The machineries of joy

I've yet to see any of Marie Kondo's Netflix show, but I feel like I have.

The internet abounds with hot takes about how this is the best/worst thing ever.  Fortunately, I only promise cold takes, so there's still a niche for my ramblings. I'm not interested in whether Kondo's show is life-affirming/monstrous/culturally insensitive/the victim of cultural insensitivity as much as the discussion that we're not having around one of her key pieces of vocabulary.

Kondo's essence (if I understand, as this is filtered through a lot of Twitter angst and co-worker chit-chat) is that you declutter by focusing on those things that give you joy. Everything else is so much flotsam. 

My understanding may be wildly wrong, but I think 'getting rid of stuff' is the red herring in this particular concept. (Although, as a 'using culture to shift behaviour' case study, Kondo is tough to beat). What's more intriguing is the underlying philosophical push: you don't just remove the unjoyous, you put the joyous front and centre, so you, er, enjoy it more. Life is short; space is limited - be joyous.

I've written about joy's pseudo-objective cousin, 'value', in the past. As marketers, we're constantly trying to create definitions of value for our audience. 'Value' is durabilityless preparation timefewer immigrants. The ultimate criticism of marketing is that we're making people want stuff. There's some truth to that - most advertising boils down to espousing a social norm for the audience to fit, and then setting out a clear, clickable path for them to get there.

Good marketing uncovers a credible definition of value that's already embedded within the audience and then amplifies it in a motivating way. Value is a burger with more beef.  [nb. I am in partial agreement with the industry's critics. I think that great advertising successfully communicates a definition of value that didn't previously exist. Value is collectible cups. That's a 'great' as an appreciation of talent, not a moral judgement.]

'Joy', like 'value', is a weasel word.

It is entirely subjective, but invariably and continuously subject to external attempts to standardise it. There are plenty of ads out there that will happily tell you what you enjoy. Be that a sofa or a burger, getting greeted at the door by your 2.7 smiling moppets, necking beers with your bros before the Big Game. Marketing is keen to tell you what makes you happy. This week, I was treated to two hours of watching pre-dawn children's television in an NHS waiting room, and every single advertisement was keen to tell me what I enjoyed (farting pony dolls, mostly - but also so. many. theme. parks). There's occasionally a value argument buried in there, but mostly these communications were determined to tell me (or my young child) what made us happy

...which meanders back to the joy-centric decluttering approach.

You - and only you - know what brings you joy, which of your things make you feel happy, connected, carefree, or just plain ol' better. At best, advertising - or other cultural influences - can build 'fraternal joy'. The perception that other people - ones that are like you - are enjoying something. The skill is, as with value, understanding the audience - trying to ground that audience empathy in an educated guess. But, ultimately, it is on you, as the viewer/consumer, to make a critical assessment over whether or not that (car/film/farting pony) would bring you joy as well. For each individual thing, that relationship of joy-enablement is a unique bond (or lack thereof), and up to you. 

Like 'success', I think there are dangers to creating social norms for what constitutes joy. Who are we to decide that all x enjoy y? That can be largely harmless when we're flogging farting ponies, but the slippery slope goes a long way down.

Get: Anyone selling a product
To: Avoid 'telling' how happy it will make them
By: Creating a shared experience instead


Further reading:

  • The latest subgenre buzzword is 'hopepunk'. 'Weaponised optimism' is a glorious phrase, but the genre - as with all ad hoc, post hoc labels - is a little more sprawling than that. It seems to cover a range of fiction that extends from triumphant to cozy. As with all subgenres, everyone has an opinion on it, and - fandom being fandom (especially when it comes to a genre that dares sniff of female enjoyment) - the opinions are pretty savage.

    • As always, what interests me is largely semantic and entirely irrelevant. '-punk' is a fairly meaningless suffix when it comes to genre definition (see also: 'steampunk', 'sandalpunk', etc. etc. etc.) But, in an odd turn of events, I think we are in an era where happiness - hope - joy - feels revolutionary.

    • On the micro level the 'punk' of hopepunk is a rebellion against the overwhelmingly miserabilist trend that's been dominating SF/F for a decade. On the macro level, being openly happy in an era of amplified misery and competitive grief is a form of rebellion. There's a populist push to define 'happiness' as the sole domain of the Elite/1%/whatever, and to enjoy oneself is to quit the struggle.

    • Without sounding like a broken record - it isn't. Self-care is important. Joy is important. And hope is essential: we need to remind ourselves what we're fighting for. (Erin Lindsey writes on a related issue when she talks about the self-reinforcing danger of 'virtue signalling' and the trap of performative, collective outrage.)

  • I wasn't wild about Lynne Segal's Radical Happiness, but it is a powerful examination of the role of collective joy in fostering unity and creating change. Worth a read.

  • 'Time well spent' is a term - and a nonprofit - about using the internet more meaningfully. The term was later co-opted by Mark Zuckerberg, which is particularly ironic given the Boschian nightmare that is Facebook. But, as metric (even a theoretical one), it leads us to think about joy in at least two different ways. There's the current Facebook model: providing content that you click, and therefore giving the tiny burst of serotonin that gives you an addictive joy-pill - see Lindsey's tweets above. Or there's the more conceptual model, about meaningful engagement. The latter, sadly, is a lot harder to measure - much less sell to advertisers. 


The first The Outcast Hours event is in the diary - join me, Will Hill, Lavie Tidhar, Louis Greenberg and Marina Warner for a chat about the book on February 21st. Tickets here, and come with a copy of the book. And there are more events coming, including Bradford, East London, New York, and Cairo. (That's very fun to type.)

Pleased to see Outcast on a few 'anticipated in 2019'-type lists, including over at Barnes & Noble and on the erudite Coode Street Podcast. And, to file under 'The Bucket List I Didn't Know I Had', The Djinn Falls in Love gets a mention in the latest issue of The Journal of Commonwealth Literature


I'm not normally a TED person, but I really like the 'radically social' theme of the upcoming TEDxBradford. A talk at the RSA on the dignity of youth, from the woman behind Mean Girls! Local Authors & Illustrators Fair in Luton. Newham Word starts in February.