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Tag Archives: Ritual

Night terrors: Counting loss in a global pandemic

A post written by Ellan Baker and Susan Wardell, based on an ANTH424 assignment on ‘visual images and the communication of suffering and evil’.


On March 19th 2020, social media and news sites were flooded with images of military  trucks, moving the dead out of the overwhelmed small Italian city of Bergamo, for cremation elsewhere [i]. Europe had replaced China as a new epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city of Bergamo. Source:

Northern Italy is known for having small towns and tightly-knit communities, as well as for the beautiful scenery, cuisine and fashion which attract both domestic and international tourists iv. It was largely through travel and social interaction, that the new strain of coronavirus (named SARS-CoV-2) was spreading. Places like Bergamo, a city of just over 100,000 residents, had little time to prepare iii ii.

Picturing the scale of loss

One of the images from mainstream television (Sky News) showing Italian army trucks transporting the dead. Source:

At the time that images of the crematory trucks were released, Italy was in an exponential climb in the number of cases. The number of deaths had now become a few hundred a day, despite best efforts of intervention and prevention. On March 19th, total fatalities had reached 3,405 and were still increasing vi.

As the pandemic spread, people all over the world took in this type of numerical information, to make sense of what was happening v . Rates of spread, death tolls, graphs and spreadsheets… these were forms of knowledge about the reality of Covid-19, which were also somewhat removed from acknowledgements of the level of human suffering it was creating, with every new case, and with every death of a unique human person that those numbers represented.

In this blog we discuss the ideas that images, as a different way of communicating suffering and loss, can help to rehumanise topics such as this. We argue they provide understanding of the scale of devastation in a different way than numbers do, and can be part of catalysing social change because of this.

Echoes of (an invisible) war

Perhaps the most highly circulated images of the trucks (left) carrying the deceased through Bergamo, came from a tweet by Guido Salvaneschi, a citizen of Bergamo vii.

Tightly packed, the military-style trucks are moving in single file down the street. The arrangement of the trucks on the empty street has a ceremonial feel; dark colours, and a string of lights. The road is clearly in an everyday residential area, with a shop, carpark and green field visible alongside. But here it becomes a platform for procession vii.

The escort occurred at night – the image taken at 9:28pm – almost as if they needed to hide the moving of the dead, and shelter the living population vii. Was the suffering so great, that it could not be experienced during the day? Like the living, the day is sheltered from agony; maintaining its symbolic goodness, while night is reserved for pain.

In the photo there are many trucks, and within each truck, there are many bodies vii. The photo both is and isn’t about numbers. The impact of this photo is largely because the trucks are in fact innumerable, their line extends out both sides of the frame of the photograph. It asks us to recognise the scale of loss without making us, or letting us, count and quantify. It evokes the horror of scale, without relying on numbers. It makes an affective connection to the topic, without being explicit.

The image of a fleet of military trucks can’t help but raise the ghosts of war; historical echoes that will have different levels of feeling attached for different viewers, in different places. At very least, the string of large trucks connotes a high number of casualties, and yet there is a disjunct for the viewer, since absent from the still and tidy environment they move through is any evidence of danger or threat. The toll is being counted, truck by truck, but the enemy itself is a ghostly absence; an invisible virus, impossible to see or to conceptualise, except through its effects.

Watching from afar

At this time this photo was taken and posted, New Zealand and many other countries felt far from the ‘front line’. The need to take action here was not yet evident. So we watched the situation unfold through images like this, but even as we did, the virus exponentially spread once again, leaving tremendous amounts of uncertainty in its wake iii

The now-famous images of these trucks did not come, in the first instance, from scientists, journalists, or other authoritative communicators. Rather they appeared in the often informal domain of social media.  The context of apartments opposite implies that this photo too is taken from an apartment window, looking down. The photographer is distant from the street, giving an even more heightened sense of risk or taboo in the scene below.

The juxtaposition of the sombre with the everyday (both in terms of the setting, the intimate framing of the photo, and its context on social media) makes looking at it all the more difficult. 

