Friday, January 21, 2011

Romanticism is not New

There is an interesting essay by Michael Lind in Salon, America in the age of primitivism. Lind bemoans the irrationality of modern politics on both sides of the right-left divide:
A case can be made that yes, we are indeed in a period of rising irrationalism. This irrationalism permeates our politics, from the right to the center to the left. And it has done so for some time.
and he makes that case at greater length:
Following the world wars, the U.S. and other liberal democracies rebuilt themselves as modern, technology-based, progressive societies that offered a higher standard of living to ordinary people than ever before. Gradually they liberalized their cultures, shedding the vestiges of priestly control, moved toward meritocracy away from aristocracy and dismantled racial caste systems. They devoted themselves to great civil engineering projects, like hydropower dams, nuclear power plants, continent-spanning highways and space exploration.

And then their people suddenly got tired of modernity and tried to crawl back into the past.

On the left, technological optimists were replaced by Rousseauian romantic primitivists. In the 1970s, Green guru Amory Lovins promulgated the gospel that “hard” sources of energy like nuclear power are bad and that called for a “soft path” based on hydropower, wind and solar energy. Other Green romantics decided that even hydropower is wicked, because it is generated by dams that despoil the prehuman landscape.

The New Left of the 1960s and 1970s longed for small, participatory communities, and rejected the giant organizations that New Deal liberals had taken pride in. In the 1980s and 1990s, new urbanists converted most progressives to their nostalgia for the ephemeral rail-and-trolley based towns of the late nineteenth century. GM foods, which New Deal liberals like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson would have embraced as a way to feed multitudes while sparing land for wilderness, were denounced by progressives who favored “heirloom” turkey and melons that the Pilgrims might have eaten. The increasingly reactionary American left, disenchanted with nuclear power plants and rockets and suburbs, longed to quit modernity and retire to a small town with an organic farmers’ market and an oompah band playing in the town park’s bandstand.

A similar intellectual regression to infantilism took place on the right in the late twentieth century. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, conservatism was defined by big business anti-statism, not by neotraditionalism. The Republican opponents of New Deal Democrats shared the New Dealers’ faith in science, technology and large-scale industry. They just wanted business to keep more of its prerogatives.

Contrast Eisenhower-era business conservatism with the religious right of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and other evangelicals and fundamentalists in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. By 2000, an entire national party, the Republicans, was intimidated by religious zealots. No Republican presidential candidate could support legal abortion or criticize the pseudoscientific “creationist” alternative to evolutionary biology. Hatred of biotechnology, in the form of GM foods and human genetic engineering, was shared by the regressives of the left and the right. First a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, then a Republican, George W. Bush, sought votes by claiming he had been “born again” with the help of Jesus, something that no president before the 1970s would have claimed.

Today optimism about science and technology is found chiefly on the libertarian right. At least somebody still defends nuclear energy and biotechnology. But in libertarian thought, science and technology are divorced from their modernist counterparts -- large-scale public and private organizations -- and wedded to ideals of small producers and unregulated markets that were obsolete by the middle of the nineteenth century. Libertarian thought is half-modern, at best. To its credit, it does not share the longing of many on the left for the Shire of Frodo the Hobbit or the nostalgia of most of the contemporary right for the Little House on the Prairie.
First of all, let me say that I think Lind is correct in saying that we are in the midst of a resurgence of "primitivism" - but let me say "romanticism" to be less pejorative. While he doesn't present too much hard quantitative evidence (which would not be a straightforward thing to do), I share his intuition that the rise of religious fundamentalism on the right, and trends like localism and new urbanism on the left, are essentially nostalgic and romantic impulses, and that these kinds of impulses have gotten stronger, in fits and starts, since some time around about 1970.

One illustration he doesn't give, but which I think is very illuminating, is what happened to science fiction novels: the optimistic expansionist science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s (Asimov, Heinlein, etc), gave way to a mix of out-and-out Tolkienesque fantasies of magic-and-medievalism, as well as much darker sci-fi of the cyberpunk ilk (which itself then turned nostalgic with the advent of steampunk).

However, where I think he's wrong is to suggest that this is mostly a new thing, after a long period of uninterrupted approval of modernity since the 19th century:
We can understand our own regressive era by contrasting it with the period that preceded it. From the 19th century up until the 1970s, religion and premodern traditionalism were retreating before the advance of science and modernity, symbolized by large-scale, bureaucratic organizations in government and industry. The great ideological struggles of the twentieth century were between secular political religions that all claimed the sanction of science and glorified technology. While liberals and Marxists claimed the heritage of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment that produced the American and French revolutions, Mussolini and Hitler denounced Enlightenment ideals, but did not reject science. Nazi racism, like Soviet communism, was justified by appeals to pseudoscience. Totalitarianism is best understood as a perverted version of modernity.
In fact, the 19th century boasted at least two major intellectual waves of romanticism. The first, which gave the tendency the name, was the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. This was an explicit reaction against rationalism and industrialism, and swept the arts and humanities, placing a premium on emotional reactions to the natural world, and denigrating rationalizing and objectifying it, as well as sullying it with pollution:
Romanticism (or the Romantic Era) was a complex artistic, literary and intellectual movement that originated in the second half of the 18th century in Europe, and gained strength in reaction to the Industrial Revolution.[1] In part, it was a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment and a reaction against the scientific rationalisation of nature.[2] It was embodied most strongly in the visual arts, music, and literature, but had a major impact on historiography,[3] education[4] and natural history.[5]

The movement validated strong emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror and terror and awe—especially that which is experienced in confronting the sublimity of untamed nature and its picturesque qualities, both new aesthetic categories. It elevated folk art and ancient custom to something noble, made of spontaneity a desirable character (as in the musical impromptu), and argued for a "natural" epistemology of human activities as conditioned by nature in the form of language and customary usage.

