Swimming Against the Stream

A Country of Its Own

Sometimes it seems that we live under the illusion that what is, what exists right now, is pretty much the way things have always been. Our movies help us to believe this prestidigitation. We see some contemporary actor in a historical setting and we automatically assume something like, “Right. That is how it would have been.” And of course what we now consider to be heroic prevails: usually someone fighting for the right to pursue their deepest desires against forces of containment and repression and to naturally in some way come out of it victorious. There is always the temptation to believe that we have at last come to pinnacle of history, or even better evolution, and can now look back at the miserable past with the confidence that at least we don’t have to live in that slop anymore.

Or perhaps we can imagine a Romantic epoch where the knights and princesses of old would be as clever and cynical as we are now and still, while eating our cake yet still possessing it, get to have all of the old trappings of royalty and nobility. The distant heroes in our fictional myths are always the people we would believe to be the hero now, in this quicksilver moment; the princess who understands medieval politics from a contemporary post-feminist perspective, the boy who fights to be himself no matter what others may think, the decadent aesthete who, while drenched in delicious vice and squalor, is far more admirable than the hypocritical religious folk who look down their self-righteous noses at him.

And so it is possible to both imagine the darkness of the past to be now safely behind us and paradoxically to feel that had we lived back then we would have changed everything, we would never have given into the blindness of that age.

And indeed every era does have a blindness to it, especially our own. And while it is impossible to entirely escape all of our ‘sightlessness’ nevertheless we can actually use the past to call into question the blindness of our times. Things that seem obviously self-evident to us at this moment can be called into question by using the past as a measure of the present, much as we measure the past by our current beliefs

Johnny Rotten with the Sex Pistols 1977

Nick Cave with the Birthday Party, ca. 1983 from a piece of Vinyl called Drunk on the Pope’s Blood.

Here are a couple of examples: People today take it for granted that there has always been music that expresses existential anger or rage. Punk, Metal, forms of Industrial or Rap often specialize in this kind of expression. But I can tell you this with certainty, prior to say Iggy Pop or the Sex Pistols,depending on how you reckon the origins of Punk rock, there was never such a thing in music… anywhere: no tribes in Africa or on the Amazon, no Jazz nor Pop, no obscure Russian folk styles. There were tribes who might use music to stoke the warriors for war. But it was not the bellowing inarticulate rage of the postpunk world. There was no sense of bewildering aimless raging loss. (Feel free to challenge me on this.)

What Makes This ‘Cute’?

Or take another example: It is easy to think that cuteness is an eternal concept; that people have always looked at creatures with big eyes and said “Awwww how cute!” But again, the concept really isn’t that old. The word ‘cute’ in English hardly goes back two hundred years and then it was closer to the word ‘acute’. ‘Cute’ in contemporary usage means something more akin to ‘baby-like’. And what am I doing even suggesting that there is something off with ‘baby-likeness’? I’m sure there are a few people who might read this who are already wondering why I’m even going on about the word. But that is exactly the point. ‘Cute’ things are beyond the pale of discussion. It’s like questioning a baby. What sort of sick monster would suggest there’s anything wrong with a baby? And I’m sure the Disney Corporation came to exactly that conclusion when they changed Mickey Mouse from looking like a rodent to looking baby-like by giving him a round head and huge eyes. And my what big eyes so many cartoon characters have! The better to smuggle ideas in with!

The Evolution of a Cartoon Rodent

Disney stands in a preeminent position here in raiding the past and changing it. Starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and moving on through much of their oeuvre they have consistently deformed the past by making it both a wonder land and a commodity. It’s hard to convince many people today of how brutal many fairytales were in the past before being bowdlerized by Walt and company. Read the original Grimm’s Brothers. But then again those fairy tales came before the concept of ‘family friendly’ entertainment. Many folks today, of many religious and agnostic stripes, simply give all ‘family entertainment’ a free pass because, well, it’s just so ‘cute’. Never mind that some of the propaganda concepts buried within them are amongst the most self-serving and selfish that could possibly be imagined. The message can often be summarized as, “You can be whatever you choose to be.” Or “Don’t let anyone ever tell you ‘No’ ”. But has anyone in the past ever had such messages so relentlessly driven down the gullets of their young?

Everything is Magical!

The answer would be no. Those old fairytales did more than just warn you about the dangers of the forest. They told you that life had darkness in it. And that in order to get through the dark forest, you’d better not leave something as silly as bread crumbs.

The past was truly different than the present. The people living there, while subject to the same lust, greed, envy and pride as we all are, did not have the same outlook on the world that we do. Jane Austen was not a contemporary woman just waiting for the 21st Century so that she could escape the 19th. No one had a ‘geeky’ ‘fanboy’ mentality about anything collectable prior to somewhere in the late 20th Century. We folks today are far more self-conscious than anyone ever has been in the past, thanks to all of the equipment we have for recording voice and image. And it is quite possible to see that not that long ago people had a fuller understanding of how to make music than we do. There were people who knew how to eat together, how to hold discussions, how to make shoes. These things are often lost or problematic to us.

