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The Things We Carry

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The book 'Chasing Empty' will examine our complicated relationships with material possessions. Photo: Shelves and boxes overflow with personal items, creating a colorful collection of clutter. Photo Credit: iStock/tom-iurchenko
The book 'Chasing Empty' will examine our complicated relationships with material possessions. Photo Credit: iStock/tom-iurchenko

While moving into a new home, you’ve probably run into this dilemma: Should I pack everything, or throw some of my old stuff away? You have a box of tchotchkes that you don’t really need, but inexplicably still want. Downsizing might simplify your life, but those items were once an integral part of your life. Discarded items feel like discarded memories.

Most people have opinions about their stuff, and American University Professorial Lecturer Arielle Bernstein is hoping to continue that conversation in her upcoming book, Chasing Empty: How the Desire for a Minimalist World Is Making Our Emotional Lives Smaller. Bernstein’s book will include interviews, research, pop culture analysis, and personal memoir to tell a story about what we carry and what we leave behind.

“People who are interested in talking about their relationship to objects are kind of cast off as being shallow, or being materialistic. And one of the main points of my project is that I think it goes a lot deeper than that,” says Bernstein, who teaches in the Literature Department. “These are big existential questions.”

Bernstein is also an AU alumna who earned her MFA in creative writing here in 2009. She recently talked about her book in the Humanities Lab, and she provided additional insights in an interview with University Communications.

Clutter and Culture

In Chasing Empty, Bernstein will explore people’s relationships with their possessions. She’s noticed how the average person often gets pigeonholed into a “pro-clutter” or “anti-clutter” camp, a guest on Hoarders or Tiny House Nation. But she believes most people fall somewhere in the middle.

“I think we do have to make incredibly deep choices about possessions. Those choices are often less guided by consumer trends than about other complicated issues, like how we connect to our culture and how we connect to our personal identity,” she explains.

She also questions why certain items are deemed essential, while others are written off as wasteful. A married woman, for example, is often expected to keep her wedding dress. High-status possessions, she says, tend to be more valued than cheap products—even if those inexpensive items conjure up similar feelings of nostalgia.

Arielle Bernstein

Arielle Bernstein gave a talk about "The Energy of Objects" in the CAS Humanities Lab.

“I’m particularly interested in who has the authority, and who has the power, to say that an object is meaningful and worth keeping. And who can malign an object and say, ‘Oh, that’s just clutter. We shouldn’t keep this.’”

People remember their grandmothers keeping items in old jars and cookie tins, she says. “We tend to see this and say, ‘OK, that’s Old World. That’s not necessarily important.’ But I think those kinds of objects can actually inspire a lot of meaning.”

Minimalism and the Pursuit of Happiness

For people exhausted from 1980s conspicuous consumption and 1990s new tech mania, Tyler Durden must have been a breath of fresh air. He’d say things like “the things you own end up owning you,” and he eschewed possessions that weren’t necessary for our “hunter-gatherer” survival. He’s not actually a real person, but the main character’s alter ego in the book and movie Fight Club.

Some real-life minimalists—individuals who drastically downsize their living spaces, and advocate for others to do this as well—consider Tyler Durden a spiritual role model.

In her book, Bernstein will examine this upstart minimalist movement. Last year, she published an article in The Atlantic about minimalists and Japanese organizing guru Marie Kondo. She noted that while Kondo advises people to go small, giving up material possessions is a privilege not enjoyed by most immigrants and refugees.

“Kondo is really interested in this idea that we just choose objects that give us joy, and let go of everything else. And if we do that, we’ll have more fulfilling lives. But I think, in translating that into America’s consumer culture, a lot is lost with that particular message,” Bernstein says in the interview. “Joy is not something that is static, and we’re constantly pursuing happiness.”

Bernstein argues that minimalists may be chasing the same level of status that they’re proclaiming to resist. In an obsession with perfection, some minimalists devise the sparsest Instagram posts possible, she says.

Yet Chasing Empty is not an anti-minimalist treatise, and Bernstein personally sees the allure of limiting possessions. “I love the empty space of a clean yoga studio with nothing there. I find that really comforting,” she says.

Messy Homes and Memories

Yet her family experiences have also shaped her perspective on these issues. Her grandfather fled Poland circa World War II, and much of his family was killed in the Holocaust. Her grandmother left Poland in the years leading up to the genocide. They both met in Cuba, and life under Fidel Castro led to their eventual migration to the United States in the late 1960s.

They came here, like so many immigrants, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Years later, when Arielle Bernstein was planning her Jewish wedding, she realized she had no pictures from the Cuba period. Those intergenerational objects that bind families together were missing.

But while living in the U.S., her grandparents saved all kinds of books and collectibles. “Their house was super messy. They had lots and lots of things. Every time I went there, there was something new to go through,” Bernstein recalls.

In her Atlantic article, Bernstein described why refugees—who may have lost so much—tend to treat their objects differently. “Everything they manage to hold onto matters deeply. Everything is confirmation they survived,” she wrote.

The Digital Space

The nature of the object is changing in the 21st century. If you want to learn about minimalism, there’s a documentary about it on Netflix. Even that format seems significant, as it’s streamed to your iPad or TV. You don’t own it, unlike the DVDs and VHS tapes that used to pile up in living rooms and dormitories. Bernstein notes the centrality of the iCloud in people’s lives, with photos, videos, music, and books all in one portable, digital space.

“There’s something really primitive and important about just physically being able to hold an object,” she says. “For a newer generation that doesn’t have that experience, they might be less emotionally invested.”

Even digitally, people keep items long after they’re needed. How many email inboxes are replete with undeleted messages?

“I guess I like being able to find someone’s name, and have some sort of chronicle of information,” she says. “I will never get to email zero.”