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.
I lazily assumed nostalgia was a yearning for the past, evoked during commemorations, re-enactments, restorations, conservation or just remembering. But it’s more sinister than that. In its worst form, it’s cultural colonialism – the privileging of a cultural moment that was racist, sexist or just different to now. It says “modern life is rubbish”. Whilst modern life may well be rubbish, it’s rubbish not because it’s modern. It’s the only life we have. This is important – the vote to leave the EU, the election of Donald Trump, the potential election of Marine Le Pen seem to me to be expressions of the zeitgeist: modern life is rubbish, and what we need is to do things like we did in the 1950s when women were women, men were men, there was no homosexuality or immigration. Crucially it was also a time when jobs were jobs, and technology was driving economic growth and incomes.
Space has an opportunity cost. A building in one spot means something else can’t go in the same spot. Attention works the same way: despite our pretence that multi-tasking is efficient, our attention given to Downton Abbey can’t be given to something or someone else at the same time. This is what I mean by the privileging of a cultural moment.
Let’s take Listed Buildings. A building (or more often, actually just a facade) is listed. This prevents the redevelopment of the Listed aspects without the consent of the local planning authority. It attempts to fix a point in time in perpetuity. But what about what existed before the building? What about the possibility to build something even better in the future?
Landowners know too well the economic impossibility this puts them in. The world, meanwhile, has moved on. There are now regulations for any redevelopment to comply with. Thankfully, buildings are safer, more accessible, more energy-efficient. But often those are entirely incompatible with the listed building. So they pay someone to torch the building in the night.
The local community is outraged and demands justice. And yet it was the same community that demanded and benefitted from the same regulations that drove the owner to their desperate act in the first place. Which is more important to them? Money talks – we are all complicit.
Today I saw a performance of a piece of music called The Way of a Monarch by Ivor McGregor. The concert notes by the composer that describe the piece is inspired by “the extraordinary story of this unusual monarch” (Charles II). It then mentions “Cromwell’s puritan interregnum” that had shut down many of the performing arts. Another privileging of a moment: what had driven thousands of men to revolt against Charles’s father in the first place? Setting aside the ambivalence the British have to their revolution, this seemingly neutral position is deeply reactionary. Cromwell may well have been a despot, but so was Charles I, James I, James II and the whole lot of them. In an exercise in change management, Cromwell had it pretty tough and failed – that doesn’t mean that the solution is to simply celebrate the status quo and all of its own injustices.
Humans crave narrative, plot and characters. The heritage industry has a raw deal trying to interpret social history in stately homes that were built by particular families in particular circumstances and the wealth of extant unique artefacts connected to them. In contrast the lives of the servants were mundane, everday and typical. I hear very few people who proudly boast of descendants who were domestic servants or labourers. There are many reasons why this is (most probably because our descendants weren’t defined by a single “career” – which is a more modern and bourgeois invention. Pre-industrial work was piecemeal, itinerant and casual), but it demonstrates our inability to accept plurality and complexity.
Let’s try and overcome this inability by recognising that Downton Abbey, Meet the Midwife, any other costume drama, every conserved or restored facade, every blue plaque and every fashion revival displaces something else – and that this displacement is a political one. It says that one is more important that all the others that could exist in its place either in the past, present or future.
“I thought about getting you a really expensive present whilst I was shopping on Oxford Street last week. But then I realised it’s the thought that counts, so I didn’t bother.”
I would have loved to have had the guts to get away with that.
When I see dog turds tied up in little plastic bags in trees, it’s as if someone has done exactly that. “It’s the thought that counts – you take this home, shitpicker!”
This is what they think whilst they carefully tie the bag of turd to the nearest tree to the crime scene:
“I have my mock Tudor-fronted pseudo manor on a cul-de-sac with a mortgage I can’t really afford, with my fortified leylandii hedge and my carriage – and so I have my hounds.
I exercise my hounds around my extensive estate, which, if I shut my eyes whenever any shitpickers walk past, I can pretend is all mine. But I am an ethical employer, so I don’t want any servants.
Considering that I have a Bachelors of Arts (hons), and am a Professional, it really is inefficient for a person of my social standing to carry the stools of my hound. There are people that I pay for through my taxes to do that. Council people. I provide them gainful employment as shitpickers. Maybe if they work hard picking up my dog’s turds, they can end up like me one day. Besides, it’s really not a good look to be seen carrying bags of shit. Someone else can do that.
I know that dog excrement is foul and that it is such a pain to tread in it. So I have picked it up and put it in a bag and I tie it to this tree so that one day the Council people will pick it up. It’s the thought that counts.”
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”.
We regularly and willingly suspend our disbelief. Keeping one ironic eye on the reality of Peaky Blinders and a critical eye on its artifice, we manage to sensibly consume a host of other mainstream culture: Premier League football matches, meals in Italian restaurants, crime novels – even the theatre of weddings, work and taxes. But despite the apparent maturity in our knowing nods at the appropriate cues, a script that is too frugal, chopped up with the incoherence of everyday speech, just wouldn’t cut it as escapism. Imagine a film dialogue based entirely on transcripts of real speech uttered by real people in real situations: “erm, pass me the erm. That thing. Ta.” Yet how often does the pub quiz pedant cry “but no-one would ever say that”?
The art of John Salt is an interesting example of our insistence on the real in art – but not too real. A painting that looks just like a photograph may as well be a photograph – but the crowds flood in to see his paintings nevertheless. In the meantime, who cares about printed photographs? The inference is that we consider paintings to be real art. A computer-generated film score, no matter how moving, how appropriate, how tender, wouldn’t be real art in the way a John Williams score would be. Right?
Now take fake news. We regularly and willingly suspend our disbelief in the consumption of a whole diet of mainstream culture, including “the news”. We know that news programmes are produced, scripted, edited – we see real employees wandering around the real studio in the background, doing real work. Maybe they’re just buying stuff on Amazon in their worktime, paid for by your licence fee. We know that stories are filmed using cameras and microphones. We know that some things are missed out, missed altogether or avoided. We knew there are different news shows on different channels with different styles, content, running orders and language. We know all this. We know it when we half-read and half-listen to it in the background, when we misunderstand it, when we misappropriate it three days later to make small talk in the corridor at work. By this time, all news is fake news.
We trust, as always, our rules of thumb rather than our supposed faith in knowledge, reason, science and repeatable results that puts us above the barbarians and the peasants. Life’s too short to check facts: wouldn’t that be dull? We have sources we respect. Maybe our parents watched Channel 4 news when we were younger. Maybe you just agree with most of The Guardian so it must be right: its values are miraculously coterminous with your own – doesn’t it feel eerie? Yet even after decades of fake news, we suddenly started jumping up and down about it at the tail end of 2016 and used it to beat free speech.
Fake news is the British oblivious to genocide in Australia, or of the bombing raids on Germany in 1944 to 1945, or to the epidemic of heart disease caused by the air pollution caused by the cars we drive, or of the demographic disaster that is our parents and grandparents living for an entire generation longer in houses that aren’t being replaced. Fake news is Ed Balls, transfer deadline day, celebrity deaths and anything mentioning the words “health and safety”. Fake news is just news you don’t agree with: news that looks real enough to be a John Salt painting – but not too real to be just like the real thing. The tragedy of Western capitalism is that we still believe there’s a distinction between fake news and real news.
At least in the Soviet Union people knew everything in the papers was fiction.