Minimalism and the Existential Consumer
Minimalism is the result of existential crisis. There we are, confronted by the mass of our possessions, when the cold nauseating wave of realization comes over us that the sum total of each item that seemed to have meaning at the time of its acquisition no longer has meaning as a whole.
An Existence Within and Without
Thus we declutter, pare down, until what we have has meaning again: things that we really use, things that are best suited for us, things that truly reflect us. We have seen that there is a point beyond this in which more is no longer more.
Because we humans search for meaning and identity, we are vulnerable to acquiring things as a way of “trying on” a persona in order to see if it fits. Many of us have remnants of enthusiasms that faded– a set of golf clubs, self-study courses, a piano–but these are usually acquisitions generated by interest. If they were generated out of a fancy for a certain image, identity, or lifestyle, then they represent something else altogether, a search to change our identity rather than to manifest it.
The emptiness of such a search leads to a museum of things that no longer represent who you are, and quite possibly who you never really were. The possessions do not reflect the identity of their owner, and the only meaning that can be deduced from them is one of Mission Failed. Choosing to get rid of them–to edit rather than curate–is therefore symbolic of moving on, hopefully to a more authentic expression of self.
But the crisis of meaning does not end there. We stop to think, how did I get to this place? What factors were in play that made me buy, acquire, shop, and desire? Where did I get this notion that my happiness would be more complete, my identity more attractive, upon the acquisition of a certain pair of shoes, a certain vase, a certain cell phone? Or even a certain house or a certain car? The answers are likely to be out there.
There is no useful meaning in life other than what we ascribe to it. Constructing systems is our way of providing the context for meaning, a natural extension of naming the elements of our world, from the animals to the stars, to identify and explain the way the world works. Whether the system is Divine, Darwinian, or Deconstructed, it serves as a way to understand our place in the world, toward giving our individual existence meaning.
Systems also serve a tangible purpose, and we create systems to serve our needs for survival, for food, clothing, and shelter, as well as spiritual and sensory fulfillment. Capitalism is one of those systems, as is consumerism, and all the sub-systems that comprise them, such as research and development, and marketing.
Over the course of history, many of our systems have become entities comprised of systems, such as churches, universities, hospitals, armies, governments, and corporations. These entities, like ourselves, have also created systems that give their existence meaning and purpose, such as research and security.
Marketing is one such entity-created system. Corporations give meaning to their existence by making and selling things. Marketing creates and sustains the desire for the things they make and sell by keeping the human psyche–our proclivity to search for identity and meaning–in a chaotic state. As long as we haven’t locked in our persona, we will keep searching–and buying. In turn, corporations provide systems that give humans tangible meaning and purpose in the form of work and money.
The realization that we are actually part of the chaos against which we try to find meaning in our existence is existential absurdity. The work/buy system is an endless rabbit-hole down which we experience confusion and desire, full of objects to be acquired and disassociation from our own best interests. Even if we can’t always put it into words, we can see it and feel it: the consumerist system.
The realization that we are ensnared in a system of meaning that is not of our own construction (consumerism) subtracts meaning from what we do (i.e., work) to enable the acquisition of the possessions we have been conditioned to desire (via marketing). Thus we experience an existential crisis. Stepping back from such a massive system leaves us facing a void of even less meaning. The natural solution is to form yet another system, such as Minimalism, with no “rules” to break or “sins” to avoid committing, but simply a point of view, a shared set of terms, a way to articulate the problem and assert ourselves.
Minimalism is not an identity, but a system that enables one to counter the larger system of consumerism. As such, it doesn’t provide the meaning for our existence, but keeps the chaos of modern life at bay enough for us to stand a chance of finding any meaning at all.