Our habit of moralizing problems, merging them with intuitions of purity and contamination, and resting content when we feel the right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right thing.

Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University

In the psychobabble of New Age feng shui, clutter is a malignancy that can extend from your home to the Internet. Clutter allegedly causes  “negative effects” such as the following:

  • “stuck, stagnant energy” — a vague definition at best
  • a lack of energy, focus, and clarity
  • feelings of being “stuck” in a job, or “stuck” creatively, spiritually, or romantically
  • “anything that causes disorder or confusion”
  • the impression of having insufficient time for and attention to family and self
  • an impression of increased stress, irritability, and depression

These are not Human Problems. These are not Guy Problems. These are Female Problems, especially girls and women with certain types of personalities. This McFengshui cliche is typically bundled with space clearing. Both ideas are housekeeping obsessions.

A focus on clutter can also be a sign of a deeper spiritual malaise, as Shane Claiborne says:

… our possessions possess us; this clutter that fills our lives, the television and meaningless stuff that we cram our days with, is sucking us dry.

Primitive thinking

In the New Age mind, “clutter” refers to an arrangement of living and working space that indicates a person’s mental state and, by primitive concepts of association, what is happening in their life. As Terah Kathryn Collins claims in The Western Guide to Feng Shui (p. vii) clutter in a house she was assessing “blocked smooth passage through the house” and therefore explained why the occupants’ lives had problems.

If the victims had said nothing about their lives, would the living conditions have been an issue?

Some of Collins’ students have elaborated on this concept, but always from a female perspective: the husband who is a “king of clutter,” for example.

It’s evolved!

Interestingly, the clutter concept has evolved since it was invented for feng shui in the 1980s. Now it reaches your email Inbox, where it can allegedly make you feel overwhelmed. No one seems to know whether the clutter malaise differentiates between spam (and kinds of spam) and ham.

Do women feel “overwhelmed” by clutter when their Inboxes overflow with ads for Viagra? Nigerian scams? Chain letters? Small-cap investments?

People who perpetuate the “clutter” myth claim to employ a perceptual skill that William Spear called First Impressions — which is actually a clever invention of Lin Yun. The technique is said to detect so-called “energy patterns” in a home or office. First Impressions uses the mantra “Where attention goes, energy flows.”

Unfortunately First Impressions has some conceptual flaws.

First Impressions: Dead On Arrival

Recall something bad and you are twice as likely to take a hand sanitizer when it’s offered because you are primed to “cleanse” your conscience. Afterwards you are more likely to find excuses to prevent you from helping others, because you literally, and figuratively, washed your hands of it.

When you “de-clutter” (purify) you gain a relaxed attitude to morality, according to research by Simone Schnall and colleagues at the University of Plymouth (published in Psychological Science).

If I hand you hot coffee, you are likely to think I’m a warmer, friendlier person than someone who hands you iced coffee.

Yes, we really are that shallow. Brain researchers say that humans have

conscious behavioral guidance systems that are continually furnishing suggestions through the day about what to do next, and the brain is considering and often acting on those, all before conscious awareness. Sometimes those goals are in line with our conscious intentions and purposes, and sometimes they are not.

— John A. Bargh, professor of psychology at Yale

Your invisible partner has reactions that can be triggered by the darndest things, and those reactions may not agree with your opinions.

First Impressions is a fairy tale. “Where attention goes, energy flows” was coined by, and for, ignoramuses.

Scientific fact: You have to be paying attention to consciously perceive something.

If you focus (or fixate) on something, a gorilla can stand in front of you and you will not notice her. This is sustained inattentional blindness, the famous “Gorillas in Our Midst” research.

What does it mean for the concept of “clutter”? If you do not mention feeling “stuck” or “negative energy,” or any of the “warning signs” the frauds say are linked to clutter, you are unlikely to be admonished to rid your home of clutter.

Unless the person you hired is expressing their personal bias against your housekeeping, the subject will only be addressed if you mention it.

And if you daub a little cleaning liquid in a couple of places, the consultant will be primed to accept a different impression of you and your house than they would have otherwise!

When you hire a practitioner let them tell you about your life. Don’t leave yourself open to put-downs for how you live. Hire a professional cleaner if you want tips on cleaning. You’ll get advice, not abuse.

If First Impressions is the foundation of feng shui analysis, then all our mothers were born Feng Shui consultants. One of the cliches of life is that a typical mother will walk into their child’s home and complain about their inadequate housekeeping. Mom announces this as the reason their child can’t get their dream job or find a mate.

