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How Nothingness Became Everything We Wanted

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In 2019, I developed a habit of indulging in nothingness. Overwhelmed by social media notifications, news headlines, political crises, abnormal weather patterns and the constant sense of looming cataclysm that was a defining characteristic of that time — even before the world was, in fact, upended by a pandemic — I decided to try out sensory deprivation. A forced, total unplugging inside a sealed tank sounded deeply appealing.

At the time, the sensory-deprivation industry was booming. There were an estimated 500 “float spas” in North America, and dozens of new ones were being built, according to the 2019 State of the Float Industry Report, just as likely to pop up on dense city blocks as in suburban strip malls. Like many wellness trends, floating combines tangible physical benefits with nebulous mental ones, pitched to prey upon our collective anxiety. It promises faster muscle recovery, a calmer nervous system and heightened creativity — all this in exchange for erasing your existence for an hour or two. The shallow Epsom-salted water buoys your body like a fishing-lure bob, removing the need to think about your corporeal presence at all. Perhaps most important, it’s impossible to hold your phone while immersed.

I scheduled an appointment for myself at Soulex, a float spa near my home in Washington, where a 60-minute session runs $145. It’s expensive but less dear when you consider that Soulex’s machines, courtesy of a Hungarian designer who makes them look like giant Apple products, cost upward of $30,000 each. Soulex’s trim co-owner and art director, Dariush Vaziri, whose glowing skin I hoped might be an ancillary benefit of Epsom exposure, welcomed me to the clean, monochrome lobby, decorated with his own minimalist paintings. Local political consultants were frequent customers, he told me. “This is just a respite from all this craziness in their lives.”

He guided me to a little tiled room with a shower and a rounded white pod, about twice the size of a bathtub. Battling claustrophobia, I stripped, washed, got in and shut the lid. While floating in the dark, I was fully relaxed for the first time in what felt like years. The water was a warm embrace from the void — a little death, as a treat. I scheduled another appointment on my way out. When I left the spa, I blinked at the bright sun and felt as if I had slept for eight hours. On the nights that followed my continued sessions, my dreams were always deep and strange.

There are moments when it feels as though the universe is trying to send you a message, the vibration of a particular wavelength driving a possibly justified paranoia. Signs of a culture-wide quest for self-obliteration appeared everywhere in the time after my first float. I walked by an exercise studio whose sandwich board commanded me to “Log out. Shut down. Do yoga.” REI marketed a garment that “Feels like nothing. And that means everything.” In a January 2020 column about omnipresent noise-canceling headphones and the desire to block out our surroundings with constant sound, The Economist argued, “The shared world is increasingly intolerable.” Friends were picking up the paperback of Ottessa Moshfegh’s best-selling 2018 novel “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” about a young woman’s drugging herself to sleep as much as possible in order to emerge into the world anew. “When did staying in become the new going out?” asked a 2020 ad for Cox internet I saw during the Super Bowl, depicting a family frolicking in their living room wearing virtual-reality goggles, in an eerie precursor of what was just around the corner.

For years, an aesthetic mode of nothingness has been ascendant — a literally nihilistic attitude visible in all realms of culture, one intent on the destruction of extraneity in all its forms, up to and including noise, decoration, possessions, identities and face-to-face interaction. Over the past decade, American consumers have glamorized the pursuit of expensive nothing in the form of emptied-out spaces like the open-floor plans of start-up offices, austere loft-condo buildings and anonymous Airbnbs. Minimalism from the Marie Kondo school advocated a jettisoning of possessions that left followers with empty white walls. This aspiration toward disappearance made luxury synonymous with seeing, hearing, owning and even feeling less.

Then, in March 2020, much of our lives in the outside world that had been so agitating ground to a halt as the first round of coronavirus lockdown hit the United States. Alongside so much tragedy and despair, mass quarantine has represented a final fulfillment of the pursuit of nothingness, particularly for the privileged classes who could adapt to it in such relative comfort, sunk back into the couch cushions of spare country houses, equipped with grocery deliveries, Netflix shows and livestreaming exercise classes. This interregnum has often felt to me like an all-encompassing, full-time session of sensory deprivation. Quarantine has been widely regarded as a radical break in our daily lives and the ways we interact with the world, but in truth it’s simply an overdose of the indulgences a certain segment of the population was dabbling in already. We’re a little like kids caught with a cigarette, forced to smoke a whole pack at once.

