The mantra of “less is more” still obeys a logic of accumulation—but it hints at genuinely different ways of thinking.
The new literature of minimalism is full of stressful advice. Pack up all your possessions, unpack things only as needed, give away everything that’s still packed after a month. Or wake up early, pick up every item you own, and consider whether or not it sparks joy. See if you can wear just thirty-three items of clothing for three months. Know that it’s possible to live abundantly with only a hundred possessions. Don’t organize—purge. Digitize your photos. Get rid of the things you bought to impress people. Downsize your apartment. Think constantly about what will enable you to live the best life possible. Never buy anything on sale.
Recently, I spent a few months absorbing the new minimalist gospel, beginning with Marie Kondo, the celebrity decluttering guru, whose book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” has sold more than ten million copies, and whose stance can seem twee but is rooted in Shinto tradition: having fewer possessions allows us to care for those possessions as if they had souls. I also turned to Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who call themselves the Minimalists and, under that name, run a blog, publish books, and host a podcast that is downloaded as many as three million times a month. I read the blog Be More with Less, which is written by Courtney Carver, who came to minimalism after being given a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and views the practice as a pathway to love and self-care. Also on my syllabus were the books “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” by Greg McKeown, for whom minimalism is a habit of highly effective people; “The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own,” by Joshua Becker, a former pastor who wants his readers to free up their time and money for charitable causes; and “Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism,” by Fumio Sasaki, who writes with winning self-deprecation, admitting that his simple life style might make him seem like a loser.
As I waded through this course of study, I felt like a dirty sponge being irradiated in the microwave: I was trapped, unpleasantly, but a cleansing fire was beginning to rage within. I Kondoed my sock drawer, tenderly unravelling lumpy balls of wool and cotton and laying each pair flat. I made daily pilgrimages to Goodwill. When I went home to Texas for the holidays, I entered my parents’ apartment as a whirling dervish of minimalist self-satisfaction, hectoring them to toss out their kitchen doodads and excess Tupperware. Within hours of arrival, I had filled six large trash bags with clothes to donate. “See?!” I howled, irritating myself and everyone around me. “You get rid of the things you don’t need so that you can focus on the things you do! ”
I sounded, I imagine, like many of the converts to what might be considered the latest wave in an intermittent American impulse. In 1977, the social scientists Duane Elgin and Arnold Mitchell observed that, for several years, “the popular press has paid occasional attention to stories of people returning to the simple life.” Elgin and Mitchell believed that this smattering of articles reflected a social movement that could bring about a “major transformation of traditional American values.” They called the movement “voluntary simplicity,” and saw it as a potential solution not only to “growing social malaise” but also to ecological destruction and the “unmanageable scale and complexity of institutions.” They believed that a few million people were practicing full voluntary simplicity, and that as much as half the U.S. population was sympathetic to it. Estimating the “maximum plausible growth of VS,” they wrote that as many as a third of all Americans might be converted to the simple life by the year 2000.
That didn’t happen. But, in 2008, the housing crisis and the banking collapse exposed the fantasy of easy acquisition as humiliating and destructive; for many people, it became newly necessary and desirable to learn to rely on less. It is tempting to interpret the new minimalism as a kind of cultural aftershock of that financial disruption, and perhaps it is, in part. But, at the same time that Kondo and her cohort have popularized a form of material humility, minimalism has become an increasingly aspirational and deluxe way of life. The hashtag #minimalism pulls up more than seventeen million photos on Instagram; many of the top posts depict high-end interior spaces. Last April, Kim Kardashian West appeared in a Vogue video walking through her sixty-million-dollar California mansion, a stark, blank, monochromatic palace that she described as a “minimal monastery.” Less is more attractive when you’ve got a lot of money, and minimalism is easily transformed from a philosophy of intentional restraint into an aesthetic language through which to assert a form of walled-off luxury—a self-centered and competitive impulse that is not so different from the acquisitive attitude that minimalism purports to reject.
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. Today’s minimalism, with its focus on self-improvement, feels oddly dominated by a logic of accumulation. Less is always more, or “more, more, more,” as Millburn and Nicodemus write: “more time, more passion, more experiences, more growth, more contribution, more contentment—and more freedom.”
“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. Later in the book, Chayka examines Philip Johnson’s Glass House—a startling, transparent box in New Canaan, Connecticut—and concludes that its beauty manifests a “megalomaniacal possessiveness” over both the surrounding landscape and the experience of anyone who enters. This sort of aestheticized emptiness, Chayka argues, is “not particularly radical; it might even be conservative,” given its reliance on control and exclusion. Plus, the ceiling leaked when it rained.
