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Back to the Future

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By William Deresiewicz


 

It’s funny, but it’s also touching—this culture of nostalgia that we’ve thrown ourselves into, this hipster-Bobo, artisanal-pickle, craft-distillery, organic-farm, urban-homestead, do-it-yourself culture. Take a step back and it looks ridiculous, which is why Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein have been able to send it up so wickedly on Portlandia. Take another step back, though—everybody studiously pretending to be living in the 1890s, as the show put it in a recent sketch—and it’s immensely poignant in its wishfulness and innocence. Immensely human, too, because we’ve been doing this sort of thing pretty much since the industrial age began, and certainly since the middle of the 19th century.

I’m thinking of the Arts and Crafts movement, to which the present trend bears so much similarity. With William Morris as its chief exponent, that movement also rejected mass manufacture and the aesthetics of the machine, sought to return to traditional methods of handcraft, bygone styles, and the ethos of the artisan, with all that that implied not only visually but also socially and economically. (As usual, an era we’re nostalgic for now—the 1890s were the heyday of the movement—was nostalgic in turn for an earlier era still.) If Arts and Crafts was a response to the industrialization of manufacture in the 19th century, our own crafts movement can be seen as a response to the industrialization of the home after the Second World War. The 1950s and ’60s saw the creation of what we might refer to as the mechanized middle class. It was an age that eroticized the future. It was the Space Age, and we were all going to live like astronauts in our domestic capsules. Frozen foods, powdered foods, vacuum-packed foods; dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, microwaves. It was a time that was bidding goodbye to the past, and the methods of the past, and it was also the very last moment that industrialization could proceed with a clear conscience.

By the ’60s, and increasingly in the ’70s, people were beginning to ask two questions: can we go on like this, and do we want to? Our own moment—its environmentalism, its traditionalism—descends from that one. Now we eroticize the past, want to learn again what we’ve forgotten, leap over our parents to our imagined or archetypal grandparents—jar, compost, keep chickens and bees, make things instead of buying them or at least buy them from the people who’ve made them. There is not only something cultural here—as well as understandable, the fruits of mass production being what they are—there seems to be something instinctual. The most popular hobbies have long been cooking, gardening, hunting, and fishing, as if all we really wanted was to go back before the machine. Morris was John Ruskin’s disciple, and Ruskin was William Wordsworth’s—a continuity of response that stretches back almost to the beginning of industrialization.

But over our new crafts movement, with its anti-technological instincts, some unexamined questions hover. How much are we really going to undo the technological age? How much can we undo? And beneath it all, how much do we want to undo? What’s our vision of this future that we want so badly to resemble the past? How does our hatred of some machines consort with our love of others (the ones with screens)? How many machines would we need to keep ourselves in beehives and butter churns? Do we really want economies that are entirely local, and what are we willing to give up (it would have to be an enormous amount, it seems to me) to have them? These are not rhetorical questions, and I am not asking them in a spirit of mockery. But they are ones the moment seems to call for.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.


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