Domestic Cozy: 1

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series Domestic Cozy

I made a prediction on Twitter on February 6th: If Millennials (b. 1980 – 2000) were the premium mediocre generation, Gen Z (b. 2000 – 2020) is going to be the domestic cozy generation.

I was waiting for the perfect image to start blogging the idea, and last week supplied one: the Celestial Buddies plush toy that rode on the Crew Dragon test flight. The symbolism is perfect: an oddly satisfying little squeezable nugget of comfort within the disorienting, weird domesticity of a spaceship.

Domestic cozy is in an attitude, emerging socioeconomic posture, and aesthetic, that is in many ways the antithesis of premium mediocrity. Unsurprisingly, it takes its cues from the marginal shadow behaviors of premium mediocrity.

It finds its best expression in privacy, among friends, rather than in public, among strangers. It prioritizes the needs of the actor rather than the expectations of the spectator. It seeks to predictably control a small, closed environment rather than gamble in a large, open one. It presents a WYSIWYG facade to those granted access rather than performing in a theater of optics.

Premium mediocre seeks to control its narrative. Domestic cozy is indifferent both to being misunderstood and being ignored.

Instagram, Tinder, kale salads, and Urban Outfitters are premium mediocre. Minecraft, YouTube, cooking at home, and knitting are domestic cozy. Steve Jobs represented the premium that premium mediocrity aspired towards. Elon Musk represents the relaxed-playfulness-amidst-weirdness at the heart of domestic cozy.

Premium mediocre looks outward with a salesman affect, edgy anxiety bubbling just below the surface. Domestic cozy looks inward with a relaxed affect. A preternaturally relaxed affect bordering on creepy. One best embodied by the rise of the ASMR-like sensory modality (which even the NYT has noticed) that has come to be known as oddly satisfying.

Premium mediocrity is the same everywhere, every patch of domestic cozy is domestic cozy in its own way.

Premium mediocrity expends enormous energy preserving the illusion of normalcy. Domestic cozy slouches into the weirdness and simply ignores it, preferring to construct sources of comfort rather than trying to make sense of the weirdness in the environment.

Premium mediocrity strains to pretend it understands what is going on. Domestic cozy openly acknowledges it has no clue, and simply seeks to preserve equanimity, if not sanity. Premium mediocrity is edgily neurotic. Domestic cozy is blissfully psychotic.

As an aesthetic, domestic cozy superficially resembles the hipster aesthetic. There is a focus on craft and production, and it can appear artisan-like due to the focus on small, individual scale. The key differences are that the locus of the aesthetic is domestic rather than public, and it has no particular affection for retro traditionalism. Both knitting and Minecraft can be domestic cozy.

The key is that the activity must be conducive to an oddly satisfying state of mind within the weirding.

The oldest Z’s are just about enter adulthood. Unlike premium mediocrity, which I called at its peak, I’m calling domestic cozy just as it is getting started. So I’ll track it as a blogchain.

Domestic Cozy: 2

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series Domestic Cozy

Phrases like domestic cozy and  premium mediocre are what you might call world hashes, fingerprints of worlds. They enable you to instantly classify whether a thing belongs in a world, or is an alien element within it, even before you have characterized the world at any significant level of detail.

Take this picture (a screenshot of the landing page of Offhours.co, an “inactivewear” company, ht Adam Humphreys) for instance: domestic cozy or not?

I’m going to say yes, that’s domestic cozy. It’s not an exact science. The associations with inactivity, indoor life, and comfort over presentability put it firmly in the domestic-cozy world.

There are certainly problems at the margins. The well-groomed look of the model, and the non-messiness of the background suggest there’s a residual element of Millennial premium mediocrity in the positioning. It’s more the fake “good-hair” domesticity of a staged Instagram performance than a representation of a genuinely domestic aesthetic. Maybe they’re trying to get some crossover appeal going.

