Neat and Tidy: The New Magic
Until recently, my sense was that ‘tidy’ wasn’t a word much used in adult conversation. Rather, it was a term – usually a verb, sometimes a noun or an adjective – used by adults to address children, who were directed to tidy their rooms or desks, or to make themselves look ‘neat and tidy’ for someone or something. But this has changed, and the word is now doing good trade among my peers. Even after its recent demographic realignment, its martinetish overtones remain, and I am duly haunted. As a child I felt terrorised by tidy. I was the boy whose pants would tirelessly eject his shirttails, the boy with a bird-nest bouffant, with long, dirty nails at the end of inky blue hands, carrying a time capsule school bag filled with crumbs, crayon particles, and buttered cling wrap.
Every year I’d buy new highlighters and coloured folders and get my friends to cover all of the new schoolbooks in ConTact. (My own attempts to do this had repeatedly failed, and I reliably ruined books with my incapacity to ever lay flat the adhesive plastic.) But my early-year resolutions were always undone; I would revert to my old ways, eroding my resolution one dishevelled act at a time. In high school, I almost failed geography on neatness grounds alone. It’s now hard to comprehend how this is even possible. My year master said my handwriting looked like that of ‘a child pretending to write while still not really knowing the alphabet’. It is hard for me to be neutral about tidy.
Because tidiness, of course, isn’t just about how things might be or currently are – it’s about how things should be. Mostly the imperative has been handed on as part of an oral tradition – of childhood encouragements, cautionary tales, and admonishments. But sometimes the advocates of tidy get more motivated, more organised, more sympathetic to pamphleteering and the distribution of manifestos. Manifestos of tidy sometimes come from unlikely places, and may emerge in the literature of the avant-garde just as easily as they do in Life Strategies by Dr Phil.
Few modern movements subscribed to the credo of ‘neat, clean, and tidy’ more earnestly than the Italian Futurists did. Words such as ‘order’ and ‘clean’ and verbal phrases like ‘cleaning up’ and ‘clearing out’ are reiterated like mantras in the writings of Marinetti and his shiny-helmeted associates. With dustless, metal streets and myriad other assaults on earth’s untidy organic matter, the future the Futurists dreamed of was a site where everything both had its place and was in it. And while we are no longer Futurists, we have taken up one of its central imperatives. Neatness, we’re told all around, is a sign of care and maturity, of respecting visitors, of ‘making an effort’; neatness is a sign of clarity, organisation, and efficiency. We’re even now being told by some people that it’s a sign of sound mental health.
This isn’t the whole story, of course. We shouldn’t forget that mess, as a minor tradition, also has its adherents, its champions, and its characteristic romance. Part of the handed down mythos framing Einstein’s genius was that he was chided at Princeton by his Dean about the untidiness of his office: ‘A cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind,’ the Dean is reported to have said. Einstein’s famous retort: ‘If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?’ Untidy people have since resolved to seek to correlate their own mess with their genius with varying levels of success. Even so, mess, despite its dishevelled devotees, is losing the battle; all indications are that tidy is asking for our support – and we’re giving it.
The Clutter Toxins
A number of people I know are finding it difficult to repress talk of the ‘life-changing magic’ of their tidying, of the power of ‘decluttering,’ of stripping their lives – or perhaps just their sock drawer (it’s sometimes hard to tell) – back to ‘the essentials’. They are not alone. A brief visit to Amazon reveals a sub-genre which is booming. By my estimate, more than 50 titles released in 2016 concerned tidying and decluttering. And yet, for the most part, these are not books concerned merely with tidying and decluttering one’s house. They are, rather, books about absolute self-transformation through tidying and decluttering one’s house. Like the Futurists, the Tidyists see tidying as a method for self-apotheosis. Clutter has now become one of those mysterious ‘toxins’ which we need to expunge, as Kelly Barber’s The 30 Day Clutter Detox: Purifying Your Home of Clutter and Bringing Peace to Your Life makes clear. (Barber lists herself, among other things, as a ‘CEO®,’ which – in this context – means ‘Certified Expert Organizer.’) We also have Sue Anderson’s The Truth About Clutter, which plumbs the psychodynamic depths of ‘the damaging effects clutter has on our lives.’ Clutter is also, it seems, the fat person’s choice. Part of the spiel of Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight: The Six-Week Total-Life Slim Down, claims that a ‘recent study showed that people with cluttered homes were 77 per cent more likely to be overweight or obese.’ (As far as I can see, the study appealed to here has been lost somewhere.)
