Minimalism Book Update

Blurbs, review, first excerpt in Harper's of The Longing for Less

Hi! 

It was my birthday last week, so I’ll use that and the few things that have happened so far as an excuse to send an update on my book, which is The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism, out January 21, 2020, from Bloomsbury. (If you didn’t already know.) 

Blurbs

On Bloomsbury’s website, you can see that a bunch of other authors have said very nice things about the book, if you needed more persuasion to pre-order it. Some samples of those blurbs are copied below (also you should get all of their books anyway):  

“More than just a story of an abiding cultural preoccupation, The Longing For Less peels back the commodified husk of minimalism to reveal something surprising and thoroughly alive.” –  Jenny Odell, author of HOW TO DO NOTHING

“In its lightly worn learning and serious grace, The Longing for Less functions both as a corrective to our shallow form of minimalism and as a guide to a deeper form that still has a great deal to teach us.” –  Brian Phillips, bestselling author of IMPOSSIBLE OWLS

“Don't let the title fool you: The Longing for Less overflows. It's a parade of artists, architects, musicians, and philosophers, most of them new to me, all of them fascinating. This book is generous and wide-ranging, a genuine adventure; it's thrilling to ride along with Kyle Chayka as he explores this terrain.” –  Robin Sloan, author of MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE

“I'm no minimalist, but I am not immune to Kyle Chayka's searching, subtle, and finally quite moving exploration of the beauty of less.” Luc Sante

Review

The book got its first official review from Kirkus, with a star! Which means it’s good. After a very perceptive description of the four chapters and the people whose lives I follow, the review concludes:  “A superb outing from a gifted young critic that will spark joy for many readers.” Marie Kondo joke notwithstanding (I deserve it), I’m very happy. 

More reviews are rolling out, but I don’t know when, so basically I’m just cowering behind my email and/or manically tweeting about random stuff. 

Excerpt

The first excerpt — a section from the fourth chapter of the book, Shadows — is published as the opener of the Readings section of the December issue of Harper’s, one of the great American magazines. It’s not on newsstands yet (I’ll remind you!) but you can read it online! I’ve encountered so many great books and writers through that section of the magazine and I’m really proud to be included in it. 

The excerpt is also one of my favorite parts of the book — it follows an essay from the ‘50s by the philosopher Keiji Nishitani, who connects the aesthetics of Japanese Ikebana flower-arranging with the rise of Existentialism in western philosophy. I try to show how this idea of minimalism as an alternative aesthetic and lifestyle arose around the world after World War II, inseparable from Japan but not fully of it.

Again link to the Harper’s excerpt here.

Hope that convinces you! You can preorder the book at any of these places: Bloomsbury / Amazon / Indiebound / Barnes and Noble / Books-a-Million

But calling your local bookstore and requesting it is great, too. 

Algorithmic Tourism & How Magazines Lost Aspiration

Two new pieces that reflect how digital platforms changed culture.

A work update from me. I published 10,800 words today, representing many, many months of writing. Here they are:

My Own Private Iceland (Vox / The Goods):

My trip to report on “overtourism” in Iceland made me question how we define tourism, and what we think of as “authentic” when we travel. These days, the algorithms of social media and online travel agencies tell us where to go, making tourism more generic and more crowded. Featuring: digital Northern Lights, Viking reenactors turned Game of Thrones tour guides, a nice Airbnb, the Natural Wine Bar Theory of Conflict Prevention, and much more.

The condition of overtourism pressures places to become commodities in the global marketplace the same way we warp our lifestyles to attract Instagram “Likes.” “You have to compete as a brand,” Pálsdóttir tells me. Countries and cities must constantly perform their identities in order to maintain the flow of tourists.

The Transformation of Condé Nast (The New Republic):

A review-essay on a new biography of Condé Nast, the rich man of the early 20th century who launched the magazine empire. Nast used elitism as a business model, projecting an image of aspiration with his “class publications” like Vogue and Vanity Fair in order to sell ads. That business model was destroyed by Google, Facebook, and Instagram, which automated the kind of human tastemaking Nast made his fortune from.

