By Matthew Cheney
2 January 2012
In a recent essay in The New York Times, Jonathan Ames wrote about kipple. I was thrilled. Not just because it's nice to see other people writing about the messes of their lives, but also because kipple has been a favorite term of mine ever since I encountered it in Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which I first read a couple decades ago. Dick is famous for all sorts of things, but he won his way into my heart purely through the power of this concept:
Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers. . . . When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there's twice as much of it. It always gets more and more. . . .
The entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.
I share some of Ames's bad habits, and have for as long as I can remember. I knew when I was a teenager reading PKD that the great battle of my life would be against the clutter of life's stuff. Kipple, yes, but more broadly defined than in Dick's novel, because for me it's not just the little detritus of everyday life, but also the objects that, for whatever reason, attach themselves to us. I've described myself to people as a sort of goldfish: the clutter that accompanies my existence will expand or contract to fill whatever size of living space I am in. I have lived in tiny rooms in New York City and in relatively spacious houses in rural New Hampshire. Whatever size of space I inhabit, I'll fill it. I'm sure if I moved into a 30-room mansion, it would be cluttered and kippled within a year.
All of this is on my mind right now because instead of writing this column, I should be cleaning my house. I have guests coming in a few days to stay with me. There needs to be room for them to sit down, and it would be good if they could find their bed. I hope not to look too much like the eccentric recluse I really am, so I should probably pretend there's some order to the chaos of my life. ("I have to keep those books in a pile, because how could I possibly justify separating the English, German, and Russian editions of Chekhov that I have?") There's also a certain amount of shame that goes with the clutter, because who really wants to be perceived as a slob?
At least I'm a man. A woman whose life has been enkippled is likely to face even greater shame and shaming than I do. After all, everybody knows men are pigs. Unmarried men can get away with a certain amount of clutter; indeed, unmarried men who live in neat, tidy spaces may seem a little bit odd, a little bit suspicious. Shouldn't they be out making the world happen, and not spending their spare time picking up after themselves?
But a messy woman is perceived as, at best, a social deviant and, at worst, a failure. We may claim all sorts of enlightenment and liberation for the women in our culture, but we still make them do most of the housework, and we still expect them to be neater and tidier than men.
Kipple doesn't care about gender, though. It's happy to grow wherever there is a bit of space. Kipple is a physical manifestation of a certain type of entropy. That's why it's so tiring to fight it. Like entropy, kipple will win in the end.
It may be that kipple is a manifestation of post-scarcity consumer society. I don't know if other sorts of cultures have to fight against it as hard as we do, because it's a personal sort of fight, and I've only ever lived for an extended time in this post-scarcity consumer society of ours, so I can't speak to living in less kippled cultures. As we have fused ourselves with our stuff, we have created the ultimate niche environment for clutter, kipple, and chaos.
I'm not even a particularly consumerist person. I don't often buy things other than books and DVDs. Unfortunately, for someone so easily defeated by kipple as I, I inherited a house. And though I'm not a great collector of stuff, my father collected everything he ever encountered, and he filled the house with it. Not only that, he also filled it with stuff from my grandparents. And my paternal grandmother was the sort of woman who could never have too many plastic flowers, lawn ornaments, or Hummel figurines. I spent two years sorting through the stuff, finding the items that had some value and selling them, and then I just gave up. I emptied entire rooms, only to find them filled with random junk soon after. And I haven't even touched the attic or the storage area in the top of the garage. A friend of mine thinks I should rent a dumpster for those, and he's right—there's no other way to survive an encounter with an insatiable maw of material. Whenever I open the door of the attic, the density of the kipple stops my heart. Valuing my life, I don't open that door often.
But I can't just blame my father and my grandmother. I have three times as many books as I have shelves for, and so they live in piles throughout the house. I have piles of other things, too, particularly magazines and papers. I never seem to know what papers to keep and what ones not to, so I end up keeping most of them. Old bills and bank statements, students' essays and tests, playbills from long-forgotten plays. . . . I have the instincts of an archivist, but none of the organizational acumen or obsession with detail. I'm certain the minute I throw away some useless 10-year-old piece of paper, somebody is going to need it. But we all know that not only is that paper useless, it's also breeding more clutter. Because one piece of paper does not stay solo for long. It attracts other pieces of paper, and over the years, all the pieces of paper become a giant glob of exponential growth. I'm sure there are people who have been killed by their kipple.
Perhaps that's how the American empire will end. Instead of declining and falling like the Romans, perhaps we'll be kippled and smothered, buried under all of our junk mail and gadgets, our disposable packaging and plastic doodads, our throwaway culture. In a thousand years, historians won't look back on the United States and think of bald eagles or Betsy Ross; they'll think of landfills. This is what we leave to posterity: the mass of our accumulated stuff.
It's time for me to fight against that future. I'm going to at least clear a pathway to the guest bedroom. My incoming visitors will understand. They're Americans who, themselves, have too many books. And they've probably got some stray papers hiding in the corners of their home. Maybe my house can serve as a warning. Indeed, perhaps instead of feeling shame when people come to visit and see my failed battle against the forces of accumulation, I could tell my life story as a cautionary tale. Fight tenaciously, friends! I could say. Behold the chaos that comes from complacency!
That's not really a role I desire, though. I'd rather just make the resolution to throw out all the old papers that I don't need anymore, to organize the books a bit, to build more shelves, to tackle the terrors of the attic. Kipple is an attractive idea, but it's a fantasy. A metaphor and symbol. An excuse.
The sad truth is, the cluttery mess of this world is a mess of our own making.