Romanticism reached beyond the rational and Classicist ideal models to elevate a revived medievalism and elements of art and narrative perceived to be authentically medieval, in an attempt to escape the confines of population growth, urban sprawl, and industrialism, and it also attempted to embrace the exotic, unfamiliar, and distant in modes more authentic than Rococo chinoiserie, harnessing the power of the imagination to envision and to escape.
This was the movement that gave us the works of Beethoven, Chopin, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, as well as thousands of Gothic revival churches.

Then in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century there was the Arts and Crafts movement begun by William Morris, which became known in the US as Craftsman style (after the magazine of that name edited by Gustav Stickley).  Walk around any US city, and a lot of the houses from the teens and twenties will bear the imprint of this movement, which valued simplicity, natural materials with limited ornamentation, and hand craft production.  Again, this was an explicit reaction to machine industrial production of goods:
The Arts and Crafts Movement was an international design movement that originated in England[2] and flourished between 1880 and 1910, continuing its influence up to the 1930s.[3] Instigated by the artist and writer William Morris (1834–1896) in the 1860s[2] and inspired by the writings of John Ruskin (1819–1900), it had its earliest and fullest development in the British Isles[3] but spread to Europe and North America[4] as a reaction against the impoverished state of the decorative arts and the conditions under which they were produced.[5]

The movement advocated truth to materials and traditional craftsmanship using simple forms and often medieval, romantic or folk styles of decoration. It also proposed economic and social reform and has been seen as essentially anti-industrial.
This movement centered largely on architecture and interior design (as opposed to literature and music) but many of the impulses are related.

So, in short, there is a long history of the enlightenment/rationality/industrial/machine direction of our civilization producing romantic backlashes, especially amongst artists and designers of various kinds.

However, in contrast to Lind, I don't see this as all bad.  These kinds of things happen for a reason: the reason being that industrialization has, in addition to providing benefits, caused an awful lot of problems (whether it be the "satanic mills" of the 19th century, or DDT, hormone disrupters, and urban sprawl/obesity/alienation in the 20th).  Whenever those problems become excessive in any particular area, a backlash sets in, whether it's in music or architecture in earlier times, or urban planning and cooking in our own time.

With climate change posing the greatest threat to the natural world yet, and technology-mediated globalization placing ever greater strains on working families, I imagine we have even more pronounced romantic movements in our future.

What I think does pose a problem is not the romantic impulse within most of us, but rather if we allow our romantic desires to overwhelm our ability to see reality clearly.  Just because industrial civilization can be ugly and harsh, that doesn't mean it's weak and easily prone to collapse.


Burk Braun said...

Thanks for an excellent post. I would offer that "crawling back into the past" has another more concrete meaning, in the field of economics.

We have forsaken the Keynesian consensus that was what gave ordinary people high standards of living, and are returning to a Darwinian Austrian/Chicago school vision of economics and social relations which, despite being thoroughly discredited by the recent unpleasantness, reigns supreme, exampled by our deficit hysteria, and by our collective preference for helping the fortunate rather than the unfortunate through the crisis.

You might enjoy an eloquent talk on the matter by the eminent and late historian Tony Judt.

Mike said...

From the excerpts I read here and on Andrew Sullivan's blog, Lind's essay seems like an exercise in annoying, simplistic caricature. But your discussion of romantic movements is interesting.

jdl75 said...

About new urbanism, not sure why you qualify that in the "romanticism" side. For sure it is nostalgic in its style, not trying to invent anything in terms of architecture but basically just taking old XVIII or XIX shapes.
However it could just be qualified as "realist" or even "modern", in the sense that it recognizes that suburbia is basically not dense enough. And it also recognizes that given current population, everybody growing food in nature in a doomstead or something, isn't going to cut it, either cities are reinvented, either it's a complete mess.
However, for creating denser urbanism/architecture, the nostalgia of new urbanism isn't a fatality, and there are some current interesting proposition.
But by the way, did you know that regarding urbanism and architecture, and especially with respect to housing building, skyscrapers or towers, can be mathematically qualified as being total stupid shapes, as a genereic shape for a city ?
That's what Leslie Martin and Lionel March "proved" in Cambridge in the sixties, (quotes on proved as they used simplistic method and really showing it would require computer simulation, which they were aware of), but basically, if you compare a tower urbanism, a slab urbanism, and a courtyard building urbanism (similar to some European city blocks), and this for a given value of the FAR (floor area ratio, or square meters builded per square meters on the ground), and under the criteria of maximizing natural light in the appartments, towers lead to the worst results, courtyard the best, slabs in between. So in a sense skyscrapers can be considered way sub optimal and therefore anti modern (if you consider that modernity is linked to rational thinking).
A bit sad that this isn't known a bit more.

jdl75 said...

"Just because industrial civilization can be ugly and harsh, that doesn't mean it's weak and easily prone to collapse. "

Yeah ... considering the resources required, that one might be shown partially or completely wrong quite quickly, especially with the second oil price bitch slaping most probably being not too distant.

The US better raise their gas tax soon for it not to be totally false ..