Mittens and Minimalism

The internet was appalled and fascinated by fashion icon Kim Kardashian’s minimalist mansion. It was so bare it became creepy. Furthermore, the emptiness only placed greater emphasis on class inequality. The minimalism, while “consuming” less, also made the space of the mansion look bigger. Kardashian’s freedom was then both unhindered by space or materialism.

Now Kardashian’s husband Kanye West has grown jealous of her attention towards incarcerated people, stuck within an enclosed space, and thus Kardashian is seeking a divorce, creating distance between her and her husband.

Take this in contrast to the genius minimalist Agnes Martin who not only did not have a television show about her life, she also did not read a newspaper for the last 50 years of it. Martin left New York City after buildings in the Coentes Slip were destroyed. Perhaps the answer to the question posed at the start of Moby Dick became too sorrowful to bear: “Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?”

In the years before the move Martin was hospitalized many times including when she went into a trance after hearing Handel’s Messiah. Handel wrote the 259 page score in only 24 days. Martin only lasted a few notes before being hospitalized because she was so moved by the music. In an interview with Ryen Russillo, Steven Hyden argues that Radiohead is primarily an emotional challenging experience, not an intellectually aloof one as many people claim. Radiohead helped to inspire Steve Reich’s minimalist classical music. Radiohead was inspired by Naomi Klein’s book about corporate culture. Naomi Klein writes about Bernie’s mittens: “Like so much of his historic 2020 primary campaign, the symbolic power of the mittens was the work of the “us” in “not me””.

The image of the minimalist solidarity figure indeed didn’t start and won’t end with Bernie. Agnes Martin made only one film in her life and it was called Gabriel. The whole movie is 78 minutes of a boy walking. It is silent except for a brief interlude from Bach. 20 minutes of the movie doesn’t even have the boy. The movie is filmed in the American Southwest. Martin explained: “I’ve never seen a movie or read a story that was absolutely free of any misery. And so, I thought I would make one. The whole thing is about a little boy who has a day of freedom, in which he feels free.”

Kyle Chayka writes for Elle: “To figure out how the aesthetic of emptiness became so popular as a symbol of wealth instead of actual simplicity, you have to go back through the 20th century, as I did when researching my book The Longing for Less: Living With Minimalism. It was born through the modernism of the German Bauhaus, where architects and designers began to use industrial materials like glass and steel to create domestic spaces inspired by hospitals and sanatoria.”

Within the context of COVID-19 this aesthetic is even more layered. No rich person wants to be in a literal overcrowded hospital, full of dying workers and poor people. But to be in an empty giant clean hospital would be a sign of health and security, emphasizing the secret paranoia that drives the ruling class to continue to seek profit long after they reach their maximum point of security.

There is a disappointingly snobbish attitude growing towards conspiracy with little attempt to understand it. The question the conspiracy theorist asks is a rather innocent one: what are the motivations of the ruling class? Why are they trying to kill us all? The answer is not an easy one and cannot be traced through a conspiracy.

Minimalism may give us some hints. It explains borders and walls; the necessity for the ruling class to control everything in an obsessive manner, where even an attempt at style represents some form of an unpredictable life. The life of enjoyment is the threat and the Puritan cause of repressing desire is the solution. It is in a way the ultimate torment. The very condition of minimalism forced upon the poor is appropriated by the rich as an expression of free choice under capitalism. This is its own virtue signal, not unlike charity.

However, there is something far more radical going on in the poor’s quest for minimalism. For the poor, minimalism isn’t an aesthetic, it is a survival art. As we pass the point of no return ecologically we are finding that conservation of natural resources becomes far more real than even money. Money today is nothing more than a digital contract, as evidenced by the Reddit organized rebellion against Wall St.

It is a contract that is easily and quietly rigged against the poor through increasing financing of markets which devalues labor and heightens inequality worldwide. On the other hand the more we see money become alienated from its material base the more likely we are to completely leave this social contract behind. Why would anyone accept such inequality when the difference is primarily within numbers on a screen?