Images of tragedy and horror often circulate well on the media – like this one, going viral, reaching around the world. Anthropologists Arthur and Joan Kleinman wrote about the circulation of images in the media in 1996, before the advent of social media, and yet they discussed many trends we could see continuing, and even increasing, today. They note, for example “viewers become overwhelmed” from a distance and come to have “moral fatigue, exhaustion of empathy, and political despair.” ix 

Given the continuous flow of numbers and statistics, of images and video, through the news, this could well have been the case. Yet people seemed to want to look. Kleinman & Kleinman  also discuss that despite their potential to overwhelm, images of suffering are  often appealing because they leave the viewer asking questions ix.

The unending line of crematory trucks going beyond the photo’s borders shows the impact of the viruses devastation. But what questions does it ask? Are they questions that are answerable? Either way, they were questions that New Zealand did have to approach, as citizens, and as a nation, not long after Italy.

The human struggle

“Struggling to cope” vii the photo caption says. This is, on one level, a comment about institutional and systemic capacity to practically process so many dead – since these trucks  were deployed for the purpose of relieving an already overloaded crematory system vii. But the phrase can also read as a marker of psychological overwhelm for those living through the experience.

The pain that the virus has caused is immense. Images of the COVID 19 pandemic re-humanise numerical information, by bringing Twitter users closer to the suffering of those who are grieving losses of loved ones. This can be contrasted to the insistent numerical broadcasting, which removes the emotional quality and the human context of information, and by itself, refuses to acknowledge the human lives behind them. As the quote often attributed to Stalin goes: “if only one man dies … that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”­ x

Meanwhile, images have a variety of different ways of highlighting the specific, situated, and human meanings of these numbers. For example, the image below is of a blessing taking place by the service providers, to finalise the deceased person’s life, with dignity.

Photo of two men giving dignity to the dead, despite the large number of dead and the lack of family or friends of the loved one present. Source: Financial Times,

This image, taken by Italian news photographer Piero Cruciatti, offers something different to the sense of scale of death and loss in Salvanechi’s image, in terms of communicating the impact of COVID-19. It reveals one part of the story behind each number, behind each body that the viewer understands to be concealed in those many military trucks. It shows the layers of human care and meaning invested into each of them; how the people closest to the suffering still muster the strength and urgency to undertake the enormous amount of cultural and physical work required to bring each person’s precious life to a close.

It shows, perhaps, the tragedy of the ‘one man’ rather than the thousands, and in doing so, it arguably brings a different kind of understanding of this event, than it does to contemplate the thousands.

Image and response

Paul Frosh, an academic writing about digital media, and specifically how people view and respond to the suffering of distant othersxi. One’s moral “response-ability”, he argues, is linked to the sensory mediums through which one is viewing and responding. People who viewing Salvanechi’s photo on Twitter, for example, had to choose how to respond, with their eyes, hands, and attention. Practically this could mean many things; clicking, commenting, sharing. More broadly, categories such as ‘witnessing’ explain what type of moral response these micro-actions may represent. 

Images can broach both a geographical and emotional distance, and act as a testimony and a memorial in and of themselves, to human experience, and human suffering. In Salvanechi’s photo, and the photo by Piero Cruciatti, we are forced to consider the suffering that quickly can become incomprehensible and overwhelming vii–  given a chance to hold our gaze, and to be witnesses to this horrible reality. And in doing so, to form a kind of momentary connection with other people’s life world’s that is void in the production of infographics and statistical data in journalism.

In addition, there are practical responses that can flow on from this deeper kind of acknowledgement. Read in full, the caption on Salvanechi’s candid night-time photograph has a clear intended purpose; asking for more serious adherence to policies of social isolation, as a tactic to slow the spread of COVID-19. Kleinman and Kleinman’s article acknowledges that images can become a social and symbolic commodity for igniting action and change ix.