This obsession with absence, the intentional erasure of self and surroundings, is the apotheosis of what I’ve come to think of as a culture of negation: a body of cultural output, from material goods to entertainment franchises to lifestyle fads, that evinces a desire to reject the overstimulation that defines contemporary existence. This retreat, which took hold in the decade before the pandemic, betrays a grim undercurrent: a deepening failure of optimism in the possibilities of our future, a disillusionment that Covid-19 and its economic crisis have only intensified. It’s as if we want to get rid of everything in advance, including our expectations, so that we won’t have anything left to lose.

This desire for nothingness reaches its most literal manifestation in the sensory-deprivation fad, but it can be found in more subtle forms elsewhere: the omnipresent decorative succulents capable of surviving neglect; the gently textured wabi-sabi ceramics that provide an aspirational hobby for the Instagram generation; functionalist beige monochrome outfits from Everlane or Uniqlo; the clingy softness of athleisure and cashmere sweatpants, which have sold out during the pandemic. Elaborate skin-care routines involving pale layers of moisturizers successively shellacked over the body provide almost a literal barrier — we seal ourselves inside ourselves. The late-2010s panacea of CBD is like a mental moisturizer. It promises not the blissed THC haze of the stoner (too uncontrolled, too many thoughts) but the psychological equivalent of white noise, dampening anything negative. A CBD-infused sparkling water introduced in late 2018 named Recess, perhaps the most millennial product ever invented, advertises itself as “an antidote to modern times.” Drink a $5 can, it promises, and you will feel nothing but a collapse into the ambient rainbow haze of its branding.

Alongside so much tragedy and despair, mass quarantine has represented a final fulfillment of the pursuit of nothingness, particularly for the privileged classes who could adapt to it in such relative comfort.Credit…Illustration by Justin Metz

The millennial-yuppie cohort, a group I count myself as a member of, has been characterized as preferring experiences over things, and living in cities where extra space comes at a premium, a confluence of trends that has fostered an endless parade of e-commerce brands promising the last X you’ll ever have to buy: hoodies, water bottles, bookshelves. But some of the most discussed products to come out of the last few years go one step beyond that, offering to act as replacements of themselves, simulacra. With its optimized nutrient formula, liquid Soylent tried to supplant food, posing eating primarily as a problem to be solved to get back to scrolling. Vapes went from niche to mass as a way to avoid the dangers of cigarettes and smoke; the wan mechanical glow and industrial steam cloud of Juuls became updated symbols of cool, vaping’s medical risks notwithstanding. The omnipresent beverage of the summer of 2019, White Claw, sold alcohol without the stigma of beer or liquor, just the anodyne veneer of fruit-flavored seltzer in skinny white cans. A sense of virtue is intermingled with these products’ falseness; if it’s not the real thing, you don’t have to feel guilty about it.

The negative spirit of the moment also shows up in memes, the internet’s equivalent of Pompeian graffiti, preserved signs of the incipient pandemic apocalypse and artifacts of its wake. “I resent my own humanity and don’t feel anything real anymore,” one “starter pack” meme reads above a collage of White Claw, Xanax, vapes, succulents and streaming-platform logos. “I’m hustling so I can disappear” is emblazoned above a photo of a cabin hidden in dense woods. “Smooth brain” — as slang, rather than lissencephaly, the medical disorder — was used to describe Trumpian delusion but gradually came to mean an ideal state of empty-mindedness, presented as a point of pride. It’s an appealing prospect, letting reality just slide off your skull. A slew of tweets compared quarantine to living in the liquid-filled pods where humans are stored in “The Matrix,” favoring the pod. Social media’s mantra “lol nothing matters” was elevated to religion, the 21st century’s efficient, ironized update to existentialism. Sartre thought action gives authentic meaning to the self, but these days we know — or fear — that doesn’t count for much anyway.

