From Reductionism to Simplicity: Against Modernist Minimalism and Towards a New Monastic Minimalism, #3.

Mr Nemo
4 min readOct 30, 2023

By Otto Paans

Figure 1: Courtyard of the St. Benedictusberg Abbey, designed by Dom. Hans van der Laan. Photograph by author.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

1. Modernism and Minimalism: Reductionism as Paradigm

2. Monastic Minimalism: Six Defining Features

3. Against Mechanistic Materialism

4. Conclusion

This essay will be published in four installments, one per section.

You can also download and read or share a .pdf of the complete text of the essay, including the REFERENCES, by scrolling to the bottom of the post and clicking on the Download tab.

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3. Against Mechanistic Materialism

However, in this project of improvement, the ideas of (i) aesthetic purity, (ii) valueless materialism or materialism-without-morality, and (iii) aspirations of planned perfectionism, gradually came to dominate the properly ecological and humanist potentials of the modern project. How this unfolded would deserve a history of its own, as simple contingency may have played an important role, and may well be underestimated as contributing factor. Nevertheless, I would like to propose that underneath these three ideas lurks a single issue: the modern mind cannot deal with contingency and unpredictability, and continually turns to mechanistic materialism in some form or another in order to remedy its insecurities, while at the same time it keeps recreating the very problems it attempts to solve.

These three ideas tie into each other, producing a Gordian knot of cultural decline the consequences of which grow more catastrophic with each epicycle. The idea of a mechanistic materialism without morality is amounts to the institutionalization Max Weber’s fact-value distinction. The very (Logical Empiricist or Positivist) idea that we can dispose of the world as we please has led to many examples of outright exploitation of natural resources. In the case of modernist minimalism, there has even an entire aesthetic edifice grown up around it. The very cultural image of modernist minimalism is predicated on a sort of luxury showcased through apparent restraint. But the technological requirement of this kind of aesthetic, its ecological footprint, and its often contextless implementation makes for an anti-ecological architecture pur sang. The processing required to mass-produce the sleek products of high modernity amount a moral failure on a global scale.

To think about material progress, material conditions or living standards without invoking some kind of moral framework is an impossibility. All too often outright exploitation has been ignored by ascribing it to the “functioning of supply and demand” mechanisms, thereby essentially avoiding the moral questions surrounding the actual material cost of progress.

Nature — the very concept of which is unduly ridiculed nowadays, even by those who ought to know better — is the ultimate context of our existence. Put more broadly, the cosmos is our shared home. However, the aesthetic ideal of purity keep nature at arm’s length, opting for a human-nature relation that is blatantly exploitative, destructive, deteriorating, and ultimately domineering. The inability of the modern mind to truly engage with nature has led into a kind of spatial sterility that permeates its architectural output (Paans, 2019, 2023a). The very spaces of modernity take the sanitized world as point of departure and remove all those pesky elements that do not belong in it. Luckily, we can see the tide shifting here and there, but even then, the high modernist mind has not internalized the lesson that we must entangle with nature. Every attempt to drive a hard wedge between nature and culture is bound to reproduce and aggravate the worst tendencies of the mechanistic materialist worldview.

The illusion of control is fully present in modern minimalism and its functionalist offshoots all over the globe. The project of global urbanization is not even thinkable without the high modern mind, its search for control the replacement of nature by concrete and the emergence of an urban society. How fragile this way of inhabiting the Earth is demonstrated daily. Pandemics, rampant wildfires, devastating floods, tragic crop failures, the disastrous effects of pollution, and the alarming scarcity of clean air and water all show the tremendous impact of humanity’s efforts to keep its modern space fully under control. But the habitus of modern space is at odds with any harmonious or generative relation towards nature.

All this exploitation, industrialization, and urbanization is pursued in the interest of a vindictive perfectionism that cannot deal with difference, entanglement, and contingency. The very social institutions and their accompanying culture that arise out of this mindset leads to a glorification of technology as the next best thing to be had. But even worse, it leads to a fundamental disdain for our evolutionary origins and our “human, all-too-human” nature. The modern world is made for the machine, not for human inhabitation. Likewise, the sterile, luxurious villa overlooking the landscape that suffers from the consequences of climate change represents an isolated microcosmos of fragile perfectionism, even at the cost of moral failure and the illusion of control.

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AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 833

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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.