When New Zealand’s time came, we also had to make choices about setting policy, and also following policy. About lockdowns and closures and social distancing, and other dramatic social changes. Who can say whether the things we had already witnessed overseas, through the lens and eyes of journalists and everyday citizens on social media, was part of shaping our response?

To conclude…

Whether directly affected or not, in this strange period of human history we have all become ‘online witnesses’ the the COVID19 pandemic. Many of us have absorbed large amounts of numerical and statistical information every day iii, vi. While this information provides easily absorbable overviews of the virus’ impact, it cannot contain or express the more human aspects of this moment in time. However, sprinkled throughout the media coverage, have been images that have also mapped the scope and scale of the pandemic, but in an entirely different way.

Images can hurt us, can wound us. They can also, at the same time, offer an embodied empathetic experience of the suffering of others.. Sometimes they can contribute to changes not only in how we understand the world, but the choices we make in response to it. The images of crematory trucks in Northern Italy expressed the large scale devastation of the virus, at a moment in which the whole world was watching, and deciding how to react. What we owe to these cannot be measured.



i National Post, 2020. COVID-19 Italy: Military fleet carries coffins of coronavirus victims out of overwhelmed town. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 09 April 2020].

ii Worldometer, 2020. Italy Population (LIVE). [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 20 April 2020].

iii NZHerald, 2020. Covid 19 coronavirus: How virus overwhelmed Italy with almost 5000 deaths in a month. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 20 April 2020].

iv Turismo Bergamo, 2020. Visit Bergamo: An Italian masterpiece. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 21 April 2020].

v Knox, C., 2020. NZHerald. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 04 May 2020].

vi, 2020. WORLD / COUNTRIES / ITALY. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 20 April 2020].

vii Salvaneschi, G., 2020. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 09 April 2020].

viii Clark, H., 2020. Missing In Action: the lack of a globally co-ordinated response to Covid-19. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 04 May 2020].

ix Kleinman, A. a. K. J., 1996. The Appeal of experience; the dismay of images: cultural appropriations of suffering in our times. Daedalus, 125(1), pp. 1-23.

x Stalin, J., 1947. A Single Death is a Tragedy; a Million Deaths is a Statistic. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 21 April 2020].

xi Frosh, P., 2016. The mouse,the screen and the Holocaust witness: Interface aesthetics and moral response. New Media and Society, 20(1), pp. 351-368.





Healing the Self: Motivational Speakers as Shamans

Written by: Emma Gamson

[Adapted from an essay written for ANTH228/328: Anthropology of Religion and the Supernatural]

Motivational speaking is a category of verbal performance where the goal is to inspire or motivate an audience 12. Motivational speakers tend to share self-narratives, to convey messages of hope, reassurance and success 8. There is no training or certification required; success depend on an individual speakers’ popularity 8, 9.

Tony Robbins is a highly influential motivational speaker whose messages focus on empowerment, self-transformation and “unleashing the inner-self” 14, 7.

Tony Robbins presents his talk ‘Why We Do What We Do’ at the February 2006 TED conference. The image shows Robbins open and powerful stage presence as he addresses as audience. Source:

This post analyses some of Robbins’ performances, to argue that motivational speaking can be understood as a type of healing practice. I apply concepts from the anthropology of religion, such as liminality, communitas, and ritual, to understand how he frames the self, how he establishes legitimacy, and how he enacts healing.

Narrating your self into (a new) existence

Understandings of the ‘self’ varies cross-culturally. Greek philosophers Plato, and later Descatres, as well as much of early Christian thought, supported a dualist view of the person, in which the body is a physical, mechanical and matter of science, and the mind (in which the person or ‘self’ resides) is non-physical, spiritual and a matter of the church 16, 17. Conversely, Freud, Foucault, Sartre and Social Sciences have supported a non-dualism in which the self is made up of a body and mind immediately connected to each other, and both are subject to the influence of society and power 16. In anthropology, the ‘self’ is typically associated with the perception of one’s own existence, and is different to ‘identity’, which is more related to how ones existence is placed in relation to others 17.

