A Materialist Minimalism
The last, extremely satisfying time I threw out 90% of my shit. That's an extremely poorly-printed Corsican flag, before you ask.
One of my favorite thought experiments is pairing my life down into a single suitcase, the allowable size dependent on how escapist the underlying nature of the fantasy is. Usually I get the suitcase I take back to Buffalo for Christmas breaks, which is large and green and half my height. Other times, I've been going black carry-on. And despite the constant stream of self-pitying expletives that come out of my mouth when I'm actually packing, I absolutely love it. You know I do. Any chance to pare down my possessions into a mobile singularity just gets me SUPER excited. But it's not because I consider myself above material things. You can't bestow shit with the power of definition and not be incredibly material.
There's a lot of talk about minimalism lately, the most popular being this philosophy of organization and, by extension, life - that we should surround ourselves with only things that either 1) serve an express purpose and/or 2) make us happy. It's an anecdote for a generation overwhelmed by accumulated consumption; I think the target audience are people with shit in their closets they haven't touched in years. (And by the way, I envy you people. I have to go buy a new button-front jean skirt so I can copy Man Repeller, yours is probably still kicking from 2001.)
I'm very pro-minimalism - I am very pro-"do what makes you happy" when it comes to most things, and from their popularity, minimalist organizational philosophies do seem very effective at that indeed. But I'm not a minimalist, I've never called myself a minimalist - first of all, because I really like to buy things; secondly, because I do not possess any real self-restraint nor ability to commit to an idea and I am simultaneously slightly jealous and wary of those who do.
But what I do really like - and will happily appropriate from this philosophy - is the idea of only having a few things and having those things mean very much. Like, part two of the escapist fantasy is actually taking that suitcase and starting over somewhere, and what are the things I would take to start a new life? For me that involves function - black jeans, white tee, leather jacket, duh - and a certain degree of sentimentality. There are two material objects in this world that I'd bring - a necklace, and a hand-drawn map - and from there, it's anyone's guess. The idea is to choose from as few things as possible, and have those things be very specific and endowed with meaning and curated.
This started with gallery walls - I was writing an article about the art of curating one, the art of choosing pieces that were endowed with meaning, rather than just there to look good or whatever. Ideally, they'd be both. And I started thinking a lot about what I'd put on mine, calling to mind that old neighbor couple that everyone has, the one with all the African masks and old books stacked in corners and weird art on their living room walls; all of it would be collected over 50 years and be kind of musty but cool as fuck. So like, if I had to go through my life and pick the very specific objects that would end up on the metaphorical gallery wall of my life, as it were, what would they be?
The act of curation - the act self-definition with objects - suggests to me that it's possible to have a minimalism that's separate from consumption but not necessarily from materialism, that by trying to narrow down our things and being specific about what we own, we're opening ourselves up to the possibility of putting more thought into them than we ever were before. If the implied act of self-definition isn't necessarily literal - I can't say I'd suddenly be lost, or a different person, or maybe anything beyond temporarily disappointed if even my most treasured items disappeared - you can't escape the underlying logic: by choosing only objects that make us happy, we're giving objects the power to make us happy. To say who we are. To tell our stories. I think on some levels, unbridled consumption and accumulation is the real anti-materialism - freedom from all of our shit, because who gives a shit?
We hear a lot about minimalism in wardrobe philosophies, and I think I've argued a few times before that although I don't follow one myself, I'm fully behind minimalist wardrobe philosophies for a few reasons - the environmental impact, the financial impact, the way an edited wardrobe tends to be more consistent and cohesive - but I don't argue that they make us any less materialistic and think any less about our clothing. On a very practical level, I put approximately 500% more thought into the care and keeping of a particular sentimental (and expensive) shirt than I do one of my 4353 $5 men's Uniqlo t-shirts (except, of course, when they're new and so white and aaaaaaahhhh perfect). So I'm not suggesting that minimalism isn't without value and place, just that it's not automatically freeing in a way that we'd like to imagine.
Of course, there's the possibility of function without sentimentality, of objects without meaning. In my escapist fantasies, there have certainly been scenarios in which I run away with a winter coat, and jeans, and a single pan and plate and fork and knife. All objects easily replaced, the most necessary functions, a Swiss military-issued life. You could leave all of it in a city somewhere and replace it the next day somewhere else. Start over with fresh things, even if you can't start over as a fresh person. Does true minimalism mean a lack of sentimentality? Of objects without meaning and history? Letting only function and necessity dictate what we possess?
There's a part of me that wonders if that's possible for me. I was born nostalgic, born sentimental; a facet of my personality that's constantly at war with an equally powerful inner-vagabond. I really like to imagine that it's possible for me to leave my shit and run away, but know thyself. I'd keep that one pair of jeans I wore that one time to that one party; at least until I'd moved on to a version of myself so different that it didn't matter anymore. My mother tells me that as a child, I carried a backpack filled with my favorite toys everywhere, just in case. That obviously hasn't changed. There's an implied freedom of movement, of Boy Scout-esque preparedness. It's just my self that I'm packing up and taking with me. If that excludes me from indulging in some true minimalism, so be it. I'll be over here, thinking about my stuff.
So in sum, there's something weirdly appealing to me about creating some sort of very mobile physical expression of self. On some level that involves a very edited vision, and by necessity placing what is probably undue thought and value onto material objects. On the other hand; there's something weirdly appealing about arriving at the end of life with nothing at all besides memories, to surround myself only with the absolutely necessary. But ultimately, I don't think that having fewer things automatically grants us freedom from those things - very often, quite the contrary.
When it comes to editing the objects in our lives - and most particularly, our wardrobes - I think the ideal balance probably strikes somewhere around "Just do whatever the fuck makes you happy." Acknowledge the power that objects have to make us happy, the inherent materialism that shapes our lives and our existences - after all, even the most functional of objects demand a relationship (if your knife doesn't work very well, I doubt it will be very pleasing to you). But also acknowledge their ephemerality, the transitive nature of life and property. What makes us will change, both physically and emotionally.