In Pursuit of Feeling Nothing
And feeling younger. Plus, early aughts nostalgia and 'reality shifters.'
Normally when I want to feel nothing, I obsessively control: I optimize my routines, become addicted to work, regulate what goes in my body. But last year, after nine months of the pandemic, I took an alternative route to escape—drugs. Normally apprehensive to swallow anything that will have an unpredictable outcome, here I was in the hospital compliantly accepting my nightcap of pills, because I was desperate to to numb out.
The pandemic has exacerbated and accelerated seemingly every trend, but few stand out more to me than our culture of nothingness. The prestige series of ten years ago have now been replaced with ambient television: shows with simple enough stories that we can follow along in the background while we scroll on other screens. “I know it’s bad,” my friend guiltily admits as we gab about Bling Empire on the phone, “but at the end of a long day I just want to chill.” At 13, I was that friend insisting on the documentary at Blockbuster while my friends wanted to rent a rom-com for our sleepover, and yet, even I devoured all the garbage this past year—Emily in Paris, Love Is Blind, Tiger King.
Our desire to numb transcends other screens too—we now have ‘renderporn’ on Instagram: graphically-manufactured images of pretty interiors that don’t actually exist. They project “order and calm,” as Anna Wiener describes, they’re “uncluttered and private; [offering] a fantasy of individual consumption and relaxation.” Whereas ‘cottagecore’ represents a desire to return to nature in response to increasing digitization (more on that here), ‘renderporn’ is all about escaping “the reality of scarcity—monetary and planetary,” says art history professor Lindsay Caplan. When real life becomes too much, we find respite in scrolling through these uncomplicated, idyllic spaces, even if we know they’re fake.
Same goes for the photos of our own lives on social media—increasingly edited and filtered. When was the last time you saw someone appear enthusiastic? We live in the era of the ‘sad girl’: in attempt to express authenticity and “reality”, selfies are natural-looking close-ups, a pouty lip, glazed over eyes. A washed out filter or even better, simply not cleaning your camera phone lens, which mutes the image further. Accumulated, it’s an endless scroll of the same emotionally vacant ‘Instagram Face’.
The technology serves the aesthetic; filters collapse our facial differences into one set of features; TikTok and Instagram algorithms do the work for you so you can consume barely conscious. With so many forces competing for our attention, we surrender and shut down, engaging in what Kyle Chayka calls “a passive kind of engagement, a state of slack-jawed consumption” that Jenny Odell, the author of (fittingly titled) How To Do Nothing, says leads to the “best, most alive parts of ourselves being paved over by a ruthless logic of use.”
The soothing balm of nothingness isn’t just in the media we consume, it’s come to define our entire culture.
“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 and anonymous Airbnbs. This aspiration toward disappearance made luxury synonymous with seeing, hearing, owning and even feeling less,” writes Kyle Chayka.
I see it most in the beauty and wellness industry: the “less is more” approach to skincare; sensory deprivation tanks and restorative yoga; streamlined nutrition in the form of personalized vitamin subscriptions and liquid meals like Soylent. Our overstimulated minds want easy and efficiency, but we also crave an escape.
Look no further than two of our fastest growing markets—sleep and CBD. “A good night’s rest is the new self-care,” I often write in my sleep stories, while CBD-infused drinks are the panacea for the sober-curious who respond to the chaos by controlling their bodies. We see it too in the simple typography and neutrality of ‘bland brands’ like Uniqlo and in the cozy, monochrome loungewear they sell; as well as the ‘generic authentic’ look of marble countertops and pastel accents in home design.
In the hyper-stimulated before times, when we all chased productivity and busyness, numbing out didn’t seem so all-consuming or harmful. At worst, it was a loss of agency and individualism masked as efficiency (think—minimalist apartments, meal delivery). But locked up in our homes, this air of nothingness takes on a heavier weight. It feels like “wading through something thicker than water, maybe a tar pit.” The stress can manifest as a panic attack or insomnia, but more often it “feels like nothing at all.” The internet has given it a name, inspired by the hollow nature of Sims characters—“smooth brain.”
What happens when too many of our brains smooth out? Next week, I get into the consequences and make the case for rebooting.
Following up to last week’s post on burnout…
🔥 Haley Nahman’s critique of ‘languishing’ is so on point.
“Every day we’re offered new words for what we’re going through by corporate media, along with new solutions. We become so inured to the strictures of capitalism we forget they’re all up for debate. The result is a political and media apparatus that continually emphasizes individual actions and market-based solutions over preventative, structural change.”