People’s sense of their ‘self’ is formed by self-narrative. In other words the stories we tell about ourselves (to others, and to ourselves), have the potential to continually reconstruct who we  understand ourselves to be. 6. In this way self-narratives express an individual’s agency. However they also tend to reflect frameworks laid out by wider social structures (e.g. around gender, age, class) 6.

Robbins uses narrative to convey themes of self-renewal, self-help and power of a true inner self, all of which he claims are controlled by state of mind and worldview 2, 15. His key argument is that “you can sculpt the person you want to be with whatever raw material you have available, so long as you acknowledge the early forces that shaped you” 15.

Processes of self are not just about the mind, but about the body too. In anthropology, embodiment theory emphasises the intimate connection between mind, body and culture (in in fact seeks to challenge these as separate categories, all together). Many motivational speakers also take a holistic view, including Tony Robbins, who treats the mind and body as  distinct, but directly influencing each other 15.

Religion, ritual, and self-transformation

Ritual practice is a key feature of religion. Rituals can work to express meaning, and apply religious worldviews to daily life 11. Religious worldviews can form the framework against which individuals develop and create their self-narratives. Religious ritual deeply embeds this frameworks through embodied (implicit) and explicit knowledge of one’s self in the context of the world, consequently influencing how one perceives and acts in the world 11.

Tony Robbins on stage at one of his ‘Unleash the Power Within’ seminars. A three-and-a-half-day event oriented towards helping “you unlock and unleash the forces inside you to break through your limitations and take control of your life”. The image is a snapshot showing Robbins enthusiastic and big gestures that are incorporated into his stage performances. Source:

As a motivational speaker, Tony Robbins employs embodied, ritualized action in a way similar to religious practice. His talks verbally lay out a worldview in which individuals have an ‘inner power’. Then his rituals make this true by enacting the ‘unleashing’ of this power with bodily action 8, 15, 14.

Specifically, Robbins his audience to participate through verbal agreement 2, 15. Their vocal articulations are a ritual way of unleashing this power. By getting his audience to respond through an embodied ritual of call-and-response, in his talks and seminars, he is asking them to reposition their own self within this worldview; to re-write their self-narrative according to that. In shifting the framework for their story, he shifts the story and thus the self.

Why does ritual work? Hot coals and big crowds

The effectiveness of Robbin’s performance is contingent on his audience. Religion is a dynamic product of human activity that tends to revolve around a central source of legitimacy or authority, but this must be continuously performed, negotiated, reproduced and validated by participants and audience members 1.

A seminar attendee calmly walks across a path of hot coals, embodying the beliefs and ideas that have been taught by Robbins. Behind cheers him on as they people queue for their turn. Source:

Robbins continuously negotiates and reinforces his authority when he prompt action from the audience. For example, Robbins created a ritualized action of walking over hot coals to show the power of the inner self, which many people have attempted 15. The offer would be absurd if the audience did not reinforce and embody support by actually attempting the walk, thus continuing to reinforce and legitimize the authority of Robbins and his worldview.

One key feature in the effectiveness of motivational speaking, is liminality. Anthropologists understand liminality as an intermediary stage in a ‘rite of passage’ ritual, which typically focuses on shifting someone’s social positionality. Like most motivational speakers, Robbins does indeed emphasizes ‘transformation’. We can argue that he uses his events to create a liminal space in which the possibilities for transformation occurs.

Communitas can be experienced in ‘coming of age’ rituals, rock concerts, sports games, prisons, religious events, and more.

The liminal stage is the ‘in between’ stage, and when lots of people are experiencing this together, it can lead to a state called ‘communitas’. Communitas is a state of anti-structure, where usual social boundaries and identities temporarily fall away, and people feel joined by bonds of common feeling 18. Liminality and communitas can both facilitate, acute moments of self-transformation.

