The latter form is still going strong. In The Longing for Less, journalist and art critic Kyle Chayka reminds us of an iconic 1982 photograph of Steve Jobs posing at home in a room containing almost nothing but a luxury antique lamp from Tiffany. Chayka shows that minimalist living has since become a fully commercialized “brand identity” and lifestyle for educated, middle-class young professionals. Through best-selling books, popular social media channels, and Netflix series, self-help coaches like the Japanese cleaning guru Marie Kondo have “profited on their minimalism expertise,” he writes, by encouraging their followers to shed any possessions that do not “spark joy.”
Chayka wants to know why this particular luxury fad has gained popularity since the 2008 financial crisis. But he is also curious about what minimalism might still have to offer those who can look past its “superficial” form. This pursuit leads him through an exploration of contemporary art history, where he considers how four modes of minimalist expression (“reduction,” “emptiness,” “silence,” “shadow”) have allowed artists, composers, and others to achieve “sensation” in place of “interpretation.”
Chayka suspects, astutely, that minimalism can be used not just to make complex experiences simpler, but the other way around. Whether it is deployed as an ethical practice or as an aesthetic device (or as both at once), the minimalist mode can unlock truths lying dormant in one’s own mind. When Chayka visits the late American artist Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room — a “3,600-square-foot all-white space” containing nothing other than a “field of loose, healthy-looking soil piled up two feet high” — he thinks of the woodland area abutting his childhood home. In the middle of Manhattan, he observes, De Maria’s exhibit offers a natural, olfactory reminder of the ludic freedom that one experiences in youth — a kind of Arcadia for the senses.
Later, in his study of “shadows,” Chayka returns to this theme of nostalgia, which he sees as a defining element in the work of 20th-century Japanese philosopher Shūzō Kuki. A former expatriate in the febrile intellectual milieu of post–World War I Paris, Kuki, upon returning to Japan in 1929, sought to capture the elusive sense of loss that came with rapid modernization. He settled upon the notion of iki, an aesthetic ideal that he traced back to 18th-century Tokyo. Kuki’s interpretive approach is both fussy and capacious, seizing on everything from “thin, sheer fabric” to “a cultivated urbanity” as lingering expressions of iki that are still discoverable in the world. But at the center of Kuki’s philosophy, Chayka contends, was “a certain longing for less that’s shared widely across places and eras.” Iki, he finds, attaches to anything that triggers “a sense of the world passing by.”
Chayka’s odyssey through the modern minimalist tradition is worthy of a stand-alone text. His study of the “blank spaces” explored by the painter Agnes Martin, the architect Philip Johnson, the composer Julius Eastman, and many others is an exercise in grace and fidelity. But he also is concerned with the genealogy of the minimalist impulse more broadly. Minimalism, he argues, is “a feeling that repeats in different times and places around the world,” wherever there is a “sense that the surrounding civilization is excessive — physically or psychologically too much — and has thus lost some kind of original authenticity that must be regained.”
Accordingly, he follows the minimalist tradition back through Thoreau’s experiment in the woods to the asceticism of Saint Francis of Assisi, and on to the anti-materialism of the Greek and Roman Stoics (who actually picked it up from the Cynics). What these schools share, he believes, “is a strategy of avoidance,” the orientation of which “is toward survival.” Yet this is a rather uncharitable interpretation. Seneca, the Stoic who famously committed suicide because he was ordered by Nero to do so, was hardly worried about his own mortality. But more importantly, each of these philosophical schools was led to minimalism by specific, fully articulated ethical principles, not escapism.
Still, Chayka could not have chosen a better term to capture minimalism in its contemporary context. “Longing” implies an unmet — perhaps even an unknown — need. If today’s aspiring declutterers yearn for anything, it is precisely that which earlier minimalists had in abundance: a personal ethic. Consider the average yuppie consumer of Kondo’s Netflix series. He has more “stuff” than he could ever make good use of, and he is awash in more information than anyone could possibly absorb. But he suffers from what Chayka describes as a “persistent feeling of being overwhelmed and yet alienated.”
Chayka finds no English-language word to capture this angst, but it sounds a lot like what Émile Durkheim meant by anomie: the nihilistic despair instilled by constant, arbitrary changes in the structure of society and one’s place in it. Our hypothetical yuppie’s problem seems to be material in nature, when, in fact, it is temporal. There is ample evidence to show that for decades in advanced economies, technological development, social change, and the pace of life have been not just marching apace but accelerating.
