In a 2015 documentary by Matt D’Avella titled Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, Joshua Fields Millburn reports that when he started letting go he felt “freer, happier, lighter…”. As the stars of the film, he and his best friend Ryan Nicodemus spread a message of emancipation, of moving towards a minimal life, while touring the United States with the book they’ve written and identifying themselves as The Minimalists. Their message beckons a resistance to a template of life—that the societal-endorsed accumulation of “stuff” is a measurement of our success and happiness. They beckon that freeing ourselves of these coded instructions reveals a door to a better well-being and to a true potential. The message in the journey that they embark on—a journey from their constraining suit and tie corporate lives to a single backpack and capsule wardrobe for all seasons—is reminiscent of a trope of a fetishism for pastoral life and noble virtue which travelers have often longed to encounter in their writings on new worlds of uncultivated land. Due to suspicions of contemporary fads, I wish to explore today the position of this endorsement within a spinning cycle of cruelty.
As a trope within travel narratives, the narrator is depicted as hunting for the noble savage in order to reflect an ideal image towards a better self and to recover what was lost through periods of corruption. Those who spent decades of traveling and reporting on their findings evoke a language of an extreme romanticism for what they seek. My interests in investigating this trope and its landing into a contemporary cycle of cruelty begin with placing this documentary in dialogue with Michel de Montaigne in particular essais such as Of Cannibals and Of the Art of Discussion and Claude Lévi-Strauss in A World on the Wane. Claude Lévi-Strauss regards that in the native people prevails the answers to the very structures he questions, and in journeying to Brazil lies a pursuit of what could be his very own savages. Montaigne’s informant, a “simple, crude fellow” (Montaigne 151) exposes him to the other world and opens him up to a solution of looking at the native’s natural essence and purity in order to reevaluate the corruptions of western civilization. Today, manifested in the search for minimal living, remains a rounding out of these narratives reinforcing a cycle of privileged gaze. The driving force is that corruption is kept at bay within a world of simplicity.
In A World on the Wane, our narrative Lévi-Strauss arrives to his readers as hungering for exploration in order to sustain himself and pursue his ideas, his writing, and his career. He ventures for long enough in his reporting to experience both acclimation to certain conditions as well as frustration towards his unfulfillments. The subjects that I’ve mentioned in the documentary reveal a similar adjustment to lives in the corporate world after initial vested interest to be successful in their careers. They comment on acclimations to their positions as well as strategic moves allowing for promotions and company recognition. But despite corporate success, Nicodemus cites the “gaping void” in his life early on in the film which he subsequently filled in with “stuff”, that being all the latest in technology home applications conveniences and more. He ends this story arc with describing that this was a system that worked – until it didn’t.
Lévi-Strauss is also seen accumulating in his movement through various terrains of Brazil – each detail, and leg of the excursion is worthy of noting just as many others in his genre have traditionally done. He describes this experience by indicating “nothing is more exciting for an anthropologist than the prospect of being the first white man to penetrate a native community…” like the words of Nicodemus the prospect of penetration and consumption of a native community appears to be sustainable for success in his field – until it isn’t. Lévi-Strauss concedes “already in 1938 this greatest of compensations could be procured in only a few parts of the world – few enough, in fact, to be counted on the fingers on one hand. Today the possibilities are still more restricted” (Lévi-Strauss 318.) What is present here reveals an immense insecurity in both narratives. An insecurity in the weaknesses of upholding self-worth in a both destiny or legacy of penetration as well as in a destiny of making money and subsequently using that money to consume and emit status and happiness.
In fact, the Indians Lévi-Strauss sought of the Pimenta Bueno would not sustain him—this he already knew for certain. During the initial expedition to the new world by the first contact of pioneers in written history, they encountered people who “had developed on lines different from our own, but had none the less reached a maximum point of plentitude and perfection which was compatible with their nature” (Lévi-Strauss 319). Reaching this perfection and compatibility captured by early settlers and travelers reemerges as the aim for those who are disillusioned with industrialized cities and greed in capitalistic societies. If one could manage to reject the template for development on this American or Eurocentric line, then this unity and peace with nature might be discovered once again. This unity and peace could still today, for some contemporary minimalists, find itself manifesting in the building a small cabin, retreating there, and living deliberately, such as Tiny Home builder featured in the film Jay Austen posits in his claim that “we” have more agency to do so than typically believed.
The claim to this philosophy and deliberation is not new but certainly transforming. Michel de Montaigne in his essai Des Cannibals declares that in the native peoples was what “surpasses not only all the pictures in which poets have idealized the golden age and all their inventions in imaging a happy state or man, but also the conceptions and the very desire of philosophy” (Montaigne 153). By arguing this, he generates a spectrum of inspiration and opportunity within this search. An intellectual mobility as inherent for those who seek an inspiring change from their travels.
Lévi-Strauss describes the indigenous people he finally encounters as being pulverized by the development of western civilization. The result of their shattered self-hood and development has now left them with the consequence of being “enfeebled in body and mutilated in form” (Lévi-Strauss 319), their purity is in pieces after colonial and anthropological diffusion. As hopeless as they are, lingering potential for Lévi-Strauss himself to reject the template and find what would have been here still lies within him and potentially in the environment around him since it is no longer in the people. In order to tap into this—Claude Lévi-Strauss gingerly depicts the characteristics of the environment around him. He comments that “the men might have changed, but the conditions of the journey remained the same” (Lévi-Strauss 319). The notion of this seems to offer him some ease and pleasure since his journey still can, in terms of these aspects, uphold a connection to the greats of the past. He describes the ride as back-breaking and the navigations as delightful. An emphasized passion for the landscape situates Lévi-Strauss within another trope of travel narratives, one that prioritizes the land and its features over the reality of the indigenous people who inhabit it.