Despite the perception of motivational speaking as an ‘individualistic’ form of healing, communitas appears to emerge again in ritualised acts in which Robbins’ audience participants respond collectively, rather than individually 18. After all, would it work the same if we was alone in a room with someone? His seminars can become a space of communitas – the audience all are temporarily separated from their normal lives, and united with others in their intense experiences in that room. It is together that they are remade.

Healing: is Tony Robbins a shaman?

People attending Tony Robbins talks seek empowerment. It is fair to infer then that they come with some sense of deficiency or disempowerment – while their bodies may be healthy, their ‘self’ is in need.

Religion is one framework of meaning that can help individuals make sense of what it means to have or to lose health, what it means to be lacking or whole10. While not a religion, Robbin’s talks similarly offer a framework of meaning that locate the cause of problems, and their solution, within a particular set of symbols and ideas: i.e. about ‘inner power’ and how to ‘unleash it’, and what effects (on both body and mind) this can have.

A shamanic healing ceremony, showing the jhākri (Nepali shaman) alongside a woman undergoing the healing process. Behind is a group who are also participating in and supporting the ritual (Sidkey 2010, p219)

There are similarities in particular with the way Toby Robbins works, and what anthropologists have observed of some shamanic traditions. For example, Yolmo shamans define health by the aesthetics of balance, wholeness and harmony to determine health 4. These values are embodied in the daily life of Yolmo society, embedding them in the body and shaping sensory experiences of health 4, 5. Shamans may conduct rituals involving trance states with vivid imagery to deal with illness such as soul loss 4, 5. This process not only relies on the action of the shaman themselves, but also through the participation of everyone present, including the patient 4, 5. This exemplifies the dynamic relationship between the authority of the religious healer, the participants and the social embodiment of values as key in making sense of the process of healing.

Tony Robbins seems to define health as a unity between how one lives their life and the cultivation of the power of their inner-self to create fulfilment and wellbeing. For example, in a video Robbins guides Rechaud, a 30-year-old man with a stutter, through a ritualized process of searching through memories for a cause of the stutter and bringing out Rechaud’s ‘inner warrior’ 13. Rechaud emerges ‘healed’ from his stutter and delivers a speech at one of Robbins seminars, acting as a symbol of success for this method of healing, which generated intense emotional responses from the crowd 13.

A stock image under the word ‘healing’. Source:

As with the Shamanic trances, Robbins guides Rechaud through a ritualized process of self-narrative that taps into imagery embedded in memories and in the symbol of the self as a ‘warrior’, to transform Rechaud and unify his inner self with his physical body to overcome the stutter.


Motivational speakers in Anglo-American nations are not unlike shamans in a variety of other cultural settings – they are a culturally sanctioned form of (non-biomedical) healer, with accepted social authority. In observing Tony Robbins’ techniques, we can see how he uses this authority to lead audiences through rituals that facilitate a shift in self. His motivational seminars become a liminal space in which people are taken through a process of re-making their own narratives according to the framework he lays out, and thus are able to heal body, mind, and ‘self’.