If I had to fine-tune this graphic to strike exactly the right note, I’d pick a more ordinary looking model, perhaps with properly unkempt frizzy hair and freckles. Maybe  a pile of laundry and unwashed coffee mugs/plates in the background (not disgustingly messy, just TV-messy). Maybe softer, darker evening lighting. Maybe a less glossy, more scruffy visual texture. Maybe a board game next to the model. Maybe a note of anxiety.

Still, close enough. This passes the fingerprint matching test.

Domestic cozy is a world hash that picks out a grammar in a world. As with premium mediocre, domestic cozy is tempting to reductively see as just an aesthetic. But if you like where this going, I suggest you check that tendency, because it makes things so much less interesting. To confuse a world hash with an aesthetic is like saying Sherlock’s Holmes ability to read the clues in his clients’ appearances made him a fashion critic rather than a detective.

This grammar is easiest to pick out in visual elements, but it suffuses all aspects of the world. I’ll save more general theorizing about world hashes for the worlding blogchain, but what does the grammar of domestic cozy tell us about the underlying world? What parts of what it picks out are enduring traits of the generation (remember, Gen Z can expect to live into the next century), and what parts are simply a function of life stage and contemporary conditions?

One thing that strikes me about examples I’ve noticed so far is that they paradoxically combine passivity and sense of play. As Visakan noted in a comment last time, there is a dark note of palliative self-care. Instead of Bruce Sterling’s “acting dead“, what we have here is a kind of playing dead. Instead of favela chic, we have mortuary chic.

This is an aspect that, I predict, will not endure. It is an artifact of life stage and 2019 conditions, not the generational temperament.

But the playfulness will mature into a more alive version of itself.

Domestic Cozy: 3

This entry is part 3 of 12 in the series Domestic Cozy

I increasingly like a thesis I initially resisted: many unusual and toxic culture-war phenomena in nominally public spaces can be understood as an outward projection of a cozy ethos prevailing in domestic spaces. Applying Jungian magical thinking, we should expect this projection to be anything but cozy. The shadow of domestic cozy ought to be a particular pattern of public strife. We should expect this strife to have a recognizably domestic heat signature — the ugly family scene rather than the barroom brawl, soccer riot, or gang war.

When I first tweeted about domestic cozy, Ben Mathes suggested that phenomena like safe spaces and trigger warnings on college campuses, and associated high incidences of depression and anxiety in Gen Z adolescents, ought to be considered an expression of the Zoomer personality. It does seem like the spike in those phenomena coincided with Zoomers starting to enter college. An epimemetic product of a stressful coming-of-age decade, and overprotective (but not necessarily overindulgent) parenting. I resisted the suggestion initially, since it seemed inconsistent with the peaceful domestic expression of the archetype, but I am now on board, via the Jungian argument.

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Domestic Cozy: 4

This entry is part 4 of 12 in the series Domestic Cozy

I came across a phrase in the coverage of the admissions scandals now plaguing several elite US universities: snowplow parenting. The phrase refers to a particular kind of contemporary active parenting that focuses on clearing obstacles from the paths of Gen Z children. The phrase is an interesting hardening of the idea of helicopter parenting, which parents of Millennials were accused of in the 90s.

The difference between helicopter and snowplow parenting is the difference between peacetime social ambition and a wartime circling of wagons around kinship interests.

Helicopter parents, I suspect, fought to give their kids an unfair leg up in a system they saw as essentially meritocratic and fair, during a decade (the 90s) that was widely viewed as prosperous. It was a covered call bet on a society that was perceived to be winning overall.

Snowplow parents, on the other hand, I suspect want to give their kids an unfair leg up in a system they see as essentially corrupt, during a decade and half (2008-24) that they view as a slow collapse. It is shorting of a society that is perceived to be losing overall.

What does it even mean to short society? In the case of university admissions scandals, I suspect it means, “use my wealth and social capital to get my kid a prestigious degree while that still means something.”

Timing is more critical in a short bet after all, and it is easier to justify participating in unambiguous corruption; you can pretend you’re just getting your share of harvestable value from something that’s already dying.