Similarly, the turn from an insufficient consumption creates an interest in new wave minimalists to prioritize a cohesive aesthetic and liberating decluttering sessions over acts of solidarity for those stuck within the cycle of poverty, leaving the hierarchy of artistic priority and supremacy as infinitely self-serving. Claude Lévi-Strauss offers to “Let the earth speak, therefore, since the men are beyond our grasp” (327) as an apparent alternate resolution to the mysteries that are concealed within the difficulty of native language and intercultural communication. But by letting the Earth’s speech take precedent over its inhabitants, he has chosen to side with the entity that cannot formulate a recognizable dialogue, and nor a vocal resistance to such ventriloquism. Not, at least, until decades of abuse continue to pass by and the earth’s resources rot through despite his insistence that the earth possesses a secret “unspoiledness” (327) waiting to be heard. Ryan Nicodemus evokes a similar outlook of an imaginary beckoning from the environment around us at more than one point on their tour. He asks the audience to “…imagine a life of less. Less stress, less clutter, less debt, less discontent, and now imagine a life of more. More meaningful relationships, more growth…” He creates an optimism in the potential for the environment around his listeners without incorporating other intricacies of livelihood affecting their mobility in the journey he has had the opportunity to embark on. I’d like to bridge this with readings of Lauren Berlant’s piece titled Cruel Optimism as its found to be something uninvolved with pragmatic livelihood and instead involved in an aesthetics of livelihood. There’s an optimism to all of our attachments, but perhaps even more optimism in the possibility that you can choose to be from them and never need them again.
Slipped into the words of both Nicodemus and Fields Millburn are similar insinuations from travelers uncultivated areas; while discussing opportunities to strip down and grow there is hidden accumulation of imperial violence and rebranding of those who live with little as trendy and ideal. The agency to minimize circumvents away from culpability of systematic violence and cruelly follows instead the gaze of the privileged.
Furthermore, despite harkening on the benefits of a cohesive environment, at no point is the impact of consumption within the realm of contemporary poverty addressed in the film, both locally and globally, nor the impact of consumption in the framing of environmental aspects of livelihood or ecocriticisms with the exception of one hopeful line from a speaker towards the end of the documentary urging awareness of our wasteful habits.
Additionally, the platforms in which the narratives of the accessible contemporary portrayal of minimalism emerge from are highly significant. Applications such as Youtube, Instagram, and Netflix documentaries are all highly accessible ways in which a generation easily consumes this content but they also provoke a virtuality in both delivery and reception. An ideal reality hopes to provide inspiration in weekly cleaning vlogs or in each stop along our documentary’s traveling book tour. There is an untouchable nature in this lens, for examples, of Youtubers filming their minimalist home-tours that is simultaneously so accessible and consumable. These platforms voking a version of Marc Augé’s “non-places” in its anonymity while simultaneously selling an inside-look of an ideal individualism pursual. The focal point promotes aesthetics and simplicity without being localized nor bound in movement or time, inherently in flux by viewers.
The anonymity that is found in non-places is worn by the locations of entrepreneurs featured in the film. Colin Wright, a full-time traveler, declares in his interview that he has been homeless for four years. He adjusts this statement noting it’s not the most attractive characteristic to open with. He offers instead “I go to countries and rent flats, so more in between homes or home-full…” he says, “I have a lot of homes…just not in one place, not for very long” (D’Avella). Maintaining this status involves him tapping into the realm of those poverty-stricken and those truly without a home. After tapping into this he creates an interest and an existence resistant to a stable environment in order to embody his virtual, a clarified ideal reality resisting bindings of the real. His “homefulness” revolves in a portrayal of an ever-traveling flux to sustaining him if both static environments and people fall short.
I’m concerned with if where and when this circular function caves in, whether or not there’s a cap to it. With the cruelty of investigating the other and questing for a life of an other with the agency of movement, as a wishful looker, comes the heaviest accumulated reality of all—an accumulation of inaptitude. When this new found hope and template reveals itself to be unsustainable again, those who are able will find a way to move on. In the documentary, author Tammy Strobel offers up what comforted her when she first downsized to a tiny minimal house, “if I hate a smaller apartment I can always upsize”. The great debt of desire to pursue something so simple leaves Lévi-Strauss and those virtually pursuing this form of minimalism buckling from all that this livelihood encompasses in their misapplications. Montaigne wrote in his essai Of the art of discussion an explanation on these misdeeds from what one desires to learn in a traveling movement for simple living–“this is why we see so many inept souls among the learned, and more than of the other kind…learning is a thing of great weight; they collapse under it”. Man, in this cycle “succumbs under his load reveals his measure and the weakness of his shoulders” (Montaigne 711). The individual approach offers no further strength beyond a gaze of insufficiency and apathetic fulfillment of self– and so the cruel cycle spins.
Augé Marc. Non-lieu.
Berlandt, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press, Durham, 2011.
D’Avella, Matt, director. Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. Netflix.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. A World on the Wane. Translated by John Russell, Criterion Books, 1968.
Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays of Montaigne. Translated by Donald Frame, Stanford University Press, 1965.