In the last very few years things have already disappeared that once seemed like part of human nature. Whatever happened to letter writing? Serious book learning is imperiled in many quarters. The relationship to music is changing yet again as people enter a sort of record and erase mentality. CDs, interestingly enough, will probably die out, but in a rare streak of good news the vinyl LP will probably survive as a kind of specialty artifact.

For me the thing to keep in mind in all of the chaos of rapid change is that the past can come to our aid in helping to both measure what is lost and to strengthen the good things that remain and inspire us to experiment anew. Maybe dinnertime has become a media feeding frenzy for you and yours. But with a little thought and a few simple rules you can probably bring good discussion back to your table. Maybe you live now in a highly distractible world. Well turn the stuff off and read an actual book. There are dozens of ways to begin to reclaim human existence from the swirl of technology and the bloated media illusion.

But first an foremost I would suggest that you turn off the drone of the present on occasion and discover that the past is a country with rights of its own and it has words for us that we would do well to heed.

I will let C.S. Lewis have the last word from his essay entitled: On the Reading of Old Books

“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.”

And a little further on he writes…

“The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”

Byrne Power
Haines, Alaska

10 responses

  1. On the matter of “cuteness” you might be interested in an article written some years by Stephen Jay Gould (and, as a bonus, specifically with respect to Mickey Mouse):

    Click to access mickey.pdf

    If the word (and our version of the concept) did not exist some handful of decades ago, it is clear that something innate in our nature did and does.

    What we are seeing when we happen upon big-eyed hummel-figurine-like figures and drawings is an example of super-normal stimuli.

    January 20, 2011 at 3:50 PM

  2. Well Soi Disant,

    I knew someone who see some of what I was referring to when it comes to the big-eyed creatures. I have always respected Jay Gould’s thoughts as worth listening to and intriguing, if fairly limited through his presuppositions. By pointing out the connections to neotony he funnels the reader solely down the chute of what I feel much contemporary biologizing is guilty of and that is pretty much what this essay is about. And so ‘cute’ things are seen as merely an expression of the biological imperative for the big males and postpartum females not to destroy the young mewling offspring.

    But it is immediately clear from his argument that Gould knows little of art history. If the contemporary display of endless variations of ‘cute’ critters in postcards, calendars, birthday cards, cartoons, puppets, websites, ad nauseum, were an eternal biological necessity for the human species then why are such depictions practically brand new historically speaking. And if one were to follow Gould’s lead (I don’t) and extend the metaphor to evolutionary time, why did big eyed ‘cute’ things arrive comparatively only a second ago?

    Because in fact depictions of anything remotely ‘cute’ do not, to the best of my understanding, show up before Peter Paul Rubens babies and cherubs. And even then they aren’t quite ‘cute’ in our sense yet. One really has to come to the kind of coon caricatures of American black folks in the late 1800’s and finally it is Disney himself who finally makes the break.

    So the question is why did ‘cute’ things begin to be made. The answer I believe goes back to Romanticism. And that’s too long a discussion for now. But rather than seek the answer in biology, which does contain a few clues, I suspect the real answer is in a change of philosophical outlook, a change which began over two hundred years ago. So rather than seeing the output of big eyed cuddly things as “super-normal”, by which I’m guessing you meant hyper-normal, I would see the rise of ‘cute’ things as extremely abnormal, a deforming of what it means to be human.

    But hey I know very well I’m fairly isolated in thinking this. It’s just a question I have to raise.

    Soi Disant thanks for raising some contradictory thoughts. It’s always welcome. (And I’m sure you know that very well.)

    January 20, 2011 at 6:16 PM

  3. strike2012

    I think part of the answer to your (somewhat rhetorical) question as to “why so recent” is found right here, in the little list you made:

    “…postcards, calendars, birthday cards, cartoons, puppets, websites, ad nauseum…”

    ALL of these (and other things are like them) are relatively recent… first, because the printing press is a relatively new invention, second because cheap mass printing is even of more recent availability, and lastly (and most importantly of all), these tools in the hands of large, self-interested cultural and global-wide marketing forces (national, multi-national, trans-national and meta-national corporations) is hardly 150 years old, and in that interval, did not reach its maturity until 75 years ago.

    I am deeply convinced we cannot intelligently discuss the matters of cultural change and cultural erosion (or for that matter, the history of popular art) without acknowledging the powerful and purposefully conscious economic forces behind much of the change you (and I) decry. (And, yes, undoubtedly, a certain aspect of Romanticism did play a part.)