In what the sociologist Hartmut Rosa calls “acceleration societies” — where the quest for speed and efficiency begets ever more speed and efficiency — broader historical developments can start to seem increasingly arbitrary. The rise of high-speed trading has led to “flash crashes” that have almost wiped out long-established companies within minutes, sometimes owing to a keystroke error. In the space of a decade, an otherwise unremarkable naïf has become one of the de facto overseers of the digital public sphere, largely owing to an accident of the network effect. In a world where the movement of goods, services, data, and people is accelerating, the law of unintended consequences rules. It becomes more likely that a single strain of malware, a single pandemic, or a single accidental confrontation between two nuclear powers will change the face of the international order before anyone knows what happened.
Considered in this light, one’s amassed clutter is better regarded as a symptom of deeper trends in mass consumerism, such as “fast fashion,” manufactured obsolescence, and the like. For our yuppie, the material domain is a side issue. The day-to-day tempo of his life exceeds his capacity to experience, let alone control, any one element fully. He knows that he is one of the lucky ones; that countless others are slaving away in insecure jobs where they have even less command of their own time. Yet he still feels a lack of autonomy, as though political, cultural, and economic developments are things that just happen to him. He is drawn to the idea of absence because it represents something constant. Through willful acts of reduction, he hopes to achieve a semblance of stability in what Chayka refers to as the “tumultuous present.”
Chayka attributes today’s anomie to the prevailing mode of capitalist production, alienated labor, and work-to-consume never-ending “growth.” Yet he also describes the “longing for less” as a “universal feeling,” which implies that it runs deeper than any particular economic system or stage of history. He is not the first social critic to seize on what he calls “an abstract, almost nostalgic desire, a pull toward a different, simpler world.” In 1938, the poet William Empson identified a “process of putting the complex into the simple” that had long been a recurring feature of English literature. And in 1964, the literary critic Leo Marx suggested that “the impulse of civilized man to renew himself by immersion in the simple, spontaneous instinctual life” has been with us all along. “[L]ife in a complex civilization,” Marx observed, creates a “familiar impulse to withdraw,” which is why Western literature has always featured settings in which “the superfluities and defenses of everyday life are stripped away, and men regain contact with essentials.”
These writers were referring to pastoralism. At least since Theocritus’s Idylls in the third century BC, flights into a stripped-down, rustic Arcadia (literal or otherwise) have been used to shine a critical light back on contemporary urban life. It is little wonder, then, that the pastoral movement — of retreat and return — emerges as a recurring theme in The Longing for Less.
Sometime after finding sanctuary in the New York Earth Room, Chayka travels to Japan, where he is struck by the “dramatic simplicity” of a traditional rock garden, “side by side with unruly life.” When he tries to simulate the experience of “hearing” pianist David Tudor performing John Cage’s silent composition 4’33” (1952) at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York, he is disrupted by the noise of distant leaf blowers and airplanes. Unwittingly, he has recreated a canonical episode in the American pastoral tradition: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1844 retreat into Sleepy Hollow near Concord, Massachusetts, where the author’s meditation in nature is violently interrupted by “the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness” of a train whistle in the distance.
Elsewhere, Chayka refers back to the Japanese Middle Ages, when “Heian men and women alike constantly threatened to abandon the shallow material world, shave their heads, and join monasteries far away from Kyoto, the way New Yorkers bail on the city.” The appeal of such retreats, he points out, is the same as that of “going on a cleanse or giving up the internet: You could always return, touched by the glamour of your asceticism.”
But the act of return need not be so cynical. Pastoralism has always acquired a cultural appeal during periods of historical upheaval. At its best, writes Terry Gifford, the pastoral form “will have taken the reader on a journey to be changed and charged upon return for more informed action in the present.” The message from the minimalist self-help gurus is that we should cram all of our consumerist effluvia into trash bags and consign it to some ever-expanding landfill. As a demand-side pseudo-solution, this advice is all too typical of the current moment.
Thanks to Chayka, cultural opportunists will not have the last word. The longing for less may be an endemic feature of the human condition, but it is also a healthy response to an era in which speed begets more speed, and no one is in control.
Stuart Whatley (@StuartWhatley) is deputy editor at Project Syndicate.