More beguiling to Chayka are artists who have no interest in directing the lives of others. He writes about Agnes Martin—who considered herself an Abstract Expressionist but whose poised, transcendent paintings have been claimed for Minimalism—and Walter De Maria, whose installation “The New York Earth Room,” a field of dirt in a mostly empty white space, has been quietly confounding people in SoHo since 1977. He visits Donald Judd’s “100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum,” in Marfa, Texas, which defies any attempt to ascribe emotional meaning to it—the aluminum boxes are “just there,” Chayka writes, “empty of content except for the sheer fact of their physical presence, obdurate and silent, explaining nothing and with nothing to explain.” Such a sculpture might sound “deathly boring, more math problem than artwork,” but, as you walk through the exhibit, with the desert sun setting the silvery containers alight, they become a “constant affirmation of the simple possibility of sensation.” Elsewhere in the book, he writes about the philosopher Keiji Nishitani, who described ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, as a practice that links beauty to ephemerality and death.
These are the models for a deeper, more honest, less self-centered minimalism, Chayka believes: a way of living that makes “simple things more complicated, not the other way around.” Still, he is not immune to shallower forms of the aesthetic. When he flies to Tokyo, hoping to understand concepts like mono no aware—the Japanese idea of sensitivity to impermanence—the first thing he encounters is the stark, white, dehumanized Airbnb where he will be staying. Despite his intent to critique, he is being catered to, sometimes successfully. A developer puts up a condo building across the street from his Brooklyn apartment, and stages one of its units as an “Instagram-ready tableau of white bed, white nightstand, white table, white kitchen cabinets,” visible through big windows. Chayka admits, grudgingly, that the place looks stylish.
The Brooklyn apartment and the Tokyo Airbnb are examples of a style that Chayka has called AirSpace, a term he coined in 2016, in a piece for the Verge, to describe the look of cafés, co-working spaces, and short-term rental apartments all over the globe. “I can’t say no to a tasteful, clean, modern life space,” he wrote then. “But,” he added, “thinking through its roots and negative implications makes me reconsider my attachment.” Chayka’s writing tends to center on phenomena that conjure aspiration, emptiness, and emotional distance: as a journalist, he’s covered luxury cryptocurrency, the blandly appealing life-style magazine Kinfolk, and the streetwear brand Supreme. “The Longing for Less” revisits earlier essays and reporting on the Minimalists, the Japanese philosopher Shūzō Kuki, and Marie Kondo.
His dual response to the all-white apartment is one of the only moments in “The Longing for Less” when Chayka acknowledges his attraction to superficial minimalism, but that attraction pulses throughout the book. The writing has a careful tastefulness that occasionally conforms to what Chayka, in a different context, calls the “house style of the non-place and the generic city.” The table of contents is presented as four pristine boxes, with high-toned, one-word chapter titles—“Reduction,” “Emptiness,” “Silence,” “Shadow”—arranged in a perfect grid. Each chapter is subdivided into eight sections, and Chayka suggests that “The Longing for Less” might be wandered through in the manner of an art exhibit, that the blank spaces between contrasting examples will generate unexpected lessons. (Chayka’s reporting on Supreme, which was published by Racked, was also organized by a gridded table of contents, guiding readers to considerations of “Hype,” “Japan,” and “Fandom,” among other subjects.)
Nonfiction forms that rely on the generative potential of white space, like poetry and the lyric essay, require a distinct forcefulness of voice and vision to succeed; in its absence, this kind of mannered subtlety can be frustrating. Most of the sections in “The Longing for Less” end on a glancing note of epiphany, such as “Simplicity doesn’t have to be an end point—it can lead to new beginnings,” which is the last line of a paragraph two-thirds of the way through the book.