This is no longer about home enhancement, domestic augmentation – about giving people that competitive edge over others in our struggle for survival: we can also, it seems, suffer tidiness deficiency. An untidy, cluttered home confesses more than its owner’s (probable) large belly: it also indicates psychological pathology. Clutter is a sign that the clutterer is overdue for therapy:
At Clutter Healing™, Inc., our mission as a professional organizer is to provide insight into the inefficiencies and emotional toll that stem from unaddressed clutter, and provide a safe and supportive environment for clients to confront them.
In Breaking Up With Your Stuff: Emotional Homework to End Your Toxic Relationship With the Clutter Culture, Marin Rose argues that we ‘are all in a toxic relationship with our stuff’. And her purpose is not just individual therapeutics (presumably for us ‘all’), but thoroughgoing cultural prophylaxis. Making people aware of their toxic relationships to their clutter ‘means instilling a healthier attitude in future generations, so that our kids may not require entire industries dedicated to “de-cluttering your life” and “finding happiness”’. Despite her efforts, Rose may already be too late. Her own work is precisely part of an ‘entire industry’ dedicated to helping people ‘declutter their lives’ and ‘find happiness.’ There are currently over 4000 ‘organisation professionals’ registered in the United States and Australia now has its very own Australian Association of Professional Organisers.
Clutter is no longer a type of material disorganisation; it is a metaphysical structure and psychological condition and the literature has expanded to the putative size of the phenomena which it takes time to bemoan. Clutter is now a general category; it is far more than that sad bestiary of broken appliances under the sink or those moth-eaten cardigans we can neither wear nor part with. It is anything, Anderson says, that ‘takes up space’ – anything ‘that clogs up your life and prevents you from being all you could be.’ That makes clutter pretty big – perhaps metaphysically infinite: time clutter, mental clutter, and relationship clutter are among the selection of clutters to which the literature has turned its attention.
And we just love it. People who make their own pickles, watch TED Talks, have complex coffee orders, and say ‘mindfulness’ a lot are now lining up to find out how to arrange their shoes. Women who would have only a few years ago posted on social media an old article from the Women’s Weekly on tidying as Exhibit A of gendered kitsch are now taking weekend courses in how to fold their loved ones’ socks. And now that the topic has been broached, how should we treat our socks? We will ask the biggest selling author of the tidiness genre:
Never, ever ball up your socks. They take a brutal beating in their daily work… The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest.
If tidying has become an industry, its industry leader is the author of the above statement – Marie Kondo, whose The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has thus far sold over 4 million copies and in many ways been the impetus for the tidy industry. Again, this is not about tidiness in a strict, material sense. Early in the book, Kondo advertises the radical effects of her program of ‘banishing clutter’ (clutter is never removed or reduced – like an evil spirit it must be banished) by citing some of the feedback she has received from appreciative participants who have taken her tidying workshops:
‘I finally succeeded in losing three kilos’;
‘Your course taught me to see what I really need and what I don’t. So I got a divorce’;
And the somewhat more mysterious
‘Someone I have been wanting to get in touch with recently contacted me.’
So run the benefits of skilful sock handling. Note than none of these have anything at all to do with tidying; they are about ‘living the life you’ve always dreamed about’. Kondo’s approach to tidying is not the same as ‘organising,’ which, for her, is simply another way of hanging onto (you’ll never guess…) ‘clutter’. Her own method is radically more ascetic, and only really a form of ‘tidying’ in the same sense that spraying an area with Agent Orange might be considered a form of ‘gardening’.
