Writer Kyle Chaka, author of the new book The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism, has a stunning new companion article out in New York Times Magazine titled "How Nothingness Became Everything We Wanted." It begins with Chaka's own journey into the sensory deprivation tank trend that had begun to sweep America before the pandemic, and explores the way that Americans in particular (though not solely) have sought capitalistic solutions to the overstimulation of everyday life. Chaka traces that most ironic of twists—that the industry of commercial Bodhisattva-ism had been steadily rising—through the unexpected outbreak of COVID-19, which forced people into a state of nothingness that also ran counter to the individual, consumer-choice driven trend that had been growing.
For years, an aesthetic mode of nothingness has been ascendant — a literally nihilistic attitude visible in all realms of culture, one intent on the destruction of extraneity in all its forms, up to and including noise, decoration, possessions, identities and face-to-face interaction. Over the past decade, American consumers have glamorized the pursuit of expensive nothing in the form of emptied-out spaces like the open-floor plans of start-up offices, austere loft-condo buildings and anonymous Airbnbs. Minimalism from the Marie Kondo school advocated a jettisoning of possessions that left followers with empty white walls. This aspiration toward disappearance made luxury synonymous with seeing, hearing, owning and even feeling less.
Then, in March 2020, much of our lives in the outside world that had been so agitating ground to a halt as the first round of coronavirus lockdown hit the United States. Alongside so much tragedy and despair, mass quarantine has represented a final fulfillment of the pursuit of nothingness, particularly for the privileged classes who could adapt to it in such relative comfort, sunk back into the couch cushions of spare country houses, equipped with grocery deliveries, Netflix shows and livestreaming exercise classes. This interregnum has often felt to me like an all-encompassing, full-time session of sensory deprivation. Quarantine has been widely regarded as a radical break in our daily lives and the ways we interact with the world, but in truth it's simply an overdose of the indulgences a certain segment of the population was dabbling in already. We're a little like kids caught with a cigarette, forced to smoke a whole pack at once.
This obsession with absence, the intentional erasure of self and surroundings, is the apotheosis of what I've come to think of as a culture of negation: a body of cultural output, from material goods to entertainment franchises to lifestyle fads, that evinces a desire to reject the overstimulation that defines contemporary existence. This retreat, which took hold in the decade before the pandemic, betrays a grim undercurrent: a deepening failure of optimism in the possibilities of our future, a disillusionment that Covid-19 and its economic crisis have only intensified. It's as if we want to get rid of everything in advance, including our expectations, so that we won't have anything left to lose.
There's a lot going on in this piece. But it's a lot that's worth thinking about. Because it's the kind of "a lot" that deals primarily with nothingness, in a way that's not exclusively or even necessarily bleak. So I guess it's also not a lot, because it's literally nothing. Or at least, about our search for nothing, in a pre-packaged, commodified form. And what happens when we find it. Except it's not all bad? Or at least, not necessarily; it really more depends on your perspective, because obviously there's a value in escaping from the over-stimulation of reality and —
Anyway, just read it. Or listen to it, if you subscribe to Audm.
How Nothingness Became Everything We Wanted [Kyle Chayka / New York Times Magazine]
Image: darwin bell / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)