We’re surrounded by stuff, let’s get rid of it all. Jia Tolentino reviews The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism by Kyle Chayka, and wonders whether, beneath the vision of “less” as a life style, there is a path to something more profound.
The pitfalls and the potential of the new minimalism – The New Yorker
It is rarely acknowledged, by either the life-hack-minded authors or the proponents of minimalist design, that many people have minimalism forced upon them by circumstances that render impossible a serene, jewel-box life style. Nor do they mention that poverty and trauma can make frivolous possessions seem like a lifeline rather than a burden. Many of today’s gurus maintain that minimalism can be useful no matter one’s income, but the audience they target is implicitly affluent—the pitch is never about making do with less because you have no choice. Millburn and Nicodemus frequently describe their past lives as spiritually empty twentysomethings with six-figure incomes. McKeown pitches his insights at people who have a surplus of options as a consequence of success. Kondo recently launched an online store, suggesting that the left hand might declutter while the right hand buys a seventy-five-dollar rose-quartz tuning fork. […]
“The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism,” a new book by the journalist and critic Kyle Chayka, arrives not as an addition to the minimalist canon but as a corrective to it. Chayka aims to find something deeper within the tradition than an Instagram-friendly aesthetic and the “saccharine and predigested” advice of self-help literature. Writing in search of the things that popular minimalism sweeps out of the frame—the void, transience, messiness, uncertainty—he surveys minimalist figures in art, music, and philosophy, searching for a “minimalism of ideas rather than things.”
Along the way, he offers sharp critiques of thing-oriented minimalism. The sleek, simple devices produced by Apple, which encourage us to seamlessly glide through the day by tapping and swiping on pocket-size screens, rely on a hidden “maximalist assemblage,” Chayka writes: “server farms absorbing massive amounts of electricity, Chinese factories where workers die by suicide, devastated mud pit mines that produce tin.” Also, he points out, the glass walls in Apple’s headquarters were marked with Post-it notes to keep employees from smacking into them, like birds.
It’s not just a critique of style over substance, though.
The self-help minimalists say that keeping expenses low and purchases to a minimum can help create a life that is clear and streamlined. This practice can also lead to the conclusion that there is not only too much stuff in your apartment but too much stuff in the world—that there is, you might say, an epidemic of overproduction. If you did say this, you would be quoting Karl Marx, who declared that this was the case in 1848, when he and Friedrich Engels published “The Communist Manifesto.” Comparing a “society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange” to “the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells,” they contended that there was “too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.” Hence, they suggested, the boom-and-bust cycle of capitalism, which brings the periodic “destruction of a mass of productive forces”—as, perhaps, we experienced in 2008, before the rise of Kondo and company.