The animism of tidying up

“The first thing I do when I visit a client’s home is to greet their house. I kneel formally on the floor in the centre of the house and address the house in my mind…I ask for help in creating a space where the family can enjoy a happier life. Then I bow.” – Marie Kondo.

Like many people, I spent some time over the winter holidays watching the suprise Netflix hit of the season, Tidying Up with Japanese author and professional tidy-up-er Marie Kondo.

The format of the show is a familiar one, we’re introduced to a couple or family who have too much stuff and Marie Kondo comes in to help them declutter and organise. But there’s more.

Kondo is Japanese, and spent time as a Shrine Attendant at a Shinto shrine. She brings the animistic attitudes of Shinto to her work in tidying: she meditates and greets the house of each of her clients, and tells people to thank the items they are discarding for the lessons they taught. She “wakes up” books with a touch.

For a Western audience, this seems an unusual approach, and one which attracted the scorn of sceptics, such as Anakana Schofield in the Guardian (2019), who dismissed Kondo’s animism as “woo-woo, nonsense territory”.

Yet, as a Pagan, I found Kondo’s approach refreshing. Whether we view them as supernatural or not, most Pagans are used to the idea of other-than-human beings; land spirits, tree spirits, etc. Do we extend the same sense of personhood to our belongings? If not, why not?

Stevie Miller (2016), in a blogpost about Kondo’s 2014 book which inspired the Netflix show, writes:

“Kondo simply takes the presence of these spirits to its natural conclusions, empathizing with our belongings and trying to be considerate of their wishes–to be folded neatly, to be stored without strain, to have a “home” within your home, to be touched gently and lovingly, to be allowed to rest after a long day’s work”.

The theme that runs through Kondo’s series is that of re-affirming our relationship with the “stuff” we own, to keep those things (and only those things) that “spark joy”, which we relate to and connect with on an emotional, en-spirited level.

This sets her apart from much of Western “minimalism”. Kondo isn’t about throwing away stuff for the sake of throwing away stuff, or about conspicuous asceticism. Her approach is about keeping things we truly love, in order to have a more joyful relationship with those things.

Much of the online criticism of Kondo seems to be based on this misunderstanding, and nowhere has that got more heated than when it comes to books. On Twitter, this reached fever-pitch with people calling Kondo a “monster” or a “psychopath” as if she were personally breaking into people’s homes and burning their books.

While Kondo says that she personally keeps around 30 books, this is not meant as a hard commandment for others. Like with everything else, Kondo sees books as “conscious”, and recommends keeping those which “spark joy” and thanking the others before discarding or donating them.

In the Guardian, Schofield writes:

“Literature does not exist only to provoke feelings of happiness or to placate us with its pleasure; art should also challenge and perturb us”.

This strikes me as a pretty wilful misunderstanding of Kondo’s central concept. It isn’t about whether the content of the book is all happiness and rainbows, it’s whether having the book itself sparks joy.

One of my areas of interest is death. I’m fascinated by the question of mortality, and how we approach death, both that of others and our own. Thinking about and accepting death can radically reframe and re-evaluate our approach to living. This interest means that I have books on decomposition, funeral practices, forensic anthropology, even serial killers. These are not happy books. But having them “sparks joy” for me because they enable me to think more deeply about a topic I find interesting.

I also have books I’ve read once, and never thought about again. I have books I was given that I didn’t want, books I bought because they were in a sale, and have never read. These books don’t spark joy for me because they don’t spark anything. They’re just objects – do I need to keep them?

A lot of the ire from “book Twitter” directed at Kondo is, it seems to me, rooted in a sort of performative intellectualism, really just showing off; keeping and (crucially) displaying vast quantities of books as a social marker of high intelligence or cultural status. There’s more than a hint of classism in, for instance, the assertion that:

“Every human needs a v extensive library” (Schofield, via Twitter).

As a librarian myself, I find the fetishisation of the physical book-as-artefact unsettling. As Marie Kondo points out;

“Books are essentially paper – sheets of paper printed with letters and bound together. Their true purpose is to be read, to convey the information to their readers. It’s the information they contain that has meaning. There is no meaning in them just being on your shelves”.

