Minimalisms Now: Race, Affect, Aesthetics

Edited by Connor Bennett and Michael Dango

An Introduction to “Minimalisms Now: Race, Affect, Aesthetics”

Connor Bennett and Michael Dango

“A Handshake Is Available Upon Request”: Severance and the Uneasiness of Sparsity

Sadie Barker

“It comes down to / so little”: Ashbery, Matthíasdóttir, and Minimal Afterlives

Andrew DuBois

Minimal Thoughts: Cognition in the Wake of Slow Crisis

Christina Fogarasi

On Ambience, Tan Lin, and American Minimalism

Irene Kim

Historical Injury and Asian American Literary Minimalism

Jeehyun Lim

Situating Minimalism: Kara Walker’s Black Dimensionality

Wyatt Sarafin

There’s No Such Thing as Silence: Recovering the Stakes of Minimalism’s Refusal in the Work of Nikita Gale

Jennifer Smart

On Being Okay

Annabelle Tseng

Minimally Focused: Carver, TikTok, and Minimalist Form

Bekah Waalkes

On Undermediation

Shirl Yang

An Interview with Mark McGurl

Connor Bennett and Michael Dango

Pod45 Episode 12: Minimalisms Now

Post45 Contemporaries Editorial Team


Are we all minimalist now?

In early 2019, U.S. news organizations reported a surge of clothing and other donations to charity shops, a surge they called the Marie Kondo effect.1 The author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up had starred in a Netflix series released on New Year's Day in which she visited U.S. homes and helped their residents let go of anything that did not "spark joy." It turns out most of us are surrounded by junk that does not spark joy, and many of us are therefore more joyous, the formula would suggest, if we let those things go. Many of us, in other words, aspire to a minimalist lifestyle.

It's important to Kondo's brand that her "magic" is explicitly not minimalism: "Minimalism advocates living with less; the KonMari Method™ encourages living among items you truly cherish."2 But this focus on what is essential does characterize minimalism as an art style before it was named as a lifestyle: a focus on what is most necessary, most cherished, in a sculpture, piece of music, dress, building, or short story. What are the relations between minimalist art and minimalist lifestyles? What are the forms, styles, and genres of minimalism today? What is their relation to the heyday of minimalist sculpture, music, literature, and architecture in the 1960s through 1980s? Who are the practitioners of minimalism, and how are various minimalisms gendered, racialized, sexualized, and classed? And under what social, political, and economic conditions are these practitioners drawn to minimalism now? The essays in this Contemporaries cluster explore questions such as these.

The popularity of minimalism today is overdetermined and contradictory. But a refrain throughout many of these essays collected here is that minimalism's contradictions are also an embodiment of contradictory relations to racialization in our contemporary world of global capitalism. It is, for instance, hard to imagine the overwhelming success of Kondo in the Anglo-American context were she of a different race and nationality. In Quaint, Exquisite: Victorian Aesthetics and the Idea of Japan, Grace Lavery provides a prehistory for the contemporary fascination with Japanese aesthetics. Because Japan confronted Western empires as itself an empire in the nineteenth century, its culture seemed, exclusively, to bypass the binary of Occident and Orient, neither backwards nor progressive: "modern, but not in the way everybody else is."3 Because of their apparent escape from rigid colonial taxonomies, stereotypically Japanese cultural production, including "the haiku, the tea ceremony, and the art of the samurai sword," came "to signal to Western observers an aesthetic universality the feeling that everybody in the world should and would find this object beautiful far more powerfully than any other cultural practices, whether Orientalist, primitivist, or Euro-American."4 In postmodern culture, Japan also seems to bypass received binaries by presenting as both mystically ancient from the past (e.g., the West's fascination with Japanese Zen) and technologically advanced from the future (e.g., sleek robotics). Where something like Zen and something like the robotic come together is, in a word, minimalism, whether ascetic or streamlined.