  1. Bielo, J. S. (2015), ‘Who do you trust?”, Anthropology of Religion: The Basics, London: Routledge, 106-134
  2. BigMindSuccess (2017), ‘TONY ROBBINS 2016/2017 Change Your Life’, available: [accessed 4th Sept 2018]
  3. Csordas, J. J. (1990), ‘Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology
’, American Anthropological Association, 18(1), 5-47, available:
  4. Desjarlais, R.R. (1992), ‘Yolmo Aesthetics of Bode, Health and ‘Soul Loss’’, Department of Social Medicine, 34(10), 1105-1117
  5. Desjarlais, R.R. (1992) ‘Chapter 1: Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads’, Body and Emotion: The Aesthetics of Illness and Healing in the Nepal Himalayas. University of Pensylvannia Press, 3–35.
  6. Dunn, C. D. (2017), ‘Personal Narratives and Self-Transformation in Postindustrial Societies’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 46, 65-80, available: 041702
  7. Gabuna, R. (2017), ‘The world’s top 50 most popular motivational speakers’, available:
  8. Gilbert, M. (2002), ‘Why the motivation business is booming’, Ebony, 58(2), 134-136, available:
  9. Guillebeau, C. (2010), ‘How to Be a Motivational Speaker’, available:
  10. Idler, E. L. (1995), ‘Religion, Health, and Nonphysical Senses of Self
’, Social Forces, 74(2), 683-704, available:
  11. Lambek, M. (2014), ‘What is “Religion” for Anthropology? And What Has Anthropology Brought t Relgion?’, in Boddy, J & Lambek, M. eds., Companion to the Anthropology of Religion, Somerset: Wiley, 1-3
  12. Oxford University Press (2018), ‘Motivational Speaking’, available:
  13. RobinHood (2013), ‘Tony Robbins – 30 years of stuttering cured in 7 minutes!’, available: [accessed 4th Sept 2018
  14. Robbins Research International, INC. (2018), ‘About Tony Robbins’, available:
  15. Sandmaier, M. (2017), ‘The Tony Robbins Experience’, Psychotherapy Networker, 41(6), 42-46, 58-59, available:
  16. Synnott, A. (1992), ‘Tomb, Temple, Machine and Self: The Social Construction of the Body’, 
 The British Journal of Sociology, 43(1), 79-110, available:
  17. Sökefeld
, M. (1999), ‘Debating Self, Identity, and Culture in Anthropology
’, Current Anthropolgy, 40(4), 417-448, available:
  18. Turner, V. (1969). ‘Liminality and Communitas’ (Abridged) in Michael Lambek (ed.) A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. (2008)
  19. Sidkey, H. (2010), ‘Perspectives on Differentiating Shamans from other Ritual Intercessors’, Asian Ethnology, 69(2), 213-240, available:


Speaking to Socks: An Anthropologist gets KonMari-ed

Marie Kondo’s 2014 book, which was a #1 New York Times Bestseller, is reaching new fame through a Netflix TV series in 2019.

Three years ago, I (an anthropologist, feminist, mother, and wife) bought a book. The book was The Life Changing Magic of Tidying.  

I read it. I loved it. I sorted my entire house and started folding things for the first time in years. Then I tucked the book into the far corner of a bookshelf and quietly kept folding.

Now suddenly it is cool, and I can come out of the (miraculously tidy) closet as a fan of Marie Kondo.

An image of my husband’s socks and undies drawer, which I ‘Kondo-ed’ last weekend. Am I a bad feminist, or a good wife? No idea, but it sure was satisfying. NB. Marie recommends folding socks and storing upright… ‘balled up’ socks are angsty socks!



On the electric updraft from the Netflix ‘Tidying up with Marie Kondo’ special, there has been a frenzy of decluttering across New Zealand. There are reports of op-shops closing under a flood of donated goods.  Kitchens cupboards across the country have never been so organised. Garages have never seemed so spacious. Folding is at an all-time high. 

Having run out of drawers to tidy myself, I thought it was time to put on my anthropology hat for a moment and ask: Does this craze mean anything? What is it about a small cheerful Japanese woman who speaks to socks, that is also resonating so deeply in the USA, and NZ, at this moment?

Decluttering the context: gender, class, and the ‘spirit’ of things

Let’s be clear, there is a gendered component to this trend: and I’ll admit the amount of thought I give to stratagizing about the organisation and maintenance of my home gives me mixed feelings as a feminist. The burden of both physical and mental labour to do with the house is typically female. There is also a classed component: the ability to buy, the types of things we buy, and how we view material possessions in relation to both identity and security, in socioeconomic categories and inequalities. Not to mention where and how we are housed. It’s fair to view the success of KonMarie as a largely middle-class female phenomena.

It is interesting too though, how a method that in many ways relates to Asian apartment-style living became so successfully exportable to the USA, NZ, and many other western nations. The geographic component seems no obstacle, but is there a something deeper: a cultural component? And how does it translate?