Kondo wants us all to get rid of almost everything we own. She describes clients getting rid of a regional dump’s worth of belongings that were ‘holding them back’. The crucial question, then, is what to keep so that we are not held back. Kondo’s formula for what to hold onto and what to get rid of is very simple: ‘My criterion for deciding to keep an item is that we should feel a thrill of joy when we touch it.’ That is the premise of the whole book, captured in a single claim – and, to my mind, a somewhat severe criterion to direct at a double adaptor, vacuum cleaner bag, or roll of tooth floss.
Note that her criterion doesn’t relate to anything that a person may actually need, in terms of utility; this might – in a different context, say, in the context where you want to floss your teeth – be a suitable criterion. Kondo anticipates the objection, but claims that the ‘I might actually need this’ excuse is an unfortunate residue of rationality, and rationality is one of the key obstacles to tidying: ‘Human judgement can be divided into two broad types: intuitive and rational. When it comes to selecting what to discard, it is actually our rational judgement that causes trouble.’ The trouble is, she says, that we offer reasons for keeping a particular item, even though this item doesn’t spark joy. Kondo’s example of one of these polluting thoughts is precisely ‘I might need it later.’ Prima facie, that doesn’t seem like an outlandish objection, but she says when we think things like this ‘thoughts spin round and round in our mind, making it impossible to let go.’ So, she says, let go, let go, let go…
One of the things that interests me is the absolute singularity of purpose that drives Kondo’s own behaviour, and the idée fixe behind it. Where a certain kind of psychoanalyst might see phalluses everywhere, Kondo sees only clutter. It is hard not to be shocked on occasion by her account of the lengths she has gone to, to tidy. While living in her family’s house in her native Japan she became enraged that her parents and siblings chose to hang onto things that Kondo didn’t believe they actually needed. After failing to convince them using more orthodox, Cartesian methods, she resorted to ‘stealth tactics’.
She began by identifying items that she believed had not been used for years, ‘judging by their design, the amount of dust they had gathered, and the way they smelled.’ She would hide these items in the back of a cupboard and then, if nobody noticed they were missing, dispose of them. ‘After three months of this strategy, I had managed to dispose of ten bags of rubbish.’ (If I were Kondo, I might have chosen to put ‘rubbish’ in scare quotes.) If anyone in the family noticed something was missing, Kondo’s first tactic would be to deny disposing of it.
‘Hey do you know where my jacket went?’
If they pressed me further, my next step was denial.
‘Marie, are you sure you didn’t throw it out?’
‘Yes, I’m sure.’
‘Oh well, I wonder where it could be then.’
If they gave up at this point, my conclusion was that whatever the item had been, it hadn’t been worth saving.
If she was eventually found out, she would retort that she merely had the courage to throw out the item because the person in question was incapable of doing it themselves. At one level, it’s difficult to imagine being in the Kondo household and thinking at these junctures, ‘Marie is surely a sage; she has much to teach the world’. Indeed, in reading The Life Changing Magic of Tidying the question of the efficacy of the author’s approach sometimes had to take second place behind the issue of her sanity. Of course, I’m not qualified to judge this, although even Kondo herself has moments of doubt – she labels the approach above ‘arrogant,’ and now disavows it: ‘Although such stealth tactics generally succeed and the items discarded are rarely missed, the risk of losing your family’s trust when you are caught is far too great.’ It’s a somewhat anaemic disavowal, but it’s a disavowal.
The love of tidy didn’t originate with Kondo’s book and nor is the appeal of the neat and tidy to the middle classes new. Victorian moralists, for instance, often drew attention to the disorderly state of the working class house, and the moral chaos to which it likely corresponded. But what is new is the radical nature of the claims made on Tidy’s behalf.
In the recent past, tidying gurus would assert that operating in a tidy environment represented the paradigmatic form of efficiency and organisation, that it improved business and personal productivity. It used to be sold through claims like ‘The disorganised person spends 7-8 hours per week looking for things!’ As Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freeman showed a decade ago in their book – A Perfect Mess – it turns out that those kinds of ambit claims have never been the product of any empirical investigation. (There is evidence, in fact, that the contrary is true – that those with neater desks spend more time looking for things than those whose desks are untidy.)
