Sunday, February 13, 2011

Deep Cleaning, And Other Cosmic Issues: A Review of "Clutter Busting"

Brooks Palmer, Clutter Busting:  Letting Go of What's Holding You Back (Novato, California:  New World Library, 2009).  219 pp. $13.95, paper.

One of the reasons that self-help books are so successful is that they introduce complex thinking to people who aren't normally exposed to it, or who are made uncomfortable by it.  Conversely, self-help books introduce simple thinking to people who spend most of their time thinking, or at least acting, complexly.  The formula for a successful self-help book, as far as I can tell, is a title that invites the potential reader into the utopian possibility of relieving the stress of the modern condition, and simultaneously becoming modern in a far more successful way.

Take the slow food movement, as it has manifested itself in the United States.  Inspired by former commune resident, and now Chez Panisse chef, Alice Waters, slow food ideology argues that we need to look to taken for granted features of daily life for the places that we have the most control over our happiness and health.  Emphasizing the process by which things reach the table, slow food addresses critical ways in which the modern, and now the post-modern condition, undermines people of all races, genders and classes by persuading them that they really want mediocre food.  Industrial food production creates labor force abuse, high prices for inferior products and poor nutrition.  The phenomenon of "fast food" permits us all to live fast as well, doing more work for less money as we substitute a time-wasting family breakfast for a Dunkin' Donuts drive-by that costs as little as $3.00 a person and gets us to work and school faster.  Habits sold to us by the processed food industry reduce our sociality and our good health.  As slow foodies easily point out, what is gained in time and convenience is invariably lost in relaxation, nutrition, and taste.

That said, life as a slow foodie has a deceptively simple formula:  grow as much of your own food as you can, buy locally, use fresh ingredients, sit down and face each other at meals.  Those of us who followed Barbara Kingsolver's journey into this world in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:  A Year of Food Life (2006), which is not a self help book, immersed ourselves in the beauty of this experience. Kingsolver also did, and did not, point out the difficulties of this commitment:  the creativity of growing and canning is matched by hours of back-breaking and mind-numbing labor; the seasons in which everything is fresh also requires giving one's personal calendar over to the weather and sudden ripening of a crop; you have to decide which roosters to send off to the slaughterhouse (don't, whatever you do, name the chickens); and the food stored for winter can dwindle to a few basic items long before the farmer's markets open.

My guess is that it also helps to have a big advance.

Authors like Kingsolver, Suze Orman, Andrew Weil, and Brooks Palmer, different as they are, are successful for the same reason.  The message is:  do this one thing, and you will be happy.  You will be healthier, happier, and best of all, you will be free, something that a great many Americans have craved for three centuries or so.  If you think this is just a white thing, you probably have not yet read bell hooks' Sisters of the Yam (2009), in which hooks (of whom I am a great fan but for this one volume) advocates a self-healing process that African-American women can undertake through the consumption of self-help books.

I purchased Clutter Busting:  Letting Go of What's Holding You Back in a book store that largely serves academics, which I realize was meaningful.  I bought it in exactly the way Palmer argues purchases should not be made, on impulse and in response to some neuron that fired off in my head that sent the message:  "you will be happier if you buy this book."  (Note to those who want to start clutter busting now:  Brooks also has a blog.)  A true clutterer, as I discovered to my great relief, would never have read the book, but would come home and put it on a surface.  Subsequently, s/he would have become ashamed, put it in a box, and stuffed it under the bed, with dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of self-help books that had been purchased, unread and hoarded over the years.  Palmer, a professional stand up comic and clutter busterer,  features lots of clients who are desperately trying to help themselves by buying and acquiring things, prominent among them New Age books and tapes, and only getting into deeper doo-doo in the process.

Palmer's central argument is this: culture producers tell us that we are what we own, and many of us are persuaded that having consumer goods and things of great monetary value makes us happy.  Some of us acquire these things on the street, unable to pass an item that looks useful without stuffing it in the car.   Whatever we acquire, whether it is the magazines that we subscribe to in order to better ourselves, the multiple cats we can't bear not to bring home from the shelter, or the makeup we buy to look pretty, we become briefly exhilarated as we possess the object, then depressed when we realize that, like all the similar objects our home is filled with, it hasn't solved anything at all.  The objects then more or less taunt us, and fill our houses in such a way that they overwhelm us.  Worse, they become objects of sentiment, holding feelings that we are unwilling to let go.

Like all successful self-help people, Palmer tells stories about people who, under his guidance, have recovered from this cycle.  Usually the process of recovery involves identifying what role objects of various kinds play in your life.  The process points out how you are failing to value yourself by allowing objects this power, and what your feelings actually have to do with either real people you refuse to let go of or insecurities that are undermining you but which you hold dear.  Disabling one's self by clinging to unwanted objects and people (yes, people, pets and services are clutter too under the right circumstances) is a problem for psychotherapy, but it is also something that is amenable to action.