CNN cynically ignores class and projects the Reddit rebellion as an extension of Trumpism (resentment of elites). When in reality Trumpism is an elite aesthetic and it is yet another virus created by the rich and carried by the poor. In contrast, the Reddit rebellion is an expression of class war, aimed directly at Wall St., not for the purpose of revenge, but for the purpose of taking away their money. Some of the rebels are saying they have been strategically upending Wall St. shorts for a while now, using the gains to pay off student loans. For the rich this may be about culture and resentment, for the poor there is a practical use to go along with the sweetness of beating the rich at their own scam.

The much-maligned internet is part of the problem, admittedly very much part of the polluting and distracting junk leading on to the spiritual, economic and ecological abyss. But the internet is not only a place for conspiracy to fester and coups to be plotted. It is also the place of mittens.

When Bernie touted the Vermont origins of his mittens I couldn’t help but recall a similar fondness for local fighter jets: “I firmly believe that when the F-35s come, most people will experience the noise impacts to be similar to what they are today. And in contrast to that, I think there would be very substantial adverse impacts on the economy and certainly on the airport if we were to choose not to have the F-35s come here or the Air Force were to change its decision.”

This is where the local and minimal is exposed as not being enough; just as the self and ego as singularities cannot be untied from their confrontation with the Other, so too is the local and minimal bound by the broader globe. However, the symbol of the mittens remains useful for us here.

The mittens are not only a style, in fact they may not be a style at all. Rather they are a cry for sanity in a world of posh materialism. Why risk the sanitation of our food and water to build another development for rich people who will leave their house empty? There is nothing noble about minimalism because that implies repressing desire and human creativity is necessary to reel in the excesses of the poor. Such is nonsense and propaganda that blames the victim. Rather minimalism is simply the necessary check upon a society that has lost its mind.

In this way, Bernie sitting on his own, socially distanced from the “unity” of the ruling class, is the image that can be replicated in any image, any meme, across any time, in any art form. For anyone who likes these memes, I would argue the classic art adaptations are the best ones. In contrast, the current system, while framed as dynamic, is on a one-way road to the apocalypse.

Like most of the best trolley memes, there is no real choice ahead, only an opportunity to put your name on a burning building. The only way forward is the radical minimal, not as an aesthetic, but as a way of building a longer sustainable reality for a greater number and diversity of life forms. Such is the creative genius needed as we march on consuming our very sustenance.

We risk becoming the minimal without minimalism. This obviously is the logic of the ruling class and it is thinly veiled that minimalism for them means clearing out the poor into confined suppressed spaces. It is also clear that the alienation we feel is baked into each act of consuming for our pleasure. Each one of these acts in the modern economy is linked to a profit for the very people plotting our demise. That’s why we enjoy the mittens being sold by Grandpa Bernie to help hungry people. Because no one is making money off of them. If that’s not minimalism, I’m not sure what is.

Naomi Klein writes in a serious way about the mittens and it’s worth reading on The Intercept. I am increasingly finding the left going all in on the anti-internet take to be just as much of a boomer bummer as the whining about cancel culture. I think the internet is still cool and I absolutely adore cancel culture. I would argue that the internet, cancel culture and dogs are probably the three most important platforms for compassion. Let’s hope boomers have a soft spot for dogs.

As much as I love the work of Naomi Klein alternative Cory Morningstar I find her to be more in the tradition of great writers like Naomi Klein than she would like to think. Yes Klein may be making compromises for her career and no one is better than Morningstar than tracing the links between capital. Her research is extraordinary and she’s right up there with the Louis Proyects, Chuck Mertzs, Amy Goodmans and Kollibri Terre Sonnenblumes in the world of alternative media. However the takes on denying the significance of coronavirus are dangerous and disingenuous and one reason the virus persists is because of this denialism.

