Monday, September 08, 2008

Useful reference points

Catching up on my blog reading, I came across this fascinating post from July, over at Voyou Désœuvré, in part explaining the recent fixation over there on the 1950s, which Voyou posits as having been the decade in which, in a certain way, "the dreams of the 1930s came to pass":
. . . the 1930s were also [like the 1950s] a time of inspiring aesthetic and political movements: but perhaps too inspiring. The inter-war years had a level of radicalism I find difficult to imagine, and so it seems to me that any left-wing enthusiasm for the 30s runs a real risk of being nostalgic in a paralyzing way. What's so interesting about the 1950s is that many of the things that appear so radical in the 1930s—technological progress, social democracy, modernist design—reappear in the 1950s as banal.
It seems to me that any past period of radical activity leaves us open to unhelpful and unproductive nostalgia. I know that when I read about vital movements of the past, I can feel the tug myself. When reading radical history, I am aware that I am rooting for a side, as if I were reading a story that might have a different ending than it actually has. The radicalism of the past seems full of possibilities, possibilities foreclosed, cut off, leaving us in the apparent hopelessness of the present. This is a problem I need to overcome, I know, though I doubt it is unique. In any event, I like what Voyou says about why the 1950s in particular appeals:
Because perhaps we are still living in the 50s, in two senses. We live with an image of the future and a concept of futurity that was developed in the 50s; but we are also experiencing a sort of repetition-as-farce of the 50s. If the 50s were the period in which the dreams of the 1930s were, in their way, achieved, are the early years of the 21st century not the period in which the long neoliberal dream has finally achieved its full triumph? A rather parodic triumph, to be sure, as the market economy begins to fail even by its own curious standards. In which case, the 50s can be a useful reference point, a period of both stasis and creation dialectically dependent on one another, and a reminder that the time of the end of history is not the end times.
I try to look to earlier moments as such reference points, as evidence that alternatives are indeed possible, but also in order to hold off my own tendency towards catastrophic thinking. Anyway, as with much else, I hope to return to some of these themes when time permits. . .

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