CULTURE & ARTS
07/15/2015 08:25 am ET Updated Jul 16, 2015

Salute Your Shorts

Our resident magical thinker makes sense of the year's most baffling craze.
In defense of believing your objects are alive.
Priscilla Frank / HuffPost
In defense of believing your objects are alive.

This is about a book you’ve either heard too much about or nothing at all. (If you’ve heard about it at all, you’ve probably heard too much.) It’s called The Life Changing Magic Of Tidying Up. Translated into English late last year after unexpected success in Japan, it has rapidly become a phenomenon in America. Think-pieces, like this one, still flow. The backlash has come and possibly gone. The backlash to the backlash is here, so there’s no telling.

My love affair started with the title. The contrast got me, of “life-changing magic” and “tidying up.” Since when has tidying been transformative, except for the place being tidied?

The book sees cleaning as an acid trip or vow of silence, a way to self-knowledge. It’s how some readers have come to see cleaning too -- readers, like me, in love with a strange, slim manual we were never meant to read. 

 

An infomercial aura wafts off anything to do with the franchise (sequels are planned). This makes sense. The book is extreme and so the people jawing about it probably are too. It’s been called the juice cleanse of 2015. Its author, a dainty 30-year-old named Marie Kondo, says that those who follow her way -- the KonMari Method, applied for years now in her clients’ homes -- lose weight, quit stale jobs, meet long-standing goals. Critics often charge without having read the book, so bombastic are the claims. Missing key points, they trigger fans, who fight back.

My hope is not to join the fray but to make a side note, on the aspect of the book most lost in translation. Like a streak of ugliness that makes a beautiful face exceptional, it is a quality difficult to understand, and so it has either been obliquely referenced by reviewers or mocked outright.

I’m referring to Kondo’s belief that her objects are alive. 

Stated more or less just like that (p. 280, iBook edition: “I began to treat my objects as if they were alive when I was a high school student”), the confession spoke to me. I grew up in a Hindu household, taught to see divinity in all things. In my child’s mind the notion translated to a sort of mania. Being in my room was like reading The Velveteen Rabbit on speed. I anthropomorphized with abandon. Every object in sight seemed to throb with a kindly, tree-like consciousness. I could not fathom how to rid myself of these creatures and so they piled up around me, in boxes only opened when new objects needed storing.

Marie Kondo also grew up inferring a flexible life force. She worked part-time at a Shinto shrine and was moreover raised in Japan, where Shinto beliefs, rooted in animism, inform life, as Christianity still shapes modern America. At mealtimes, Japanese families thank not the creator, but the food itself.

The book's hit line, which you may have heard in some ambient way even if you didn’t realize what it was about, is to keep only those things that “spark joy.” To assess joy is to think of oneself, and readers the world over have no problem with this.

The confusion arises with the joy of inanimate others. KonMari folding, for instance, demands upright square “packets,” defended not only as more accessible, space-saving and less chaotic than the classic vertical stack, but kinder. “Just imagine how you would feel if you were forced to carry a heavy load for hours," Kondo writes of the objects at the bottom of the stack. 

 Videos exist all over the web, including right here on The Huffington Post, of Kondo demonstrating how to fold -- socks, bras, shirts -- in her own indomitable way.

It is a line custom built for the closet animist, and the point in the rule where some cultural commentators have balked. It was all going so well with the folding. "When we start talking about hurting our socks' feelings," opined a writer last month, "have things gone too far?"

In the history of sock rights, Kondo is a pioneer blazing out of nowhere. She describes them as tireless workers, caught between foot and shoe in a sliver of space, rubbed and smelly by the day's end -- usually, let’s face it, despised. Kondo advises us never to ball them, comparing the action to unwittingly hurting a friend. “At the time, you were totally unconcerned, oblivious to the other person’s feelings. This is somewhat similar to the way many of us treat our socks,” she writes.

Reading this, I felt a thrill of recognition. Here was a functioning human who thought like me, only at a level so high I could not envision it on my own. Imagine my surprise at learning of the Great Sock Divide. Deep in the woods of the Internet -- having finished the book and on the hunt for fellow Konverts, as we are known -- I stumbled on a blog post by the lawyer Ann Althouse. A professor at New York University, Althouse is a prolific blogger with an unsentimental style. This title was dire: “A Warning About That Tidying Up Book.”

Althouse proposes a caveat to her previous recommendation for the book that launched a trillion think pieces. Halfway through reading, she discovered what she characterizes as an insidious religious creep, of Shintoism. She mentions the socks, of course, as well as Kondo’s description of returning home at the end of each day. Like Ricky calling out to Lucy, our heroine shouts a greeting... to her house. She then thanks her items verbally while returning them to their own homes, congratulating each for work well done.

In the comments section, dozens of readers echoed Althouse's reservations, citing Kondo's apparent mental break as the book's only limiting factor. As I delved further into forums, I saw that readers around the country, perfectly willing to fold a certain way, clean by category and sort like with like, stop short at personifying household items. A poll at the office determined that my Kondo-fixated coworkers were equally conflicted, cutting off their obsession just at the point of sock petting.

