Thu, Feb 17, 2011 - Page 9 News List

When objects become obsolete

Who needs books, DVDs or photos now that our lives are increasingly digitized? In reality, however, there are things we can never let go

By Stuart Jeffries  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

In Poussin’s painting Landscape with Diogenes, the ancient philosopher is depicted casting away his last possession, a drinking bowl. He realizes he doesn’t need it after seeing a youth cupping a hand to drink from a river. True, he seems to be keeping that grubby-looking over-the-shoulder blue sheet, but let’s not spoil the story.

Diogenes’s spiritual descendants are everywhere, if not as radically -possession-free as he was.

“I can carry everything I own,” Jason Edwards says. “I have a few changes of clothing, laptop, two pots, bowl, spork, futon and flask. I like sitting on the floor eating fruits, nuts, vegetables and rice.”

You’re probably now hating Jason, but stay with him.

“The nice thing about a bare room is that you begin to notice the space around you in a physical sense and you begin to notice other things like the changing sunlight during the day … Many possessions tend to tie one down mentally and physically — seeing too much permanence in inanimate objects rather than being aware of the vitality of the outside world of nature,” Edwards says.

Then there is Robby who, in 2001, had a revelation. As he drove away with his girlfriend and dog from his flooding house in Austin, Texas, he realized: “Everything we owned was back there. And it didn’t matter. There was nothing in that truck that I would trade for anything else in the world, no possession left behind for which I would risk our lives. It’s a shame that it took a natural disaster to teach me what was truly worth valuing in my life.”

These stories came from and respectively. There are hundreds of similar sites, clogging the Internet like stuffed toys in a spoiled toddler’s cot.

My favorite is from “Wish you had a five-bedroom mansion in the hills and enough money to decorate it with stuff from Anthropologie that’s NOT on sale? Face it — you live in a tiny-ass apartment with only enough cash to buy … nothing. Here’s how to still be fabulous.”

And then there is Kelly Sutton, a 22-year-old software engineer from Brooklyn, who last year got rid of all of his possessions except for his laptop, iPad, Amazon Kindle, two external hard drives, a “few” clothes and sheets for a mattress that was left in his newly rented apartment. Yes, these few remaining possessions may be worth more than most people in the world will earn in a lifetime, but the story of the new minimalism is nothing if not bitterly ironic.

Sutton has a Web site, Cult of Less, for freecycling his unnecessaries and proselytizing for his Zen-lite lifestyle. Personally, I’m thrilled that Sutton got rid of his “Seduce This” T-shirt because nobody — ever — needs to own that.

“I think cutting down on physical commodities in general might be a trend of my generation — cutting down on physical commodities that can be replaced by digital counterparts will be a fact,” he says.

Everyone’s trying to cut down in this age of austerity, not just Brooklyn hipsters. We try to reduce our carbon footprints, our waistlines, our monthly outgoings. We contemplate adhering to George Monbiot’s minimalist stricture. You know, the one where he told us to get rid of our extra rooms to solve the housing crisis or face massive taxes or, worse, his withering frown.

Now we must divest ourselves of the objects that — we are told — are asphyxiating us. None of us wants to wind up like Edmund Trebus before his death in 2002, who had so much stuff in his five-bedroom villa in north London that he was reduced to living in a corner of his kitchen. However, some of us fear we’re heading that way, given that the nation’s leading pastime is shopping and because of our unwillingness to let stuff go.

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