Domestic Cozy: 13

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

Kyle Chayka, author of The Longing for Less, a 2020 book on the rise of minimalism, has an interesting feature in yesterday’s NYT Magazine, How Nothingness Became Everything We Ever Wanted, exploring the thesis that a “self-obliterating” tendency of retreat was already at work before Covid, and was aggressively accelerated by it.

Signs of a culture-wide quest for self-obliteration appeared everywhere in the time after my first float. I walked by an exercise studio whose sandwich board commanded me to “Log out. Shut down. Do yoga.” REI marketed a garment that “Feels like nothing. And that means everything.” In a January 2020 column about omnipresent noise-canceling headphones and the desire to block out our surroundings with constant sound, The Economist argued, “The shared world is increasingly intolerable.” Friends were picking up the paperback of Ottessa Moshfegh’s best-selling 2018 novel “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” about a young woman’s drugging herself to sleep as much as possible in order to emerge into the world anew. “When did staying in become the new going out?” asked a 2020 ad for Cox internet I saw during the Super Bowl, depicting a family frolicking in their living room wearing virtual-reality goggles, in an eerie precursor of what was just around the corner.

For years, an aesthetic mode of nothingness has been ascendant — a literally nihilistic attitude visible in all realms of culture, one intent on the destruction of extraneity in all its forms, up to and including noise, decoration, possessions, identities and face-to-face interaction. Over the past decade, American consumers have glamorized the pursuit of expensive nothing in the form of emptied-out spaces like the open-floor plans of start-up offices, austere loft-condo buildings and anonymous Airbnbs. Minimalism from the Marie Kondo school advocated a jettisoning of possessions that left followers with empty white walls. This aspiration toward disappearance made luxury synonymous with seeing, hearing, owning and even feeling less…

Quarantine has been widely regarded as a radical break in our daily lives and the ways we interact with the world, but in truth it’s simply an overdose of the indulgences a certain segment of the population was dabbling in already. We’re a little like kids caught with a cigarette, forced to smoke a whole pack at once.

The article quotes me and Domestic Cozy (Kyle interviewed me a few months before the pandemic started, and this feature obviously went into an extended development mode to accommodate the pandemic), and rather hilariously anoints me a “thinkfluencer’s thinkfulencer.” Which is kinda appropriate for this blogchain in particular, since I self-consciously set out to explore this particular bunny trail in an inception-optimized drip-feed form rather than trying to distill a viral-intent long feature out of it myself. Domestic cozy is a tortoise among hare-like memes.

Kyle’s thesis is an interesting mash-up of the longer-term minimalism trend that’s been his primary interest, and the more recent retreat trend. It’s not quite the same as either Domestic Cozy or what I’ve called waldenponding, but adjacent to, and somewhat at odds with, both. Maybe there’s a Venn diagram like this here. It’s not quite right, but close enough.

Domestic cozy is nihilistic, but not naturally minimalist I think. In fact there are strong elements of maximalism and hoarding to it — cozy furniture, too many pillows and blankets, maximalist kitchens, overfull pantries, overstocked workshops, and so on.

But the materialist maximalism does serve the obliterating function Kyle’s talking about, in sealing out the outside sensorily, and minimizing it as a source of dependency. So he’s right about that part. To the extent he’s also right about the existence of a parallel minimalist, eliminativist tendency, the two intersect in interesting ways.

In a way, the material minimalism he’s talking about is an older tendency; one that fits more naturally with premium mediocrity, since it assumes a lot more capability latent in a broader public environment. It’s hard to be a minimalist nomad living out of a laptop bag when airlines, Starbucks and AirBnB are operating in lockdown mode. But on the other hand, if you’re willing to kit out an RV or van like a self-sufficient spaceship, this is a great time to be doing non-minimalist nomadism.

