Posts Tagged ‘clutter’


Clutter Panic!

Monday, October 25th, 2010

American lifestyle magazines and reality shows are relentlessly on-message, at the moment, when it comes to clutter. Forget any romantic notions about the artist/genius whose studio/office looks like a disaster zone, or the un-uptight family (e.g., the Sycamores in Frank Capra's 1938 comedy You Can't Take it With You, or George Bailey's happy family in It's A Wonderful Life) that collectively refuses to stress out about domestic disorder. The media's message today is 100% modern, all business: Clutter is never OK.

The aesthetic of the spa, which is evoked by the layout of magazines like Real Simple and Martha Stewart's Body+Soul, is a modernist one: spartan, lots of white space, restful for the eyes because there's so little to see. Le Corbusier described a “white world” of precision, clarity, and order, and a “brown world” that is cluttered and muddled; the former is modernist, the latter romantic. But the former is the aesthetic of Dabney Coleman's evil corporate boss in Nine to Five (1980); the latter is Lily Tomlin's heroic aesthetic in that movie. The former is the Death Star aesthetic of the bad guys in Star Wars; the latter is the Millennium Falcon/Tattooine aesthetic. Which side of the Force are you on?*


From the dominant cultural perspective, clutter is a symptom and sign of an out-of-control, excessive lifestyle. There's also a social class angle: yards littered with rusty vehicles, sprung couches, and lawn ornaments are the first thing to disappear when a working-class or poor neighborhood is gentrified. However, in recent years, the moral discourse around clutter — it dates back to the Puritans — has been medicalized, lent a scientific aura. The title page of a feature article (shown above) found in an issue of the magazine Weight Watchers speaks volumes about the mainstream anti-clutter position. "Getting a handle on clutter is the key to living better — and losing more [weight]."

As the author of the feature shown above puts it, "in the same way we surround ourselves with so much clutter, we overwhelm our bodies with caloric clutter." I'm pretty sure that this statement is what Aristotle would call an example of ignoratio elenchi, i.e., an argument characterized by a conclusion that does not logically follow from the stated premises… but let it pass. The dominant cultural theme is apparent: Men and women whose homes or workplaces aren't spartan and tidy are fatally, suicidally self-indulgent. In an economy that encourages workers to be rolling stones, it's forbidden to gather moss.

Many other magazine features, particularly in women's magazines, link clutter to psychological stress. In the same way we surround ourselves with clutter, one pseudo-expert after another warns, we overwhelm our fragile sense of wellbeing with mental clutter. Reality TV shows like TLC's Clean Sweep and A&E's Hoarders take this meme to its logical extreme: they visit the homes of obsessive-compulsive clutterers and, in doing so, encourage the viewer to ask him- or herself, "How close am I to being one of them?"

Despite my snarky tone, I'm not opposed to keeping one's household or workspace neat and tidy. Nor do I disagree that Americans consume too much, goods- and food-wise. However, marketers and others looking for an emergent way to signify psychological wellbeing or balanced lifestyle should think carefully before adopting the usual modernist aesthetic. A romantic, cluttered "brown" aesthetic is due for a comeback any time now.

* See Gareth Lewis's recent Semionaut post suggesting that in the UK it's not necessary to choose sides in the clutter vs. order culture-wars.

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Posted in Americas, Brand Worlds, Consumer Culture, Contributions from, Culture, Disciplines, Emergence, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

Angles and Bangles

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Sometimes, two wholly oppositional codes appear on the end of a semiotician’s fork at the same time, leaving the practice of coding culture neither figuratively nor literally straightforward. Indeed, one of the challenges facing commercial semiotics in a post-structuralist cultural landscape is to account for memetic intermingling, unholy copulations. I want to look at one such instance here.

The clothing, furniture and stationary shop MUJI is a fine exponent (though hardly an original architect) of a coding species that has become an alpha staple of the UK retail market over the past three years or so. Specialising in the streamlined production of minimally packaged, logoless consumer goods, the MUJI shop floor is a place of almost yogic quietude. Admittedly, there’s usually someone going berserk at the doodle-pad, but overall the place is calm and curative. Its unforced tidiness appeals to the Obsessive Compulsive in us all.

I’ll paint you a picture. In the MUJI Universe, nobody has a name exceeding one syllable in length. In fact, people answer to a single, lower case letter. Discussion is kept to an absolute minimum (banter is baggage, after all). It’s a place of flawless complexions and soothing smiles. Everybody’s outfit looks like it began life as an envelope, and will one day return to that blissful, postal state. There isn’t an Apple laptop in sight (No Logo's Allowed), but the whole experience is a bit like being sucked into an iPad down a black hole app. In the store itself, ask for help and it arrives in three neat steps: the employee calmly acknowledges the customer’s predicament, gently whispers the word “follow," then glides across the shop floor to The Point Of Desired Object. I exaggerate. But only a little.

Now, contrast this with the ramshackle appeal of a hipster café. Combination, miscellany and baroque-mockery is the order of the day. No room for a right angle. In my own local, every surface has an object nailed to it (many are oil paintings — think Robert Duncanson with a Dalek twist). There’s a wall-mounted ginger cat, a manikin sans abdomen that props up the bar, and a garrulous clientele with haircuts that would give M.C. Escher a migraine. (Incidentally, you can detect palpable and quite toxic opposition to this kind of lifestyle coding emerging in the UK. There’s nothing particularly idiosyncratic about wearing lime green Wayfarers — so the thinking goes — and nothing clever about orthodontic neglect). The point here, though, is that these two codes emerged in unison. Traditionally, commercial semiotics has tended to order and portion. It likes to sit on the stationer’s side of the divide. Do we need to adapt our methodologies to map an evolving cultural cloth?

The binary detailed here feels particularly extreme. In fact, it seems more than ever to support the argument for a neat and tidy breakdown. But then there’s always that guy at the doodle pad, losing his head while all about him are keeping theirs. And the girl in the hipster café draws Lego antlers in a plain rectangular notebook that looks awfully familiar.

Semiotic analysts need to remain open to the possibility of cultural cross-pollination, even in instances where it seems least likely.

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Posted in Consumer Culture, Contributions from, Europe, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense | 1 Comment »