Nast emerges as the first great connoisseur of editorial talent on an industrial scale. He was a curator of publications, editors, writers, photographers, and illustrators, picking up one creative after another and adding them to his collection, keeping them satisfied with promotions and ostentatious perks, which included paying off one editor’s mortgage.

I hope you’ll read one or both of these pieces and please do let me know what you think! More soon.

Algocult: Fragments of media, decentralized, accelerating

TV shows become screenshots become memes without context.

I’m writing weekly dispatches about technology reshaping the ways we create and consume culture. If you like this essay, please hit the heart button above! It helps me reach more readers on Substack. And subscribe below:

I’ve been editing bigger stories all week, which is exhausting, but they will actually come out soon, which is great.

Fragments of Media, Decentralized, Accelerating

In a previous newsletter I wrote about sharing photos of books on Instagram as a kind of communal practice, turning the offline page into a digital, social artifact. Another example of this came to mind: “No Context” or “Out of Context” screenshot accounts on Twitter and Instagram that aggregate shots of TV shows or movies but, obviously, with no other context. They’re just clipped images, appended with dialogue captions that seen on their own are dark, absurd, funny, or #relatable. They screenshots become currency in the online content economy.

Here’s one of Succession, the very popular show about rich people:

The Succession account tweets constantly — way too much, which is why I’ll probably unfollow it soon. But I find these fragments of media interesting as self-contained units. They move the paywalled, gated HBO show out of its home platform and into the wider internet, where the imagery circulates freely. The screenshots refer back to the show and depend on it for meaning — the moment above won’t make sense without knowing the narrative of the episode — but they also exist on their own, literally without context, or in a random context of other content.

While watching Terrace House (a Japanese reality show about domesticity and helping other people achieve their goals, also dating), I started taking my own No Context screenshots and putting them on Instagram.

December 21, 2018

Partly it’s to share the experience in real time with my fellow Terrace Heads, but also because the images make great one-liners. Since the dialogue isn’t Prestige Drama, they can often be hilarious or touching — totally sincere.

Sharing the screenshots is part of the fun of watching the show for me. I’ll pause and rewind repeatedly to catch a good sequence. But there are also Terrace House No Context accounts:

That account also retweets jokes and memes that people make out of the screenshots, adding captions to captions. Repurposing the content is a great game, and I think it’s partly why Terrace House is so appealing: The narrative is as neutral and ambivalent as real life, and so it can be freely applied in our own new contexts, unlike a brooding, moody Succession shot that can only be about billionaires or business or whatever.

As you might expect, there are two pieces of theoretical / critical writing I want to apply to the no-context accounts. The first is, fittingly, Within the Context of No Context by George W.S. Trow, a manic piece of media criticism that first ran in the New Yorker in 1980. In the essay, Trow describes mass-media television as a zone of “no context,” creating its own space in which the rabid, hedonistic, primal soul of America can fester, feeding on meaningless celebrities and scandals:

TELEVISION

Television is the force of no-history, and it holds the archives of the history of no-history. Television is a mystery. Certain of its properties are known, though. It has a scale. The scale does not vary. The trivial is raised up to the place where this scale has its home; the powerful is lowered there.

The internet has even less context, thus perhaps it is even more trivial, or the trivial is given even greater grandeur. This is true, but social media also gives us users more access to the scale of television, allowing us to compete with it by making our own content, taking back control. I also enjoy the match of name: Within the Context of No-Context Accounts.

The other bit is the artist and writer Hito Steyerl’s concept of the “poor image,” as defined in her essay “In Defense of the Poor Image”:

The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution.

Steyerl’s essay was published in 2009; in the meantime, the internet has become full of much higher-quality images — digital aesthetics have gentrified, becoming smoother and cleaner, since the days of dial-up piracy. But we still appreciate the Poor Image: screenshots of screenshots, filtered or watermarked memes, shaky smartphone videos.

The no-context accounts are poor images, too, removed from their sources, uploaded to other platforms, captioned and recaptioned, experienced not at all in the way that the original was meant to be. I often think of Steyerl’s dictum, “As it accelerates, it deteriorates,” like a law of digital distribution. Deterioration doesn’t just happen in resolution, it happens in information and contextualization, and the faster it’s spreading, the more loss occurs. The images lose their meaning but gain the opportunity for new meaning in the process.