A related theme in this cluster is minimalism not just as a relation to things, but as a relation to emotion, in particular the resources required and challenges faced by differently embodied people in performing minimal affect: refusing or declining to express, or simply not feeling, legible emotions. For some, this may be motivated by a rejection of the stereotype of the "colorful" racial minority who is loud or passionate or fun-loving or throws a spectacular wedding. For some, this may be a way of preserving interiority or a sense of privacy in a culture that demands we always be open, a preservation that Édouard Glissant famously called a "right to opacity," which is not a refusal of relation but a refusal of the requirement that relation be premised on transparency, the easy understanding of another's interiority.5 In queer and decolonial work, this has evolved into a refusal of easily ascribed identity categories.6 In a related Black feminist tradition inaugurated by Darlene Clark Hine's coining of the phrase "culture of dissemblance," Black women's protection of "the sanctity of inner aspects of their lives" has "allowed the individual Black woman to function, to work effectively as a domestic in white households, to bear and rear children, to endure the frustration-born violence of frequently under- and unemployed mates, to support churches, to found institutions, and to engage in social service activities, all while living within a clearly hostile white, patriarchal, middle-class America."7

The dimension of labor Hine underlines also points to the importance of minimal displays of affect in an economy increasingly dominated by the service sector and its attendant forms of the "emotional labor" Arlie Hochschild was one of the first to examine.8 In these contexts, a refusal to express also, at least partially, rejects the expectations of capital that continues to devalue the feminization of work. For instance, many service workers are paid a subminimum wage that is supposed to be supplemented by customer tips tips only earned, of course, if the server makes them happy. This pairing of a refusal to feel with a refusal to workrevealing the underlying structure of emotional work as workhas been theorized by scholars from Giorgio Agamben to Gilles Deleuze and Sianne Ngai through the figure of Herman Melville's Bartleby, whose refrain to his boss, "I would prefer not to," was also revived as a rallying cry of such social movements for economic equality as Occupy Wall Street (an address which was, after all, the setting and subtitle of Melville's story). Bartleby is one example of the aesthetic field feeling out for and theorizing in advance emerging social and political realities.

Nonetheless, in her recent book Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America, Xine Yao focuses on a different Melville character, the fugitive Senegalese Babo of "Benito Cereno," who is publicly executed after declining to say a word during his trial, leaving his "head, that hive of subtlety, fixed on a pole in the Plaza, me[eting], unabashed, the gaze of the whites."9 Reading this "unabashed" expression as "the rebel's final fugitive performance of unfeeling as refusal to accept the criminalization of Blackness," Yao questions "why it has been easier for critics to become attached to white Bartleby's enigmatic expression as the universal figure of transgression, his popularity reiterating the inexhaustible extension of sympathy for him by the narrating white lawyer."10 For Yao, minoritized embodiments and experiences of unfeeling or disaffection can be a "defensive psychic survival tactic in a world predicated upon racial and sexual violences" as explored in the anthology This Bridge Called My Back by women of color such as Audre Lorde ("In order to withstand the weather, we had to become stone") and co-editor Gloria Anzaldúa ("To cope with hurt and control my fears, I grew a thick skin").11 But this "counterintimacy" can also "produce the conditions for insurgent solidarities" and provide "the potential for striving toward a radical politics of liberation."12

The question of liberation and minimization, the question of racially aesthetic forms and the forms of racial hierarchy, the question of the intelligibility of affect and the naming of artists' genealogies alike: these are questions posed by any consideration of what minimalism is now or, better: how, why, and through whom minimalism functions today.

Minimal Affect, Minoritized Positions

During the decade in which Raymond Carver wrote most of the stories that would form his first collection, Will You Please Be Quiet Please?, Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday wrote his first novel, House Made of Dawn. After the word "Dypaloh," a Jemez tribal form of opening a story, the first paragraph of the novel reads: "There was a house made of dawn. It was made of pollen and of rain, and the land was very old and everlasting. There were many colors on the hills, and the plain was bright with different-colored clays and sands. Red and blue and spotted horses grazed in the plain, and there was a dark wilderness on the mountains beyond. The land was still and strong. It was beautiful all around."13 The simple formula of these simple sentences, with subjects neatly linked to qualifiers through a repetitive predicate structure, runs throughout the novel, which in turn suggests an explanation for its style nearly halfway through when the Indigenous pastor of a "Pan-Indian Rescue Mission" in Los Angeles delivers a sermon about "the white man's" relation to language: "He talks about the Word. He talks through it and around it. He builds upon it with syllables, with prefixes and suffixes and hyphens and accents. He adds and divides and multiplies the Word. And in all of this he subtracts the Truth."14 The pastor suggests a return to a reverence for language typified by Indigenous oral traditions, in turn opposing a dominant print culture of too many words to read on billboards, pamphlets, novels, and more.