Animism has long been other-ed in the West. The word itself owes its popularity to Edward Burnett Tylor, a late 19th century British anthropologist whose distaste for the primacy of the Roman Catholic worldview isn't exactly obvious when you read him today. In a series of studies on non-Western populaces, Tylor routinely invoked loaded qualifiers to separate animists from the Christian world, distinguishing the "savage fetish-worshiper" from "civilized Christians."

His tracking of theological development reinforces this hierarchy. He frames it as an ascent up to Christiandom, a movement away from animism and toward belief in a purely human soul. In Tylor's paradigm, animating the inanimate is a primitive organizing principle for communities low on the spiritual totem pole. These beliefs in particular formed in his mind the bright line between cultures. Diffuse animism, as he called it, ruled the savage world. Faith in the human soul alone organized the evolved Christian one.

The West has only recently begun to take an animistic worldview seriously, due to the study of quantum mechanics. The late abstract physicist David Bohm liked to talk about the "unfolding of everything," a Hindu-sounding phrase to do with links between living and non-living things. The behavior of certain subatomic particles, shown to change in the presence of a viewer, seems at the least not to rule out total interconnectedness, and at the most to support it.

What Bohm called a "fragmented" worldview, so long a hallmark of modern society, he blamed for man's bad behavior. "The attempt to live according to the notion that the fragments are really separate is, in essence, what has led to the growing series of extremely urgent crises that is confronting us today," he wrote in the book Wholeness And The Implicate Order. "Thus, as is now well known, this way of life has brought about pollution, destruction of the balance of nature, over-population, world-wide economic and political disorder, and the creation of an overall environment that is neither physically nor mentally healthy for most of the people who have to live in it."

Herein lies the true genius of Kondo, ignored by all those readers who refuse to think magically about their objects. If our homes are a microcosmic universe, why not adopt a non-dualistic approach to all its living and non-living things? To echo Bohm, the fragmented view of an ecosystem ruled by humankind alone seems to lead inevitably to ruin. When we don't consider our items' wellbeing we may well engage in destructive behaviors: overcrowding them by buying more items (shirts, books, cooking pans) than we truly need; ignoring them until the wear has built up to an irreversible point; resenting the memories they ignite, of a time when we were slimmer, happier, freer, and so shoving the offending object into a dark corner instead of releasing it to an owner who might love it anew.

Even if it is a delusion, non-dualism has subjective value. Consider the mundane example of the classic gym rat. Someone who exercises daily likely understands that long-term sustained exercise yields true benefits. Irrationally, that same person may feel worse on a day exercise goes skipped. The body's particles feel new, or maybe more accurately, older, without having changed significantly. This feeling could be useful. For those who feel it acutely, it inspires daily discipline.

Kondo thinks similarly. She points out that when we touch our clothes -- items must be touched, she says, to measure joy -- we enact a version of tei-at, Japanese for healing, translated literally as, “to apply hands.” As in healing, Kondo believes an energy passes between a toucher and her clothes. By handling them we also perform a useful daily discipline. We find pulled thread and stains, which we can fix. A piece of clothing surely benefits from scrutiny, as does an owner's appearance. 

This is storage by the free range model, rather than factory farm. Two commitments must be made: not only adequate space but exercise. Items not in use deserve a better life elsewhere. It's a clever turning of animism on itself: a way to discourage those who imagine their objects to depend on them for life from keeping those objects forever.

It's not like we haven't been here before.

Kondo draws a parallel to athletes who essentially worship their equipment, babying baseball mitts or storing soccer cleats with superstitious care, and perhaps performing better for it. The idea that treatment of objects influences quality of action is a given to a devout Hindu. Every year, the custom is to pray to key books (the ones that would survive a Kondo purge), as if to a statue of Ganesha. I remember selecting a math book as a young girl, expecting a mutual exchange. With enough respect, I believed, the book would open itself to me as it might not otherwise. 

In colloquial terms, we call these acts personification. Americans personify constantly. You can see it in every aspect of culture, when a newscaster calls Hurricane Katrina “angry,” or a child babies a favorite blanket.

We did it en masse in 2000 watching “Castaway,” the movie in which Tom Hanks plays a postal worker stranded on an empty island with only a volleyball to keep him company. The volleyball -- Wilson -- was the breakout star. Some reviewers called, half in jest, for an Oscar nomination. Numerous YouTube videos run compilations only of Wilson’s scenes, including the kicker: Wilson bobbing away, its (his?) dried blood face unmoving as Hanks cries his goodbye.

Shintoism gives this perspective formal recognition. Not only plants and animals but inanimate objects are thought to harbor kami, or spirits, some of which are famous and have names. Even atheists in Japan know them, a familiarity that makes Kondo play differently at home. Footage of her speaking to Japanese audiences show listeners laughing along when she talks about sparking joy, or tokimeki, a term that can also be used for puppy love. Kondo twists it for object-love partly to “get a rise out of her audience,” says Eriko Ogihara-Schuck, a professor and scholar of Japanese culture.

