Centre for Critical Theory

Neither Use Nor Ornament: A Cultural Biography of Clutter and Procrastination

This research will examine the recent phenomenon of personal productivity via a cultural biographical (Appadurai, 1986) consideration of its twin impediments: clutter and procrastination. By analysing a range of 20th century discourses and representations from trade and retail catalogues and advice manuals to business self-help guides and lifestyle media, the aim is to demonstrate how projections of the good, productive life rely on images of failure.

This project aims to demonstrate how projections of the good, productive life rely on images of failure.




Project Overview

Overview of the project:

This project aims to analyse the recent obsession with clutter and procrastination as perceived obstacles to the good, productive life. Beginning with the contemporary ideal of personal productivity, which privileges the continuous flow of goods and energy as the marker of success, the intention is to focus on what Henri Lefebvre terms its ‘reverse image’. For Lefebvre, projections of failure are profoundly illuminating and serve to cast shadow portraits that are as culturally significant as any success story. Further, by taking a long view of the notion of productivity – the research takes January 5th 1914 as its starting point, i.e. the introduction of the $5 wage by Henry Ford – the intention is to reveal the socially constructed nature of contemporary designs for living by tracing their historical emergence, formation and transformation.

One of the main objectives of the project is to explore the methodological and epistemological implications of life-writing as a means of acknowledging the lively contribution of the nonhuman in human life. The aim is to recognise that the material world not only mediates human existence but can be said to be an active organiser of social life. With this object-oriented approach, I wish, above all, to counter the moral and medical injunction that humans necessarily control their environments. The fact that both clutter and procrastination appear in the revised edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM V) makes this an urgent, political task.




Principal Investigator

Dr Tracey Potts



Centre for Critical Theory

The University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD