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Decoding Clutter's Larger Universe

OUR friends at The Atlantic Monthly, in their "Word Watch" column, have drawn attention to a new term: clutter buddy. This is a noun for a person who helps another person cope with accumulated personal possessions. In the mode of today's many support movements, there are now clutter clinics, clutter hot lines, de-clutter guidebooks, and recovering clutterers. The anti-clutter movement of the '90s is antidotal to the acquisitiveness of the '80s.

Clutter implies disorder, a jumble; it is related to "clot," an aggregation that may obstruct the flow of an activity. In addition to its personal, self-help context, clutter has political, economic, and social applications.

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Bill Clinton, for instance, is facing a cluttered presidency. Foreign affairs are intruding upon his preferred agenda. He does not yet have a program for Bosnia with an action trigger to pull. He has not prepared the alignment on Bosnia with Western European leaders like the one James Baker III had prepared for George Bush and the Iraq showdown. The North American Free Trade Agreement is faltering.

Like most Democratic presidents, Clinton is domestically oriented. But even here he has made a jumbled start. With his second-thought approach to gays in the military, he has pleased neither side on the issue and has set astir the services he would have to rely upon for a military initiative in a place like Bosnia. On the jobs front, he overpromised during the campaign and is now facing the drag of an oversluggish economic recovery. Health-care reform looks as if it will cost more than he had counted on.

In fairness to Clinton, any presidency's threads can be very hard to draw together. And Clinton needs time to shift from the style and compass of a governor to the demands of a superpower executive.

Businesses are into anti-clutter mode. IBM has just hired Gerald Czarnecki to reprogram its personnel and administration practices; he is expected to take an "unsentimental" approach to IBM's cushy workplace. Kodak's chairman Kay R. Whitmore appears to be dithering over his troubled company's strategy.

Clutter is essentially mental in nature. This can be seen when we observe how tightly clutter can be held for the "comfort" it affords, or how intensely it can be resented for obstructing our view or impeding our progress.

The best de-cluttering agent is a clear direction and a predispostion to action. In moving forward we leave behind what is no longer needed.

The best argument for de-cluttering is not that a jumbled room or organization evidences some moral failure but that, pragmatically, it is better to clean the slate and to get ready for progress.

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Political systems feed on clutter. Boston, for example, is not the cleanest of cities. When six men stand idle at a work site while only one man is working, one can observes how patronage or job-generating systems can depend on never quite finishing the job.

Clutter may reflect unmanaged time rather than disordered things. Clutter gathered for recyling can have value.

The French penchant for order, administrative and otherwise, can be annoying to the non-French. But it must be appreciated too, as in the French culinary step called mise en place: All ingredients needed for a dish are prepared and assembled beforehand so the cooking can be done with dispatch; without this practice, the high level of French cooking could not be reached.

Americans prefer an improvisational approach to order, which is something of a contradiction. They value informality and take great pains to appear offhanded. At the moment, the de-clutter movement finds a companion austerity movement in fashion - austerity both in the latest look of clothes and in the management of fashion operations.

People and organizations tend to be defensive about their clutter. Clutter may at times be no more than a skin that should be shed, and this implies a moment of vulnerability. Clutter itself can be a defensive deployment for resisting change.

All this is to say that clutter is not usually what it appears to be, and that it implies a readiness for a new ordering concept.

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