Minimalism Can Bite Me

Photo credit: "Interior Roomset," by Nachetz. Flickr. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I’ve got a bone to pick with minimalism. I know, I know—kick me off Pinterest and name me a pariah of the Millennial generation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the basic premise of owning less shit to make you happier—but Minimalism is an aesthetic, not a moral ideal. It is an aesthetic, furthermore, that you have to have some pretty major bank to follow. It is not inherently good or bad, just like there is nothing moral about whether or not to display lawn flamingos. But I’m not the one saying that what you own makes you a bad person—minimalism is.

Here’s my problem with Minimalism: it’s a movement, or at least a social trend, which tells us less is more and mindless consumption is bad. At the same time, following the prescription for minimalism is nothing more than swapping out your upper class signifiers for some new ones. Okay, it can be argued that believing in minimalism doesn’t necessarily imply that you think you are morally superior to mindless consumers and hoarders. But if we’re in a bar together and you tell me that your lifestyle provides you with spiritual fulfillment by rejecting a life of vapid, status-obsessed squalor surrounded by consumer goods, I’m still going to throw my drink at you.

The thing about writing a blog post or filming a documentary about the benefits of minimalism is that it automatically comes loaded with some pretty classist assumptions about how everyone acquires and uses consumer goods. In other words, the movement against consumerism and capitalism assumes that you are already wealthy enough to opt out.

Someone preaching the gospel of minimalism assumes, for example, that you have complete and total control over the aesthetics of your living space and the items in it. Well, that’s a reasonable enough assumption, you might say! But think about it. Who but the very rich actually controls everything about how their place looks and what goes in it? For example, look around the room you are sitting in right now: Did you choose the color of your carpet? Do you own zero items purchased for you by someone else? Do you own zero items that you are socially obligated to hold on to? You would have to be quite wealthy before you could answer yes to all three questions.

Real homes of the middle and lower classes are often full of gifted nick knacks and mismatched second-hand furniture. Sure, you could decide to get rid of all of them… but what would you replace it with? And where do you get the upfront funds to do that all at once?

Minimalism assumes that you can create logical, closed sets of items in your home without either redundancy or unmet needs by clearing everything out, and then buying enough to start over. Minimalism requires that your socializing doesn’t involve paper plates and potluck dishes, but time spent in bars, restaurants and venues. Not a bag of Doritos emptied into a party-size plastic bowl, but a drink an hour plus tips and a Venmo transaction for your portion of the appetizer.

Let’s take a look at what minimalism would have me do to my own kitchen. I own a countertop toaster oven and an oven with a gas range, but no microwave. I use the toaster for side dishes and dry leftovers, and the range to heat up all liquids. (The single, solitary food item that I cannot prepare in my apartment is bagged popcorn. I once came home to find my husband trying to cook bagged popcorn in our crockpot. Don’t do this.)

According to minimalism, I don’t *need* two sources of culinary heat. Do I ditch the toaster over and just accept that toast isn’t a part of my life anymore? Do I buy a toaster to fill that gap? The answer, according to Todd, is to decide whether a morning’s quiet toast with coffee bring me more joy than the counter space to roll out dough. The reality is that I won’t get rid of my toaster oven because my next rental may not happen to have a gas range equipped in it. I’m not in a financial position to choose to have one as a non-negotiable need.

Minimalism, to take a more forgiving perspective, isn’t trying to sell me white area rugs for my industrial chic loft. It’s trying to tell me what the fuck I should do with the second cabinet drawer down where vaguely food-themed detritus collects. Where minimalism falls short, however, is the fact that I didn’t purchase every item in my junk drawer with shallow capitalistic intent. At some point, a pair of chopsticks, a medicine dropper, a 4mL scoop, and a rubber jar lid gripper with the logo of a nursing home on it ended up in my house. They weren’t quite garbage, because they had some conceivable utility left in them, so I put them out of sight. This mindless, unintentional keeping is what minimalism tries to disrupt. But middle class ideals also involve not wasting anything that can still be used, and not throwing out anything that you might have to buy later.

What does a life look like without these things? One where I don’t buy takeout Chinese for the friends that helped me move? One where I don’t drink powdered iced tea that comes with a 4mL scoop, or eat canned tomato sauce on spaghetti? Or is it just one where I throw away everything immediately after using it? I can’t help but think that minimalism wasn’t designed for takeout Chinese, powdered iced tea, and jars of spaghetti sauce. It was designed for sit-down fusion restaurants, growlers of kombucha, and home-made pasta aglio e olio.\

I have no problem with the aesthetics of minimalism. I’ll always pause to admire a photo of an empty kitchen with like two lemons on the counter. The minimalism movement lives in Pinterest pins, photo-heavy blog posts, and Instagram hashtags–it’s very visual. But compare this to one of my favorite books, the sane counterpoint to minimalism. I’m talking about The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which describes the Konmarie method and how to use it. There are no photos in that book, not even descriptions of the living spaces that the author tidies for a living. The entire book is nearly devoid of class and status signifiers. Marie Kondo talks about the emotional drive to keep sweaters that don’t fit, not how to choose among your most worthy LPs and the relative merits of a french press.

She talks about the collections of logo’d pens that every American has. Her book doesn’t assume that there isn’t anything you don’t know how to do on your $2100 Macbook Air that would necessitate owning a pen. Meanwhile, the Pinterest brand of minimalism insists that you can ditch four half-filled spiral bound notebooks in favor of a Moleksine and a stick of drawing graphite.

Minimalism is for those who aren’t in a mindset of constant resources gathering and maintenance, and that only happens when your needs and wants are reliably met or exceeded. After all, rich folks don’t consume–they curate, acquire, and invest in superior experiences through luxury goods. It’s not that no one in the middle class has $20 of disposable income for a Nalgene water bottle. It’s just that not all of them can justify spending $20 on a thing that holds water–on an average day you might throw away three things that can hold water! This is true even if that $20 would pay for itself eventually with the money saved on disposable water bottles.  Your emotions make that judgement, not your logic. Buying and owning isn’t rational, it’s emotional. If you have it, you find a way to use it. That’s why I don’t know a single middle class person who doesn’t own something that was once used in a wedding reception.

At the end of the day, Minimalism just feels like one more thing to feel shitty about not doing, like meditation, or journaling, or cleaning your makeup brushes. That doesn’t mean that minimalism is evil or that you’re stupid if try to follow it. If you’ve got the cash, have at it. Pin away. Put out lemons on your counter. Just do me and the rest of the world a favor–keep it to yourself that you’ve apparently reached Nirvana, and sure as shit don’t tell me that you’ve achieved total freedom by casting off the trappings of consumerism.