Snowplow parenting is an interesting metaphor. There is the sense of harsh outdoor conditions full of obstacles that require clearing to create comfortable survival conditions.

Winter has arrived. Snow must be cleared to achieve a state of domestic cozy.

Domestic Cozy: 5

This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series Domestic Cozy

Drew Austin devotes the latest issue of his excellent Kneeling Bus newsletter (highly recommended; a weekly short dose of urbanism, infrastructure etc) to “Inner Wear”:

I like the idea of a leather jacket being a form of armor—the notion that the outside world is a harsh wilderness and clothing is the only layer shielding you from its threats. That is something to be nostalgic about in the present condition, where we’re embedded in layer upon layer of additional protection, and only by artificially engineering those man-vs-nature situations (by getting on a motorcycle or going camping) does clothing’s protective role kick in. Marshall McLuhan wrote that “clothing and housing are near twins…housing extends the inner heat-control mechanisms of our organism, while clothing is a more direct extension of the outer surface of the body.” By that definition, cars, too, are a kind of clothing, yet another outer layer, even an exoskeleton…

… Rem Koolhaas observes that “air conditioning has launched the endless building,” and if we’re always effectively indoors, our need for functional outerwear diminishes accordingly.

And his take on what I’ve been calling domestic cozy.

Clothing today is more casual and comfortable than it’s ever been, and the urban environments that once spawned Greenfield’s leather-armor-clad punk rock aesthetic are now the vanguard of Allbirds and athleisure. That shift is easy to gripe about, but it feels like a truer embrace of the clean, safe 21st-century experience, where a climate-controlled escape from the elements is never more than an app-click away.

In other sightings of the domestic cozy idea, Jessica Stillman has a quick mention over at Inc.

Yep. It’s catching on. We’ll make domestic cozy happen and put the darn kids into that box until they work themselves out 😎.

Domestic Cozy: 6

This entry is part 6 of 12 in the series Domestic Cozy

Playing with textures has long been a staple of modern art (I recall seeing an exhibition of odd objects like coffee mugs wrapped in fur and cloth nearly 20 years ago) but domestic cozy seems to adds an element of everyday utilitarian plausibility to the textural mods. Danielle Baskin is a Millennial, but her idea of sweaters for drones is pure domestic cozy (this is from 2016, so she was a little ahead of the curve). If teapots can have tea cozys to keep the tea warm, why not drone cozys to keep the drones warm?

In a related vein, Chenoe Hart recently noted the rise of the use of fabrics and other natural materials in the design of electronic products. This though, seems to be a broader trend intersecting with domestic cozy.

And to round off this vein of twitter-outtake thoughts with one of my own, it struck me that in many situations, domestic cozy adds an element of real comfort to situations where premium mediocre adds an element of theatrical faux-luxury. If premium mediocre is extended legroom on a plane, domestic cozy is bringing your own pillow. I suspect you can make many such apples-to-apples comparisons.

And finally, I was recently informed that the term “comfy” has seen a sudden uptick of broadened usage in places like 4chan. Twitter seems to have a lot of comfy thoughts as well.

Domestic Cozy: 7

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series Domestic Cozy

Domestic cozy is something of a pre-emptive retreat from worldly affairs for a generation that, quite understandably, thinks the public sphere is falling apart. I’m not sure that’s wrong. The world looks forbiddingly difficult to break into today compared to when I turned 22 in 1996, or even compared to a few years ago. More to the point, it increasingly does not seem worth the effort.

The Zoomer slogan appears to be: the world is not mine oyster, I don’t have a sword to open it with, and there are no pearls to be found out there anyway.

I don’t entirely blame them. They have it far harder than the smug older generations — and this increasingly includes the oldest Millennials — yelling at them to toughen up. Software eating the world has made a lot of little things much easier, but a few big things incredibly tougher. Net, everybody above 25 had it easier, by a little or a lot.