In a way, Chayka’s book replicates the conflict he’s attempting to uncover—between the security and cleanliness of a frictionless affect and the necessity of friction for uncovering truth. He does have moments of productive discomfort: outside the concert hall where John Cage débuted “4’33”,” he wanders for four and a half minutes of silence in honor of Cage’s blank composition, and finds himself disappointed by the mundane sounds of leaf blowers and airplanes, before becoming unexpectedly attuned to the gentle sound of a hidden stream. He goes to the Guggenheim to hear Erik Satie’s proto-minimalist composition “Vexations,” an experiment in extreme monotony, and it proves intolerable, creating a jarring awareness of the often inadequate here and now. But Chayka best conveys the unnerving existential confrontation that minimalism can create in his capsule biographies of figures such as Julius Eastman, the composer who used minimalist structures as a means of asserting personal dissonance. In the nineteen-eighties, Eastman began living, on and off, in Tompkins Square Park; he wrote music on the subway and gave his compositions away in bars. Explaining the titles of his pieces “Crazy Nigger” and “Evil Nigger,” Eastman said, “What I mean by niggers is that thing which is fundamental, that person or thing that attains to a ‘basicness,’ a ‘fundamentalness,’ and eschews that thing which is superficial or, what can we say, elegant.”
True minimalism, Chayka insists, is “not about consuming the right things or throwing out the wrong; it’s about challenging your deepest beliefs in an attempt to engage with things as they are, to not shy away from reality or its lack of answers.” I suspect that some recent converts to minimalism have already come to this conclusion. Underneath the vision of “less” as an optimized life style lies the path to something stranger and more profound: a mode of living that strips away protective barriers and heightens the miracle of human presence, and the urgency, today, of what that miracle entails.
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.
Today’s most popular minimalists do not mention Marx. Sometimes they address the importance of freeing oneself from the dictates of the market. In “Goodbye, Things,” Sasaki writes about the importance of figuring out your minimum required monthly income, and encourages readers to consider the environmental consequences of their life styles. Millburn and Nicodemus write about the joy that comes from choosing to earn less money, even if they avoid discussing the more common situation of having your wages kept low against your will. But they also assure their audience that “capitalism is not broken”—we are. They insist that there’s “nothing wrong with earning a shedload of money—it’s just that the money doesn’t matter if you’re not happy with who you’ve become in the process.” Even these sincere prophets of anti-consumerism are hesitant to conclude that the excessive purchasing of stuff may be a symptom of larger structural problems, or that a life built around maximum accumulation may be not only insufficiently conducive to happiness but actually, morally bad.
The worst versions of life-style minimalism frame simplicity not as a worthy end in itself but as an instrument—a tool of self-improvement, or of high-end consumption, or of self-improvement through high-end consumption. It is a vision shaped by the logic of the market: the self is perpetually being improved; its environment is ready for public display and admiration; it methodically sheds all inefficiencies and flaws. This vision also forgoes any recognition that the kind of salvation so many people are seeking can happen only at the level of the system rather than at that of the individual. (As Chayka puts it, “Your bedroom might be cleaner, but the world stays bad.”) The difference between profound and superficial minimalism may be a matter of conceptual inversion: the question is whether you accept diminishment in order to more efficiently assert your will or whether you assert your will in order to accept the unseen bounty of self-diminishment. This is also where the minimalism of ideas meets the minimalism of things—the latter argues that ridding yourself of possessions means ridding yourself of trouble and difficulty; the former suggests that the end point of stripping away excess is the realization that the world is more troubled, more difficult, more discomfiting, and also more wondrous and full of possibility than it seems.
The term that Elgin and Mitchell used in 1977, “voluntary simplicity,” was borrowed from Richard Gregg, a lawyer from Colorado who, after the First World War, gave up the law and took a job with a railway workers’ union. In the early twenties, hundreds of thousands of railway workers went on strike, and more than a dozen people died in clashes between strikers and armed guards. Gregg, devastated, came across a book of Gandhi’s writings in a Chicago bookstore, and travelled to India to meet Gandhi and learn about peaceful resistance. In 1934, he published “The Power of Nonviolence,” which Martin Luther King, Jr., later described as one of the books that had had the greatest influence on him. Gregg published “The Value of Voluntary Simplicity” in 1936. In it, he calls capitalism a “gravely defective” system that ought to be “reformed or ended.”
Several years ago, Duane Elgin, who has become an author and an activist focussed on sustainability, published a paper arguing that either we can “continue along our current path of denial and bargaining” until we drain our natural resources and our capacity to relate to one another as humans or we can “awaken ourselves from the dream of limitless material growth and actively invent new ways to live within the material limits of the Earth.” This is, in the end, the most convincing argument for minimalism: with less noise in our heads, we might hear the emergency sirens more clearly. If we put down some baggage, we might move more swiftly. We might address the frantic, frightening, intensifying conditions that have prompted us to think of minimalism as an attractive escape. ♦
Published in the print edition of the February 3, 2020, issue, with the headline “Simple Plans.”