“Apps, hacks, and tricks will not save us. We may all languish from time to time, but a languishing America, or a languishing world, needs more than ‘Sunday dinner gratitude’.”
💼 I’m not surprised the burnout generation has romanticized quitting.
“Today, boldly ditching your job is seen as a radical form of self-care. It’s not only healthy but brave — even aspirational,” writes Katie Heaney. Why? Perhaps because ‘We’ve become ‘achievement-subjects’ rather than ‘obedience-subjects’.”
🥑 I’m making my way through The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya the Millennial and loving every word. What is ‘premium mediocre’? It’s bicoastal elites, and the entire country of France. It’s as Meghan Palmer describes, “partaking in the theatrics of a fancy lifestyle while mostly treading water, all while believing that meritocracy exists while waiting in the wings for your chance to jump ship into a more secure lifestyle (that may never come).”
💸 But not all millennials are the same.
🤳 How social media will make this third Palestinian intifada different.
🙅🏻♀️ Yes, mispronouncing someone’s name is a micro-aggression.
🤔 But was that racism?
👭 Turns out I’m not the only one revisiting Gilmore Girls during the pandemic. “Every business is local, and every business survives. It’s always sunny in Stars Hollow, unless it snows, and then it’s magical,” writes Sarah Wildman.
✨ Our culture of nothingness thrives on vibes.
“Vibes are a medium for feeling, the kind of abstract understanding that comes before words put a name to experience,” writes Kyle Chayka. “If tightly associated with a product or company, a vibe can become a kind of free-floating commercial, including or alienating audiences based on their tastes.”
🛒 I miss NYC grocery stores, and for once I’m not referring to TJs.
🥟 I’ll settle for an imaginary visit to H-Mart—the Asian supermarket that’s been “a boon for second- and third-generation Korean Americans, including thousands of Korean-born adoptees raised by white American parents, who ‘want to find some sort of connection to the food of their families’,” writes Ligaya Mishan.
🍑 Maybe my fetish for grocery shopping just means I’m horny.
👯♀️ What the new roaring twenties will be like. “In the New Roaring Twenties, the ultimate form of self-love will be starting a Substack.”
If I’m going to confess to watching a low-brow show, I guess a newsletter on our obsession with escapism would be the place to do it. I’m still an avid prestige series-type, but I haven’t been immune to ambient television either.
My latest background show? Laguna Beach. It’s the ultimate smooth-brain-soother. 15 years since watching and I still can’t explain the intricacies of the LC-Stephen-Kristen love triangle, nor can I tell you who all the random people are in the later seasons, but it’s just so comforting to have on.
Hear me out:
1) THE SOUNDTRACK. Think, one-hit-wonders you’ve forgotten mixed with emo indie classics, sprinkled with outdated slang like “dunzo.”
2) THE OUTFITS. Hollister tanks, ruffled mini-skirts and frumpy flip-fops—oh my!
Ok but my actual recommendation for a low-stakes, smooth-brain watch: Younger. The premise? 40-year-old single mom Liza pretends to be in her twenties to get back into the cutthroat publishing world after her daughter leaves the nest. It *lightly* tackles ageism and feminism, but really I’m watching for the rom-com escapism, and just to revel in an insecure older woman pursuing her dreams in the bustling Manhattan of the Before Times. It appeals to all my cravings for nostalgia—it even stars Hilary Duff. (I’m noticing a through-line from Laguna here beyond the ‘Coming Clean’ connection… both shows are about clinging onto your youth. Am I becoming an old woman!?).
Pursuing the feeling of nothing might look like edibles and sensory deprivation tanks for some. But teenagers have a different strategy: shifting reality. It’s a form of meditation where you imagine another world—complete with a plot and characters—until you fall asleep, and in that sleep, you enter the reality you’ve scripted. Think, intentional daydreaming.
These “shifters” have labels for our different states of consciousness—like ‘CR’ for current reality and ‘DR’ for dream reality. And they get pretty detailed about their imaginary universes, often borrowing from Harry Potter, Twilight, anime, etc.
This episode of The Cut podcast, takes you along for the journey of an older millennial, the show’s producer B.A. Parker, trying it out.
“It didn’t cost anything, wasn’t illegal. It felt like these kids had found a cheap code by escaping through their own minds. I wanted what they had,” Parker says.
I wish I had the mental willpower and imagination to do this. If you could shift reality, where would you go?