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Living in the past July 29, 2016

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

A most thought-provoking point made on Slate in this examination of US based couple who attempt to live their lives as if it were the late 19th century. If your sense is that that seems like an over-extended variant of cosplay you might be right. The author Rebecca Onion, I suspect would agree.

The question of health brings me to perhaps the greatest fallacy inherent in the Chrismans’ method of “living history.” The “past” was not made up only of things. Like our own world, it was a web of social ties. These social ties extended into every corner of people’s lives, influencing the way people treated each other in intimate relationships; the way disease was passed and treated; the possibilities open to women, minorities, and the poor; the whirl of expectations, traditions, language, and community that made up everyday lives. Material objects like corsets or kerosene lamps were part of this complex web, but only a part.

Onion points to some of the more contradictory aspects of the Chrismans’ approach – for example they appear to believe that society now is more rigid and conformist than in the late 19th century (and some of the comments BTL make it clear that one doesn’t have to go as far back as the 19th century to see massive changes in everyday life – and many of us here will remember vastly less technological lifestyles only a relatively short time ago. Though speaking of BTL, the phrase ‘Cultural Marxism’ rears its ugly head in one criticism of the author). A questionable assumption many would think. And while they make great play of their desire to ‘escape incomprehensible technologies that now govern our lives…’ they also happen to have a website.

Of course the past is interesting. It has a fascination for us. Looking through some documents recently from the 1970s, a period I and it would seem a fair few who engage on this site actually lived through, someone commented that it was amazing how evocative the papers and photographs were.

Sure – the whole of the Left Archive is, on one level, an exercise in revisiting that past – we could have transcripts of content and once someone very thoughtfully offered to provide same. But my sense has always been that to get a better understanding of the time it is probably best to present texts in the format they were originally found, that is on the printed page of a magazine accompanied by photographs, advertising, etc.

Onion notes that the very process by which materials survive to this day or are represented is in itself a ‘type of commentary’.

The primary sources the Chrismans choose to read made it to the present day because they held some kind of value for the intervening generations. The couple finds its period magazines on Google Books, that redoubtable Victorian technology. It seems not to have crossed their minds that a series of human decisions resulted in the digitization of those magazines and not others, and that those decisions are themselves a type of commentary.


But the Archive is about getting a sense of the time, not about a hope to position oneself within it. On one level what the Chrismans are doing is innocuous, on another a little troubling. Onion notes that they tend to gloss over the problematic aspects of ‘living in the 19th century’. They’re not living as labourers, or as servants or as African Americans, theirs is, as Onion says ‘a version of … a comfortable and privileged life’ and even that is a stretch. Moreover the Chrismans appear to believe that only through their route is it possible to understand the 19th century – that historians of the period are intrinsically untrustworthy, and that ‘their’ understanding of the period is the only correct one. This too seems a stretch.

One thing that continually strikes me, and this again is drawn from my own historical research, an engagement with the Archive and just general general observation, is how much is beyond the grasp of analysis, materials that don’t exist – or are lost, partial accounts of a time, the lack of knowledge of life as it is experienced. Try doing an oral history of a given topic, say in the late 1960s – as I’ve had cause to in recent years – and you’ll soon realise how, even for a period of time well within living memory there is so much that is lost, so much that is unrecorded, so much contingent on fallible memory. For periods before living memory, well, that’s an even greater challenge.

None of which is to say that one shouldn’t attempt to engage with the past. Anything but. But it’s worth keeping one’s head about it – no?


1. Dermot O Connor - July 29, 2016

J.M. Greer had a different angle on one of the interesting aspects of the case, which was the hatred directed toward the couple, and what this reveals about the modern myth of Progress.


QUOTE: Ever since they adopted their Victorian lifestyle, the Chrismans have been on the receiving end of constant harassment by people who find their presence in the community intolerable. The shouted insults, the in-your-face confrontations, the death threats—they’ve seen it all. What’s more, the appearance of Sarah Chrisman’s book and various online articles related to it fielded, in response, an impressive flurry of spluttering online denunciations, which insisted among other things that the fact that she prefers to wear long skirts and corsets somehow makes her personally responsible for all the sins that have ever been imputed to the Victorian era.

…Sarah Chrisman and her husband have transgressed one of the modern world’s most rigidly enforced taboos. They’ve shown in the most irrefutable way, by personal example, that the technologies each of us use in our own lives are a matter of individual choice.

You’re not supposed to say that in today’s world. You’re not even supposed to think it. You’re allowed, at most, to talk nostalgically about how much more pleasant it must have been not to be constantly harassed and annoyed by the current round of officially prescribed technologies, and squashed into the Procrustean bed of the narrow range of acceptable lifestyles that go with them. Even that’s risky in many circles these days, and risks fielding a diatribe from somebody who just has to tell you, at great length and with obvious irritation, all about the horrible things you’d supposedly suffer if you didn’t have the current round of officially prescribed technologies constantly harassing and annoying you.