But ‘organisation’ and ‘efficiency’ themselves now seem like side issues. In the new wave of books, tidiness isn’t about efficiency – it’s about some state of grace or enlightenment. This isn’t a metaphor. Whatever it may say about our current spiritual malaise, it seems the case that The Life Changing Magic of Tidying is the Zen and the Art of Archery for our times. (And let’s be honest: home renovation shows on TV rate incredibly well, and I can’t recall the last time I actually shot an arrow.) At one point in Kondo’s book she details how one of her clients invited her to come and meditate with her under a waterfall. Kondo’s response to the meditation was positive, even though the experience of meditation wasn’t alien to her: ‘Although I had never tried this form of meditation before, the sensation it generated seemed extremely familiar. It closely resembled what I experience while I am tidying.’
Kondo’s writing flits between adamantine and New Age-y, between the stern school ma’am and the gnomic oracle. But she is far from the only voice in the market, which shows us the kinds of inflections this most modern form of meliorism can take. Fay Wolfe, for instance, has written what she thinks is a book for ‘tidying creatives’: New Order: A Decluttering Handbook for Creative Folks. There’s also Monica Mynk’s Ungodly Clutter: How Can a Christian Live a Godly Life in a Messy World?, a book which – she says – is ‘for real Christian women who dig through clothes to find a matching pair of shoes,’ and ‘for the women who lose heart when they compare themselves to Proverbs 31’.
Tidying Ourselves to Death
Perhaps one of the biggest difficulties in the pro-tidy books relates to the fact that ‘clutter’ and ‘tidiness’ aren’t objective qualities like ‘possessing a negative valence,’ ‘weighing 100 kilograms’ or ‘indigestible by humans’ are. The parent who gives the imperative to the child in her room ‘Would you just look at this mess!’ inadvertently draws attention to the fact that one’s capacity to even recognise mess is the product of training rather than being a primitive function of the retina. ‘Tidy’ is merely the opponent of ‘chaos’ and ‘mess,’ some ideal state, a Platonic holiday island, far away from the wastelands of Things Out of Place. And like these loci our chances of arriving and staying there are slim, and yet we talk about tidiness as if it were our natural state. In Le Désordre Domestique the French anthropologist Jean-Paul Filiod notes that the refrain ‘sorry about the mess!’ is a standard greeting by the host upon a visitor entering their home, which tends to imply that mess is merely a brief waystation in between the normal perfect order of the domestic abode; as Filiod points out, the ubiquity of this greeting suggests exactly the opposite: mess is the norm; tidiness is transitory.
The normative force of ‘being tidy’ can produce some odd effects; seeing what constitutes ‘tidy’ in any particular place and time in many ways serves as an image of what a culture sees as important. (Why this is diagnostic is related to the fact that ‘mess’ can be easily arrived at by an almost infinite number of routes; in any particular culture, tidiness allows far fewer.) One example: the ‘Keep Australia Beautiful Network’ is, its website tells us, ‘a national organisation that is recognised as Australia’s independent litter prevention thought and practice leader.’ The KABN has, as part of its remit, a ‘Tidy Towns’ program, one whose implementation, and interpretation, has produced some tragi-comic results.
In his remarkable AIDS diary, Unbecoming, the American anthropologist Eric Michaels recalls his surprise at hearing the topic of tidiness being talked about in solemn tones by adults in the Yuendumu community in Kakadu. While he was there, the community was busy preparing for the Tidy Towns contest, perhaps – Michaels speculates – as yet another attempt at admittance to the great white cargo cult they always seem to be denied. Michaels notes that he soon learned that every March, before the Tidy Town judges were due, the big rocks in the community would all get painted white; and one year someone had the bright idea of bulldozing all the trees in order to increase Yuendumu’s ‘tidiness’. The approach surely seems insane – but that doesn’t mean it is irrational; we easily can see the logic behind these choices, despite their perversity. (Yuendumu would have to wait until 2013 before it received the honour.)