It seems to me that Marie’s method draws on distinctly Japanese (or at very least, non-European) ways of seeing the world. Particularly what could be broadly called ‘animism’, which is a belief in the aliveness, the ‘essence’ of both sentient and non-sentient things. Animism allows that animals, trees, rocks, mountains, rivers… and yes, socks… all have a ‘spirit’.

This approach to paves the way for a holism that sees our material life as entangled with our own physical, spiritual, and social wellbeing and success.

“What I’d like you to remember as you go through this process is that you’re not alone, the house itself and all your belongings are there to support you and go with you”  – Marie to recently-widowed Margie (from ‘Sparking Joy after a loss: episode * in ‘Tidying Up with Marie Kondo’ (Netflix 2019).

So I’m interested to ask now more than ever: in the traditionally dualist or materialist ‘West’, what is drawing us to (or driving us to?) this more animist way of understanding material life?

Joy! (and the dogs of dread on its heels)

Marie Kondo’s central mantra is to surround yourself with only things that ‘spark joy’. Doesn’t that sound delightful? But I think it’s uptake makes most sense when we recognise that material things in many people’s homes, in their amount if not their nature, sparks not joy but shame, anger, dread and exhaustion.

A relatively small pile compared to some of the mountains features in the Netflix show. Image source:

Indeed the ‘pile it all up’ part of Marie’s method is designed to confront, and motivate. It certainly highlights the troubling excesses of capitalist consumer society (though that is hopefully news to no-one). This is where the Netflix show grabs me. Watching the mothers, the widows, the retirees – their struggle, their suffocation. Then eventually, their relief.

Honestly I am myself light-years from being a minimalist, before OR after Marie Kondo upends my home. In fact it  is the persistence and constancy of clutter in my life brings, it’s crushing weight, that most draws me to KonMari.

One of iteration of memes emerging around Marie Kondo. Source:

I believe that the way ‘we’ (middle-class folk in developed countries) experience this material crisis of clutter in our homes is in its own way, as an existential crisis. I think that the frustration and paralysis about stuff, and what to do with it, goes far beyond being a practical concern. Rather it embodies deep uncertainties about moral ways of living and being; of relating between both present and absent family members; of reconciling past, present, and imagined futures, in our homes and our lives. It is in this context that KonMari method appears as such a shining salvation… a gently charted path (with a cheerful guide) through a minefield of shame, uncertainty, and kitchen appliances.

Certainly when I think about it, it’s not the meaningless-ness of the stuff in my home that bothers me, it’s its meaningfulness. In fact it makes me question the taken-for-granted connection between materialism and individualism. So much of the stuff that entangles us is not because of any innate qualities of the things themselves. It’s not only stuff we bought, but stuff we were given. Stuff we inherited, or hope to pass on. Things that represent who we were, or who we want to be. Things we like to show off, things we want to forget are even there. It’s about social relationships, and identities, memories and hopes and connections. It’s not really material at all. Or individual.  

The KonMari method simply lets us acknowledge that. It asks us to feel that, in fact –   intimately, as we hold each item in our hands. It reminds us that our homes and our possessions have a history: a social quality and an experiential one. Why not call it a ‘spirit’? Why not speak to it when we want to make a change? It might just work, and here is why…

Why it works: Ritual, emotion, and behaviour

Ritual is a powerful tool for dealing with emotion, and it is sprinkled all throughout the KonMari method: Greeting a house. Feeling a casserole dish. Waking up piles of books. Thanking a pair of socks.

Rituals by definition are actions that carry shared meaning. But they don’t just solidify existing meanings – they can also change them. Rituals are often used to transition things (and people) between different categories.  So even a small moment of saying ‘thank you’ to used items can make it easier to mentally move them from the category of ‘possession’ to that of ‘donation’ or ‘trash’, which in turns makes it easier to change our behaviour towards it. To let it go. This works for items we keep as well – rituals of holding, feeling joy, and even folding can and do have the ability to change and how those items will be treated and experienced by their owners.