Although House Made of Dawn would go on to win the Pulitzer and is the most widely read and taught work of Native literature from the twentieth century, Momaday is rarely, if ever, claimed for the canon of literary minimalism that was developing at the same time. This may largely be because of his explicit linking of sparse prose with a Native sensibility, whereas minimalism has usually been understood to give voice to working and middle class whites. From an art historical perspective, canonical minimalists like Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Richard Serra, and Robert Morris working with steel boxes, brick installations, fluorescent lights, and wooden coffins have little in common except for their whiteness and maleness, leading to a circular reasoning in which whiteness and maleness have come to be criteria for identifying who was or is or could be minimalist.15 For instance, building on the work of John P. Bowles, Tina Post shows how Black artists such as Adrian Piper "have been written out of minimalism's lineages through the tautology that first produced the canon of minimalism out of white male artists, and then denied the works to non-white and non-male artists as minimalist."16

Post's larger aim in her recent book on Deadpan: The Aesthetics of Black Inexpression is to consider how flat or withheld affect in Black embodiment can function as both stereotype and subversion: "White Americans persistently interpret black inscrutability as threatening, and [ . . . ] black Americans strategically perform blackness as foreboding."17 The affordances of this performance are gendered: "inexpressive black men have been more prone to being interpreted as threatening, and inexpressive black women have been more likely to experience modes of invisibility."18 Along the way, Post demonstrates how canonical theories of the objective analog of affective withholding, which is to say minimalism, speak in the same language of theorizing black subjectivity. Michael Fried's famous understanding of minimalist sculpture as a theatrical object, for instance, makes it "simultaneously subject and object or, to borrow a phrase from Saidiya Hartman, a 'curious hybrid of person and property'" first crystallized in the figure of the slave.19

Who practices minimalism, and who gets assigned or gets to claim that moniker, is thus intimately linked with whose affective demeanors or performances are understood as themselves minimal, flat, withdrawn. Momaday may not occur to most chroniclers of minimalism when his style is read as the transparent expression of the stereotypically "Stoic Indian" rather than the product of a politics of language and linguistic domination.  For similar reasons, scholars have problematized the stereotype of the "inscrutable" Asian subject whose interiority or intentions are thought to be unreadable from their performance of self in everyday life. Writing about the Cold War context of Western intelligence agencies' relation to Asia, Sunny Xiang explains: "The Inscrutable Oriental enhanced the belief that secrecy guarantees security, that enemy intelligence is related to racial intelligibility, and that a deeper meaning lies beyond the surface deception of masks, covers, and veils."20 This epistemological crisis of racial knowing is intimately connecting with geopolitical crisis, because the "faithless relationship between surface phenomena and inner truths," when "[s]caled up," "links referential uncertainty to civilization crisis."21

The minimized affect projected onto or strategically deployed by the Asian subject in a North American context has also historically facilitated her association with the seemingly deadened and affectless world of money. For Colleen Lye, two Asian American stereotypes that otherwise seem opposed are produced by the same underlying logic: "yellow peril and model minority are best understood as two aspects of the same, long-running racial form, a form whose most salient feature, whether it has been made the basis for exclusion or assimilation, is the trope of economic efficiency."22 In a similar vein, Iyko Day considers how "the Asian subject in North America personifies abstract processes of value formation anchored by labor"; in contemporary visual representations, this subject is linked to both the "abstraction of Asians as money" and the "abstraction of Asians as machines": "As money or machine, the Asian is aligned with the destructive value dimensions of capitalism."23

The essays that form this cluster extend this analysis by considering how racialization produces, complicates, revises, or is disappeared from genealogies of minimalist discourse.

