A social disease?
This summer an editorial in the New York Times announced that minimalism is a social disease:
The fetishized austerity and performative asceticism of minimalism is a kind of ongoing cultural sickness. We misinterpret material renunciation, austere aesthetics and blank, emptied spaces as symbols of capitalist absolution, when these trends really just provide us with further ways to serve our impulse to consume more, not less.
This annoyed me for two reasons. First because it preempted a piece I’d been meaning to write myself, a big social critique of minimalist self-help writers. I shelved my essay in order not to appear derivative. But I was also annoyed because it seemed to completely miss the point of the kind of minimalism I’m most familiar with — the kind I practice.
I don’t maintain a Pinterest account specially for pictures of my livingroom whitespace and monochromatic outfits, nor does my minimalism amount to certain brand choices within an otherwise generic consumerism. But I do practice a sort of voluntary asceticism.
I have two pairs of pants, two pairs of shoes, one coat, and so on. Even though I read all the time, I don’t permit myself to own more than 100 books. Knicknacks and clutter annoy me. I schedule my life to give myself long periods to focus on doing one thing at a time. Each day, I budget internet time — no more than an hour, for everything from email to news-gathering to social media. I do not own a car, and I hope never to do so. And I eat a very simple diet, often just Soylent (which, despite its many and often justified detractors, has the great benefit in my case that it’s the one food which has never, ever triggered a migraine).
Minimalism is expensive
Another NYT editorial rightly points out that this kind of minimalism is a privilege of the well-off. To make do with few clothes, for example, you have to buy durable ones, which are more expensive. The elements of my compact workspace, my phone and computer and ebook reader, represent a considerable investment. Poverty would debar me from these forms of minimalism. One ought not take any kind of moral high-ground about a minimalism of things — there are material preconditions for this efficiency. Nor should one moralize about time-minimalism. The freedom to focus is also a privilege. Simplicity is a kind of wealth, unequally and unjustly distributed. The poor often live among clutter and in terrible, stultifying distraction.
To the extent that the critique of minimalism is a critique of smugness or superiority, I endorse it. But there is a larger, erroneous critique having to do with the emotional, practical, and, dare I say, spiritual outcome of minimalism. It argues that at the end of minimalism lies boredom, depression, and nihilistic emptiness.
No, not necessarily.
The two minimalisms
Minimalism is a means. Essentially it’s the act of releasing unnecessary things. I think the editorial’s fundamental critique of minimalism only works insofar as that means is taken to be an end in itself. There are two minimalisms. There is the releasing of unnecessary things because this means itself is taken to beautiful, good, or satisfying; and there is the releasing of unnecessary things because they allow one to focus more completely on fewer and more rewarding things.
Earlier in the election cycle (a time, despite its aggravations, which I now look back upon with nostalgia for its innocence), I was consuming a lot of samey, quick hit political journalism. I got around my internet time-limits by sending too many articles every day to my Kindle. (To read them offline, see.) But at some point I realized it was eating into my ability to focus on other things. Each little hit of “x said y today,” was another tiny piranha nibbling on the things that matter.
So I cut news-cycle politics entirely out of my reading diet. I refused to read anything but longform and longue dureé essays about the political and world situation. As a result I ended up looking further abroad for the kind of reading matter that satisfied my new conditions. Now I get my news not just from local, US sources but from Japan and India, Germany and Spain, Argentina and China. It’s just about the only good thing to have come out of this election, as far as I’m concerned.
For minimalism to yield this kind of reward, I must link it to a fairly comprehensive set of personal goods. There’s no virtue in itself in ignoring the blow-by-blow of daily news. For some people — let’s say political organizers or the editors of political journals — it would in fact be a foolish and detrimental restriction. But for me, because I prioritize my vocation to write, this act of minimalizing was deeply enriching.
Most of the elements of my “minimalist lifestyle” were chosen this way, as discrete means to enhance my ability to write and to do the thinking and reading necessary to write well. I wouldn’t necessarily advocate any individual instance of my minimalizing as a universal good. But I can and do think that considering the blooming buzzing whole of one’s life, and determining where one’s energies would best be spent, and where those energies would be wasted, would benefit nearly anyone. If that’s minimalism, I’ll gladly defend it.
There is, of course, a second minimalism, the proper target of the NYT editorial. This minimalism elevates a means to a panacea-like end and moralizes at those who dissent. It is the minimalism of the disruptor, whose vision of social progress is the unnecessary streamlining and capitalization of some new, unsuspecting facet of daily life. This kind of minimalism is the reason a lot of people I respect despise Soylent. They perceive it to be an unnecessary “creative destruction” of eating. I get it (while, as stated above, dissenting for medical reasons of my own).
In that long-abandoned essay I was going to write about minimalism, I planned to point out that simplicity, clutter-free spaces, and empty schedules can often take the form of a narrow-minded rejection of the personal consequences of capitalism, which amounts to leveraging the distress of others to seize one’s own peace. There we have a minimalism not just empty and dissatisfying, but actively noxious.
All I ask is that we distinguish between the unassuming, meaningful simplicities of the one minimalism, and the narcissistic, grandstanding aridities of the other.