Does this mean we shouldn’t listen to her class analysis? I don’t think so. But in the spirit of cancel culture, we should provide a personal “flag” of sorts to protect the public from endangering themselves or others. We especially need Klein and Morningstar because the denialism going on in even most of the best thinkers is a class one. But we shouldn’t be afraid to point out that one can be harmful to others without helping one’s own career.

Naomi Klein’s masterpiece book is No Logo which influenced an even bigger cultural artifact, Radiohead’s Kid A. In many ways Radiohead’s album, released in 2000, predicted the 21st century. Writing for Pitchfork, Brent Dicrescenzo describes what it is going on: “The experience and emotions tied to listening to Kid A are like witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on Imax. It’s an album of sparking paradox. It’s cacophonous yet tranquil, experimental yet familiar, foreign yet womb-like, spacious yet visceral, textured yet vaporous, awakening yet dreamlike, infinite yet 48 minutes. It will cleanse your brain of those little crustaceans of worries and inferior albums clinging inside the fold of your gray matter.”

One of the subjects addressed in Klein’s book is culture jamming. Bernie’s mittens are a good example although often the parodies are more specific. Buying GameStop stock after Wall St. shorted it is an even better example because it is an intervention into the market not just a counter culture commentary. This is what the boomer left often gets wrong. The idea that something seemingly without much political use on the internet is simply a dead-end misses the point. Anyone who said this about alternative culture in the past would have rightly been seen as a wet blanket. The question always should be: what is this building towards? How are we creating norms? How are we altering future outcomes? How are we creating connections? Etc.

One example of culture jamming is the altering of billboard advertisements into an anti-corporate message. Like the Bernie meme, the effect works because it plays upon a familiar image yet alters the message around it. But a variety of tactics can be used. Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book (far more populist than QAnon’s Stop The Steal) explores tactics in detail largely based on his experience and those of people he knew. These tactics change the culture but often are far more strategic in relation to the market with the culture being more of a general target; after all, the critique of the culture is in many ways its uniformity.

In her masterpiece, Klein looks at a variety of angles upon the present corporate culture, from the worker to the company to the consumer. Klein brilliantly ties together the basic distribution of the modern global company. Her point is an original one. Manual labor is outsourced because in what we know now as the Information Age the propaganda is more important work for corporations than how well the manufactured the product is.

What we may think of traditional labor, the manufacturing of goods, is outsourced to poorer countries because it is seen as less important than the manufacturing of propaganda, which is done by “highly skilled” workers in the countries of Empire, known as the First World. The global south may be useful for manufacturing for the same reason the global north is useful for the propaganda: the north believes its own propaganda of so-called civilization and this is why imperialism against the poorer countries can be ignored. In other words the labor rights of the poor countries don’t matter to the rich countries for the same reason the rich countries can create their own propaganda. The rich believe their own propaganda and largely the middle class in rich countries do.

Trump fans and many middle class liberals apologize for the ruling class because of what is known in psychology as BIRGing (basking in reflected glory).This is a theory of identity. Fascists and bourgeois subjects identify with the ruling class and therefore are willful foot soldiers for capital against the poor and other oppressed groups because they identity as the oppressor. This is why the left has to be very serious about supporting identity politics. Many leftists think they are being subversive by being against wokeness, identity or cancellation. This bizarre obsession has led me to only one conclusion: not only is identity politics good, it is more radical and relevant than anything else and we must always celebrate the identity of each other as an act of solidarity.

The recent violent insurrection at the Capitol demonstrates the extent to which the West has fallen for its own propaganda and it proves the need for an alternative that intervenes against and parodies the reality we are in. This means interacting with the internet, corporations, the culture. It does not mean embrace complete alienation because this is not only impossible but also unethical.

No Logo came out right when the Seattle protests against the WTO were happening. Both the book and the protests spoke to internationalism and solidarity. The repression against these protestors, unlike the response at the Capitol, were brutally violent. Black Lives Matter presented a similar intersectional threat of solidarity and despite the claims otherwise, we have seen real solidarity amongst the working class, with the recent Amazon unionization drawing inspiration from Black Lives Matter.

