From Reductionism to Simplicity: Against Modernist Minimalism and Towards a New Monastic Minimalism, #4.

Mr Nemo
7 min readNov 6, 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 has been 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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4. Conclusion

As we have seen, monastic minimalism is built on different foundations. It embraces (i) simplicity, (ii) frugality, (iii) its embedding in a larger (cosmic) order, (iv) the direct expression of values in architecture, and (v) a functionality that is fully aligned with these values. Taken together, these five factors allow the existential quality of stillness to emerge. All these elements provide us with the possibility of developing a fully modern, yet also sustainable and conducive way of inhabitation. We should not be blind to the achievements of the modernist minimalist project; and neither should we easily discard the honest emancipatory impulses within that project. However, even the best of intentions are thought-shaped by prior enculturation. The tragedy of the 20th-century “flattening-out” of the modernist minimalist project was perhaps located in its all-too-willing acceptance of reductionist, technocratic premises and an exaggeration of the promises that such an allegiance could realize.

The task for modernity and our future lies once again in deepening, exploring, and interweaving the best of its achievements with the elements that it lost track of. I would argue that these elements have to be brought into a new aesthetic constellation that fully includes nature and culture, entanglement and engagement, as well as negotiating the impact of climatic circumstances. One of the themes that the modern mind (and is mind, that Cartesian ego, not the modern category par excellence?) should discover again is corporeality, that notion so crucial to appreciate essential embodiment. The idea that the mind conquers the uncertainties of physical reality by inventing technology is both a truth and a pitfall. Pushed too far, this mindset not only removes contingency and unpredictability, but also creates new problems that it attempts to counter with the same attitude that created them. One of the most persistent problems is the denial of processuality and its accompanying corporeality and essential embodiment. From the points of view of physics, chemistry, biology, and ecology, we cannot think process without matter. Every process in the world involves bodies and physical transactions of some kind, whether it concerns fungal growth, photosynthesis, gene expression, supernovas, mining rare earth elements, biomass production, or combustion engines. But modernist minimalism is aiming more and more towards a relation to the cosmos by which the very physicality of these processes is regimented and regulated in regular, repetitive patterns. But all these processes create intensities, instabilities, and thresholds that render them unstable, and that make them tip at some point.

This is not a problem by itself, since it is the very mechanism by which nature establishes homeostatic relationships. But for a modern world predicated on the static, generic eternal, all forms of processuality pose a potential threat, because they introduce qualitative differences that undermine the premises on which the modern world is built. Instead, we should take our cue from Peter Hasdell’s and Patrick Harrop’s artistic practice Pneuma (they describe it as a “milieu”), which approaches spatial environments from an evolutionary point of view. Through rapid digital prototyping, various spatial configurations are tried out in succession and involve both form and metabolism (Hasdell, 2010). No architecture is disentangled from the world, and so the very flows that enter and leave any configuration constitute an integral part of how the form develops. Put differently: form is not the consequence of a prior dogma, but the outcome of a multivalent formative process that fully includes climatic factors. But without much effort, we can expand this creative strategy, and see how a truly modern architecture grounded on simplicity beyond high modernism could fully involve fungal, animal, and plant life. Architecture could truly become part of the Earth’s body — or, alternatively, an extension of our essential embodiment instead of a mere protective shell.

A different example in which we can truly entangle with the environment is Patrick Beesley’s evolving installation Hylozoic Ground. This strange installation is an ontological short-circuit from the twilight realm where biology, chemistry, machines of all kinds, and digital technology meet. It is an installation that respond to passers-by and possess its own metabolism. In its current form, it functions as a kind of responsive entity that is not yet an ecosystem, but that unites various elements of it. Its form language is not strictly speaking minimal, but it exhibits a simplicity of some kind, reminding one of lush rainforests and the primitive, prehistoric allure of tree ferns. The strange encounter staged by the Hylozoic Ground ensues because it possesses a corporeality and even a kind of agency of its own. But it is precisely natural agency that the modernist minimalist mind is not prepared to deal with. For this reason, it insists on imposing static, Procrustean grids of uniformization and group-think — and no wonder, given its aim to produce the perfect subject in large quantities.

Figure 9: Hylozoic Ground installation by Philip Beesley (2010). Photograph by author.