The Keep Australia Beautiful organization conflates tidiness and conservation, just as we are apt to confuse tidiness and cleanliness. Eric Michaels, from his hospital bed, after watching orderlies for weeks on end, reflects on tidiness in this way:
Tidiness is a process which, while avowedly in the services of cleanliness and health, in fact is only interested in obscuring all traces of history, of process, of past users. Tidiness inhabits and defines a ‘moment’, but one outside time, ahistorical, perhaps the ancestral dream time home of all ‘Lifestyles’. It is the perfect bourgeois metaphor. The tidy moment does not recognise process, and so resists deterioration, disease, aging, putrefaction. On this basis, it justifies its association with health and cleanliness and is considered an appropriate discourse to inflict on the diseased, the aging, the putrefying.
And if not diseased, who among us is not aging and putrefying?
Another example: in 2011, BHP emailed personnel in its Brisbane offices a number of tidiness rules to which staff were expected to adhere. BHP’s ‘Office Environment Standard’ prohibited workers from activities such as: hanging jackets over chairs; sticking Post-It notes to their monitors; and eating at their desks – indeed eating any food whatsoever if it ‘emits strong odours’.
So apparently we can establish tidiness by removing shoes from clothes, bulldozing trees or eliminating ‘strong odours,’ which is to say that, over the long term, tidiness might be akin to one of Jung’s archetypes – so ectoplasmic that it fits all phenomena indifferently.
But neatness, as we’ve seen, is never just material; and nor is the desire for it the domain of any specific clientele. We want tidy break ups and divorces, tidy hypotheses and political ideologies, tidy categories separating victims and perpetrators, tidy explanations in order to clean up an inherently messy world. Many years ago the libertarian American philosopher Robert Nozick wrote this striking passage in a book ostensibly concerned with the relation between normative ethics and politics:
One form of philosophical activity feels like pushing and shoving things to fit into some fixed perimeter of specified shape. All those things are lying out there, and they must be fit in. You push and shove the material into the rigid area getting it into the boundary on one side, and it bulges out on another. You run around and press in the protruding bulge, producing yet another in another place. So you push and shove and clip off corners from the things so they’ll fit and you press in until finally almost everything sits unstably more or less in there; what doesn’t gets heaved far away so that it won’t be noticed…. Quickly, you find an angle from which it looks like an exact fit and take a snapshot; at a fast shutter speed before something else bulges out too noticeably. Then, back to the darkroom to touch up the rents, rips, and tears in the fabric of the perimeter. All that remains is to publish the photograph as a representation of exactly how things are, and to note how nothing fits properly into any other shape. No philosopher says: ‘There’s where I started, here’s where I ended up; the major weakness in my work is that I went from there to here; in particular, here are the most notable distortions, pushings, shavings, maulings, gougings, stretchings, and chippings that I committed during the trip; not to mention the things thrown away and ignored, and all those avertings of gaze.’ The reticence of philosophers about the weaknesses they perceive in their own views is not, I think, simply a question of philosophical honesty and integrity, though it is that or at least becomes that when brought to consciousness. The reticence is connected with philosophers’ purposes in formulating views. Why do they strive to force everything into that one fixed perimeter? Why not another perimeter, or, more radically, why not leave things where they are? What does having everything within a perimeter do for us? Why do we want it so? (What does it shield us from?)
It is not just psychological desire that impels us towards neatness – it is deeply ingrained in the way we regularly think about human knowledge. The neater the philosopher’s or scientist’s claim about reality, the larger that claim can be. ‘Decluttering’ in the academic domain sometimes goes by the name of ‘explanatory parsimony.’ What is ‘Ockham’s Razor’ if not a plea for tidiness? And yet, philosophers and scientists have often found it very difficult to justify their preference for the minimal hypothesis outside of aesthetic categories like ‘elegance.’ The fact is, though, we do live in the era of the Very Big Claim. If one reads the backs of books these days, every new release apparently represents a revolution in thought, is the product of genius, is essential reading, changes everything we knew about everything we care about.