The nostalgia in question doesn’t have to be oriented toward the past. I long ago lost track of the number of people I’ve heard talk nostalgically about what I tend to call the Ecotopian future, the default vision of a green tomorrow that infests most minds on the leftward end of things. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last forty years, you already know every detail of the Ecotopian future. It’s the place where wind turbines and solar panels power everything, everyone commutes by bicycle from their earth-sheltered suburban homes to their LEED-certified urban workplaces, everything is recycled, and social problems have all been solved because everybody, without exception, has come to embrace the ideas and attitudes currently found among upper-middle-class San Francisco liberals.

(Greer moved from Ashland, Oregon a few years ago (a nest of yuppie new-agers) to Cumberland – in Maryland, I think; a former industry town which he expects to have an industrial revival later this century).

..Back when I lived in prosperous Left Coast towns…mentioning that I didn’t own a television routinely meant that I’d get to hear a long and patronizing disquisition about how I really ought to run out and buy a TV so I could watch this or that or the other really really wonderful program, in the absence of which my life must be intolerably barren and incomplete.

…I’d encourage those of my readers who aren’t blinded by the terror of intellectual heresy to think, and think hard, about the taboo against technological choice—the insistence that you cannot, may not, and must not make your own choices when it comes to whatever the latest technological fad happens to be, but must do as you’re told and accept whatever technology the consumer society hands you, no matter how dysfunctional, harmful, or boring it turns out to be. …

Those who take that unthinkable step, and embrace the heresy of technological choice, are part of the wave of the future. In a world of declining resource availability, unraveling economic systems, and destabilizing environments, Sarah Chrisman and the many other people who make similar choices—there are quite a few of them these days, and more of them with each year that passes—are making a wise choice. By taking up technologies and lifeways from less extravagant eras, they’re decreasing their environmental footprints and their vulnerability to faltering global technostructures, and they’re also contributing to one of the crucial tasks of our age: the rediscovery of ways of being human that don’t depend on hopelessly unsustainable levels of resource and energy consumption.

The heresy of technological choice is a door. Beyond it lies an unexplored landscape of possibilities for the future—possibilities that very few people have even begun to imagine yet.


2. Dermot O Connor - July 29, 2016

In his post the following week, he returned to the theme:


QUOTE: Finally, there’s the capstone of the whole edifice of unreason, the insistence that anybody who doesn’t use the latest, hottest technotrash wants to go “back to the caves,” or to even take all of humanity to that much-denounced destination. “The caves” have a bizarre gravitational effect on the imagination of a certain class of modern thinkers. Everything that’s not part of the latest assortment of glitzy technogimmicks, in their minds, somehow morphs into the bearskin kilts and wooden clubs that so many of us still, despite well over a century of detailed archeological evidence, insist on pushing onto our prehistoric ancestors.

When people of this kind archly dismiss people like the Chrismans, the neo-Victorian couple just mentioned, as going “back to the caves,” they’re engaged in a very interesting kind of absurdity. Do cavemen and Victorians belong on the same level? Sure, cavemen had flush toilets and central heating, daily newspapers and public libraries, not to mention factories, railways, global maritime trade, a telegraph network covering much of the planet’s land surface, and a great deal more of the same kind! That’s absurd, of course. It’s even more absurd to insist that people who simply don’t enjoy using this or that technology, and so don’t use it, are going back to “the caves”—but I can promise you, dear reader, from my own personal experience, that if you show a lack of interest in any piece of fashionable technology, you’ll have this phrase thrown at you.

That happens because “the caves” aren’t real. They aren’t, for example, the actual cave-shrines of the Magdalenian people who lived fifteen thousand years ago, whose lifestyles were quite similar to those of Native Americans before Columbus, and who used to go deep into the caves of Europe to paint sacred images that still stun the viewer today by their beauty and artistry. “The caves” of contemporary rhetoric, rather, are thoughtstopping abstractions, bits of verbal noise that people have been taught to use so they don’t ask inconvenient questions about where this thing called “progress” is taking us and whether any sane person would actually want to go there. Flattening out the entire complex richness of the human past into a single cardboard bogeyman labeled “the caves” is one way to do that. So is papering over the distinctly ugly future we’re making for ourselves with a screen shot or two from a Jetsons cartoon and a gaudy banner saying “We’re headed for the stars!”


WorldbyStorm - July 29, 2016

Isn’t that a bit of a straw man on his part though? Living a simpler life using more robust longer lasting tech (by way of example we’ve mentioned Fairphone here as Zn alternative to the big corporation products) isn’t identical to a supposed choice between today and the caves and tricky issues remain about the time periods previously in relation to nostalgia or cherry picking re democracy, class gender and racial issues. None of which is to disagree that there are serious questions rd tech that the current structures won’t or cannot address


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