All this brings us finally to an important moral implication that sharply distinguishes modernist minimalism from monastic minimalism. I have stressed earlier that the notions of difference, individual agency, processuality and its implied variability, and even a kind of cultural deviation all present threats to the stiffening socio-institutional culture of high modernism. However, monastic minimalism, with its emphasis on the transcendent in the everyday, the importance of daily routine, and a functional order based on a larger organicist worldview erects a social-institutional environment in which not perfection, but self-cultivation claims centre stage. To be sure, almost all religious doctrines emphasize that the human condition is certainly not perfect, but they also stress compassion, restraint, stillness, and above all the possibility of change and growth. The imperative of self-cultivation is often couched in a larger, cosmological narrative in which individual lives are existentially situated in a wider context that serves as home, but therefore also as a place where one’s existential agency can be responsibly exercised.

Modernist minimalism and its high modernist ideology represent a diametrically different picture: that of the individual on the road to progress, but always on the lookout for impurity and cultural deviation. Moreover, it views human beings as imperfect, but not as an agent of its own salvation, rather as a project to be engineered, manipulated, nudged, and ultimately digitized. The very striving for perfection inherent in the modernist minimalism of the past 70 years is not the culmination of a process of essentialization, but a symptom of the modern mind. In this essay, I have indicated a few ways beyond the confines of this paradigm, and towards an ecological civilization (see, e.g., Gare, 2017): a civilization that will grow and develop in a new, entangled, and above all genuinely simple and sustainable habitus.

REFERENCES

(Aureli, 2013). Aureli, P.V. Less is Enough. Moscow: Strelka Press.

(Banham, 1970). Banham, R. Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. New York: Praeger.

(Barthes, 2013). Barthes, R. How to Live Together. Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces. Trans. K. Briggs. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

(Berman, 2010). Berman, M. All That is Solid Melts into Air. The Experience of Modernity London: Verso.

(Gare, 2017). Gare, A. Philosophical Foundations of Ecological Civilization: A Manifesto for the Future.London: Routledge.

(Hasdell, 2010). Hasdell, P. “Pneuma: Towards an Indeterminate Architecture, or Towards a Soft and Weedy Architecture.” In L. Tilder and B. Blostein (eds.), Design Ecologies. Essays on the Nature of Design. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. Pp. 92–133.

(Hanna and Paans, 2020). Hanna, R. and Paans, O. “This is the Way the World Ends: A Philosophy of Civilization Since 1900, and A Philosophy of the Future.” Cosmos & History 16, 2 (2020): 1–53. Available online at URL = <https://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/view/865>.

(Hanna and Paans, 2021). Hanna, R. and Paans, O. “Thought-Shapers.” Cosmos & History 17, 1: 1–72. Available online at URL = <http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/view/923>.

(Hanna and Paans, 2022). Hanna, R. and Paans, O. “Creative Piety and Neo-Utopianism: Cultivating Our Global Garden.” Cosmos and History 18, 1: 1–82. Available online at URL = <https://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/view/1017>.

(Kant, 1786/1996). Kant, I. “What Does it Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking?” Trans. A. Wood. In I. Kant, Immanuel Kant: Religion and Rational Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996. Pp. 7–18, Ak 8: 133–146.

(Paans, 2019). Paans, O. “The Generic Eternal: Modernism, Alienation and the Built Environment.” Borderless Philosophy 2: 207–256. Available online at URL = <https://www.cckp.space/single-post/2019/06/01/BP2-2019-The-Generic-Eternal-Modernism-Alienation-and-the-Built-Environment-pp-207-256>.

(Paans, 2023a). Paans, O. “Sterile Spaces, Synthetic Humans and Disentanglement. High Modernism and Our Alienation from Nature.” Against Professional Philosophy. 7 May. Available online at URL = https://againstprofphil.org/2023/05/07/sterile-spaces-synthetic-humans-and-disentanglement-high-modernism-and-our-alienation-from-nature-1/>.

(Paans, 2023b). Paans, O. “The New Subjective Body: Stillness, Expressivity and Radical Subjectivity.” Borderless Philosophy 6: 169–217. Available online at URL: <https://www.cckp.space/single-post/bp6-2023-otto-paans-the-new-subjective-body-169-217>.

(Paans, 2023c). Paans, O. “Cosmos and Care. Reflections on Self-Cultivation.” Against Professional Philosophy. 6 August. Available online at URL: = <https://againstprofphil.org/2023/08/06/a-philosophers-diary-13-cosmos-and-care-reflections-on-self-cultivation/>.

(Van Der Laan, 1983). Van Der Laan, Dom. Hans. Architectonic Space. Leiden: Brill.

(Vidler, 1992). Vidler, A. The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

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Mr Nemo

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