More pointedly, we are besieged by books whose central – and very neat – message is that there is a single culprit ruining our lives: sugar, or disorganisation, or Hillary Clinton, or gluten, or ISIS, or low self-esteem, or mess. This is partly the result of the demands of capital; there is no market for a book that discusses the idea that ‘gluten may, in some circumstances, be best to avoid, at least for a while – and maybe cut back on sugar if you can and see how you feel.’ We’d never just cut back on sugar; we quit it.
Equally, Kondo’s message isn’t that tidying up and getting rid of a few unnecessary items might be advisable – it’s that tidying involves ‘life changing magic’ and that the only way to do this is perfectly, and this will entail eschewing mountains of possessions: ‘aim for perfection,’ she says, and ‘once you’ve put your house in order your life will change dramatically.’ The meliorist dramaturgy here is one of crisis and revolution: a lacklustre life turned into one of overwhelming, ongoing fulfilment.
This will involve no half-hearted effort, no moderate approaches. Extreme measures are called for; our relationships to objects must change entirely. Kondo regularly talks to her clothes, thanks them for keeping her warm, and stores them so as to keep them content. Is Kondo an ‘extremist’? Of course. But far from being an anathema to supposedly cynical, modern culture (which we’re told is full of nuance, complexity, and critique) we are drawn to extremism like proverbial moths to the flame. Whether or not approaches like Kondo’s function as covers for obsessive behaviour in the way ‘eating a healthy diet’ sometimes provides a fig leaf for eating disorders, is an open question. But what I do know is that many of the people who’ve bought Kondo’s books have ‘failed’ at her program; these books now serve as admonishments to things left undone.
The Future as Showroom
If we assemble a composite image from the scenes of tidiness we’ve inspected, what we wind up with isn’t just a kind of ‘minimalism’ (the term is the middle-class’s word-of-choice for ‘tidy,’ given that it dignifies one’s bathroom by association with a modernist art movement) as an ideal of World-as-IKEA showroom, where all particularity is erased, all sense of process effaced, all markers of history removed. This is not a world in which many of us can live – although there have been innumerable projections about a desire to do so. In the August-October 1982 issue of PC Magazine, the now-defunct CompuServe had a full-page advertisement which read:
Someday, in the comfort of your home, you’ll be able to shop and bank electronically, read instantly updated newswires, analyze the performance of a stock that interests you, send electronic mail across the country, then play Bridge with three strangers in LA, Chicago and Dallas.
Futurology is a notoriously unreliable discipline; when tied to marketing it’s usually a sub-genre of comedy. And yet, usually predictions about the future aren’t simply wrong; they are precisely and predictably wrong. Put in different terms, futurology is often very accurate, just not in the area in which it thinks it is. It is invariably an excellent way of telling us something about the society and culture in which it is situated. Despite CompuServe’s hyperbole, 1982 was decidedly not ‘someday.’ And yet, the advertisement remains astonishingly prescient about what was to come, in technological terms at least. But what it misses are perhaps the most salient aspects of the technology – that we are now in the realm of the image, not ‘newswire’ – and that people write them, and not just read them.
But there’s nonetheless still prophesy here, albeit in an unusual place. Notice the image itself: a white man and a white woman wearing all white clothing in an austerely furnished white room – white furniture, a white rubbish bin (presumably eternally unused) and exclusively white objets d’art – white vases, white IKEA-esque sculptures, and white bowls. Even the books on the (white) bookshelf are white, and are held in place with white bookends. But this is not simply a world without colour; it is also a tidy world – perhaps the tidiest of all possible worlds. If the paradigm of tidiness is a blank wall, then this scene comes as close to that as possible.