As an avid second-hand shopper, my wardrobe has always been particularly out of control, but I enjoy my clothes more now not only because I have less and can actually see them in the wardrobe, but because I value them more. They don’t just have functional value, but each one is deliberately chosen, treasured. I find I also think twice before I buy more because I know and value what I have. Also when I do farewell an item I can recognise what it has already given me, rather than feeling guilty.

In this way the KonMarie method is not ‘anti-stuff’ at all. Quite the opposite… it teaches a love, connection, and attachment to material life that seems antithetical to goals of decluttering, but isn’t. It opens a space that paradoxically begins to bring an almost hedonism, to minimalism – but one distinct from the excesses of consumerism.

Image result for marie kondo netflix

Marie Kondo. Image source:!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/16x9_780/marie-kondo.jpg

When a drawer closes, a window opens…

A summary of these brief anthropological thoughts would be this: Emerging from a Japanese context, the KonMari method is somehow also a timely response to western existential crises of clutter (that are moral, as well as material). Yes it is practical, but it is more than that.

With a persistent cheer and a handful of quiet rituals, Marie is opening a small window in the stuffy room of western rationality. Her methods let us acknowledge our relationship to places and things at the level of affect and being. To both hold on, and let go, with joy.

And with happier socks.  


We are ritual creatures

The 2018 University of Otago finalists (spot Marshall at the back left)

The 3 Minute Thesis competition is a lively annual event. This year Marshall Lewis, a Phd student in Otago’s Social Anthropology programme, competed in the University finals. We thought we’d share the content of his excellent presentation on ‘Ritual Design’ with you! …

“If you have goals that are important to you – and I bet you do – then you may want to design your rituals to support your goals. That’s the main idea behind my project.

So, very quickly: what do I mean by ritual, why use it and how might we design ritual?

Marshall Lewis delivering his presentation

Think of rituals as actions that embody and express your beliefs and values – you live your beliefs and values through ritual – perhaps not consciously. You may have waking rituals, hygiene rituals, eating, commuting, working, shopping, pre-game, post-sex, religious ritual – if you’re religious – even binging on Netflix can be ritual-like.

Why is life so ritualised?

Ritual scholarship is extensive and contentious. I’m focused on two basic propositions: First, there are discernible, family characteristics of ritual – some listed here – and secondly – and here’s why you should care – rituals work. Experimental psychologists have been demonstrating what coaches and drill sergeants have long known: rituals have real impact. For example, they can decrease anxiety, reduce grief, alleviate disappointment. Essentially, they can align and reinforce our beliefs and values.

And knowing that rituals work is real and useful knowledge. What might it look like to take this knowledge seriously: to apply ritual as a strategy or technology to support one’s goals and aspirations? That’s what my project is about. I am applying insights from the interdisciplinary study of ritual — from anthropology, organisational studies and religious studies – to do three things: to defend a conception of ritual as something to be designed; to evolve a practical method for designing ritual, and to apply this method in real-world environments.

Competitors in the 3 Minute Thesis competition are allowed a single powerpoint slide to accompany their 3-minute presentation, and this was Marshall’s image.

Two quick examples: First, I work in a large company that wants a collaborative culture, where people feel empowered to shape the future of the organisation. The question becomes: How might we design organisational rituals such as team meetings and problem-solving sessions if our goal is a collaborative culture?

Secondly, my youngest daughter is starting law school later this month, and she’s designing rituals to help maintain a healthy lifestyle during that period of intensity.

The ritual design method is straight forward, although far from easy. First, clarify your goal and the beliefs and values you want to reinforce (easier said than done!). Then, you design your rhythms and activities using the key characteristics of ritual as design principles. It’s a creative process, though analytically derived. 

We are ritual creatures. Ritual is one of the key strategies humans use to bring some order and method to the challenges and chaos of life.

Good luck with your goals!  And consider how your rituals can support you!”