Aesthetic Genealogies: A Half Century of Minimalism

Accounts of aesthetic minimalism that take maleness and whiteness as criteria for what is or could be classified as minimalist often exhibit a simultaneous short-sightedness when it comes to tracking the development of minimalist aesthetics across time and media. In the United States, so the story goes, minimalism gained currency in the visual, musical, and plastic arts of the long 1960s. Paintings by Jo Baer, Agnes Martin, and Frank Stella; cinema such as Warhol's Sleep (1964) and Empire (1965); La Monte Young's Trio for Strings (1958) and Terry Riley's In C (1968); and the sculptures of Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and Robert Morris that were exhibited in Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1966 these are the oft-cited foundations of an aesthetic movement spanning genres and forms. But the movement was is more inclusive than this lineage suggests.

In Minimalism: Origins (1993), Edward Strickland identifies minimalist prototypes in, for instance, Barnett Newman's picture Onement I (1948), John Cage's famously quiet composition 4'33" (1952), and Morris's early "untitled" works such as Untitled (Box for Standing), unveiled in 1961.24 This inclusivity extends, moreover, to mediums as apparently disparate as dance and literature. The choreographies of Anna Halprin and, later, Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer have been termed minimalist as much for their being paired with minimalist music (Halprin's productions were accompanied by Riley and Young) as their being "composed of everyday tasks/objects and featuring motion closer to walking than to either ballet, modern dance, or [Merce] Cunningham's mannerism, or based on functional movements like bathing and eating."25 Indeed, in Forti's Huddle, dancers form, detach from, and rejoin a huddle, a choreography that according to Forti depicts "people moving in a way that [is not] stylized," an apparent eschewing of style that is itself stylish, even minimalist.26

Compared to painting, cinema, sculpture, music, and dance, American literary minimalism seems to have arrived relatively late. Raymond Carver, commonly credited with leading the minimalist movement in American short fiction, did not publish his first collection of short stories until 1976; his landmark What We Talk About When We Talk About Love was not published until 1981. But what of influences? Looking back, it is difficult to dismiss the importance of, say, Hemingway on Carver and his minimalist contemporaries such as Frederick Barthelme, Ann Beattie, and Jayne Anne Phillips; in turn, we must acknowledge the influence of Ezra Pound not only on Hemingway but on Imagist poets including H. D. and William Carlos Williams. In his cover letter on a submission by H. D. to Poetry's Harriet Monroe, Pound writes of the "laconic speech of the Imagistes": "Objective no slither direct no excess of adjectives. etc. No metaphors that won't permit examination. It's straight talk straight as the Greek!"27 And what of the influence on indeed, the appropriation by Pound of Chinese and Japanese poetry and poetics? "There is no long poem in chinese [sic]," he writes, confidently. "They hold that if a man can't say what he wants to in 12 lines, he'd better leave it unsaid."28

But just as our accounts of minimalist aesthetics portray a backward-facing short-sightedness in need of remedy by a comprehensive history of minimalist principles, influences, and manifestations, these same accounts only look so far to the future. We know, or think we know, what minimalism was, but what is it now? Accordingly, this cluster seeks the forms, styles, and genres of minimalism as it exists today. Our contributors often although do not exclusively select essays, novels, and poems as their objects of study, taking up texts as various as the works of John Ashbery (Andrew DuBois), Tan Lin (Irene Kim), Jenny Offill (Christina Fogarasi), Julie Otsuka (Jeehyun Lim), and Weike Wang (Annabelle Tseng). In doing so, they rebut the presumptuousness of the roundtable held at Columbia University's 1988 Summer Writers' Festival aimed at "Throwing Dirt on the Grave of Minimalism."29 But our contributors also explore contemporary minimalist manifestations across mediums including dating app Hinge (Shirl Yang), installation art (Wyatt Sarafin), sound art (Jennifer Smart), television (Sadie Barker), and TikTok (Bekah Waalkes).