Some of us think so little of ourselves that we fall for this, which is why sensitive New Age types pay complete strangers a lot of money to hear the same verbal abuse their Mom provides for free.

Clutter is a marketing ploy.

The amount of so-called clutter in your house has nothing to do with feng shui. It does have a lot to do about how women perceive themselves and their lifestyle, with housekeeping an extension of themselves. Marketers have seized on this to sell you more neuroses.

Why are New Age pundits obsessed with the conditions inside our homes? Why should we obsess about such a trivial thing, or let some New Age marketer insist that we obsess?

It’s been known since the 1920’s that vacuum cleaners, like other household technologies, do not necessarily ease the burden of housework. “Conveniences” like vacuum cleaners have also raised expectations and standards of cleanliness.

Most men think “clutter” and the obsession with housecleaning is just plain nuts. Many men like a “clean house,” but what is their standard of “clean”? It is typically not the same as a woman’s. Women often expect the house to look a certain way because that’s how Mom trained them, or they’re competing with their friends.

Clutter can be a postponed decision. You haven’t taken the time to decide whether to keep something or throw it out, so there it sits until you do. Behavior modification, not a rearrangement of furniture, is what is needed to address the issue.

In Cheryl Mendelsohn’s outstanding book Home Comforts — which everyone should read, because it would stop a lot of needless suffering over this”clutter” nonsense — she says

Health, safety, and comfort matter more than appearances, clutter, organization, and entertainment. A jumbled closet may distract you, but it is much less urgent than clean sheets, laundry, or meals. (p. 18)

Clutter was invented

In European folklore, the blessings of the peasantry’s folk-deity (Diana, Holda, Perchta, etc.) and visits by the honored dead were bestowed only on “clean places and clean houses” because these supernatural guests “do not like to enter sordid places or filthy houses.” (Carlo Ginzburg, 1991:101)

“Filthy” meant something different then. Florence Nightingale in 19th-century Britain said “filthy” was when the outhouse sat right next to the well, and liquid animal manure ran into the well and sometimes into the house. Imagine what was considered “filthy” when Holda and Perchta were visiting the huts of peasants, not the cottages of farmers!

But how many of us are expecting the ghost of Grandma, or awaiting some peripatetic chthonic goddess to bless our apartments and condos?

God loves a clean colon

Calvinist theology instilled the notion that if you were clean in more ways than one, God would provide prosperity. The Puritans, being God-fearing Calvinists, brought this “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” concept to the New World. Florence Nightingale used the Calvinist concept to advocate something called “nursing,” which at a high level is little more than environmental manipulation and attention to diet.

Clutter in feng shui is a Christian-American chimera. Now you know why Karen Kingston loves enemas and insists they are part of feng shui.

Don’t drink the Kool-Aid

People who dislike clutter tacitly assume everyone should share their Puritan obsessions. The controversy about clutter conveniently ignores the fact that human cultures have wildly varying opinions about it. For some, “clutter” does not exist, because they don’t have a lot of stuff!

When feng shui practitioners utter the word “clutter,” they are actually expressing their opinions about how you live, based on their esthetics and culture, and how their Mamas raised them to think about housekeeping.

First Impressions is nothing more than the aesthetic prejudice of an American subculture. “Clutter” is nothing more than personal bias, whether it comes from your mother or an alleged feng shui practitioner.

Your mother’s personal bias, exhibited in her appraisal of your housekeeping and decorating tastes, doesn’t make her — or anyone else — an authentic feng shui practitioner.

McFengshui Greenwash

Chaos, mess, clutter, whatever you want to call it: it is not necessarily bad. A little dirt can keep kids from having problems with asthma. If your house is too clean, or you rely on harsh cleaning products, you are messing with your immune system and the immune system of those living in the house.

Obsessive cleanliness and tidiness are a bad thing if you are trying to become mindful of your environmental impact. When McFengshui people say that you need to arrange the outdoors the same way as indoors — “neatly trimmed and supporting your curb appeal” — remember that this is in violation of nature. Nature is not neat.

If you are trying to harmonize with your environment, you do not try to force Nature to harmonize with you!

What is the real issue?

There isn’t one, unless you want to be scientific about the concept of clutter. When floors and countertops are piled high with items you have to negotiate around, you increase the levels of dust. Dust can cause asthma and other health problems. That doesn’t sound like what you have come to associate with feng shui, though.

“Clutter” can be measured with statistics. Observe the room of an adolescent a number of times and record how many possible arrangements it has with its current occupant. Repeated visits are the only way to tell if there is a pattern of arrangement and whether the occupant is trying to preserve it — in which case the room is not “cluttered.”