February 1st, 2006


Mud, glorious mud

My new column at Wired has just gone up. It's called Nostalgia For Mud (you can also listen to it in a rather muddy mp3) and it cites all sorts of examples of stuff coming full circle: Kraftwerk singing about cars, trains, spacelab... and then bicycles, Clinton Street restaurants selling pasta at $45 a plate, star architects designing houses with outside bathrooms, and so on. In fact, I could well have included Bernhard Willhelm's 2005 Spring-Summer menswear collection, with its construction worker-inspired chic.

"Coming full circle" isn't exactly the right image here; it's more of a spiral shape I have in mind as a model, an upward coil like a spring or helix. As we rise economically, we pass our point of origin, but each time we pass it we're higher up. It's not an "eternal return" so much as a new view on our point of departure, which begins to look more and more picturesque the higher we rise above it. After an initial nouveau riche disdain for the poor lifestyle we've recently left behind, we begin to feel less threatened by its privations, nostalgically attracted to its simplicity, austerity, healthiness and ethical virtue. We begin to embrace the postmaterialist values Ronald Inglehart talks about.

As I point out in the piece (quoting Adorno), this "nostalgia for mud" can be a bourgeois bohemian affectation, a desire to see soul precisely where there is none. But simplicity, austerity and poverty may be something we have increasingly to deal with; as another Wired story points out, "it can no longer be denied: a rapidly growing world population and the industrialization and economic growth that comes with it is setting the stage for an environmental catastrophe". A voluntary embrace of Slow Life-type simplicity -- the adoption of low-calorie, low-consumption, low-growth, low-population lifestyles -- may just pre-emp this catastrophe, but if it doesn't, the poverty that follows rising sea levels, drought and desertification won't be voluntary at all. If we don't embrace it voluntarily, our nostalgie de la boue may become de rigeur.