The reason it gets confusing is that in a networked world with deep dependence on complex systems extending from your doorstep to China, minimizing connection and minimizing possession end up in a tradeoff. Rent and own occupy different positions on that tradeoff curve, but the point of the curve is to still shape your exposures to and dependencies on the world beyond your immediate control. Some buy more things to minimize connections, others rent more things as a service to minimize possessions. You can have a lean supply chain and fat household, or a fat supply chain and a lean household, but right now you have to have fat somewhere, or you’re at serious risk. The only non-retreat option, lean-lean is risky.

But though minimalism is perhaps more premium mediocre, the nihilism Kyle calls out is definitely more domestic cozy. There is a hopelessness there that was not there in premium mediocrity.

There’s something really dead-end like about all these trends. The thing about losing interest in the wider world is that there is no guarantee the wider world will also lose interest in you. What they say about politics (“you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you”) is true of the ultimate superset of politics — nature. The world is reeling from multiple ongoing calamities, and only a tiny fraction have the luxury of retreating from it all. Those who lack that luxury are not going to be exactly happy about it. One way or the other, you will eventually have to pay for retreating from the world.

I’m going to call this blogchain archived, since it’s sort of done what I wanted it to do, in terms of helping catalyze a particular conversation. I’ll add any other significant builds by others, but my thinkfluencing of thinkfluencers work is done here.

Series Navigation<< Domestic Cozy: 12

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. Ravi Daithankar says

    I think there is (at least) one level more to this current conversation that needs to be explored. That is to recognize the value in becoming a meta-minimalist. The ultimate non-trivial iteration of domestic-cozy, nihilism, or their transactional manifestation, minimalism, isn’t really to angle for the lean-lean non-retreat option you’ve mentioned, but to go up one layer of abstraction and lean out your sensory perceptions themselves. As best you can anyway. When you say “The thing about losing interest in the wider world is that there is no guarantee the wider world will also lose interest in you” you’re on to something right there. If you lose interest in the wider world beyond a certain liberating threshold, then that serves as a very effective proxy for the world losing interest in you. As a sort of a proof-of-concept, I look at my cat and feel that level of detachment most palpably. She truly doesn’t care for the slightest or the greatest of goings on even though she exists in the same local-world as I do, for the most part. And as a result, for all intents and purposes for her, the world doesn’t care about her either. It is easy to chalk it up to her smaller brain or scoff at the notion by talking up our own higher order sense of consciousness or whatever. But if you recursively iterate the domestic cozy aesthetic that you’ve talked about or the nothingness that the NYT piece mentions, you will ultimately converge on the cat consciousness, non-trivially. It is possible, of course, to keep iterating further and further and go past the cat consciousness. But that’s where it starts to become trivial, for my money.

    What I am trying to say is, it is looking increasingly conceivable that there could be a fertile space in our minds, smallish but fast swimming into our collective focus, where you CAN philosophize almost every sensory input you receive and turn it into an existence-agnostic data point that doesn’t affect you in any meaningful way. I know all this sounds like I am simply taking the scenic route to discovering what has existed as Buddhism for centuries, but I think it is slightly different in some very important ways that I can’t explain within the constraints of a Comments section.

  2. I’ve been following this conversation and blog, but that Venn Diagram should have come months ago. It would have been maximally helpful.

  3. Kevin McCormick says

    This NYT article was what introduced me to your blog. I was always looking at a utopian postcard version of minimalism thinking that all these fine people had really found the way for us. Now thanks to your writing I am able to pick up on the narcissism and self-care overlap and see things with a bit more humor and insight. Thanks for the new pair of eyes.

  4. I’m also newer to this blog via the NYTimes article. I’m curious where you think Buddhist non-attachment and non-self fit in? I think that there is some overlap there with Walden-ponding and some with narcissism, but there is also an aspect of liberation that is missing from your analysis which is a nontrivial omission. Another issue that may be worth digging into is that this is purely on the individual level, what are the network effects of mass-waldenponding?

  5. Chris Kenton says

    “I give the fight up; let there be an end, A privacy, an obscure nook for me. I want to be forgotten even by God.” Robert Browing, Paracelsus Attains

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