“How much does your life weigh?
Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life… you start with the little things. The shelves, the drawers, the knickknacks, then you start adding larger stuff. Clothes, tabletop appliances, lamps, your TV… the backpack should be getting pretty heavy now. You go bigger. Your couch, bed, your kitchen table. Stuff it all in there. Your car, your home, I want you to stuff it all into that backpack. Now try to walk. It’s kind of hard, isn’t it? This is what we do to ourselves on a daily basis. We weigh ourselves down until we can’t even move. And make no mistake, moving is living.
Now, I’m going to set that backpack on fire. What do you want to take out of it? Photos? Photos are for people who can’t remember. Drink some ginkgo and let the photos burn. In fact, let everything burn and imagine waking up tomorrow with nothing. It’s kind of exhilarating, isn’t it?”
This is an extract of the famous “Backpack theory” by Ryan Bingham, the main character in the 2009 movie Up in the Air, a career transition counsellor who is hired to travel around the States to fire people. Although he has come to despise his line of work, he has become to love the culture of what he calls “Airworld,” finding contentment within pressurized cabins, anonymous hotel rooms, and a wardrobe of wrinkle-free slacks. If there is one extreme case of a modern minimalist in the imaginary world, it is him. Extreme to the extent that not only does he limit his belongings, he also sets frontiers in his human relationships with others. His radical theory is based on one eloquent principle of speed: “The slower we move, the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living.” because we are designed to live freely without attachment, everything that weighs us down should be diminished. This ideology fundamentally explains our fast-paced culture in which we live, work and love. In recent years, the trend of adopting a minimalist attitude in the way we construct our personal living space has been blooming. There are more than 30 million search results of the term “minimal lifestyle” in Google, a thousand plus ideas of how to realize it on Pinterest, Youtube is now flooded with new vloggers eager to share their life-changing experience and know-hows on the subject. Instead of the old ‘haul’ videos of beauty hoarders, the clean cut, simplified air of up-and-coming youtubers has brought a new fresh wind to the world of accumulation. Minimalism is now the new black.
Looking at the bigger picture, we might be even more surprised to see how fast this way of living is caught on by people all over the world, but especially the ones from developed countries. What has made Mari Kondo’s series of organizing books of “keeping only what sparks joy” a huge international success? Why are those Americans sacrificing their comfortable standard homes for a 14m2 flatbed tiny houses? Is detox just a trendy craze or does it bring out any good? In this short essay, I am going to attempt to answer the three questions: What are the factors that have led to the appearance and being of minimal life style? How does it work? And what does it actually mean in personal scale as well as in term of social phenomenon?
I was never used to a world of stuff. Growing up in an environment of scarcity where everyone struggled in the fight against post-war poverty, I might have been among the least well-offs of all. But the living was not so bad. We were poor but contented. In fact, things were easier back in the days where we had little and therefore had nothing to compare our own financial situation with. Adopting the free market policy in 1986, however, Vietnam started its economic boom in the late 90s, things have since changed dramatically. People got introduced to a new world of merchandises, products and choices so diverse and so increasingly multiplied that we’d throw ourselves into them with joy and amazement. The kind of liberating happiness of an inhibited child being in the supermarket for the first time.
Happy child I was, I started to collect stuff. Clothes, shoes, skincare products, makeups, decors, stationeries. Tiny beautiful things gradually stacked up in piles, crowding my small room. Then I hoarded even more junks when finishing university and entering the professional world. More money, more things. On one hand, there is the need to keep up with colleagues, with friends, to stay on top, to be trendy and up-to-date. We try our best to live up the social norms imposed on the first generation who is able to experience luxury. On the other hand, with little time left in hand after long hours at work, choices for entertainment and self-development turn out to be extremely limited. “Shopping, spending, spree” to waste the hard-earned salary then becomes an easy amusement, a quick fix that leaves room for the excuse to continue the vicious cycle of working and spending. More money, more things. All brand new, rarely used.
There is no limit to consumerism, argued Baudrillard (1978) in his work of “Le système des objets” (The system of objects), as it is not the stuff that we consume but rather the meanings, the signs they convey through an enforcing media and communication system that lays foundations for our modern society. The induced need to be different controls us without our awareness and consciousness while at the same time, we are obliged to conform to the same code, the same signs implying that we are so different, together, from one another, and from other groups. In “La société de consommation” (The society of consumption, 1996), he explained that the new rules of the game require that each of us player fulfil three different roles: the worker (employee), the payer (for taxes and mortgages) and, inevitably, the consumer. We are encouraged to consume to maximize our existence by multiplying our resources, contacts, relationships. It is a way to adopt and sustain a certain social status and attitude.
