Objects and Minimalism: on shedding possessions and reinventing ourselves

By Ailish Woollett | October 8, 2018

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Every two years or so, I have the urge to throw away all of my possessions. The catalyst for this cry for ritual shedding is usually one of the following:

1. Thinking about the storage boxes under my bed, which have moved from one house to another without being opened in three years.

2. The end of a busy week, when I realise that the items that I have made use of since Monday could fit into a carry-on suitcase.

Now, I have moved house, I am enacting my thought experiment. I survey the specific, limited amount of items I transported to Edinburgh. I have selected, appraised and discarded, whittling my possessions down to the most ‘important’.

I am struck by how the objects I have selected conform to theories around consumerism and object ownership. My possessions are either: manifestations (to remind me of who I am), sentimental (reminding me of a time or person), or signs (communicating values or interests to others).

Our possessions act as a physical extension of the intangible self. Dr. Russell Belk examines this idea in Possessions and the Extended Self. He says that “in claiming that something is ‘mine’, we also come to believe that the object is ‘me’” (140-141). Our possessions provide “a sense of past and tells us who we are, where we have come from, and perhaps where we are going (160). They make manifest aspects of our personalities and help us maintain concrete conceptions of self.

Belk also cites a study by Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton which theorises that often the objects that we treasure, “symbolize other people (e.g., gifts from people, photographs of people)” (141). Therefore, holding on to these objects is a way to maintain connection with relationships that are important to us. Especially considering that just as our objects extend our selves, gifts or heirlooms “retain a part of the extended self of valued others”(149).

Finally, the objects that we consume and possess function within a system of signs. In The Consumer Society, Jean Baudrillard theorises that consumption is based on a language of signs. We use our objects and possessions to communicate our values and ideology – “having the same code in common” and “sharing the same signs” (92). I carefully selected which objects to display on my bookcase based on what I hoped they would signify to others.

Given the importance of these possessions, I wonder what would happen if I willingly discarded them all. I fantasise about closing my eyes, saying “Take it all!” When I open my eyes, everything will have been whisked away to charity shops. I wonder, perversely, what I would miss. The discarding of possessions can be cathartic in that you are destroying past versions of yourself. It can also be liberating to discard physical representations of past memories.  Fundamentally, we discard possessions only when they “no longer fit our view of ourselves” (Belk, 159).

So far in these aforementioned texts, I have only found a few mentions of willingly giving up belongings or living anti-consumerist lifestyles. Belk hypthosises that “the stronger the individual’s unextended or core self, the less the need to acquire, save, and care for a number of possessions forming a part of the extended self” (159). Furthermore, he suggests that willingly discarding does not result in the same trauma as unwillingly losing possessions. However, this may only be because we no longer identify with them.

Baudrillard claims that “this counter-discourse” of moderate consumption still establishes itself in relation to other signs. The repudiation of objects is still a form of signalling. In announcing the conspicuous lack, it “establishes no real distance, is as immanent in consumer society as any of its other aspects”(196). Even as a minimalist, I am still participating in a commodified language of signs; minimalism itself has become a conscious aesthetic and brand as part of the consumerist society.

In his book Consumption, Robert Bocock says that “Consumption is founded on a lack – a desire for something not there” (69). It is never-ending. If I were to give up all of my possessions, would I experience a “lack”, a de-stabilising of my core self and regret? Belk claims that a traumatic loss of possessions results immediately in “an attempt at self-restoration” (143). If the loss is willing, does the longing for completion that consumption is based on, result in this same restoration and possessing anew?

This explains, perhaps, why I have never succeeded in my purging. The boxes are still under my bed. I have a bag full of notes, flyers and souvenirs from the last five years. I have two cardboard boxes full of old birthday cards. I have a suitcase of childhood stuffed animals. I have collections of ornaments, arcade prizes, gifts from friends, bowls belonging to my grandmother. In The Consumer Society, Baudrillard concludes that “the Object is nothing and that behind it stands the tangled void of human relations” (196).

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About Ailish

Ailish is studying her MSc in Literature and Modernity at the University of Edinburgh. She enjoys writing and editing, based in Manchester and Edinburgh. Her poetry has been published in Peacock Journal, The Harpoon Review, and Sea Foam Magazine. She can be contacted at: ailishwoollett@gmail.com.

Works Cited:

Baudrillard, Jean. The Consumer Society : Myths and Structures. Sage, 1998.

Belk, Russell W. “Possessions and the Extended Self.” Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 15, no. 2, 1988, pp. 139–168.

Bocock, Robert. Consumption. Routledge, 1993.

Image taken from: http://www.modernhometips.com/bedroom-accessories/

Edited by Natalie Wall and Gabriel Smith

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