Nothingness & Quarantine Culture: a big new essay

In the works since December 2019.

Today, an essay that I’ve been writing since (literally!) December 2019 went online at the New York Times Magazine. It will be in the print magazine this weekend, if you want to buy it on Sunday January 24th. It’s 4000 words about the tendency toward numbness in American culture, the ways that art and entertainment foresaw the isolation of quarantine and then commodified it. The essay starts with sensory deprivation and ends with our uncertain future.

I’m very very proud of this piece and I think the struggle and time that went into it, over quarantine and protests and election this past year, have only made it resonate more. I hope you’ll read it. Below, I’ll explain more about how I wrote it.

The Culture of Negation — New York Times Magazine

Audio version included at the top of the link so you can listen to it!

This essay started with a hunch that I had in late 2019. My book The Longing for Less has a section on sensory deprivation tanks and what it’s like to block everything out, but there was a larger story to be told about the sensory deprivation industry and how popular it was becoming. Float tanks have a very strange history, as this new piece explains, so it was surreal that they had suddenly been normalized as a kind of wellness: Just erase your existence for an hour or two and you’ll feel better about everything.

Sensory deprivation went beyond just the float tanks; I started noticing memes about dropping out of society and products that helped people feel a cozy nothingness, like gravity blankets or cashmere sweatpants. The aesthetic of minimalism was one thing; this collective pursuit of self-erasure was another. As I was writing and editing that version, however, the pandemic struck, and then quarantine meant we were all literally stuck in our homes, left to seek whatever comfort we could find in isolation.

I rewrote the essay around the experience of quarantine, which to me sometimes felt similar to sensory deprivation. Being at home watching ambient Netflix shows and socializing over Zoom was a dematerialization, another kind of numbness. For non-essential workers, we were stuck in the boundaries of social-media platforms that already encompassed so much of our daily experience: Twitter really was real life, unfortunately. My sense is that our culture glorifies this numbness, perhaps because corporations — like Amazon and Facebook — profit from it.

We face so many crises today, not just the pandemic but the rampant problems of late capitalism, climate change, inequality, militarization, and racism. (In my head I’m blanketing these under the term ‘millennial pessimism.’) In the face of all these issues it’s easy to seek out numbness instead, and for culture to provide it instead of challenging us to rethink our circumstances. That’s what I think about when I see Netflix now starting to release movies and TV shows about quarantine, from within our ongoing quarantine — it’s a recursive loop, a system we can’t escape.

In the NYT Mag piece, I use the phrase “culture of negation” to describe these phenomena. In short, it is not just culture that negates sensation and provides numbness, but culture that cancels itself out, that is subjugated to omnipresent digital capitalism and doesn’t lead anywhere except further introversion. (Ambient TV is absolutely an example of the culture of negation.) Has “dropping out” become impossible?

I edited and rewrote the essay two more times, after the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising and after the election. The protests broke through the tedium, I think, and showed how powerful collective, direct action can be. They were invigorating and optimistic, suggesting a future of human-to-human connection — messy and small-scale yet authentic and meaningful. But the fraught election and its somehow ambiguous aftermath have presented a counterpoint: Do we know where we’re going or are we just putting our heads back in the sand after four years of exhausting attention?

I hope you’ll read the piece; there was no way I could fit all of my arguments into 4,000 words and I think it should provoke more argument and discussion than provide easy answers. As usual I kind of want you to be uncomfortable, as I am, too. I’ll also be following this essay up with more writing on millennial pessimism, climate change aesthetics, absence of a future, the algorithmic commodification of radical culture, etc.

If you read the essay, please do send me thoughts, share it on social media, or just pass it to friends. This kind of thing gets meaning from its community of readers, not just my words.

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