Greed may have no ends but there are definitely constraints of our attention and time. For Citton (2014), the rarity of our attention resource leads to the fact that attention has become a new economy in the age of surplus and abundance. This does not only apply to cultural products as he points out in his essay “Pour une écologie de l’attention” (For an ecology of attention) but also, I believe, to material stuff. Beside the price tags of goods, there are also implicit costs. Francine Jay (2010) in her raved guide of minimal living “The Joy of Less” emphasizes the effects of hoarding disorder. Owning too much stuff costs us time, effort and energy to not only research, choose, buy things but also to use, sort, maintain and finally cast them away. In a study published in 2012 titled “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century,” researchers at U.C.L.A. observed 32 middle-class Los Angeles families and found that all of the mothers’ stress hormones spiked during the time they spent dealing with their belongings. Supporting this, Graham Hill, a serial entrepreneur, founder of TreeHugger.com, describes in the New York Times his former life as a new-money consumerist after getting a big fortune from selling his technology consultation company: “My life was unnecessarily complicated. There were lawns to mow, gutters to clear, floors to vacuum, roommates to manage (it seemed nuts to have such a big, empty house), a car to insure, wash, refuel, repair and register and tech to set up and keep working. To top it all off, I had to keep Seven (his personal shopper) busy. And really, a personal shopper? Who had I become? My house and my things were my new employers for a job I had never applied for.”
Payne (2010) crystalizes his several studies into the four pillars of excess: having too much stuff, too many choices, too much information and too much speed, all of which have led to modern social anxiety, various types of disorder and clinically dysfunction at very young age. Material stuff fills the void of our life. Step by step, it conquers every single bit of the physical and spiritual space. It eats up our liberty as too many choices overwhelm us and quickly wear out the initial satisfaction of having them. Payne pledges that “Too many choices erodes happiness, robbing kids of the gift of boredom which encourages creativity and self-directed learning. And most importantly “too much” steals precious time.” At first, we might try to organize things, sorting out and categorizing stuff into boxes and containers to get a sense of control over the abundant. But in fact, we just create a new clutter of organizers to organize the existing clutters. Finally, we surrender our entire life to the excess. But when consumerist living reaches its climax, or as Hill puts it, “the things I consumed ended up consuming me”, there are people who start to fight back.
Either suffocated by their cramped possessions or frustrated by the coercion of the society to comply by the rules, or both, they try to break away from both material and emotional baggage. They minimize their stuff to essentials, from furniture, clothing, books, food to household appliances. They go through drawers, shelves, cupboards, wardrobes and storage rooms trying to get rid of unwanted junk. Like Hill, some of these people also venture to downsize their living space. In contrast to the young and poor urbanists who have to put up with small, cramped apartments in metropolis, they willingly adopt the concept, consequently giving rise to the new business of customized tiny houses built on flatbeds on wheels that are transportable in the US, Australia and New Zealand markets. Then there is a detoxing wave that quickly turns from alimentation to digital cleansing where people go on a social media fast, limiting the time of online sharing, scrolling and seeking outside validation, clearing the contact list in their electrical devices, or even better, discarding completely the smart phone and tablet. Payne even suggests a simplified upbringing for our offspring so as to have better, more secure and happier future generations free of physical burden and psychological crowdedness.
There are several reasons why people from highly civilized community fashion the decluttering trend, whether it is time or health or sanity, whether it is to achievement of dreams or to join force to protect our planet, whether it is to find self-worth or self-sufficiency from within. More than just concerning material possessions, minimalists claim that it is the state of mind, the philosophy of life that lies at the centre of this inverse change. Learning from ancient great thinkers or Zen masters, they attempt to simplify their life in order to reacquire the space to breathe, to regain the sense of control over the mental and physical world by setting boundaries to who and what is allowed to let into their life. Going with less means they have more time, more energy to focus on their top priorities, to really live fully and appreciate the few things they have. The more distractions due to excessive presence of surrounding objects are reduced, the easier it becomes to focus, to be mindful and thus to be more productive. Besides, it is not a coincidence that most minimalists are vegetarians, vegans or at least trying to cut down meat intakes. Detoxifying their meal portions does not only mean a pursuit for a healthier body but also a personal statement of consciousness of environment conservation.
