Fight Club had it Wrong: the Problems with Minimalism

Brad-Pitt-fight-club-body2

When I was in first year at university, it seemed that there were two films that everyone was buzzing about: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fight Club. The two films are controversial, edgy, and they signify a coming of age for many students. One of the main themes of Fight Club is anti-consumerism, which leads to violent, radical activist behaviour in the latter stages of the film. Throughout the film, the narrator is told to free himself from his possessions, because it is in fact his possessions which control him. This is an “awakening” of sorts to many students, who now recognize the evils of advertising, mass media, and consumerism. A major lifestyle movement that has been gaining steam in the past decade is minimalism, which is also largely anti-consumerist and anti-possession.

Minimalism to the extreme

Minimalism to the extreme

Minimalism preaches to rid yourself of all but your most necessary possessions and living space. This means selling all of your DVDs, getting rid of most of your clothes, downsizing your home, and generally clearing your life of unnecessary clutter. Some of the more extreme proponents of the minimalism movement advocate for you to trim down your belongings to a mere 100 things, which is certainly no easy task for many of us today. I do agree that minimalism is useful for certain aspects of your life, and that as North Americans, we do accumulate a number of things that we simply do not need anymore. Technology is to thank for much of this, as we can now have entire libraries and DVD collections on a few devices in our home. However, as trendy as minimalism may be in today’s world, it simply does not work for the vast majority of us.

Minimalism advocates for less clutter

Minimalism advocates for less clutter

At its core, minimalism is just another countercultural lifestyle choice that provides its followers with social status leveraging against the status quo. The premise of essentially every countercultural movement is the motivation to be cooler than the mainstream, and minimalism is no different. The trend with design technology has mirrored this cultural taste, and most of our popular items today are very minimalist in their design. While technology and its design has advanced tremendously in the past decade, the price of most items has remained relatively stable, or has increased slightly.

A minimalist lifestyle reduces spending in the sense of clutter, but it increases spending in the sense of technology to offset the items lost. Getting rid of all of your CDs, DVDs, and books will likely require you to acquire a Netflix account, pay for a relatively good internet package to download movies or music, and purchase a Kindle or an iPad to store and read your discarded books on. This can be a rather expensive upgrade. Essentially, minimalism is not so much a rebellion against consumerism as it is a by-product of the evolution of technology. Think of any vision of an ideal future you may have seen in any science fiction movie. The design template was predominantly minimalist, with a low amount of visually stimulating colour and very simplistic overtones. The advanced technology allowed a more simplistic, streamlined way of life, much like what modern minimalism advocates for.

An example of a minimalist dwelling

An example of a minimalist dwelling

The actual lifestyle impact of minimalism is, on the surface, very promising. Less stuff means more space, more space means a more fluid and simplistic lifestyle and more time to focus on the tasks at hand instead of constant cleaning and organizing. But, another aspect of minimalism is to reduce the size of your living space to cut out unnecessary space from your life. This is all well and good when you’re young, as you don’t have the need for as much stuff because your day-to-day life simply doesn’t dictate it. But the vast majority of the population isn’t young, and space is required to raise a family in a healthy environment.  Additionally, a large part of North American culture is entertaining guests, whether it be for a birthday party, family reunion, or your child’s sleepover. While you can rent out a public space for a birthday party or a family reunion, or simply avoid having your child have a sleepover, this can be potentially damaging to your reputation and to the event itself.

If your home is not big enough to entertain guests such that you have to rent a public space, it ruins the intimacy of hosting the event, not to mention it costs a lot more. You might also run into unforeseen rules, regulations, and other annoyances along the way. In short, minimalism can often lead to awkward social situations if your social circle are not minimalists themselves. This is not to say that minimalism is wrong, but that it will never reach mainstream society because of how the North American family model has historically been constructed.

To quote the Great Gatsby: “I love big parties, they’re so intimate”.

This is why I believe that the minimalist movement is cultivating a secular crop of lonely people, unless your other friends also happen to be minimalist. If you physically do not have the space to entertain, or to even share it comfortably with one significant other, you’re limiting your development as a human. A small space is tight, enclosed, and unwelcoming. Look at most examples of minimalist living and you’ll find that the design and layout of most of these spaces evoke a very cold and lifeless atmosphere. Minimalism is also for people who do not need to interact with many people during their daily routine. For this constant face-to-face contact, you would need more clothes, means of travel, possibly a space to entertain at some point, and other possessions that sync with this lifestyle that minimalism doesn’t allow for. Dependence on technology, discarding mementoes and other priceless memorabilia, and ascribing to a strict regimen of little to no possessions can shut you out from some truly great experiences.

