Giving it up, so that you never have to give up. Give up anything that doesn’t add value to your life. Give up anything that creates the conditions for those heteronymous entanglements that end up owning you. I’ve been downsizing ever so slowly for two years now, but it wasn’t really brought to my own attention until a friend made it explicit to me in conversation about minimalism. Usually the concept is reserved for anti-consumerist life-styles. I see it as something more concretely concerned with existential clutter in all aspects of life, that runs contrary to dominant technocratic-industrial world views that encourage rampant individualism and its corollary instrumentalism. Despite great advantage afforded humanity against oppressive systems, and systematic oppression – not to be underestimated – it has come at great cost. It has essentially displaced, dislodged, literally ripped humanity from the rich fabric of worldly engagement.
Minimalism in all things! No grandiose sentiments, gestures, features, appliances, houses, embellishings of whatever kind! Abundance is best discovered in trivialities.
In his The Malaise of Modernity, Charles Taylor makes the point explicit:
Modern freedom was won by our breaking loose from older moral horizons. People use to see themselves as part of a larger order. …. But at the same time as they restricted us, these orders gave meaning to the world and to the activities of social life. The things that surround us were not just potential raw materials or instruments for our projects, but they had the significance given them by their place in the chain of being. The eagle was not just another bird, but the king of a whole domain of animal life. By the same token, the rituals and norms of society had more than merely instrumental significance. The discrediting of these orders has been called the “disenchantment” (reference to Weber) of the world. With it, things lost some of their magic. (The Malaise of Modernity, p. 5)
The result? People have lost “a heroic dimension to life. People no longer have a sense of a higher purpose, of something worth dying for” …or living for! Those grand gestures of life and love that transgress borders of convenience, sensibility, and efficiency! Taylor doesn’t simply side with those who demonize individualism (indeed he is not contra-individualism per se but only a species of it), but addresses modalities of inauthenticity brought on by its scathing momentum. Instrumentality, perverse relativism, and political apathy, what comfortably aligns with what I call active inertia, are the malaise of the modern age. Deep ecologists seem also to be onboard in a BIG way, orienting their moral sensibilities in due différance to the – this – dominant world view which has ushered in criticism for adopting the very dichotomous narrative that mischievously characterizes the object of their discontent. But I beg to differ. ( 😉 ) Subverting a paradigm of meaning is, in fact, devoid of significance in abstract definitional terms; i.e. it is but an eclipse of meaning. For as Derrida would say, textual meaning is produced via certain heterogeneous features. My point? All meaning, textual, personal, social, educational, is situated. Nothing is adrift eyeing an abyss of non or unorientation. Individualism is inauthenticated by (s)elective amnesia which vanquishes any sense of existential crisis.
Some people call the millennials and post-millennials the “generation of entitlement” to contest the debase and self-indulgent dispositional state of a people for whom struggle and despair is a stranger. Emancipated from socio-political and economic oppression, one is not lost or found in the fold of social living, affording them the “luxury” of choices that speak more loudly to a set of concerns tied to their own individually designed orientation in life. Their sole responsibility? To be the best damn version of themselves! Society provides the human and tangible resources to attain personal self-actualization, but isolated, alone, such that forever do they struggle to purchase (for everything is “purchased” now) the materials to design a bridge to connect them with, to, others. Bridges, even these, are, however, not made to last. Materials are subpar, because they’re acquired cheaply, and hence easily interchanged, replaced, with little burden or cost ( 😉 ).
Taylor’s acknowledgement of a nonetheless powerful underlying moral paradigm is worth mentioning. For, as he says, “no matter how debased and travestied” this modernized form of individualism is, “the moral ideal behind self-fulfillment is that of being true to oneself” for which there is an authentic version and authenticating mechanisms which speak to “a higher mode” of being, which he is careful to distinguish from that which one simply or merely happens to desire or need. For Taylor, this requires siding not with boosters or knockers of the modernized paradigm of self-actualization, nor still with some kind of trade-off in terms of a middle-ground position. No. He says: “What we need is a work of retrieval, through which this ideal can help us restore our practice.” Long story short, humanity suffers from dislocation; we need to locate ourselves intermixed in the dialogical network, nurturing, cultivating thereby an expansive, fluid sense of identity that neither drowns beneath the weight of otherness, nor evaporates amidst celestial abstractions. This will require having the conversation; acknowledging the dialogicality of human engagement, and hence the existing horizon of significance. What does this mean? Well, one could live a perfectly ( 😉 ) autonomous life guided by her own reasons, and still shy away from authenticating practices when these speak not to a sense of self-identity. For authenticity is not just a case of appealing to those tools of rationality (sorry Kant! You’ve all heard the joke: Immanuel Kant, but he did try! 🙂 ), as a disenfranchised self, out-of-tune with one’s comportment in the world. But nor does authenticity indulge narcissistic tendencies endorsed by pseudo subjectivism; i.e. all positions are equally acceptable so long as they are “truly” my own. Taylor speaks to the “moral sources outside the subject [that speak in a language] which resonate[s] within him or her”, or “an order which is inseparably indexed to a personal vision” (Sources of the Self. The Making of the Modern Identity). Hence, authenticity entails an aspect that lies beyond the scope of autonomy, namely, a “language of personal resonance” (The Ethics of Authenticity: 90). One may be autonomous (Kant again) and yet remain inauthentic when this way of living fails to express a person’s self-understanding.
So where does that leave minimalism? I think of minimalism as subverting the symptoms of Taylor’s Malaise of Modernity. For if individualism, relativism, and instrumentalism are the modalities that aid and abet this malaise, then the brand name for that antibiotic prescribed en masse as a cure for the discontent it inevitably spreads, is consumerism. I leave it to you to connect the dots, and Socratic-like make myself scarce!
So, I shall continue to parade my humanity in a modality of despair (not to be confused with melancholy, depression, or negativity), and if the perhaps more self-indulgent, jump to criticize for a mis-fit, dwarfed narrative, that I am lowly, degenerate, and/or self-victimizing, there’s ample room in the “world” for them to seek their own self-affirmation ignoring mine, and me, altogether.
If you want to learn more about minimalism and what steps you might take and how this might change your life, click here: Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things and to meet the Minimalists, click here The Minimalists.