Monday, December 7, 2009

new traditions: growing roots in an age of instability

1. Sept 11th and the subsequent War on Terror

2. The economic crisis
3. peak oil

These three events form the historical backdrop against which the rise of new traditions can be understood. The first has already occurred, the second we feel happening now, and the third will take place, given the wide variety of estimates, anywhere from 2020 to 2030. But actually all three events are taking place together: the memory of the first, the current problem of the second, and the anticipation of the third. They are intertwined, and the significance of current cultural developments must be measured by how each development shifts in light of each event.

Old-timeyness, for example, has one significance in a post 9-11 context, gains another from the context of the economic crisis, and finally has a third significance when seen from the projected future of peak oil. It begins as a retreat in the past from the wreckage of a future ruined by two fallen towers. Then in the light of a faltering economy, a new emphasis on the spartan side of old-time vibes emerges: look, remember an era where we didn't need all these things we can no longer afford. Finally, the spartan aspect of old-timeyness, and related values of simplicity and self-reliance, take on additional urgency in the countdown the end of the oil era. It will no more a question of doing without certain luxuries because this is an era of financial sobriety, of "doing-without", but because when peak oil occurs, everything, as anyone who's seen Collapse will tell you, will change - the life we are accustomed to will no longer be merely unaffordable, it will be impossible. Today new traditonalism can be restricted to retro-fetishism, nostalgia and kitsch, effects of two paradigm-shifting events, but it can also become a way to progressively prepare for the third.

The rise of new traditionalism, I'd argue, starts at the tail end of the urge towards apocalyptic fantasy that gained momentum in the wake of 9/11. Apocalypse films are a kind of cultural trauma therapy. They repeat the trauma much in the same way dreams may repeat the experience of a car crash after the fact. By repeating a traumatic experience, by staging it again, and again, one hopes to find a way to master it. Apocalypse movies since 9/11 weren't only repeating the sense of that day, however, but also the sobering realization within American culture that civilization is quite a fragile thing which can be rent asunder much easier than one would like to think. In the theaters now are two films which signify the end of apocalypse cinema: The Road and 2012. Each in their own way completes the cultural drive towards apocalyptic fantasy at the moment: there will be no such films in 2010.

As apocalyptic fantasies end, there comes the desire to orient ourselves again, within history. The rise of new traditions is sort of a grand cultural re-set. The way towards future progress has been lost, the present appears under attack, so we burrow back to the past, to grab hold of anchors and roots, to strive towards something authentic amidst cultural upheaval.

The problem, fundamentally, is that there is no way back. Authenticity itself is an old-timey idea. "Get it all this fake shit out of here, give me something real, where is the real thing?" This is the restless sentiment of the twentieth-century, what Alain Badiou calls "the passion for the real." We live in an era where the belief in something authentic is itself out-dated.

That's the very problem of an age of new traditions. The twentieth-century saw a long steady breakdown in traditions, in traditional authority, traditional values, traditional means of communication. Now in 2009-2010 we find ourselves at the other end of the stick. No longer are we faced with the burden of the past as something to be carried, but as something curiously absent, available to us only in traces, shards and scraps. How can a culture orient itself anew, and how can it wrest from the wreckage of the past the tools it needs to do so?

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