I wrote last time about the political implications of nostalgia. Watching graduates parading through the dross of Wolverhampton with their parents after graduation reminded me of a further, related thought I’d had before: dressing up is another version of this nostalgia, another form of self-hate and escapism.
There are many situations where we dress up, if we stretch the definition of dressing up: the existence of “office wear” illustrates my point. Ann Summers shops provide the uniform for an assumption of what adventurous lovers wear. Replica football strips fulfil the broken dreams of many football fans and erstwhile clan warriors. Smart casual shirts for men, cocktail dresses for women fulfil the dress code for “sophistication”. They each have socially acceptable and unacceptable times and places but in essence, they’re fancy dress.
There maybe a big difference between dressing up as a royalist musketeer in a reenactment of the Battle of Edge hill, wearing a graduation gown and mortar board through the drab and empty streets of failed industrial cities, and wearing a 19th century top coat and tails down the aisle of a 14th century church in 21st century England. But what they all have in common is anachronism: because contemporary times – where we value diversity, equality, tolerance and democracy, for example, just doesn’t have the right cut. We prefer to dress up and celebrate fashions of a time when slavery was legal and it was fine to beat children. This is the way of nostalgia: the arbitrary celebration of “the past” or “heritage” without critical judgement, whilst at the same time critically judging the present (by trying to mask or ignore it).
In a way it’s similar to the floating carrier bag scene in American Beauty. There is no beauty in a floating carrier bag, but it is a sign of desperation with the brutality of late modern capitalism that we have been reduced to finding beauty where there is none. I’m sure holocaust survivors managed to stay sane by doing the same thing.
There is little beauty in late modern capitalism. Instead we choose to pretend there is by dressing up.
Cities are the concentration of capital around dense networks of trade. In very simple terms, the more frequent the transactions, the taller the buildings. All transactions take place in physical space: digital trade will involve a customer, a supplier and many interactions in between, all with a physical presence somewhere. “Cyberspace” is less ether, more a warehouse on motorway junction. So alien is the concept to human minds and so rapidly has the digital economy swamped our capacity to understand it, we would rather imagine Keanu Reaves hopping across grids of blue light.
Urban density is a visible manifestation of capital. It diminishes until it becomes peri-urban greenbelt, dog kennels, horse riding schools and sports clubs before the profits from agriculture are sufficient to justify its retention as farmland.
Capital in the 21st century loves shiny buildings, its medieval hilltop fortresses or monasteries. Outside the edges, are the modern equivalent of the hovels of those eking out a living from the scraps – remember the monastery in the 1986 film of The Name of the Rose. It is a concrete, glass and steel pyramid of the debt that has given us the illusion of rising living standards: capitalists in the penthouses, owning the debt of the desperate edge dwellers eager to get inside the gates far below.
This is a typical sight in a typical city: the fortress where capital is concentrated and its edge, beyond which lies dereliction: holes left fallow waiting until the potential rewards are great enough and secure enough to de-risk investment and redevelop it. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of these edge spaces politely wait and suffer the social consequences, unaware of the parasitic nature of the debt that created the hole, and welcome its redevelopment with yet more exclusionary uses that feed their misery: more consumption and regressive sales taxes using borrowed money, the promotion of luxury and individualism, the slave-ships of offices for “knowledge workers”.