Domestic Cozy: 8

This entry is part 8 of 13 in the series Domestic Cozy

Last time, I explored (with some crowdsourced help) how domestic cozy is a retreat from public life along four vectors: discomfort, danger, deprivation, and ceremony, or DDDC. I also proposed four archetypal spaces that domestic cozy is not like: airport, minefield, desert, and mansion. When you intersect those four qualities in a Venn diagram and try to label various intersections, you get a map of the negative space of domestic cozy. The residual public is at the center, surrounded by various pure and composite archetypal spaces.

What used to be a liberating crossing of a threshold, from the constraints of domesticity to the freedoms of public life, is now a complex descent, from the freedom of intimate spaces, into an imprisoning hell-of-other-people, via increasingly dank stages and levels. The Arrow of Freedom™ now points in the other direction. Escape now lies inwards.

What is left behind when there is this kind of systematic but incomplete retreat from particular aspects of a situation?

In Part 3, I argued that incursion of safe-space sensibilities makes residual public spaces more domestic. But this feels incomplete in a way that became clear to me reading this intriguing argument in the The American Interest, about Melville’s Bartleby representing a safe-space archetype:

Let’s look at the construction of the line [“I would prefer not to”]. It’s eminently passive. It’s not a flat refusal, it’s not rude, it puts its emphasis on feelings. It’s safe space talk…In its silent form, we might now call it  “ghosting.” And make no mistake, ghosting is what Bartleby is doing: both ghosting his employer, while being physically present at work, and ghosting himself with his own life.

This is, I think, a correct characterization of safe spaces, and therefore an incomplete characterization of both domestic cozy and the residual public.

Domestic cozy maps to a kind of background, private regime of safe spaces that sometimes irrupts, heavily armored, into the residual public, like a habitable spaceship sometimes irrupts into the inhospitable environment of outer space.

And like outer space, the residual public is more than a featureless vacuum; it is a space marked by the intersection of active discomforts, dangers, deprivations, and yes, austere ceremony (outer space is defined by elegant geometries carved out by orbital mechanics, while public spaces are defined by elegant geometries carved out by architects over the ages).

The discomforts, dangers, deprivations, and ceremony of a functional public life all tend to serve a singular purpose: creating and maintaining a space of precarious, artificial neutrality, conducive to the creation of common-wealth. When you don’t do the work, the neutrality dissipates, and you are left with decidedly non-neutral public spaces as another article in The American Interest argues.

The residual public becomes defined by the pageantry of periodic domestic-cozy incursions of private life into public life, the way outer space is defined for us by the pageantry of space programs.

That is what the public has turned into: a zone of domestic-cozy space programs: safe spaces venturing into hostile environments under cover of high-tech defensive boundaries. This is true of both online and offline public spaces. Both are loci of something like a political space race. Every ideology has its own space program and target public spaces. If progressive domestic cozy has claimed college campuses, Trumpist domestic cozy has claimed Washington, DC (literally; the city has been pwned by a single family of cozy grifters that has made it a safe space for itself). And both feel under siege.

This is a pattern of behavior that tends to destroy rather than create commons social capital.

In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, often used to model such situations, mutual cooperation and mutual defection are the two extreme regimes usually discussed, modeling, respectively, a healthy neutral commons and a tragedy-of-the-commons situation. Mutual exploitation is an in-between regime that becomes optimal under certain conditions. First you safely advance into the public space to beat up on me, while I retreat rather than fight you. Then you retreat and I advance to beat up on you. Repeat, taking turns, so we both get to harvest what’s left of the wealth in the commons, until it is all gone. It is a kind of perverse cooperation.

Seen as a mutual exploitation equilibrium, the tedious cycle of parade and counter-parade, march and counter-march, demonstration and counter-demonstration, debunking and counter-debunking, makes sense. Instead of being a shared neutral zone, the public turns into a time-shared extension of competing cozy domesticities.

Series Navigation<< Domestic Cozy: 7Domestic Cozy: 9 >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Thanks for your work on this! At first I was intrigued, but didn’t quite get how the domestic realm is obliterating the public. I’m looking forward to seeing more unfolding layers of theory on domestic cozy.

  2. And in those days, it was said to be better to be among the dead than be alive and yet counted among the Rationalists

  3. What is a “self-own” in the graph?

    • When you undermine your own positions. Like an own-goal or unforced error.

      • A situation that appears promising at first but only terminates in a big Yud. Maybe a Yud-up or a clusteryud maybe. Or a Yud cluster, or a growing Yud cluster nest

        • The main irony here being that I’m literally talking about a specific fat older guy I’ve been cyber bullying as a hobby and the social phenomena that naturally form around him, and not some racist or anti Semitic dog whistle

  4. CONTAINS SPOILERS to the novel The City & the City:

    The concept of competitive, alternating domestic cozy incursions into the common space made me think of the world in The City & the City by China Mieville. Wouldn’t it be funny if MAGAs and SJWs could coexist by learning to literally not see and hear the opposing faction’s domestic cozy spaceships, even if they were physically intermixed with their own? Imagine a group of campus SJWs demonstrating in support of jail time for misgendering, and MAGAs could walk right by without hearing them or suffering the concomitant adrenaline dump.