    For an instance, set aside a little time to look into (if you already haven’t) the history of marketing (itself quite young, by the way, and contemporaneous with cuteness), and the history of the commercial soap industry in the US.

    WRT the issues discussed here, I think you will find the adventure revealing.

    My remark about “super-normal stimuli” was intended to point in the direction of the clear and present fact that these stimuli are presented to us to achieve a certain commercial effect.

    By the by, I agree with you about Disney, perhaps even more than you do, and with greater emotion! ;)

    January 21, 2011 at 3:33 PM

  4. strike2012


    The connection between two entities otherwise kept distinct (contrary to the avid convictions of that famous maven of standardized anti-privacy, Mark Zuckerberg) has accidentally been made.

    Left myself logged in as one when I should have logged out and logged in as another.

    There it is, then.

    January 21, 2011 at 5:47 PM

  5. Well, well, well… So we have more than one identity online and here at The Anadromous Life. I’ll leave that simply as a fact and note that I sign my own name.

    Okay on certain points there is agreement. But the mention of economics troubles me. Not that I don’t suspect that much desire is manufactured by large forces with access to plenty of cash and power. But I’m pretty sure this is a discussion that will completely obliterate the main point of the post.

    Now D. I know your perspective on this. You are out there near the Chomsky edge. And while I find that there is a time and place to discuss economic issues I can think of nothing as divisive politically. Which would mutilate the point of my efforts here. I cannot find very deep agreement with either post-Marxist Left or the post-Friedmanian Right. And I find that these are burnt-out over propagandized zones that seem to accumulate the kind of us/them mentality that I’m trying to avoid. I am us. I am them.

    And being as I find no personal concord with either of those ideologies it also means that I don’t find economics to be central to the dilemmas of the present. I find that the loss of reality in the world is both philosophical and technological at root. I am in much more agreement with Jacques Ellul who said that the problem of Capital is more of an issue of the 19th Century and that technology is far more potent a force in shaping our world today.

    Facebook is a great example of this because Zuckerberg seems to have little real interest in conspicuous consumption and seems to be motivated more by the technological possibilities. He is a textbook case of Ellul’s thought. That doesn’t make him less disturbing. He is a true believer in global connections through technology, not a cynical fat cat, or corp. His positive vibes are actually much closer to the future face of tyranny than the facelessness of corporatism. I am not suggesting that he is a tyrant, but he has opened a door to groupthink and coercion in the name of a well-connected planet.

    By ‘propaganda’ here I am explicitly following from Jacques Ellul’s definition, which basically says that propaganda is not merely ‘the lies they tell verses the truth we tell’, the standard definition; rather it is any ideology communicated in an all encompassing mass technological means. And that means even what I believe as a Christian is distorted through becoming propaganda. That also means the neo-left anarchist ideas, the Tea Party, Islam, New Age concepts, Gay Rights, anything, the whole works. Thus the trail leads back to technology and its relationship to our philosophies. Thus if Ellul is correct technology is a trump card here.

    So there is a time for a discussion of market forces. I don’t believe this is it. I believe the post isn’t pointed that way. If there is a post that specially discusses economics, the global market, shopping, etc. then that’s a good time for economic theories. Otherwise what I’m afraid of is that every discussion can be a forum for endless economic debates, which will lead to a poisoned well. Since I have to drink here, I’m not going to let that happen. I want this to be a place where people who hold differing opinions can air their thoughts without worrying about hijacked discussions. You haven’t done that, but I’m drawing a very clear line in the sand. (Please read closely my Rules for Engagement.) It’s my opinion that the last decade was poisoned completely by endless political suspicion and propaganda. That’s one thing that worries me far more than economics.

    Now if this were a discussion at my house you would be welcome to stay up all night to try to convince me that I’m not quite seeing it correctly. But here? I’ve already spent far too much time writing all of this down. I’m not inviting a rebuttal. Since it involves a complete worldview. And I know you believe what you do quite passionately. If you find disagreement with my perspective then I suggest that you go to my sources. Jacques Ellul’s book Propaganda, The Political Illusion, Money and his three technology books. Also the writings of Paul Virilio and Marshall McLuhan. Beyond that, at this point, the economic issues are not currently on the table.

    Jeepers I wanted to only write about a quarter of that length.