America has never known quite what to do with the Shinto elements of imported Japanese pop culture. In promoting the fabulist cartoon movies of Hayao Miyazaki, for instance, U.S. marketers erased them altogether. Stateside posters for 1984’s “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” one of Miyazaki’s first hits, misrepresent the plot, centered on a girl and a giant insect imbued with a kami. Where Japanese posters place both girl and insect on the same visual plane, American posters turned the “horizontal relationship vertical,” says Ogihara-Schuck, who wrote a book on the subject, instead standing an army of humanoid figures on the insect’s head, most of which are not even characters in the movie.

On the left, the Japanese poster for Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind; on the right, the American.
Wikipedia
On the left, the Japanese poster for Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind; on the right, the American.

The Japanese and American posters for Nausicaä of the Valley Of The Wind, from left to right.

Even “Princess Mononoke,” Miyazaki’s most celebrated film in the West, didn’t make it over unscathed. In Miramax’s posters, the story of a princess living in harmony with animal gods in a forest emphasizes instead the character Ashitaka, “a male prince figure who mediates between this animal world and the human world,” Ogihara-Schuck says.

From a seller's perspective, this cultural discomfort comes in handy. The director Spike Jonze capitalized on it three years ago in an ad for Ikea, which went viral. In it, a woman puts a used lamp onto the sidewalk. A storm whips through the trees, and all is shot from the lamp's perspective. At the last minute, a man pops into the frame to jolt viewers from the pangs anyone reared on Disney movies is surely feeling. “Many of you feel bad for this lamp,” he says. “That is because you're crazy. It has no feelings. And the new one is much better."

This is the sort of mixed messaging that can lead to mental distress. Researchers have identified links between pathological levels of hoarding and anthropomorphism, chiefly among Western populaces. In other words, Americans who believe objects are conscious have trouble throwing them away. One landmark study isolated the link using a cultural filter. Looking at students at a university in China, where animism also shapes national mythology, researchers found that Chinese people who anthropomorphize don’t show higher likelihood to hoard, whereas Americans do.

That may be because the Chinese see nothing wrong in it. “In cultures where it is more normative to anthropomorphize maybe it isn’t as problematic if you do,” suggests Kiara Timpano, the lead author of the study.

In America, the struggle is real. Paula Kotakis, a retired museum security guard in California, found that her inclination to see paintings as alive made her an unusual employee. She was diligent, but also extreme.

“I would get insanely upset if the light was too bright, or the temperature too cold.” Kotakis told me recently, speaking on the phone from her home. “I was always doing reports,” she laughed. “Driving my supervisors crazy.”

At home, Kotakis’s anthropomorphism was a burden. Her house filled up with the mundane stuff of daily life: mailings, receipts, food containers. In the book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding And The Meaning Of Things, a landmark study of hoarding in America, she recounts how hard it was for her to get rid of a yogurt container. As she told researchers Randy Frost and Gail Steketee, she knew the dilemma was absurd, but she couldn't stop herself. She worried that the container sitting in the recycling bin was “humid,” and therefore uncomfortable. That yogurt is a benevolent food source, conveying useful matter like probiotics and protein, only made it worse. Kotakis felt paralyzed by the clear presence of life.

“Even though I knew it was plastic, good bacteria lives in it,” she says. “I wanted to do right by it.”

Kotakis' guilt wasn't typical. No nightmare islands of ocean trash haunted her, only the twists awaiting the container on the path to rebirth. She wasn’t sending a child to war, but she agonized as if she were.

I apprised her of Kondo's one-two punch: to thank the items on their way out, and honor those staying. If items in the house are treated like living things requiring space, wouldn't hoarding break down?

Marie Kondo demonstrates a key part of her folding technique.
HuffPost
Marie Kondo demonstrates a key part of her folding technique.

She gave it to me quickly, pulling off the Band-Aid: KonMari-ing requires empty space, the first step being to heap every like thing in a pile. Not only is space typically nonexistent for a true sufferer, a key pathology is a tendency to over-categorize. A pile of apples that might seem unified to a normative householder, concurred Timpano later -- the cross-cultural researcher -- could look infinitely varied to someone who hoards, each fruit distinguishable by a bruise, a stem, a leaf. 

Kotakis referred me to a friend who'd read the book, Jackie Lannin, a fellow battler of hoarding urges. I felt the original quest for like-minded souls coming to a close. Here, surely, would be someone who shared my unique love of Kondo.

Lannin sounded less cheery I than expected. She told me she appreciated the rigor of the method and the ritualized "funeral" for objects on their way out, many of which Kondo thanks and sometimes hugs. But she wasn't sold on Kondo herself. Like me, she'd identified with the cleaning guru more than she expected, seeing in her obsessiveness a person "on the spectrum." Unlike me, this bothered her. Why should one obsessive's pathology be celebrated -- Lannin described Kondo as "coming up like a rose" -- when someone who hoards is made to feel like a freak?

I immediately thought of Kondo's advice never to force a loved one to purge but only to show by doing, letting them come to the point of change on their own. Surely I could get the beauty of this position across to Lannin, its implication that whatever popularity the method has reflects only how much it's needed.

As this essay shows, I know how to gently inform. "Well," I started, my heartbeat quickening, "if you read chapter three..."

CONVERSATIONS