    One could object that most ideologies seek control over everyone, not just true believers. However, if you literally can’t see or hear someone, they don’t exist, and thus it’s impossible for them to be wrong and need your control/correction. Imagine the relief to no longer be surrounded by enemies. (To be fair, my rebuttal falls apart when it’s physical space that’s contested. No matter how willing I am to ignore boomer investors and money-laundering foreign nationals, I can’t ignore the reality of houses costing 6x my otherwise decent salary.)

    I don’t think this is actually possible to do, it’s more of an allegory. Perhaps Mieville was getting at the logical conclusion to domestic cozy moral relativism. Only through a new social contract, where we learn to not even see those with whom we share no common dialogue, are we able to keep society from tearing itself apart.

    • I think we’re actually already doing this. The rare antifa-proud-boy skirmishes have to be actively scripted. The competition over “public” spaces has already become a sort of spatio-temporal detente of alternation that creates an appearance of more conflict than there is. There is far less appetite for confrontation than for pageantry. Hong Kong is a good example of what real competition for public space and time looks like.

      Tech is adding to this. In virtual spaces, this is mostly the norm already.

      • What makes the situation in Hong Kong different? What stands out to me are the number of people vs public time & space, and the serious consequences to freedom and life.

        In North America we’ve got just the right level of inequality to foster this Domestic Cozy detente. Enough to feel justifiably wronged and motivate conflict, but we’re not destitute and starving. A millennial can’t buy a house but has a nice apartment, and at least the discouraged Gen Z has their parents’ basement in which to snack and play vidya. I imagine the detente falls apart when an increasingly hostile environment challenges people’s most basic needs for food, a place to live (aka refuge from the teeming crowds), and safety.

  5. Found an example of pure domestic cozy I thought I’d share. Overview of ASMR videos.

  6. I’ve been thinking there’s something really wrong with this diagram for a bit, but I can’t articulate it properly.

    Basic ideas; when someone is following an explorative non-goal-directed “parametric” process, it can always be viewed as a kind of flight, a kind of retreat, (infinite games are a retreat from goals and so on) so you can be happily characterising a launch pad of divergent processes as a hollowed out space, simply by tracking that local divergence. You can treat it as a reverse goal directed avoidance process. (Because whatever they’re doing, they’re not staying here, and they don’t seem to be going somewhere else either)

    This isn’t necessarily a bad form of first run analysis, as you’re basically saying “existing social patterns do not contain the orbits of these people’s behaviour”, in the sense that the late 20th century conceptualisation of the depoliticised celebrity public, added to the very late 20th/early 21st century internet of context free posturing and linguistic experimentation, do not necessarily circumscribe people’s behaviours. Inferring too much emotionality from that could be unwise though.

    Secondly, privacy; the very idea of conceptualising a public aesthetic of personalised non-positioning-oriented domesticity (especially as responded to in marketing activity) is going to be inherently bizarre, as either that contradiction is inherently resolved, leading to some of the conclusions you’ve been making, or those intentionally and publicly representing it will be in some sense faking it, and will want to either assert that this contradiction is resolved for the sake of maintaining their position, or construct some markers of distance that allows people to process the acknowledged artificiality.

    Both of these are true simultaneously, as we see in streamers with their false accessibility to “chat”, and in the significant subdivisions of “non-professional internet people”‘s lives into different modes of subjectivity, with very slight point to point personal connections, and amorphous pseudonymous ones that allow cultivation of personal weirdness.

    As more internet-savvy people set their privacy settings more carefully, you should expect to see an intentional use of the public for only those things people believe it is for, with one of those things being doxing, receipts etc., the intentional breaching of other people’s information control processes in order to hurt, achieve publicly acceptable moral ends etc.

    In other words, you can think of the particularly interesting interactions of the domestic and the personal as being about public keys and infiltration; the “asmr”/”weirdly satisfying” stuff, and even the antisemitism, is about people packaging personal psychological data and experiential modes in ways that only those who have experienced the same kinds of interiority will be able to recognise. It is affectively personal in substance while trying to minimise tracing, and so being, in the sense of public personas, as impersonal as possible.

    In contrast, doxing, leaking chats, and so on, seeks to create public and accessible personas of people who are trying to operate happily without one, whether they are Trump admin officials basking in the obscurity of executive privilege, abusive partners living double lives, gossips or trolls taking advantage of the variety of possible channels to push conflicts, or simply someone you want to make appear as any of the above, or force uncomfortably to the surface for public dissection in order to react to your disclosures.

    This doesn’t happen only in the public public though, surreptitiously shared chat screenshots are a readily available part of policing who should be allowed to enter that new secret chat you opened in parallel because it was easier than booting that person who said x to y. Or indeed double-screenshotted as reasons that said person should not be included.

    When new social configurations can be created more and more easily, layers of infrastructure, we only realise such networks exist when their internal dynamics shift them into action, or when people overlapping in more than one network connect them informationally by gossip, leaks, doxing etc. or, interestingly, when people leave one kind of network, and are followed into a new one unwillingly by old information, suddenly uncovering the dynamics of both as these are processed.

  7. Amazing Article, Thanks for Sharing