Ironically, experiences are what a lot of the appeal of minimalism is based on. In lieu of adding to your collection of possessions, the minimalist approach is to spend your money elsewhere. Learning new skills, travelling, and living outside the confines of your own home (hence why size doesn’t really matter) are key traits of a minimalist lifestyle. Traveling has definitely become one of the de facto ways to gain independence and discover yourself today, but a life of constant travel is quite expensive and unpredictable, which many people simply cannot afford to do. I definitely encourage shaping your life through experiences, and building lasting memories with them, but the fundamental flaw with this philosophy is that it states that experiences cannot be created through possessions and consumerism. I would argue that many possessions can provide you with experiences, and that one simply needs to be a smarter consumer instead of largely abstaining from purchasing.

Unknown-3

Minimalism advocates for spending more income on experiences, such as travel

In a previous article, I spoke of my theory that buying your clothes second-hand at thrift stores or online makes you more attached to them and increases your satisfaction with your purchase because you had to live out more of an experience to locate and procure them. My theory of experiential consumerism can be applied to almost every purchase you make in the future. I equate it to this: if the purchase you are making will provide your life with a direct, tangible benefit, then it counts as an experiential purchase, and you should buy it. This could be a cookbook, a computer, a bike – anything that you will use to great benefit of your own life.

What you should aim to approach with a more minimalist mindset are the things that you do not place high value in. I’m not the biggest fan of electronics and TV in particular, so I have the bare essentials as far as technology goes: a computer, a cell phone, and a small TV, but that’s all I have any use for. If you place more value on technology, by all means, spend away on it, as your high sense of value that is invested in your experiences that you gain from electronics will be rewarding.

I place a high value in books and my clothes, and my bookshelf is full of titles new and old, and my closet follows a similar pattern. I gain a great deal of personal value when I read a new book and learn something, or when I purchase an item of clothing to emulate a certain style or aesthetic that I find interesting. All of these are experiential purchases, and the value that they give me is worth the purchase ten-fold. Don’t be afraid to spend money on things you’re passionate about; it’s not consumerism if you’re consciously aware and happy with what you’re buying.

A minimalist closet. Generally not indicative of someone who places value in their clothing

A minimalist closet creates a very restrictive and repetitive wardrobe, which is fine if you don’t place value in your clothing.

The narrator in Fight Club placed a high value in furniture from IKEA, but the difference here is that he placed a high value in the furniture, not IKEA the company. This is why when he purchased everything in his apartment from IKEA, he was in a delusional state of happiness. His purchases did not reflect his high valuation of interior design and an attractive apartment. The narrator purchased unoriginal, cheaply made furniture that anyone could have, and this furniture was not produced with longevity in mind. This is also why many experiential purchases will be higher quality purchases: a long product life will produce more experiences for the consumer, and this attachment will produce more satisfaction and happiness with the product. If the narrator had have searched high and low for antique furniture or other rare, quality pieces, he would likely have been a lot more upset when his entire apartment went up in flames, because he attached an experience to his purchase.

I believe that Fight Club’s core message about how we let our possessions own us was correct, but to discard all possessions in favour of a life of squalor and violence was quite frankly delusional in nature. Our possessions only own us as long as we let them. We don’t have to throw everything away and squat in a dilapidated house while plotting our revenge against the system; we can make conscious decisions to make more of our purchases experiential ones. For many people, minimalism is a radical notion, and this is why it will simply never catch on to the desires of its proponents. Like all forms of counterculture, the strength of minimalism lies in its exclusivity. Minimalism has some good merits, but to subscribe to the entire ideology is not sustainable for most people.

As long as there is democracy, there will be competition for status. Counterculture exists for those on the cutting edge of status leveraging, and when an aspiring minimalist discards all of their possessions, they are merely trying to be cooler than the other guy, which is counterproductive. As the old adage goes: “The harder you try to be cool, the less cool you actually become.” The reality is, many of our possessions are what define our status and help us find a place in society. As sad is this grim truth is, it will continue to persist as long as our egalitarian society yields the premise of success and fortune no matter what the situation you’re born into.

What’s ironic is that while minimalists abstain from possessions because they’re a constant measure of status, minimalism itself is a status-seeking lifestyle. At its core, minimalism is keeping ahead of the Joneses by abstaining from needless purchases, so in terms of social morals, minimalists are no better than the possession driven mainstreamers they seek to distinguish themselves from.

Stop keeping up with the Joneses. Worry about yourself instead.

Stop keeping up with (or ahead of) the Joneses. Worry about yourself instead.

In this sense of almost inescapable status laddering, we must tailor our consumption to mirror our values, and force ourselves to forego purchases that are not experiential in nature. If we purchase things because we value them and disregard purchases that are thoughtless and largely driven by consumer hysteria, we will start to see a great deal of change. Tailor your purchases to your values, and stop making unnecessary purchases of things that you do not value.

I definitely encourage you to clear out some unnecessary things, as we are all guilty of having too much clutter in our homes. However, minimalism will not make you spend less money; rather, it will make you spend your money differently because you’re more actively thinking about what you’re doing doing with it. And this is the one philosophy of minimalism that I believe should be applied to your life whether you ascribe to this lifestyle or not. The bottom line is: we need to think about why we’re purchasing things, stop trying to impress each other, and instead focus on impressing ourselves.