April 20, 2019

There’s no conclusion here, just something to think about. As we consume media we also make media.

If you like this essay, please hit the heart button below! It helps me reach more readers. Email me any thoughts or things you’d like me to look into and subscribe here.

— Follow me on Twitter

— Preorder my book on minimalism, The Longing for Less

— Read more of my writing: kylechayka.com

Algocult: Identifying with the Algorithm

How much does the internet tell you who you are?

I’m writing weekly dispatches about technology reshaping the ways we create and consume culture. If you like this essay, please hit the heart button above! It helps me reach more readers. And subscribe below:

Source

The writer, editor, actress, and onetime fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, one of the few people who actually deserve the title of online influencer, wrote a cover story for New York Magazine about Instagram’s impact on her life. She wouldn’t be who she is without it — social media has brought her fame, income, a sponsored Brooklyn apartment, and a need to carefully regulate her public and private personae. 

What was interesting to me about this essay was the way that Gevinson talked about Instagram, the language with which she described it. She didn’t depict it as a tool that she used or a space in which she published, but instead a kind of world in itself, that mirrored, imperfectly, the her daily reality, or at least her perception of herself. 

Instagram, which gets conflated with “the algorithm” that controls which content gets surfaced most often and becomes most popular, is inseparable from her sense of self. She presents the non-digital self as pure, organic, while the online self is some combination of human and technological, a chimaera: “I can try to imagine an alternate universe where I’ve always roamed free and Instagram-less in pastures untouched by the algorithm. But I can’t imagine who that person is inside,” she wrote.

Part of Gevinson’s solution is to insulate herself from social media, putting a layer between herself and its distortions (I sound like Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, which Gevinson also cites) by having an assistant do the Instagram posting for her. That sounds great, actually! Participate in the digital world, maintain your presence in it, without having to actually interact or invest energy. Maybe we could all just have robots post for us, and then other robots would automate our likes and tell us if there’s anything really important — if someone got a puppy, for example.

Some of the essay’s arguments fall into the category of “digital dualism,” the term Nathan Jurgenson coined in 2011 to denote the (misguided) idea that there is a distinct separation between life online and IRL. The cliche digital dualist complaint is that online interactions aren’t that meaningful, that we can’t have actual friendships or discussions through our screens. 

Gevinson positions her online life and the way that The Algorithm filters both what she publishes and what she consumes as something overly mediated, a reflection she came to not recognize. She’s plenty self-aware enough to realize that she has contributed to this problem, but most people can’t escape it so neatly. If Gevinson is using the essay to claim some of her real self back from the internet, the vast majority of us have no recourse; we are — or are at least treated as if we are — what The Algorithm sees us as.

* * *

One concrete example of the division between the digitized self and the blood-and-guts version: A Chinese woman got plastic surgery that made her unrecognizable to face-recognition software. She immediately had trouble shopping online, checking into her job, and boarding trains, because the systems depended on her pre-surgery digitized identity. This is more drastic than Instagram ennui.

* * *

A viral art project further underlined this point. Kate Crawford and Trevor Paglen’s ImageNet Roulette (you might recognize the green square from… everywhere online this week) was built on an authoritative database of tagged images, ImageNet, that was begun in 2009 to train AI to recognize objects. Its origins are human — its creators hired Amazon Mechanical Turk workers to tag straightforward images with terms like “apple” but also, apparently, images of people with “debtor,” “snob,” “swinger,” and “slav,” among many other offenses. 

ImageNet Roulette allows you to upload a photo of yourself and have the AI judge you, tagging the image with the terms that it thinks apply. The terms also come with elaborate definitions that sound either poetic or grammatically suspect, drawn from the similar database WordNet. I put in a selfie and got: “face: a part of a person that is used to refer to a person — person, individual, someone, somebody, mortal, soul.” My (bearded) friend Mark got “beard: a person who diverts suspicion from someone (especially a woman who accompanies a male homosexual in order to conceal his homosexuality).” 

