ON: this mug by Meredith Grace Thompson
In a new instalment of her ON____ series (you can also read parts 1, 2, 3 and 4), Meredith Grace Thompson meditates on the politics and poetics of the thing and with it, the problem with minimalism, white privilege and knowledge itself.
I want to write about this mug—but I don’t know how. I want to write about things as such—but I don’t know how. I want to write about minimalist/minimalism YouTubers, but I just can’t seem to make it make sense. Make it. Squish into the sausage casing of an argument. It’s all falling out the ends. Squish. And sausage meat is gross. *squish*
I think this piece has defeated me.
I wanted to ask if things mattered. Things as such. Those things which make up my being as at exterior performance of my interior self. The things which make up our projection of self—our understanding of self—I wanted to write about my love of minimalist YouTubers and their clean mid-tone plant based homes, their compact wardrobes and vegan diets. Their anti-haul videos, the 100 things they no longer buy, the 100 things they only own 1 of. I love minimalist YouTubers.
But, as I read more and wrote more and threw out what I had previously written, it became more and more painfully obvious to me that I was writing within my own echo-chamber of privilege. I am privileged. I can call myself a minimalist if I choose to (I feel the strange need to say here that I don’t. I don’t like labels, as only the truly privileged have the luxury of saying and actually executing). Because of course it not that easy. Because of course. I have displayed my own ignorance. My own lack of breadth of understanding. Things are deeply political because of course they are. I was a fool to think for even a moment that they weren’t. Intellectually I know they are not, but I sit here on my bed, wanting to write about what the clothes hanging in my closet say about me, what the books I choose to own say about me. To write about decluttering and my own views on intentional living and nomadic living....but fuck me! Who gives a shit about any of this but me? I keep thinking of this interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard who is, yes, problematic in his own right, but he talks about how writing must be personal, but never private. It can’t be closed to the reader; it can’t be of interest only to you and your friends and your family. There has to be a way in.
I find myself wondering why are these minimalist YouTubers open to me? What is my way in? Is it just that they reverberate the same middle-class white privilege back at me? That makes me feel sad. But it’s probably also true.
There is a question baser than this.
What is a thing?
What is it? Definitions are strange for something this seemingly foundational in our language. It is hard to describe it without the use of itself in the definition. A thing is an object without animation: without sentience. More importantly however, who classifies a thing as such? Who gets to have things? These questions are falling like rain around me and I am more and more aware of my own privilege. I’m not rich and I’m not thin so I somehow believe that I am othered? I’m a queer woman, yes, but I can easily pass. And I’m white. While I may not be economically flourishing, I am economically stable. I am not hungry. I have a home. Who the fuck am I to talk about if things really matter?
And yet I’m doing exactly that. Ironic, I know.
Throughout history (and more contemporarily than we want to readily admit, like literally right now) the classification of thing has included people, animals, plants, oceans, rocks..... so many others that are definitely not things. So let us be super clear. People are NEVER things. Not ever. Animals are NEVER things. Plants, rocks, sand, none of these are things. A thing is an object constructed by humans. A pen is a thing. My headphones are a thing.
So as things are more problematic than I first wanted to write about—the definition of, the having or not having, the implicit privilege and systems of racism, classism, sexism and so on that are held inside things as such—minimalism becomes more and more suspect and more and more problematised. Consume less, experience more. Doesn’t seem that problematic, does it? But who gets to call themselves a minimalist? Is economic poverty minimalism? Are years of inter-generational trauma brought on by colonial genocide and all the other towering systems of oppression in our patriarchal society, creating hugely vast disparity between classes, minimalism? Is minimalism simply about owning fewer things, or is it about owning the RIGHT things? Is homelessness minimalism? Is refugee status? Who has the right to ‘practice’ minimalism? And does minimalism truly mean the discarding of things rather than the maintained owning of less through, especially through, lack of choice? The presentational sense of self: Look at all the things I am able and willing to get rid of. The commodification of the holy-MAN’s ideals of discarding one’s worldly possessions in search for god. But the divine cannot be found in white walls and pine furniture. In uniform dressing and scented candles. At least not alone.
Minimalism then becomes a demonstration of class hierarchy. I’m thinking specifically of a scathing and very funny article written by Chelsea Fagan, published originally in The Financial Diet but picked up by The Guardian in 2017 entitled ‘Minimalism: another boring product wealthy people can buy’, where she describes the financial burden and unattainability of so-called ‘investment pieces’; describing the cloying push for less mass-produced and more artisanal products as the need to buy a ‘$4,000 dining table, hand-whittled by a failed novelist in Scandinavia’ which will apparently last the buyer a lifetime and be the only piece of furniture ever required. This hyper-wealthy, class-based-consumption, flexing of cultural capital is definitely a part of minimalism. A huge part. Because the truth of the matter is, things matter very much. They matter a huge amount! Things build our world. They create some as the ‘haves’ and others as ‘have-nots’. They create class, race, sex, gender distinctions. Virginia Woolf said that women (let’s say non-cis-males) need ‘money and a room of [their] own if [they] are to write fiction’ (Woolf 3). MONEY. Because art is dependent on the having of material things. Access to material things.
As the brilliant Jaye Simpson begins in their essay ‘#whiteveganwitches’ from Poetry is Dead Magazine, issue 17:
Let’s talk about the white vegan witches for a moment. Let’s talk about the classism and layers of privilege to be able to practice veganism and witchcraft. (Simpson 4)
And, after a litany of eloquent argumentation, ending:
Let’s begin the dialogue, let’s explore and unpack the spiritual racism that is happening here. It is well overdue to talk about all of this. (Simpson 5)
I wanted to write about my mug. Because I believed that philosophy can be made of anything because I believed Sartre when he told me he could find philosophy in an apricot cocktail. But Sartre what does Sartre (or I) know of things?
Fagan, Chelsea. ‘Minimalism: another boring product for wealthy people to buy’. The Guardian.
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/mar/04/minimalism-conspicuous-consumption-class. Accessed October 7, 2020.
Simpson, Jaye. ‘#whiteveganwitches’. Poetry is Dead Magazine. Issue 17. 2018. pp. 4-5
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own/Three Guineas. Penguin Books. 1993.
Text and Image: Meredith Grace Thompson