Comprehensiveness was never our goal for this cluster. Given the evident multiplicity of minimalist manifestations across twenty-first century arts, culture, and lifestyles, how could it have been? As such, a number of twenty-first-century minimalisms will go necessarily unremarked upon, including but not limited to pixel-art indie games such as Toby Fox's Undertale (2015) or Jan Willem Nijman, Kitty Calis, Jukio Kallio, and Domink Johann's Minit (2018), a game in which the player character ventures into and interacts with the world in sixty-second increments; social media and, specifically, the tweet; technological minimalisms of hard- and software; minimalist fashion; or the contemporary drone music of Sunn O))), Boris, or Merzbow. We invite readers to contemplate the past, present, and future of minimalism in all of its forms.

"The death of Minimalism is announced periodically," writes Strickland, "which may be the surest testimonial to its staying power."30 Perhaps. But surely announcements of minimalism's sustenance testify to a similar power. The twelve essays contained in "Minimalisms Now" are just such announcements.


  1. Jura Koncius, "The Tidying Tide: Marie Kondo Effect Hits Sock Drawers and Consignment Stores," Washington Post, January 11, 2019.[]
  2. Marie Kondo, "Konmari is not Minimalism,", accessed February 13, 2023.[]
  3. Grace Elisabeth Lavery, Quaint, Exquisite: Victorian Aesthetics and the Idea of Japan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019), 28.[]
  4. Lavery, x.[]
  5. Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 194.[]
  6. See. e.g. Christina A. León, "Forms of Opacity: Roaches, Blood, and Being Stuck in Xandra Ibarra's Corpus," ASAP/Journal 2, no. 2 (July 31, 2017): 369-94; or Zach Blas, "Opacities: An Introduction," Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 31, no. 2 (September 1, 2016): 149-53.[]
  7. Darlene Clark Hine, "Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West," Signs 14, no. 4 (1989): 916. See also a twentieth anniversary roundtable in Signs organized and introduced by Shoniqua Roach, "(Re)Turning to 'Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women': A Black Feminist Forum on the Culture of Dissemblance," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 45, no. 3 (March 1, 2020): 515-19.[]
  8. Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).[]
  9. Quoted in Xine Yao, Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021), 67.[]
  10. Yao, 67, 9.[]
  11. Yao, 15-6.[]
  12. Yao, 17.[]
  13. N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn (New York: Perennial, 1989), 1. []
  14. Momaday, 83. []
  15. For an alternative account that seeks to read these five as in fact organized by a common principle, but one related to detoxification and environmental anxiety rather than the minimal per se, see Michael Dango, Crisis Style: The Aesthetics of Repair (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2021), chapter 2.[]
  16. Tina Post, Deadpan: The Aesthetics of Black Inexpression (New York: New York University Press, 2023), 71. See John P. Bowles, Adrian Piper: Race, Gender, and Embodiment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).[]
  17. Post, Deadpan: The Aesthetics of Black Inexpression, 23.[]
  18. Post, 23.[]
  19. Post, 73. Post is quoting Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 40.[]
  20. Sunny Xiang, Tonal Intelligence: The Aesthetics of Asian Inscrutability During the Long Cold War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), 33. For an analysis of Asian and Asian American artists who re-appropriate inscrutability, see Vivian L. Huang, Surface Relations: Queer Forms of Asian American Inscrutability (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022).[]
  21. Xiang, Tonal Intelligence: The Aesthetics of Asian Inscrutability During the Long Cold War, 38.[]
  22. Colleen Lye, America's Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).[]
  23. Iyko Day, Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism (Duke University Press, 2016), 8, 193.[]
  24. Edward Strickland, Minimalism: Origins (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993), 9-10.[]
  25. Strickland, 10.[]
  26. Simone Forti, Dance Constructions, MoMA Learning, 1961.[]
  27. Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1971), 174.[]
  28. Quoted in Ming Xie, Ezra Pound and the Appropriation of Chinese Poetry: Cathay, Translation, and Imagism (New York: Routledge, 1999), 9.[]
  29. See Madison Smartt Bell, Mary Gaitskill, Tom Jenks, Stephen Koch, and Meg Wolitzer, "Throwing Dirt on the Grave of Minimalism," Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, no. 14 (1989): 42-61.[]
  30. Strickland, 1.[]

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