Our consumption habits were in some ways our last refuge during the disintegration of life as we knew it amid the pandemic. The spring brought an era of quarantine consumerism, the feathering of our respective nests to a state of benumbed comfort enabled by essential workers, whose lives were valued less than the continued flow of Amazon boxes.

The emotional underpinnings of this economy have been best theorized by Venkatesh Rao, a 46-year-old writer and business consultant, who has become something of a negative futurist, a thinkfluencer’s thinkfluencer. Rao got his Ph.D. in 2003 in systems theory from the University of Michigan, but in 2007 he founded a blog called Ribbonfarm, which has gained a reputation for seeding ideas that become common wisdom months or years later. In a series of popular blog posts beginning in March 2019, he prophetically described the inclination to hole up at home with Netflix binges, video games and Seamless deliveries as “domestic cozy”: “a pre-emptive retreat from worldly affairs for a generation that, quite understandably, thinks the public sphere is falling apart.”

“The world looks forbiddingly difficult to break into today,” he continued. “More to the point, it increasingly does not seem worth the effort.” Soon, the public sphere disintegrated anyway.

Before the pandemic, the malaise that defined our culture was periodically broken by huge protests, acts of physical solidarity. The Trump presidency started with the Women’s March and proceeded to provoke a series of mass public outcries, against the travel ban, the border wall, the acquittal of his first impeachment and Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. And despite quarantine, in May 2020, George Floyd’s killing by the police started a movement across the U.S. and around the world. A culture emerged out of these protests, too, as if they reminded us that we could help one another, using technologies new and old. There were millions of dollars raised to support activism via GoFundMe and other crowdfunding sites, but also mutual-aid societies organized by neighborhood, restaurants cooking meals for essential workers and community fridges stocked with free food — improvised, haphazard and decentralized experiments.

This communal, direct action seemed like a glimpse of the culture of negation’s hard-to-find opposite: invigorating and sometimes uncomfortable, but not a distraction or a suppressant. And yet these moments of tumult also inspire retreat. Climate change, technological upheaval, racism, inequality — the churn of history, which shows no signs of stopping — these all make it easy to instead slip into the welcoming void of the content stream. Numbness beckons when life is difficult, when problems seem insurmountable, when there is so much to mourn.

Many opt to simply stay home, pursuing as uncomplicated and swaddled a life as possible, surrounded by things that feel if not good then at least neutral. “It’s not pure subtraction of public sensations; it’s the addition of private sensation,” Rao told me over the phone, long before the pandemic. “Hot cocoa, gravity blankets, sensory deprivation.” We create an acceptable layer between our internal and external environments, a barrier that’s still under our control even as the outside world grows increasingly chaotic. “It’s an essentially defensive posture,” he said, “an instinctive adaptive response.”

It’s no surprise we yearn for comforting private sensation. The social atomization that Robert D. Putnam outlined in 2000 in “Bowling Alone,” which he blamed in part on television and the internet, has been both amplified and smoothed over by the rise of social media. These communication technologies work like a placebo, providing a hollow version of the connection we’re missing. All of a sudden, at the outset of the pandemic, the virtual was all we had — not quite the disappearance that was wished for. Zoom and FaceTime provided proxies for any previous social routines: We talked, endured sad happy hours, played games and hosted birthdays over video chat like so many astronauts marooned in separate space stations. Nintendo’s life-simulation video game “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” in which players build and share twee island towns populated by animal villagers, became the year’s surprise hit. Peloton and Mirror, two companies offering livestreamed gym classes via expensive equipment, saw booms in sales as physical yoga studios went out of business. The fetish for the artisanal, the small and local, so culturally dominant after the last recession, gave way to scalable, anonymous, frictionless solutions that only increased the fortunes of billionaires like Jeff Bezos, intensifying our vast inequality.