Most of these stories are allegories masking as reality, and show the reader very directly how to take action.  All include a cathartic moment in which Palmer's clients perform exercises of various kinds that induce a crying jag, or a an attack of helpless laughter, and then make them free.  There is no one who bars him from the house, or sets the dog on him, for example.  Palmer's techniques revolve around confronting people's delusions, talking to them about shame, and working through the emotional obligations that they feel towards objects.  They sometimes ask the object whether it is ok to send it away and explain why they must; in other situations he asks them to "name" piles of unused stuff.  "You are crap!" you might shout at a dirty, old pile of unreturned student papers from 1996 (secretly,of course, you fear that a student will return to tell you that you are a horrible teacher.) "What a pile of useless garbage!" you would point out to a pile of unused CDs that were really expensive, are still on your credit card, and that you don't ever listen to.

Here, by the way, is a good place to address the obvious point that all self-help books are not the same. But they all require these moments of truth that are arrived at through confrontation.  I could imagine Palmer holding hands with Andrew Weil as, lovingly, they cleansed a food cupboard of uneaten boxes of Ritz crackers, healthy but tasteless salt-free soups, and cocktail napkins from your last birthday party.  Simultaneously, I fantasized about a Palmer -Suze Orman smackdown in the making.  Orman would know that all those CDs were on your credit card ("And ya charged 'em?  Dintcha? DINTCHA?!") and insist you hold a tag sale to begin paying that card down.  Palmer would argue that attributing any value, monetary or otherwise, to the CDs was simply a way to hang onto them, and that they should go to the Salvation Army hasta pronto

One flaw in the book is that all of Palmer's clients are "cured" forever, when we know that most clutter bugs do not receive permanent salvation, slipping back into their habits and needing to be dug out again. All of Palmer's clutter bugs begin lives of self-actualization by taking the baby/giant step of clutter busting, when actually, just ceasing to hoard would be a major change that might allow a person to live exactly the same life in a happier way.  But that's ok:  in that way, Clutter Busting holds out a similar promise as Butler's Lives of the Saints without all the gruesome scenes that becoming a saint involves. 

Palmer points out what we Marxists already know:  it really isn't about the stuff, is it?  It's about the commodity fetish.  It's about  the feelings we get when we look at stuff, and the deep betrayal we suffer when commodities fail to deliver.  Clutter is about aspirations unmet; unspoken feelings of loss; relationships we can't let go; old injuries; and lack of self-esteem.  For academics, four shelves of books, double-shelved, that you have never read says:  "I'm worried I'm not smart enough!"  Or, "Maybe if other people see these books, they will recognize that I am smart."  Meanwhile, the books sit there looking at you, sending another silent message:  "You bought us, now you are stuck with us.  Before you get to your own writing, or any reading that would give you pleasure, you have to make good on the promise to read us.  What -- you don't" (sniff!) "want us any more?"

Palmer would suggest that you sit down and have a chat with these books, thank them for the time they have spent in your house, apologize for not reading them and explain to them that you want them to go somewhere that someone will really appreciate them.  Then box them up and take them to the library sale.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

I have been seriously considering getting rid of my entire library of a couple thousand volumes, mostly collected during undergrad and grad school. Because if I try to "cull" the library, I will find a "reason" to keep every single fucken booke!

Tenured Radical said...

Just threw away a large stack of partially read journals, all of which are available online, should I discover that I have missed a moment of historiographical significance that will otherwise disable me. Go for it, CPP.

Anonymous said...

At the same time, the de-cluttering/simplicity movement is just as much about commodity fetishism, but with the emphasis on purchasing: Get rid of it now, so that you can purchase another one when you need it!

(I blogged about this a couple of years ago, in possibly the longest post I've ever written:

Anonymous said...

Well, TR. In my experience, a true clutterer would never buy this book, because he would not recognize cluttering as a problem. He also wouldn't bring it home and leave it on a surface, because he hasn't had any surfaces visible for many years. Or space under a bed. This book might be bought by someone married to a clutterer, and left in a prominent place (on top of an actively growing pile, for example), but it would remain unread. Probably the only f&^% unread book in the house. Not that I'm speaking from experience or anything ...

Brooks_Palmer said...

Thanks for talking about my book. I wrote it to kindly encourage people to start letting go. The hardest part is beginning. There are a lot of reasons why to hang on to things that are no longer a part of our life. I wanted to create some simple and "sure, why not" reasons to let go. Also to instill the feeling of how much better it feels to live with just the things we love and use.

Lesboprof said...

Well, you trod on a nerve with me, but not about the book in your review. Nope, it was the not so subtle slam against "Sisters of the Yam."