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “Fight Club had it Wrong: the Problems with Minimalism

  1. You had some great points at the end, but I feel like you’re a little off on how you see minimalism early on in your post.

    Getting rid of CDs, DVDs, books, etc. does not really require that you purchase anything. You can get an iPad or a Kindle or something like that, but to me that sounds less like minimalism and more like an upgrade. Nice to have, but not a necessity.

    There are plenty of other opportunities that come up when you don’t have that source of entertainment at home. Instead of reading a book from the shelf or downloading it onto your Kindle, there’s still the public library, which is free and is an excellent opportunity to interact with other people. Instead of CDs there’s the radio, which is also a great way to keep tabs on what’s going on in your community. Also there’s live music everywhere – not just the places that cost $100 a ticket, but at pretty much every local bar around. Great experience, especially if you’re not there by yourself (like you would be listening to a CD at home). Same with DVDs and cable, movie tickets are expensive but not compared to a month of cable television, and it’s even better if you go with someone else.

    So that really also means that your idea that minimalism is for people who don’t need to interact is incorrect. If anything, minimalism affords you greater opportunity to interact with others. And this opportunity does not really require a great entertaining space at your home – again, nice to have, but not a necessity. For you to say that we stake our reputations on the size of our entertaining space may be true in some circles, but none that I would ever want to be a part of. I have plenty of friends, none of whom are minimalists. But they’re people who “like me for me”, so to speak. I wouldn’t consider someone a friend if they judged me by my home or my possessions.

    I think that where you go wrong is that you fail to separate minimalism from status. It’s not about status. We remember people because they did great things, not because they had great things. It’s about creating space in your life for more than just stuff – taking the things in your life (possessions as well as relationships, activities, habits, etc.) that just take up space, and removing them to leave yourself with room for things (again, not just possessions) that are more valuable. You can’t add anything to a full bucket, and the answer isn’t always a bigger bucket.

    Your last paragraph is really spot-on, though. The way people choose to spend their money should reflect their values and what they hold important, not status or the expectations of others or anything else. When you’re actively thinking about what you’re purchasing and why, you learn what’s important to you and what’s just stuff.

  2. Thanks for your reply.

    I feel like your examples you are using are anecdotal ones from your own life, which aren’t representative of the general population. I’m with you – I love getting out of the house and seeing live shows and being involved in my community. But my article was speaking out against the implicit design flaws of minimalism as a mainstream lifestyle choice. Very few people choose to listen to the radio outside their work commute, and less and less people are going to the movies. I enjoy the concepts of minimalism, and have taken steps to reduce the clutter in my home, but I’m also aware of the limitations.

    Minimalism is about status in the sense of the act of doing it. Why else would you create a blog detailing your entire process of getting there? You want attention for your actions, which is status seeking behaviour. If people didn’t want to be recognized in their social circles for being minimalist, there wouldn’t be the explosion of attention-seeking blogs dedicated to the lifestyle. Status isn’t always about wealth and possessions. Many people value status in other forms, and minimalism is no exception to that. There’s nothing wrong with this behaviour, as everyone is guilty of status-seeking due to the fact that we live in the society we do, but to deny it is to overlook the core concept of countercultural lifestyles.

    I’m referring to minimalism in the context of it being a counterculture movement (which it is), and how counterculture movements are, at their core, a status seeking behaviour. For a more lengthy, detailed analysis of this, please read Status Anxiety, the Rebel Sell, and the Authenticity Hoax, all of which provide ample cultural and philosophical evidence for my point, and they’re also very good books.

  3. The one big confusion that was frustrating for me was equating good design with minimalist design. Apple has been largely influenced by the principles of good design as touted and popularized by designers such as Dieter Rams. Whether their sound industrial design is adopted as a symbol for the “counterculture” movement of minimalism is an issue unto its own. But one was not influenced by the other’s rise in popularity. I would say that minimalism is more of an aesthetic ethos in the case of design, architecture and technology than it is a reflection or symbol of anti-consumerist tendencies.

    Also, this is a question that I ask myself all the time as I too keep a lot of books on a shelf. Do I display those many book spines as a way to inflate my ego when someone visits and would think “oh wow, you’re well read!” or do I keep them on display in hopes that they’ll establish a connection with a visitor who notices a book that he or she has also read? Since I live in a basement room without a lot of visitors, I don’t know why I keep books at all when an e-reader full of all of my titles (past and present) would serve the same purpose of keeping my books handy when I needed them or wanted to read. I could then replace all of that shelf space with an open area to set up a drawing easel. I believe that this kind of thinking is mostly pragmatic and sensible while also lending itself to be misappropriated to the “culture of minimalism” by some.

    I agree that many of your best points were nailed home by the end of the piece in your advocacy for more thoughtful and meaningful consumerism. That’s a great message for the people of today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s