Many associate minimalism with slow living, for they share so many similar features. The two seem to overlap in fostering personal development, sharpening the mind and spirit and generating peacefulness and self-satisfaction. Nevertheless, to some certain extent, minimalism and consumerism might just happen to be the two sides of the same coin. While they seem to be from two different ends of the spectrum, they are related at the core. Most people who claim to be minimalists tend to have been a serious hoarder in the first place, notably from a privileged background or favourable financial situation. They have experienced consumerism at a massive scale and therefore, only they can become legitimated to overthrow material surplus. Moreover, they are the ones who directly or indirectly have to streamline their living to suit the new mode of development. Getting organized, shedding the unnecessary, thriving to be more effective to get more things done, moving lighter and faster. Like Ryan Bingham. The ever-increasingly high acceleration rate of our society has penetrated into every aspect of life that requires a collective effort to stay synchronized (Rosa, 2014) and in one way or another, it is impossible to stand outside looking in. Everyone is still in it. Everyone is affected. That includes minimalists too, which they might argue though. In their effort of going against the grain, they conform to the societal behavioural code of differentiation.
As for me, a former shopaholic, after two year in 5 European countries, moving every six months or so, the weight of my baggage became a painful tumour to the point I basically lived out of two suitcases. All the belongings had been reduced to the very basics, well-chosen, well-fit, well-used. For the first time, I felt liberated. Not only could I live comfortably with limited resources but that also allowed me to be more creative, innovative and concentrated. The perk of living minimally is at its best for frequent travellers like Hill and Bingham. But once they are no longer constantly on the go and start to settle down, things can add up quite quickly together with attachments formed, responsibilities established with family and kids, which threatens the sustainability of this frugal lifestyle. There is also an element of boringness and repetition that threatens the durance of ‘living more with less’ if done for a long period of time without creative twists and adaptations. Many capsule-wardrobe enthusiasts and tiny house owners have failed to keep this up for longer than a year. Take Matilda Kahl’s case for example. Featured on Harper’s Bazaar, in 2013, the then Saatchi & Saatchi Art Director decided to wear the same outfit to office every single working day, which caused a sensational reaction on social networks, followed by various talks on media, inspiring thousands of people at workplace, especially those at Saatchi, to form a simple dress code with a view to focusing more on effectivity and quality of outcomes. Yet after four years, now Creative Director of Sony Sweden, she was reported to keep intact her work clothing but expand extensively her going-out fashion and shoe collection.
There lies a question of balance, of simplifying without draining the creativity juice, of flourishing one’s inner life by channelling one’s time, resource, energy and attention. Going minimal without the right mindset is just as dangerous as going hoarding. In the battle against consumerism, after all, it is necessary to reduce to the essentials but not to leave out the poetry.
Arnold, E. J., Graesch, P. A., Ragazzini, E., Ochs, E. Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2012
Baudrillard, J., Le systeme des objets, Gallimard, 1978
Baudrillard, J., La société de consummation, Gallimard, 1996
Citton, Y., Pour une écologie de l’attention, La couleur des idées, 2014
Hill, G. “Living With Less. A Lot Less.” The New York Times, 10/03/2013,
www.nytimes.com/2013/03/10/opinion/sunday/living-with-less-a-lot-less.html accessed 17/1/2017
Jay, K., The Joy of Less – A Minimalist Living Guide: How to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify Your Life, Anja Press, 2010
Kahl, M. “Why I Wear The Exact Same Thing to Work Every Day”, Harper’s Bazaar, 03/04/2015 http://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/a10441/why-i-wear-the-same-thing-to-work-everday/ accessed 26/12/2016
Payne, J. K., Ross, M. L., Simplicity Parenting, Ballantine Books, 2010.
Rosa, H. “La logique d’escalade de la modernité”, Libération, 20/11/2014
Up In The Air. Dir. Jason Reitman. Paramount Pictures, 2009. Film
Willett, M. “This woman has worn the same outfit to work every single day for the past 4 years”, Business Insider, 31/03/2016 http://www.businessinsider.com/matilda-kahl-wears-same-outfit-to-work-2016-3 accessed 27/12/2016