Negative Space

Please excuse the lack of posting and the current strange philosophical musings. I’m still in stage three of the photo decluttering – that is, the stage where I reprocess everything I picked as my “Hall of Fame” collection dating back to 2004 when I got my first 2MP digital camera. In the process though I have streamlined my workflow and discovered a better way of processing, so another point of simplifying my life!

That aside, I have some thoughts about the idea of “negative space” that have cropped up during this frenzy of photo editing. The artists among us will know what I’m talking about, but I will demonstrate with some pictures and then get into the philosophical aspect of it. This concept applies to music as well, as I remember someone saying something along the lines of “it’s what you don’t play” – that is negative space. Of course, John Cage’s piece 4’33” is a demonstration of this concept as well, albeit possibly an absurd one, perhaps absurd by design, I really don’t know or care.

In the following photograph, about two thirds of it is negative space. I will show it with that cropped out as well and I invite you simply to contemplate the difference. I prefer not to get into too much analysis of it and allow it to speak for itself, because I think most people just instinctively feel the difference. If anyone wants to offer an analysis, feel free to do so.

With the negative space (as shot).

And without the negative space (cropped).

 And here is one that has a lot of “stuff”, as a contrast. 

It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with a lack of negative space in an artistic sense as it is somewhat a matter of taste. The first photo “works” either  way, but I prefer it as shot. There exists a sort of counter movement to minimalism called maximalism, which I can certainly appreciate as well as some of those people do have an interesting artistic flair of their own. The ice cream shop pictured (Dutch Dreams in Toronto) actually moved to a larger and far less interesting location. The cramped, dark, and full of clutter location pictured was a popular land mark place that had been there for decades, sometimes with a queue going up the street in the summer.

Nevertheless, I tend more toward the simple for my own life, and what I notice is where I try to leave some breathing room on surfaces, things appear and gather, as if nature really does abhor a vacuum. It does take effort to keep those spaces and to find room to breathe in life. I think the impulse to clutter both physical and mental signals a disorder in the self. There is a difference between a sort of ordered clutter as in maximalism and the general disorder that clutters most people’s lives. The former is done with intent and the items are loved, whereas the latter “happens” without a mind towards things that are loved and wanted.

Modern people seem to lack negative space in their lives. The cult of so-called positivity may have ramifications beyond “being positive”, whatever that might mean. We view “negative” as taking away, and we view that as bad, like children who have their video games taken away as a punishment. Taking things away is viewed as a kind of punishment and thus “negative” connotes “bad” in the minds of people. Silence is a form of negative space that we can’t seem to abide as well. If it’s not the TV on all day, it’s the radio, internet, podcasts, YouTube videos, chat windows, blogs… There is certainly no shortage of noise with which to fill our lives, and this applies equally to physical clutter. 

While some may disagree, I think we need to redeem the negative and find that we do indeed gain something from discarding something. We gain space and sanity at least, and these are no small things. 

Clearing the Mind Clutter

This post is a revamp of an older one. As I ate my lunch a couple of days ago, I was visited by a horrific recollection of that Bill Nye bit known as “My Sex Junk”. Well, it does at least tell you it’s junk, but while I wish I could unsee it, I can’t. I can only forget about it if I’m lucky.

This is a form of mental clutter. A few months ago I decided I’d had enough of “news” and since then I more or less only know about what other people tell me about and mostly avoid allowing it into my mind. As with the aforementioned horror show, if I do look it tends to be after several people have mentioned it. The first couple of mentions at least are generally ignored.

I also decided that I wanted to make my online access somewhat less conducive to my usual habits and didn’t want to be chained to my computer to do anything online. I decided I wanted to get a used smartphone to use as a mini-tablet, as I didn’t want a big tablet because it’s awkward to use the camera and just generally I don’t care for them, the old Kindle Fire is kind of useless really, and we didn’t already have any smartphones. Eventually we changed phone plans for one that is less than half the cost of the previous one and bought an inexpensive phone that I use as a mini-tablet.

Now that I’ve made a short story long, I have changed my internet habits quite a bit, which actually may have been the first act in this particular round of serious decluttering. (Like I said, it’s hard to pinpoint the beginning). When mind is cluttered, it is more difficult to take care of the physical environment.

I don’t think anyone can really process so much information day after day. It makes me wonder if the constant flow of useless information isn’t a huge part of our problems in the current age. This is a form of “future shock”, in which the environment changes faster than our ability to adapt to it. We may compensate, but it always feels like damage control more than real adaptation.

