of Hygge author Meik Wiking, “Hygge is about an atmosphere… a feeling of home.” It isn’t necessarily minimalist, although proponents encourage decluttering, and it isn’t solely about enriching domestic spaces. But cultivating this “feeling of home” is central and involves using (and for many, likely buying) things that make you feel content, loved, safe, at home. These include candles and lamps with soft, warm lighting; cozy blankets, pillows, and clothes; and images or objects that remind you of happy moments and loved ones.
We are “The Other Victorians”
The differing concerns and methodologies in these domesticity discourses all seem to pursue an improved quality of life, and they all carry the baggage of a history of thought. In some ways, we are, as Michel Foucault writes in History of Sexuality, “the other Victorians.” Although Foucault’s historicization focuses on our relationship to power and sexuality, we also owe a good deal of our concept of domesticity to the Victorians. Like many of us, Victorians also placed a high value on the arrangement of their domestic spaces and were fascinated by the potential of cultivating individuals by cultivating their environment. To the Victorians, the domestic realm was meant to be a cozy, private refuge (which they gendered as female, but which I hope we can now reimagine as nongendered). Developments in the mass production of goods, combined with the rising middle class, created an intense consumer culture, which was reflected in their homes. Accumulation was, in fact, a guiding principle of middle-class décor, with “fabrics, hangings, silk, and carpets [covering] every bit of free surface,” and enhancements such as gardens, greenhouses, and collections of artwork, souvenirs, photos, and books (Ranum 369).
On the other hand, we seem to be diverging from the material manifestations of Victorian domesticity in really intriguing ways. As a refuge, the Victorian home became, quite literally, shielded from the public gaze; the airy, open windows of the 18th century were covered by thick curtains in the 19th. The Victorians also added walls and doors to separate and privatize what had been multi-purpose homes. Houses were subdivided into a greater number of (smaller) rooms, which were classified by hierarchy, function, and public vs. private distinctions (Flanders 8-9). The ideal middle-class home was not only an “essential ingredient of civilized society” (Crook 15), but also a microcosm of Victorian “civilisation [sic],” grounded in “subdivision, classification, and elaboration” (Flanders 9).
In contrast, our own architecture and design trends attest to a pendulum swing in the other direction. “Rooms are so 20th century, so 19th century,” remarks architect Piers Taylor in an episode of The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes. “Spaces are interesting.” This preference for the spaces of “open concept” design recalls Deleuze’s description of the nomadic figure who moves through “smooth space” rather than the sort of “striated space” that organizes the socius (Plateaus 381). Along with the ubiquity of “open concept” layouts, many modern—and modernist—homes also appear more open to the outside, challenging the very delineation of inside vs. outside. With their large, unpaned, unencumbered windows, these domestic interiors look—and feel—incredibly open to their natural environment, but also, I can’t help thinking, to random passersby. What’s more, this architectural openness seems to coincide with a broader feeling of openness regarding the domestic. Even resolutely inconspicuous forms of accumulated consumption—the mess behind the closet door—have become the subject of increased discourse and social media feeds, as numerous Kon-Mari converts have begun posting their “before” and “after” photos.
One of the ways in which Foucault links his own period with the Victorian era is in his rejection of the “repressive hypothesis,” the theory that the Victorians, in contrast to people of more recent centuries, were much more repressed. (As Foucault argues, this isn't exactly true.) Perhaps in some similar manner, our own messes are not the repression-worthy secrets we might be tempted to believe. Perhaps we can reframe them; using the Kon-Mari method, for example, we would thank them for their service to us and then give them a second life through donation. And perhaps we can borrow some of the positives of Victorian domesticity as well as the concept of hygge without accepting their problematic implications regarding gender or consumerism, respectively. Can we reimagine materialism as minimalism without sacrificing beauty, pursue domestic ideals that aren’t limited to the wealthy, organize our spaces without inhibiting our movement, appreciate and enjoy objects without regard for consumer trends or brands, and cultivate coziness alongside a mindful openness toward nature and community?
As I sit typing this post—snuggled in blankets next to my cat, with a warm tea to my right and candles in the hearth to my left—I hope that we are moving toward a new materialism, one that will empower us to disrupt compulsive consumption, while also recognizing the affective force of the things we surround ourselves with and making the most of their potential to spark joy.
Unlinked Works Cited
Crook, Tom. “Norms, Forms and Beds: Spatializing Sleep in Victorian Britain.” Body and Society, vol. 14, no. 4 (Dec. 2008), pp. 15-35. Bibliography of British and Irish History.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Penguin, 2009.
---. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi. U of Minnesota P, 1987.
Flanders, Judith. Inside the Victorian Home: Domestic Life in Victorian England. Norton, 2004.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals, edited by Walter Kaufmann. Random House, 1967.
Ranum, Orest. “The Refuges of Intimacy,” translated by Arthur Goldhammer. A History of
Private Life, vol. 3, edited by Roger Chartier. Harvard UP, 1989.