The contrast between the 2019 zeitgeist, and the heady excitement of the dotcom era propelling me and my peers out into the world circa 1997, convinced we were going to have great lives, is just wild.

What is domestic cozy a retreat from? To probe the question, I tweeted a prompt asking for antonyms of cozy, and got a variety of intriguing responses, which I’ve attempted to plot in this word cloud.

The suggestions seem to cluster into four groups, representing retreats from discomfort, ceremony, deprivation, and danger respectively. There were also three proposals for archetypal antipodes to the domestic cozy condition, which map well to three of the four clusters. Domestic cozy is not an airport (discomfort), or a minefield (dangerous), or a mansion (ceremony). I added desert as a fourth archetypal location representing deprivation.

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Domestic Cozy: 8

This entry is part 8 of 12 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?

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Domestic Cozy: 9

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series Domestic Cozy

After a couple of more theoretical entries to this blogchain, time for a roundup of recent phenomenology. I have five exhibits to introduce into evidence.

Exhibit A, these schizophrenic shoes from Patara Shoes (ht Kyle Chayka). They appear to combine the comfort-oriented domestic-cozy appeal (and price point) of Allbirds with a bit of premium mediocre eco-signaling and public narrative construction (“globalist multicultural nomad” living dangerously on the edge of appropriation outrage potential). I’m seeing more and more examples of premium mediocre intersecting with domestic cozy (weighted blankets are a good paradigmatic example), mostly in incoherent ways, though analyzing the incoherence is above my trend-logger pay grade and is probably best done by somebody in Brooklyn.

Exhibit B. There’s a long article out in Buzzfeed News by Anne Helen Peterson that profiles a design firm called Pattern, and its first brand launch, Equal Parts, a cookware line. Take a moment to click through and check out the imagery and price positioning. Note the pastels, soft+rough textures, and sturdy, utilitarian designs. Note the comfy, cozy pictures of the team. This stuff is about the same price band as most things I tag premium mediocre, but the tradeoff seems to have shifted to delivering utilitarian value over signaling woke virtue. This stuff probably is more serviceable than it is instagrammable.

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Domestic Cozy: 10

This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series Domestic Cozy

There is an interesting emerging relationship, I think, between domestic cozy and the slightly older “trad” turn in contemporary youth culture (which I think began at the height of the recession with burned-out Millennials), complete with tendencies towards religion, social conservatism, and traditional gender roles. The term tradwife, in particular, which I first encountered a few years ago, appears to be slowly trending, after a bit of a peak in 2018. On Twitter, it’s now turned into a term of art, used ironically or unironically, generically or with fully loaded memetic potency, and with or without connotations of vaguely alt-right sympathies.

In 2019, I suspect, the trad turn broke out of the subcultural wilderness, lost its original edge-political connotations, and went mainstream.

As Gen-Z starts to establish households, I suspect trad patterns are going to spread via some sort of Fifth Wave feminism following the #MeToo era, which appears to have consolidated its claim to being the Fourth Wave (I’m going to lazily risk linking a Vox explainer for those not familiar with the wave-theoretic history of feminism; if you have alternative links, please post in the comments).

I suspect Fifth Wave feminism is going to be based on some sort of post-#MeToo reconstructed notion of domesticity that attempts to reclaim the domestic arena as a feminine-centric space, but without giving up the political and economic agency gains of the four waves of public-arena feminism. There are very strong economic tailwinds favoring such a development.

To a degree, domestic cozy is Zoomers and younger Millennials playing “house” in ways that are indicative of the patterns of adult domesticity they will be adopting soon. This New Domesticity in the US is shaping up to be 80% Fifth-Wave Feminist households, 10% non-traditional (LGBTQ+) households, and 10% HouseBro households (a category that doesn’t seem to exist yet, but is bound to emerge based on the Dirac equation of anti-archetypes). I’m still puzzling over what to make of this development. I think it will get underway in earnest in a couple of years.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt noted that the domestic sphere, historically, was a fully constrained zone of non-stop labor, where nobody, not even the master of the house, enjoyed any freedom. It was only by venturing out in public that even the master could enjoy a measure of freedom and agency. At home, there was a defined role with duties for everyone. And if you never really left the domestic sphere, you were basically never really free.