The very businesses and services that sustain coziness further entrench us in a bifurcated economy fueled by data surveillance and cheap, precarious labor. Software was already eating the world, as the investor Marc Andreessen’s 2011 prediction ran, and we let it keep gorging. Months of semi-quarantine offered few other options. All of life’s randomness and surprise were replaced by smooth, predesigned corporate systems and commodified, automated feeds through which we received the next thing to consume, inducing one of the most disturbing psychic features of 2020: that a substantial portion of the population could float on in a state of lulled passivity, even in the middle of a global disaster, thanks to those who could not.

Perhaps we don’t truly want the culture of negation. There’s plenty of evidence that not everyone acquiesces to its numbness, from the intentional agitation of the band 100 gecs to the incisive investigations of the sensual by novelists like Garth Greenwell and Bryan Washington. But it does serve a purpose, acting as an effective salve for the very problems that these atomizing platforms create, the overflow of targeted information and stimulation. We turn unremarkable albums into think-piece fodder and recommend terrible reality-television shows to our friends because they recognize and soothe our anxiety; they act as anesthetics more than art. And now, in a very anxious time, it’s even harder to find what doesn’t conform. As theaters, art galleries, opera houses, symphonies, cinemas, poetry readings, comedy clubs and bookstores all evaporated in the pandemic, the last thing left seemed to be streaming video, broadcast through the largely unregulated, for-profit digital platforms that now have a monopoly on our housebound attention and connection.

Perhaps we don’t truly want the culture of negation.Credit…Illustration by Justin Metz

In quarantine, the home pages of streaming services became our cultural glue, providing entertainment that formed our sole opportunity for collective experience — we watched “Tiger King” because everyone else was, so it was something to talk about besides the obvious. At the beginning of 2020, certain reality shows had turned isolation into entertainment in an unknowing foretaste of the immediate future. “The Circle” trapped contestants inside well-furnished apartments and made them communicate only via a private social network, competing to become the most virtually popular, while “Love Is Blind” had couples dating without being able to see each other. Cast members were placed in pairs of closed pods, outfitted with couches, blankets and their own requested brands of booze and snacks. All they could do was chat with one other person at a time on the opposite side of an opaque wall via a speaker system. The pods looked like living-room-size sensory-deprivation tanks, dim, plush and soundproof, decorated in soothing colors in order to promote focus on the unseen voice.

The culture of negation inspires a taste for nothingness and glorifies numbness. Much of recent pop music sounds as if it’s coming through layers of heavy gauze, maybe a consequence of the addictive anti-anxiety drug of choice, Xanax. Billie Eilish’s fuzzily lilting 2019 track “Xanny” mourns that her friends “just keep doing nothing/too intoxicated to be scared.” The biggest stars are the unhappiest, even in their excess. Drake is all depressive lounge beats, mounting excuses for not showing up, constantly in a state of bemused anhedonia. In music as well as appearance, the Weeknd casts himself as bent on glossy self-destruction, like a sports-car crash personified. Frank Ocean croons to himself in autotune and releases music only rarely. Phoebe Bridgers, the indie-music breakout of 2020, transmutes her personal angst into downbeat songs accentuated by the self-consciously intimate stream of depression posts on her public Instagram account. One of her side projects is called Better Oblivion Community Center.

No one seems to want anything; there is no enthusiasm for desire in this culture, only the wish that we could give it up. It’s an almost Buddhist rush toward selflessness with the addition of American competition and our habit of overdose: as much obliteration as possible. In the words of an enormous piece of graffiti I spotted during a quarantine drive past Philadelphia: “Make America nothing again.” The statement contains a tacit admission of guilt — you can’t blame something that doesn’t exist.

There is a budding fetish for “dissociation,” a word stretched far beyond its clinical origins and used to describe a generalized state of being in the 2010s. But if you really want to dissociate, you can do so with ketamine, the veterinary anesthetic turned recreational club accessory turned therapeutic medicine. The drug targets multiple receptors in the brain and can cause hallucinations as well as euphoria in a general loss of self; the drug encyclopedia Erowid describes a “fragmentation of reality.” Ketamine is now presented as a tool for treating depression or even a form of self-care: The start-up Mindbloom promotes low doses as a way to “achieve the clarity you need to live the life you deserve,” the same way LSD has turned from revolutionary psychedelic to productivity hack in microdose form.