One of the trends Klein traces is how corporations have increasingly targeted youth by appeals to culture. In this way the Bernie aesthetic (lack thereof) makes even more sense. Young people have been so targeted by the consumerist way of life they now long not for a product but for a break from the formulations of consumerist desire.

However the internet must be criticized through a materialist lens, and here is where the skeptical boomer is right. The internet may escape reality but it does escape global emissions. Trading Bitcoins, for example, generates as many CO2 emissions as Las Vegas does. While young people may be so poor and in debt that consuming is barely an option the alternative has been the internet itself and this is why the most successful companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple are all highly related to it. In Alex Meyer’s documentary on Incels titled TFW No GF she notes many Incels have chosen to “opt out” of society, specifically sex, but remain tied to the internet as a sort of replacement.

All of the above is a failure on society’s part, and the solution has to be to cut through the noise and embrace an aesthetic that echoes Radiohead’s: “You can try the best you can / The best you can is good enough.” Rather than filling the gap we feel in corporate culture we must embrace our uneasiness and jam up the culture in front of us. The problem with the internet is that while it helps us tune in to what is going on it also distances us from the dying planet and even worse further pollutes it by its usage.

This is why mittens, while a useful message of minimalism, will be most radical when we take them off. The first step is not “nothing”. It is to jam the society right in front of us. Doing nothing is the ultimate paradise, doing nothing is the utopia of non-violent, non-consumption, sustainable simple equal peace we need. But for now, and it is unfortunate, there is lots of work to be done.

The work of ending capitalism is done by going through it, by exposing its contradictions, by upending its markets and constructs, by creating alternatives such as mutual aid, by recognizing the overwhelming solidarity of the working class amidst the pandemic, and when possible, pushing governments to do similar and broader measures.

Capitalism plays with the lack. It creates it and then once created, it manipulates it. The only way to expose this system is through humor. If we can all laugh at our own lacks, if we can all love ourselves even when we don’t feel worthy, then we have broken down the propaganda.

Once the ego is shattered the Other is the only point of focus and soon after this the collective Other is the only Other, for any singular Other is just relation to the self and the ego, and therefore the single Other cannot exist, only the collective Other and this means socialism, and this means financial markets becoming owned by the working class but even more so it means the earth owning itself, and us being a partner, for money has been exposed as a social contract that is breaking. Money will soon take a back seat to mutual caretaking of the planet.

If profit kills the planet then it doesn’t mean the propaganda has worked, it simply means the rich have found a way to buy political and military power to suppress the wants and needs of the people and planet. However, if the planet kills profit then it means collective minimalism, the death of the ego expressed in solidarity was so overwhelming that advertising and bootlicking were not forms of truth but merely comic.

We are closer to this than we think. The reason that propaganda has become more important than material production is that propaganda doesn’t really work all that well. Most people are on the side of the ‘left’, no matter how much we run from this.

The difficulty is organizing the alternative we all need and want. A minimalist culture is a good first step towards our internationalist plot against universal corporate globalization and particular nationalist fascism. The last step is minimalism itself, embracing the place that is nowhere, the place of inaction, non-violence, the morality of denial and the rejection of all things unnatural and materialistic.

Such inner peace and unity is not the first step as President Biden may want it to be. The first step towards real unity is acknowledging our disunity with the current conditions of poverty, hierarchy, militarism, pollution and consumption. To opt out we must first opt in to what is thrust upon us by the intolerance and paranoia of the ruling class.

To take off the mittens we must first wear them. To break our chains we must first discover we are wearing them. To make love we must first bite the apple. Once we do this we discover our power. We will use it only to give it up. We will recognize our collectively powerful place within the hierarchy only to give up our place in it. We will not accept minimalism because it is what rich people think poor people deserve. We will strive for minimalism because it is the ultimate expression of freedom. All the noise only brings us down. The music isn’t silent, but the silence is musical.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

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