Jonah Ven (2019) on Twitter notes that a lot of the criticism comes from non-Asian people whose misunderstanding,

“flows out of the fact that her process is informed by both Asian culture at large as well as Japanese culture…Memes and criticisms of it are inherently lowkey racist due to ignorance of Asian, specifically Japanese, culture and influences”.

One such influence is, of course, a cultural-spiritual form of animism that flows from Shinto through to Kondo’s methods of communicating with your items and thanking them – a sense that objects have, in some sense, identity. Thus, the mundane task of folding your clothes becomes,

“a special moment in which your mind and the piece of clothing connect” (Kondo, 2011).

With this animistic view, every decision we make about what items we own and surround ourselves with, how we treat them, where we store them, how we dispose of them, is a communication between ourselves and the items.

In a world of fast fashion, pulp paperbacks and disposable plastic, taking the time to truly consider our relationship with what we own can only be beneficial, and hopefully lead to a more mindful connection with the earth from whence all these items ultimately come.

And if a Netflix show where a small Japanese woman greets people’s houses, wakes up books and thanks old t-shirts can help shift people’s perspective even just a little, then that’s surely a good thing.

References:

Ashcraft, B. (2019). “The booklover’s guide to Marie Kondo hate”, Kotaku, 15 January, accessed 16 January 2019, https://kotaku.com/the-booklovers-guide-to-marie-kondo-hate-1831759557

Kondo, M. (2014). The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. London: Vermillion

Miller, S. (2016). “What an Animist can learn from ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up'”, Grundsau Burrow, 2 June, accessed 16 January 2019, https://grundsauburrow.wordpress.com/2016/06/02/what-an-animist-can-learn-from-the-life-changing-magic-of-tidying-up/

Schofield, A. “What we gain from keeping books and why it doesn’t need to be joy”, The Guardian, 7 January, accessed 16 January 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jan/07/what-we-gain-from-keeping-books-and-why-it-doesnt-need-to-be-joy-marie-kondo

Ven, J. (2019). “Here’s a hot take on every non-Asian person’s hot take of Marie Kondo’s show”, 13 January, accessed 16 January 2019, https://twitter.com/jonah_ven/status/1084658312124289024

6 thoughts on “The animism of tidying up

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  1. I agree about books. Nothing should be a fetish. I understand books since I have short term memory problems and am missing a part of my long term memory. (TBI) However, I have found that books may help with memory they can’t replace it. I have been giving away books. After I do, I realize that I am living in the now, the me-now, not the me-past. I have freedom to go forward.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Books are great, but there are plenty that once you’ve read you no longer need, and of course nowadays there are devices you can store an entire library on and carry it in your pocket!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love books but I love them for their contents, not because they are collectors’ items or to demonstrate my intellect (I do that by talking and writing).

    I like the animist aspect of Marie Kondo’s approach, and have used konmari myself to get rid of surplus stuff. I still have a lot of stuff though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely! Books are there to convey meaning: in and of themselves they’re just paper and ink. There is a performance-of-intelligence aspect among *some* book people I think, but I agree the truly thoughtful demonstrate it in action, not accumulation. I’m currently using Konmari to get through my “stuff” at home and it’s helping a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am seeing a lot of backlash against her teachings in popular media. Smells a lot like Jungian Shadow Territory to me! haha. I recently cleaned the windows and as I did I followed her suggestion to think about what it is I want to enter the home and what I would like to protect it from. It was a powerful experience. This way of doing it transformed a chore into something fun. I also developed a completely different feeling about this house. I think we are friends now. And yes, I am aware of how odd that probably sounds.

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    1. The backlash has been ridiculous, and honestly kind of racist at times. She’s definitely struck a nerve which has made some people uncomfortable, but they need to deal with it better than lashing out.

      I’ve been going through my clothes with her method, and I sat to greet the house first then thanked each item I discarded, and yeah I agree, it led to a totally different feeling; like the house is helping, like it wants to be a real home. The idea of you being friends with your house isn’t odd at all, at least not to a Pagan like me!

      Liked by 1 person

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