In the HBO television show “Industry,” released in late 2020, Gen Z-ish banking interns in London consume nosefuls of ketamine with the casualness of vitamin supplements, often in the office. The show zooms in on the faces of these aspiring members of the economic elite, but their expressions are usually frozen into affectless flatness, eyes wide, staring at nothing, glamorously disconnected. I couldn’t tell whether it was a side effect of the drugs or just the characters’ slow realization that their individuality and sensual lives would be ground down until they, too, become cogs in the machine of global capital. The show suggests it’s the state they hope to reach.

“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” Fredric Jameson wrote. The line is such common wisdom that even its originator was paraphrasing it from some uncited source. Our imaginations, after all, are limited by the platforms that dominate the distribution of culture; we feel more than ever that we’re in control of these streams of content, but in reality we are in thrall to the rules and patterns they create. Microtrends rise and fall daily, but only within the bounds of the digital spaces, like TikTok and Twitter, where they exist — what stays consistent is the mode of delivery, and the sale of your data. Right now, counterculture glorifies passive numbness, just as corporate structures reinforce and profit from it. Any alternative ideology or stylistic innovation, like those of the hippies and punks of decades past, is instantly integrated into the commercial mainstream by the algorithmic feeds of the enormous social networks that establish mass taste. Positions of resistance are neutralized. Ennui itself is a brand: In December, Pantone announced two colors of the year for 2021; the first was Ultimate Gray.

History keeps happening, though we might prefer it not to: This month, Trumpian fanatics stormed the Capitol in an organized display of menace that could have resulted in many more than five deaths. The president was then impeached for an unprecedented second time, an act that seemed to only highlight its own futility. If history allows it, the lie that everything is normal and the patriotic thing to do is watch Netflix at home seems primed to set in once more. The briefly optimistic election of Joseph R. Biden Jr. in November followed a boring campaign based on the promise of boredom itself: Voters wouldn’t have to think so much about their next president. Our unseen horizon is a full vaccination campaign that is floundering at its outset, suggesting another year of quarantine with the depressing addendum that now we’re used to it.

My local float spa has managed to reopen, but I have felt no need to return. Comforting nothingness would no more be a break from routine than a quiet evening at home. Still, I think about my appointments often and wonder what they meant.

The neuroscientist John C. Lilly invented the device in the 1950s while working as a government scientist. He wanted to find a way of testing if the self or consciousness still existed in the absence of sensation: When all input is blocked, what is left? Lilly built tanks that he used personally, with air piped into diving helmets. The self persisted, of course, but sensory deprivation helps to break it down, Lilly found, as you are forced to realize that the mind is separate from what you feel, a shortcut to disciplined meditation or psychoanalysis. In later years, Lilly began taking LSD and ketamine while floating, befriending Timothy Leary and taking part in ’60s psychedelia. After one session’s epiphany, he started to believe he was being controlled by aliens who meant for him to elevate human consciousness, in order to prevent destructive conflict.

Lilly left his government position, fled the formal science community and opened an institute to study dolphin intelligence in the Caribbean (dolphins are floating all the time). He died in 2001. Meanwhile, floating survived the decades as a word-of-mouth secret with home tanks built and shared by devotees. It was made infamous in the 1980 movie “Altered States,” which portrays the experience as a violent psychic break enabling time travel.

Despite their origins, float tanks have become another adaptation to reality rather than an escape from it, offering a faddish business plan or a way to obviate the need for rest in a society that can’t tolerate inefficiency. Even this subversive technique turned into a self-soothing device, like a nail salon or CrossFit gym. “Now it’s optimizing your body and mind as a competitive advantage,” the Montreal-based video artist and floating fan Amanda Vincelli told me. “It’s a bit sad.” Nothingness has led nowhere; sensory deprivation was subsumed and then extruded as a mirror image of itself, emptied of its original meaning — negated.

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