Somewhere in the dataset this definition was lurking, brought illogically (we think) to the surface. But it had to be put there first. The digital reflection is not neutral: “The whole endeavor of collecting images, categorizing them, and labeling them is itself a form of politics, filled with questions about who gets to decide what images mean and what kinds of social and political work those representations perform,” as Crawford and Paglen write

ImageNet Roulette went viral because it was funny. We’re amused by how The Algorithm fails to recognize us, mistaking people for objects and vice versa. In the moment of laughing at the labels, we’re secure in our humanity, assuaged that we’re still smarter than the machines. Even if online is just as valid as off, there still isn’t a 1:1 relationship between the two. 

But then again, is the self so real in the first place? The more time we spend in algorithmic spaces, the more we come to identify with their distortions.

Other Algocult News

— Amazon’s search function also prioritized its own products, another strike against any perception of neutrality.

— “Free resource of 100k diverse faces generated by AI”: startup guy generates fake people so either you can mimic diversity on your ‘About Us’ page or, do as he plans to and create an “AI model agency.” The faces are mostly uncanny valley nightmares but the dystopia is real.

— Podcast tool Descript comes with Overdub, a feature that lets you synthesize your own voice reading words that you only type. It’s kind of like the autotune of speech but could also easily be very dystopian! I am interested in this kind of “faked” art or media.

— Charlie XCX on how the structure of streaming platforms changes songwriting. There’s “no difference between a mixtape and an album” and fewer gatekeepers, but optimizing for streaming revenue means a very specific style of song: immediate chorus, no introduction, hook at the top.

If you like this essay, please hit the heart button below! It helps me reach more readers. Email me any thoughts or things you’d like me to look into and subscribe here.

— Follow me on Twitter

— Preorder my book on minimalism, The Longing for Less

— Read more of my writing: kylechayka.com

Revealing my book on minimalism

The Longing for Less will be published by Bloomsbury on January 21, 2020

Dear subscribers, 

My book, The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism will be published by Bloomsbury on January 21, 2020. It would be really awesome if you preordered it through any of these websites: 

Bloomsbury / Amazon / Indiebound / Barnes and Noble / Books-a-Million

(It’s currently $17.74 to preorder the hardcover on Amazon and I won’t blame you for taking advantage.)

As you probably know, the more preorders I get, the more the Internet Giants and The Algorithm will pay attention! Advance copies are out now in paperback, but the real fun will come with the hardcover edition, which has a secret you can see in this animation: 

The book’s half-jacket will come off and printed directly on the hardcover is the second half of the abstract shape that Bloomsbury designed in this beautiful muted palette. I really like this because it allows the book to be an ambiguous physical object, something like Minimalist art. Also I always take book jackets off and then lose them, so now you don’t even need to keep it! 

If you’re not convinced by the opportunity to Instagram it, the book’s actual words are very good too, IMO. Rather than a linear history, the book is thematic, split up into four chapters that reflect different aspects of minimalism: Reduction, Emptiness, Silence, and Shadow. On the table of contents you can see how they all relate to one another as parts of a whole: 

I also really like the page spreads between chapters, which each have an image that relates to the text: 

The chapters explore minimalism as a lifestyle of simplicity, an austere visual aesthetic, a way of escaping from overwhelming sensation, and an embrace of ambiguity and uncertainty, respectively. Minimalism isn’t just a style but a way of being in the world. In each chapter there are characters that emerge and recur, including artists like Agnes Martin and Donald Judd; composers John Cage and Julius Eastman; and writers Junichiro Tanizaki and Kuki Shuzo. Both through their work and the way they lived their lives, these people can teach us about what minimalism means and what role it can play today.

It’s also part travelogue through the landscape of minimalism. In the book, I visit Donald Judd’s epic warehouse homes in Marfa, Texas; experiment with sensory deprivation; listen to terrible music at the Guggenheim; and travel through Tokyo and Kyoto, snooping in cemeteries and rock gardens.

Again, it would be amazing if you pre-ordered it. You can also reach out to Sara Mercurio at Bloomsbury, sara.mercurio@bloomsbury.com,  if you’re planning to cover it or make other inquiries. But also feel free to email me with any questions. I tweeted about it here, so you could always RT?

Thanks for everything,

Kyle 

PS: I updated my website with book information and also a long-overdue archive of my writing. Maybe there are a few things you haven’t seen before.

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