I have had some conflicting feelings about bell hooks, mostly rooted in some problems she seemed to have translating her conceptual critiques to her critiques of and actual interactions with real people. But whatever my issues with hooks, I found the Sisters of the Yam book incredibly helpful, as it opened the pursuit of one's own happiness, focus on one's sense of worth, and reflection on one's painful past to Black women. I think characterizing it as telling African American women to embrace self-help books is a bit simplistic and a cynical read of her work. That said, I read it many years ago, and I may have to pull it out again and take a look.

Anonymous said...

CPP-- Our offer to takeover your library still stands!

Our decluttering stuff post has cute pictures of bats.

Katrina said...

I find the "clutter" rhetoric interesting - there are quite a few of these books around, there was a NYTimes profile the other day of a woman who people pay thousands of dollars to in order to help them declutter, and I've seen tv shows like "Hoarders". I'm a bit conflicted about the moral message being sent.

[I just started writing a whole essay here but realise I'm better off writing my own blog post about my clutter issues!]

Your point about locavore lifestyle being for those who are (these days) both cash and time rich is on the mark though.

Anonymous said...

Yet another advantage for e-books--if you hoard 'em, all they clutter is your kindle or ipad -- not your house!


Tenured Radical said...

JDB: But Brooks would say it is still clutter -- there's a whole chapter on de-cluttering your computer!

Alice J. Sweeney said...

What a delightful review. Thank you! So much of what we do in life seems to be programmed in. As you note, we support fast food because our lives are too full of busyness to sit and eat. We clutter because we desire and have the means to acquire therefore must have, but have no corresponding social programming to divest ourselves of those precious acquisitions that no longer serve us.

But what specifically can we do about the piles of stuff lying around? I wrote about various decluttering styles at It's not nearly as academic a treatment as yours, but I hope you find it useful.

Canuck down South said...

What I always find odd about the whole "de-cluttering" movement is the apparent knee-jerk assumption that all stuff must be of some (almost) immediate use--ie., the whole "if you haven't used it in a year"-type angle. Shows like "Hoarders" (which I've never managed to bring myself to watch), take extreme (and possibly genuinesly troubled)examples as a means to pathologize collecting stuff. Yet having cleaned out a couple of houses after elderly people died, I found the most "cluttered" houses much more interesting than the rather bland domiciles that had been stripped down by well-meaning relatives years--or decades--earlier. Plus, having meaningful objects aruond them in carehomes can often soothe people immensely, as it's the martial objects that can convince someone with Alzheimers that they might be "home," instead of in an impersonal institution.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how she would react to my abiding lust for a Kindle. What kind of clutter is electronic clutter? Will my purchase of a Kindle help mitigate against the endless stacks of books half/unread but sentimentalized and fetishized as objects? Will the public domain books I will quickly start acquiring on my Kindle count as clutter?

And what about all of the GoogleBooks pdfs that are clogging my hard drive? Perhaps I should delete them all while explaining, lovingly, that they are just fulfilling my psychological need to feel exhaustive in my dissertation research, but that I know they will still be available (and keyword searchable) online. Here's to uncluttering my electronic life!?

Tenured Radical said...

Uncluttering electronic life is critical, in Palmer's view. The answer to the Kindle question is: sure, buy one, but don't use it to hide the unread books you accumulate (as you are using your computer at present.)

And yes, it does have something to do with your reluctance to write. Palmer would say this clutter is getting in your way so you *can't* write.

Get rid of it. And not being able to resist public domain books is like not being able to resist picking up a "perfectly good' lamp off the street that you don't need.

Barn Owl said...

I find "Hoarders" and its British counterparts rather painful to watch, because the individuals featured on the program very often appear to have cognitive impairments or serious depression, and are usually socioeconomically marginalized or have suffered some major loss or deprivation. They aren't cluttering their houses with books or back issues of Harper's or hand-dyed natural fiber yarn (as I do, in the interest of full disclosure). No, the houses are typically stuffed with old newspapers, broken items picked off trash piles and out of dumpsters, spoiled food, empty containers, and dead rats. The "Hoarders" featured are not concerned with what the "help" will think when they come to clean, nor are they collecting things like academic books, wine, T-shirts with ironic slogans, sports memorabilia, or even old microscope parts and functionally ancient issues of Cell (*cough*).

Most of us can keep a clean kitchen with safe work surfaces, and a refrigerator and pantry free of spoiled or outdated food, but the truly disadvantaged and/or disabled hoarders cannot. Whatever their particular personal histories and challenges, I find their current situations to be heartbreaking and in desperate need of assistance. My book and yarn clutter is an insignificant emotional obstacle in comparison.

I guess that was a long and somewhat rant-y way of saying that I don't think that storing public domain books on a Kindle or computer is necessarily like picking a lamp off the street. Usually there is a pretty substantial gulf of socioeconomic privilege between the two actions and the reasoning behind them.