16 April 2019
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Research

How not to have a sweater, postmodernly

A garbage island more than twice the size of Germany is gently rotating in the North Pacific. Also, there’s a sale. There’s always a sale. An economy built on growth and consumerism is taking its toll on people and planet. Now though, an unlikely saviour has announced itself. Within a few years, minimalism has managed what decades of the green movement has not: make having less stuff cool.

Growing, growing, gone?

Most governments take an eco-modern approach to the environmental problem: how can we improve technologies so that we can produce more using fewer resources and polluting less. Meissner is not alone in being sceptical: “We have tried this approach since the 70s and the data suggests quite clearly that it isn’t working. More and more economists and scientists are coming round to questioning the idea of growth.”

An admirable confidence in human creativity paired with a refusal to critically engage with the central contradiction – infinite growth with limited resources – has hitherto sidelined serious discussion of a post-growth economy. “Post-growth is a profound cultural transition after a society has reached a certain stage of economic prosperity and modernisation – in essence shifting the aim from growth to sustainability and resilience.”

That sounds nice. Buying fewer things sounds less nice. Backing post-growth isn’t politically expedient, as the idea of austerity isn’t going to be very popular. “Even if policy makers were open to the idea, it would be difficult to get a critical mass of voters behind it.” Thus, criticism of consumerism and the infinite growth model has remained a fringe phenomenon, restricted to academics and activists.   

Another –ism to the rescue?

And that’s where minimalism comes in – a trend still growing in popularity that urges people to simplify their lives. “In the wake of the financial crisis, several narratives challenging the principles of economic productivity, consumption and growth have steadily grown in popularity. You have all these movements, like decluttering and simplifying, which are really popular – Marie Kondo even has her own show on Netflix.”

Tidying up is enjoying a cultural revival – so what? Consumerism, while it continues to reign supreme, is increasingly associated with dissatisfaction. Lamenting our affluence might seem vulgar, but spending power is no longer seen as a synonym for wellbeing. “The literature suggests that less consumption doesn’t equal less happiness – the opposite seems to be the case.” While we’re unlikely to go full Diogenes any time soon, there is a growing need for simplicity. 

Forms, affordance, frequent flying

Meissner’s idea to academically study decluttering et al took flight at an airport. “I was at the University of Lancaster and my husband was in Amsterdam, so I was travelling a lot. In the bookshops at the airport, I saw more and more of those self-improvement books about decluttering – so I got curious.” Her background in media and cultural studies shaped her view of the issue as well as the approach.

She will combine concepts from science and technology studies with a formalist approach. Formalism is borrowed from art, literary and design studies. “These scholars have developed a complex register for talking about different forms, like analysing the rhyme scheme of a poem or the composition of a painting. I use this vocabulary to talk about forms as organising patterns in society.” The plan is to analyse lifestyle literature and interview authors, practitioners and activists.

One of the key concept will be affordance – the actions latent in certain forms, i.e. what does a concept allow for? “I want to find out which affordance e.g. sharing platforms or minimalist housing aesthetics carry towards post-growth and wellbeing.” While reducing consumption is central to both minimalism and post-growth, the reasoning is surprisingly different. “Marie Kondo’s tidying logic carries an affordance towards questioning consumption, but not so much towards environmental considerations, e.g. where all the decluttered stuff should go.”

A battery of books on minimalism and time management are, ironically enough, cluttering up Meissner's shelf and taking up most of her time.  

Does this research spark joy in you?

Here, another useful import from literary studies comes in handy: focalisation, which refers to the perspective through which a story is told. “Questions like ‘does this spark joy in me?’ or ‘how will this make my life better?’ focus on the individual and implicitly prevent us from considering broader societal questions, like the paradigm of accumulation.” And that is the crux of her research question.

Minimalism promises succour from the so-called ‘world of too much’ – without ever addressing the root causes. The movement rarely opposes growth models. For a start, its gurus rely on shifting product. (Savour the irony: Kondo has sold millions of books chiding readers to have fewer books.) “They never question the orthodoxy. Simplify your life to have more time – to be more productive, to be successful...”

Towards de-unpoliticising lifestyle literature

The minimalist movement isn’t inclined to consciously contest consumer capitalism’s control of the cultural discourse. “I wonder what prevents them for becoming more politicised – maybe they’re afraid of being seen as radical and forfeit their chance of conquering the mainstream.” Conversely, Meissner notes that hitherto sustainability has been framed in ethical rather than hedonic terms. “Could a circular sharing economy create community a less stressful, simpler life, more wellbeing, etc.?”

“Ultimately I hope I can come up with some recommendations: on the one hand for policy makers to frame economic reform, on the other hand for lifestyle writers on how to think about and address the underlying economic and political issues.” Meissner’s attempt to give minimalism an ethical rather than just an aesthetical grounding might prove immensely valuable. However, she is happy enough with a conspicuous lack of consumption as another status symbol for la classe aisée: “Given the current environmental problems, any reason for consuming less is fine.”

Miriam Meissner is Assistant Professor of Urban Studies at Maastricht University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS). She has studied Media and Cultural Studies as well as Cultural Analysis in Amsterdam and Düsseldorf and has published several books on urban imaginaries. She has won the prestigious Veni grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) to fund her current research.

By: Florian Raith