Starting in the late 19th century, as Arendt observed, increasing availability of technological conveniences made the domestic arena primarily a zone of intimacy and leisure rather than non-stop labor. Consumer products and domestic automation slowly began replacing housewifery, slavery, and servant-work. Childcare increasingly became the business of schools and television. Entertainment media — board games, the phonograph, the radio, television, effective contraception, video games — injected increasing amounts of leisure activity where there was once only labor. Shopping began to replace cooking as the prototypical housewife responsibility.

The story of feminism along the way has been one of pendulum swings (so the wave theory makes sense). In the West (and to a lesser extent outside the West), early feminists tried to cash out the technological convenience dividend, by breaking out of domesticity between the world wars. They enjoyed a peak of public life participation leading up to World War 2, but then ran into the feminine mystique era in the post-WW2 decades, which was an earlier trad turn between the first two waves of feminism. I personally attribute it to a sort of Parkinson’s Law kicking in for newly leisure-rich home economies, with domestic “work” expanding to occupy the leisure available.

Though it’s a tempting hypothesis, I don’t think we’re at the threshold of Feminine Mystique 2.0, and Betty Friedan need not roll in her grave.

I suspect what’s actually happening is that a set of economic factors — inequality and high housing and childcare costs being the big ones — have made it financially advantageous for a certain segment of middle-class households to return to a pattern of domestic organization built around housewifery. Pamela Hobart has a thoughtful take on this surprising development. It’s a huge narrative violation that feminists are going to have to grapple with. Elizabeth Warren’s actually appears to have seen this coming with her 2004 book, the Two-Income Trap (that’s another Voxsplainer link, sorry), co-authored with her daughter, making it a two-generational view.

A big part of what’s happened, I think, is that the gains in domestic convenience have hit diminishing returns, while both the financial and cognitive costs of running a “normal” household have risen dramatically. It’s now turned into a sort of high-stakes budgeting rocket science.

On the labor-demand side, new gadgets add far less marginal convenience compared to refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers, microwaves, and vacuums (the Big Five from the early consumer revolution). And on the consumption side, shopping has gone from being a pleasant social routine at the local mall and grocery store to a very demanding budgeting and purchasing optimization activity that is approximately as complex as being COO of a small business. And it is done largely at home, online, with social aspects increasingly limited to online communities built around consumption, such as Yelp reviews.

A good household manager — and it is almost always a woman taking this role on, whether or not they adopt the tradwife identity — can effectively double the household income simply through canny shopping, deal-stalking, and maintaining strong awareness of consumption trends. And as housing becomes less affordable, all other areas of consumption require all the optimization they can get. Women who are good at this are probably responsible for holding major cities together, by figuring out ways for households to continue existing in increasingly unaffordable urban cores.

(I’m neither condoning, nor criticizing this emergent role, merely observing that it has emerged as a function of necessity, with mostly women filling it).

In a way, the trajectory observed by Arendt is reversing itself. Homes are once again becoming entirely constrained spaces, where leisure and intimacy have a diminishing role to play, and there’s a lot more work for everybody to do. It’s just that instead of making their own soap, tradwives now have to find the coupons and deals that buy the desired soap at the available income. It’s almost as much work.

These economic forces, of course, are affecting non-traditional households too, including groups of friends living together.

The Venmo public feed (Your Source for Domestic Cozy Voyeurism) is a striking window into the emerging patterns of New Domesticity. It’s no longer just people paying each other to split restaurant checks. They are paying each other for rent, household expenses, transportation, cleaning services, and all sorts of other things. Commercial transactions with service workers are mixed in with an endlessly varied stream of friend-to-friend transactions. An entire future is taking shape there. The Venmo economy of today is going to be the mainstream economy of 2024.