Such spaces pull in two opposite directions: a domestic scene and simultaneously a scene that looks like nobody lives in it – they merely visit it to see what they want to purchase. It’s the world as a furniture showroom, in other words. In many respects, the scenes we witness are three-dimensional billboards. Phillip Larkin’s 1962 poem ‘Essential Beauty’ was about the false-tidy world of advertising but it could now apply to the modern ‘minimalist’s’ house:
Well-balanced families, in fine
Midsummer weather, owe their smiles, their cars,
Even their youth, to that small cube each hand
Stretches towards. These, and the deep armchairs
Aligned to cups at bedtime, radiant bars
(Gas or electric), quarter-profile cats
By slippers on warm mats,
Reflect none of the rained-on streets and squares.
No Future Without The Pasta
Few – before CompuServe and IKEA at least – envisaged the future world in terms of a tidiness more severe than the Futurists, a world even more empty of ‘rained-on streets and squares’. Although the kind of fascistic nirvana Marinetti wanted for the world has not eventuated, aspects of his vision undoubtedly survive. As we have seen, many among us are striving for ever greater orders of neatness. Although the Futurists were decidedly for order and neatness, as true modernists, they were invariably far clearer about what they were against. In their disparate writings, we learn that they despised, among other things, marriage, moonlight, moroseness, museums, and modesty. They also loathed the nude, Venice, and Parsifal.
Oddly enough, however, in some ways they reserved their greatest and gravest admonitions about food. And it is here – and only here – that the Futurists seem truly prophetic. Their visions of a steel world with flying cars has not come to pass. Perhaps less known is that they imaged and desired a world without gluten. In Marinetti’s 1930 ‘Manifesto of Futurist Cooking,’ he asserted that pasta induced ‘fiacchezza, pessimismo, inattività nostalgica e neutralism’ [lethargy, pessimism, nostalgic inactivity, and neutralism]. (God save us from neutralism.) The Futurist catalogue of loathings is likely to strike us now as either anachronistic or funny – except, of course, for the bit about pasta. As for that denunciation, they were really onto something. The Futurists dreamed of a glorious world to come, created in their image; at least they got one wish.
At one level, the demand to make the quotidian into something transcendent and rapturous through some basic act of exclusion or adjustment doesn’t belong simply to the Futurists and Marie Kondo. Many years ago, David Foster Wallace gave a now-famous graduation speech at Kenyon College in which he talked about the possibility of controlling experience, of transfiguring the base metal of a bank queue into existential gold:
[I]f you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things.
Maybe. It’d be nice, wouldn’t it? But Wallace here seems to fall prey to the selfsame dangers that those demand that our stepladder make us feel joy when we touch it. Wallace is here spruiking the most ambitious kind of spiritual alchemy – the transformation of the base metals of boredom and ennui into an awareness of the cosmic mucous in which we all wade (or something like that). Is this the kind of pressure that leads to enlightenment? I don’t know; I’d need to ask an enlightened person.
But there’s another option. Perhaps we’d be better served by facing up to something that most of us accepted during the school holidays of childhood – life is just sometimes incredibly dull. Perhaps it’s only an ex drug addict who would make a demand on reality so ontologically ambitious as the one Wallace does. And what of our homes? George Carlin once famously observed that ‘a house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it’. Isn’t that enough? It surely would be for the people who don’t have them. If we happen feel the infinite glory of the universe in a bank queue, a toaster, or as an result of the elimination of sucrose, that’s fine, but the pressure that each of us is somehow responsible for making each moment of our lives into a kind of rapture is something I find far more existentially unbearable than the threat entailed in the boredom of a bank queue.
Should we try tidying out? Certainly, if you want. But it seems somehow unlikely that many of us will proclaim on our respective deathbeds, ‘I saw my children enough, but I regret that I didn’t set aside enough time for tidying’. The perfection intrinsic to some conceptions of success merely serve to increase both the chance and magnitude of our failure. In any case, we should be encouraged by the fact that Marinetti himself couldn’t follow the radical Futurist program of I Quit Pasta. He was later caught, photographed, and then publicly shamed for forking huge strings of cacio e pepe into his mouth.