The Lure of Minimalism

What is ‘lifestyle minimalism’? To a certain extent it depends upon whom you ask. It’s often talked about as a ‘tool’ to live a simpler and more meaningful life. It’s often framed in terms of reducing ‘stuff’ through sometimes extremely rigid regimes of limiting ownership to a certain number of objects. It’s correspondingly hostile to ‘clutter’ and imbues it with almost magical capacities to shape one’s psychic life. It sometimes celebrates nomadism – of a very privileged sort – including a permanent home within the category of ‘stuff’ that constrains our lives. It’s most influentially propounded by people who are making a career out of propounding it.

I see it as one strategy amongst others that is emerging to cope with acceleration. Lifestyle Minimalism is a response to a particular sort of consumerist ennui, responding to a failure of possessions to bring happiness through a corresponding declaration of possessions as being the enemies of happiness. It’s hard not to see a neurotic element in the recurrent counting of possessions: it’s like an ascetic bodily regime but enacted at the level of the lifestyle, purging one’s life of ‘stuff’ in order toapophatically enact purpose. While I find Lifestyle Minimalism immensely off-putting, I nonetheless find minimalism itself appealing. It becomes so in relation to what Harmut Rosa describes as the growing sense of the good life as the full life: 

the idea that an accelerated enjoyment of worldly options, a “faster life,” will once again allow the chasm between the time of life and the time of the world to be reduced. In order to understand this thought one has to keep in mind that the question concerning the meaning of death is indissolubly tied to the question of the right or “good life.” Thus the idea of the good life corresponding to this answer, which historically became the culturally dominant idea, is to conceive of life as the last opportunity, i.e., to use the earthy time span allotted to humans as intensively and comprehensively as possible before death puts a definitive end to it. Pg 181, Social Acceleration.

Left unchecked this inclines one towards doing everything all at once. There’s a latent agony in every moment of choice because of the possibilities it forecloses. Given that our knowledge of possibilities expand faster than our capacities to act on them (there’s always more books to read, more people to meet, more places to go, more things to do – with each one we do, we learn of many more) there’s a performative contradiction loaded into this existential ethic. The desire to live most fully, with a maximum intensity, continually thwarts itself through a perpetual expansion of horizons that inevitably elude us. We’re always looking beyond what we are now doing.

Lifestyle Minimalism is a particular regime (or cluster thereof) which aims to regulate this tendency through behavioural prescriptions of various sorts. Minimalism as an ethos distinguishable from this reflects a concern for the quality rather than the quantity of experience. The frantic movement of a full life in which no experience is ever really attended to can only be considered ‘full’ in a very truncated sense. It opens up the possibility that we might live maximally but in a self-consistent way, following the paths outwards from our present possibilities but doing so at our own speed in a way that enables us to attend to the reality of our present activity.


Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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