Has the current mania for household organization gone a little too far?
· sculptures by David Mach
An otherwise competent professional couple has lived in a new house for four-and-a-half years and is still tripping over unpacked moving boxes. A middle-class mom and dad have forbidden their children from entering the home office for fear they will be crushed by piled-up files. An average suburban family has been chased out of its living room by Disney collectibles. These people are right in the zone that makes reality TV work: their messes are freakish enough to be entertaining, recognizable enough to be uncomfortably compelling. Most of us have some secret stash of trash.
The question asked by 1- 800-got-junk ?, one of North America’s fastest-growing removal services, is purely rhetorical. Yes, we’ve got junk, and the issue of what we do, or don’t do, with that junk has gone beyond being a practical problem with a practical solution. Our collective obsession with organization disguises itself as sane and sensible, but is actually loaded with unsettling implications. Those seagrass baskets and faux-leather magazine files are being filled up, all right—with irrational impulses and delusions of control.
As a culture we recognize that the aimless accumulation of things is an unhealthy addiction. (Messies Anonymous, neatly alphabetized between Marijuana Anonymous and Methadone Anonymous, is now a twelve-step program.) But we have yet to recognize that organization can be just as compulsive. The current mania for organization is not necessarily clutter’s opposite: sometimes it’s a complement, an enabler, a sneaky, evil twin. Taken together, the drive to accumulate and the drive to eliminate make up the binge-and-purge, all-or-nothing dynamic that characterizes North American consumption, whether it’s of food, shoes, sex, or stuff.
Basic organization, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing. Putting keys where you can find them, picking up wet towels, not using the stove to store old newspapers—these are all good things. As Ye Sweep, So Shall Ye Reap, a recent sociological study by academics from Columbia, Northwestern, and the University of Michigan, claims a direct link between a clean, well-organized household and the educational and financial success of the children raised there. The new organization industry goes way beyond these common-sense observations, however. The danger doesn’t come from isolated instances of organizational extremism (such as the loopy suggestion by the author of The One-Minute Organizer that children who have a hard time getting started in the morning should be put to bed wearing their school clothes). The real issue is that organization is being inflated into an all-embracing principle that can solve all the problems of contemporary North American life. The anti-mess mavens at lifeorganizers.com promise to teach you how to organize your “Home, Office, Time, Finances, Family, Spirit, Mind & Soul,” as if these were all equivalent entities.
The experts’ promises dovetail with the public’s fears. Because our homes are places of refuge, they are also places dogged by insecurities. The more we feel safe and bounded, the more we are beset with niggling worries that something will somehow sneak in. The bright daytime dreams of domesticity have historically been haunted by nightmares of threat and invasion: bad drains, vermin, asbestos, radon, lead paint, toxic mould. The consequences of these household plagues are depicted as dire—and toxic mould litigation has turned into a multi-million-dollar business in the US—but the causes are almost always hard to trace. Traditionally, invaders are silent and invisible, hiding behind walls, scuttling under furnaces, lurking in attics and basements, as if intent on illustrating the Desperate Housewives notion that the smooth surfaces of middle-class life are menaced by subterranean dangers.
The clutter issue marks the first time that the danger is so visible; in fact, its chief symptom is that it’s so emphatically there, right in the middle of the room, so insistent, so unavoidable, so ugly. As the latest menace to domestic felicity, disorganization is a paradoxical problem. It is bounty turned into squalor, middle-class hopes of comfort and plenty multiplied and metastasized into uncontrollable junk. The “before” images on the home-organization TV shows are lurid snapshots of a quintessentially suburban kind of sin—rooms with such a stacked-up, falling-over muddle of goods that doors are blocked, windows covered, surfaces blanketed, the air sucked out and replaced by the reek of dejection and defeat.
Organizing these messes is now big business: in media (with television shows, how-to books, and special-issue magazines); in retail (with specialized sections in most chain stores, along with storage boutiques such as Canadian Closet, Space Solutions, and For Space Sake); and in the service industry (Professional Organizers in Canada, an association that currently lists over 300 members).
Considering that one of the root causes of clutter is unchecked consumerism—organization-based TV programs are forlorn parades of unused exercise equipment, pointless kitchen gadgets, and neglected toys—it’s ironic that we are now trying to buy our way out. One website, iVillage.com, recently reported, in a bolt of honesty, that the latest storage crisis actually involves people purchasing too many containers. Dizzy with dreams of immaculate order, they are recklessly picking up boxes and baskets and bins, learning too late that they have no place to put them. This paradox suggests that our lust for organization is some kind of perverse endgame of consumer capitalism, as objects go into baskets, baskets go into wall units, and wall units are absorbed into dreams of that final transfiguring renovation.
Buying is easier than doing. Cheryl Mendelson, author of the bestselling housekeeping manual Home Comforts, argues that people still want well-kept houses but they no longer want to keep house. The word “nostalgia,” she points out, means homesickness, literally a painful longing for the return home. Like many nostalgists, the domestically challenged generation has become tetchy and irrational, always looking for shortcuts to that recalled (or imagined) paradise. We swoon over glossy photo spreads in Real Simple and buy desk organizers at HomeSense, when we really should be washing down walls and vacuuming mattresses. “Bedding decreases in refinement, freshness, and comfort even as sales of linens, pillows, and comforters increase,” Mendelson cautions sternly. “It is not in goods that the contemporary household is poor, but in comfort and care.”
Mendelson herself refuses to pander to this sort of weakness. There are no seductive, come-hither photographs of beautiful rooms in her book, just spare black-and-white diagrams demonstrating how to fold a circular tablecloth or iron a gathered skirt. If you want an organized, well-run home, she suggests, you need to address air quality, efficient laundering, hygienic food storage, and cleaning routines. Then, and only then, can you think about buying those wicker baskets.