I believe that too much “news” is bad for your health – and not just your mental health, but certainly that too. I don’t think the current proliferation of mental disturbance and physical ailment is solely environmental, but that a lot of it is enviro-mental – that is, the mental environment in which one chooses to immerse one’s self. It is well known that the mind affects the body – even to the point where happier people feel less physical pain – thus it stands to reason that if the majority of what you consume daily is doom and gloom, perversity, and otherwise depressing and ugly, you are not going to make yourself happy and your body will shut down along with your mind.

Depressed people won’t get up and do what needs to be done and so stay in a mindless state of slavery. Half the game is fifty percent mental, as Yogi Berra said. You can “eat clean” all you like and that’s great, but thinking clean is at least as important. It is one thing to keep up on current events to an extent, but day by day not much changes and there’s only so many times one needs to hear about the revolting behavior of the so-called elite and celebrity.

The worst part of following all this stuff (more stuff!) is not only is it unedifying and adds no value to your life, it sucks beauty out and replaces it with ugliness and distortion. It sucks the life out of the people who consume it. It is a parasite and a blight.

There is always a time to take back your own mind. You have the power in your own hands to banish the garbage. The act of decluttering your mind may the the most important, and decluttering your physical life is a piece in the larger puzzle. It matters what you fill your mind with. If it is not useful or beautiful, what purpose does it serve? What if the ultimate counter-revolutionary act is taking control of your own mind and environment? In other words, what if it is possible to free yourself from the chains of the consumerist culture that have been imposed upon you?

The Absurdity of the Public Storage Industry

One good reason for having a good clear out is space. Most people have too much “stuff” and, so they believe, not enough space. As the average house size has increased, so has consumption. Anywhere there is space, it gets filled. But to what end? How much do we actually use and how much is it more of a burden to hold onto it than it is to get rid of it?

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the proliferation in more recent decades of public storage. Now we not only fill our homes and garages with mounds and mounds of stuff, we pay to rent a space for our stuff! Often, it is thought this will be temporary, but it isn’t long until enough time goes by that you’ve paid more to store the stuff than it’s worth. At this point we have truly become slaves to our stuff, working to house things we don’t need, want, or ultimately really care about.

Part of my story with stuff now is my husband’s stuff. For myself, I have moved so often I’ve been forced to pare down my stuff a fair bit, though it seems to mate and reproduce in the dark somehow. My husband, on the other hand, has not really had to do this. He had his stuff in storage for almost a decade. When we moved recently and bought a storage container (our current housing is very small), we moved his stuff into that along with other stuff that we don’t have space for right now. I have been going through a lot of it and filled the small dumpster a couple of times and we’ve taken several loads to the second hand shop. We have even sold a few things on eBay.

The point is, much of what he had stored was either junk in the first place or had become outdated in one way or another. It would have been better to have got rid of it sooner than spend close to $5K on storing garbage.

There is a sense of clinging with all this hoarding of things. Everything you buy is destined to become garbage, so it’s best to think of it as garbage from the start. Is this something you really need, or simply more future garbage to junk up your life (and the planet) with? Are you merely a consumer, or a mindful inhabitant of the earth?

I think the recent fascination with minimalism is a reaction to this over consumption. People are feeling bloated and over full as any form of gluttony leads to this feeling. While we do not need to go full on minimalist, I think it comes as a kind of relief, like a temporary fast that allows one to come back to the table refreshed, rather than still bloated from the last feast. As a habitual practice, this helps to keep the mind clear and to guard against excess. It isn’t hard to see the application to consumerism as a form of gluttony. The storage unit that serves no other purpose than to hold onto “stuff” is the ever expanding waistline of the glutton. The overflow of stuff has nowhere to go but in some expansion or other.

My husband was (understandably) a little apprehensive at first. It can be difficult enough to let things go, but more so to allow someone else to make those decisions. But as I went through, getting rid of obvious garbage (old bank statements from bank accounts that no longer exist, for example) and making piles of things for him to go through himself, thereby making the job easier for him, I think I can say he started to enjoy the process. I do believe that things can begin to act as an albatross around one’s neck, and that casting it off is a relief. Some burdens are unknown until they are lifted. You never know what physical symptoms might be due to some spiritual burden.

It may sound far-fetched, but if enough people decided to stop being consumer-slaves, to become mindful of what they gather into their lives, and not to bring in so much junk, perhaps people would be less selfish, less greedy, and more peaceful and empathetic. If “the wages of sin is death”, then it would also be true that “the wages of virtue is life”. It is always better to be mindful than to be mindless, whether with regard to ‘big’ things or ‘small’ things. A cliché it may be, but true nonetheless; a giant oak from a small acorn grows.