    And D. do stick to one identity…

    January 23, 2011 at 10:23 PM

  6. Ayajoellah Komeini

    Ahh the past! Nostalgia may be mostly lost on me, but what a novel idea it is to learn from experiences past. Unfortunately, the ego driven human creature sees its time as the most relevant, and therefore the lessons of yore are all too often lost on them. How different is the presumptuous invasion of Iraq as compared to the Gulf of Tonkin “communist aggression” that ramped up U.S. atrocities in Vietnam? How different is the “economic crisis” we face now with billion dollar bailouts for the rich different than the exploitation by the rich and powerful that led to the great deperssion? How different is feudalism, from sweatshop driven globalization, or any capitalist system? Our obvious increase in alienation gives birth to a plethora of cute distractions( Mickey Mouse in the U.S., Hello Kitty in Japan…..a drunken Boris Yeltsin in Russia?) who tells us everything is alright, and if you work hard you can get/do whatever you want. How painfully ironic when people realize through disenchantment and increased alienation that they were dooped! Bring in MORE distraction for the foolish masses….isn’t the superbowl on today? They say that the past is written and can not be changed, but with our collective lack of hindsight does that mean that the future is mostly written as well?

    February 6, 2011 at 6:59 PM

  7. SoiDisant

    (My apologies for not appearing here for a time. I’ve been away, and working.)

    When I speak of the matter, above, as originating in a _marketing_ effort, I am speaking neither as a Marxist-inspired member of the Chomsky fringe (whatever that is), nor as a maven of the Chicago School and Mr. Friedman.

    I’m simply pointing to the checkable fact that without a commercial purpose (call it an unholy union of industry and pragmatism, if you like), the organized and standardized presentation of the images or “icons” of the current time–leading to the very changes your essay rightly criticizes–would not have achieved the currency they now enjoy.

    People had to be actively employed, and rather forcefully regulated in that employment, in order to spend years in the work of presenting standardized, immediately recognizable images intended to market specific products and services, and to cause children growing up with these carefully manufactured images to respond in characteristic and predictable ways toward their sponsoring companies.

    This is not some sort of abstract economic theory. It is a simple matter of historical record. We know it happened the way it did–subject, of course to various interpretations–because recent and contemporary historians have studied it.

    It isn’t ideology that points to the connection between commercial activity–marketing–and so many of the cute (or now, postmodernly ‘edgy’ and cute) images that have, for good or ill, achieved the status of “culture-bearing” symbols.

    I am sympathetic to the points being made in the essay. I simply think that unless one is going to do something like explaining commercial propaganda and the changes wrought by it in the public sphere throughout the 20th century as arising from something like demon possession or aliens from outer space, one is forced to acknowledge the operation of commerce in the realm of very-expensive-to-produce publicly broadcast visual and auditory messages.

    We must not forget, unlike, say the political mastery of radio-broadcast media in fascist Germany in the 1930s, or the state-controlled press, radio and television of the Soviet Union, that the west has made the choice to leave powerful broadcast technology largely in the hands of commercial enterprise–in short, business.

    We’ve allowed ourselves to conduct a great experiment upon ourselves with commercial propaganda.

    (By the way, when the term “supernormal stimuli” was invoked, above, it was an accurate use of a technical term from the disciplines of sociology and psychology.)

    April 21, 2011 at 12:30 AM

  8. Soi,

    In my understanding, and in line with the thinking of Jacques Ellul, technology trumps economics as a force of change. Further I believe that the myths and philosophies that people live by, often unconsciously, and granted shaped in part by economics, but also by technology, psychology, history and religion, have an even more potent appeal to the individual. Thus I would say that the Romantic/Positive Thinking/Cute stream of thought is more determinative and was being created as a means for dealing with reality before the current waves of propaganda. And if Ellul is correct in his book “Propaganda”, which is essential reading in these areas, then all propagandists must follow the lines of these myths if they wish to succeed. That is, a propaganda that does not appeal to the idea of happy onward progress will not win over the people.

    April 21, 2011 at 8:37 AM

  9. SoiDisant

    I would not contend that Jaques Ellul is off the mark in his observation that the cumulative effects of technology becomes a driver for social (and economic) change. Withal, though, it is not THE driver, but A driver–one of many, just as accumulated commercial activity is one as well, alongside the several you invoke in your comment above.

    Key to all of this, in my view, is the very strong interactions that unfold between these various drivers of social change interacting both to _change_ and _to be changed by_ the very interactions which define their operation or unfolding…

    What I’ve been pointing to, above, is what I see to be a particularly strong interaction over the past 125 years between conscious material economy, technology and social fashion of the kind many of your essays criticize. I maintain that a good understanding of the problem cannot be obtained if any one of these important drivers are lift out of consideration.

    Of course marketing and commercial activity has been transformed by changes in technology. Of course technology and technological change becomes a very important and forceful driver, defining new possibilities even as it prunes other possibilities away.

    What can’t be neglected, though, in my view, is the powerful effect upon the entire process over the past century and a quarter of commercially consciously entities making it their business to extend their reach through prevailing technology–doing so with the purposeful intention to change individual and collective minds of populations, starting from birth.

    Further, I would note that technology does not arise in a social vacuum. This point would be particularly apt when discussing the very first moments of a technology’s appearance, and its development. The growing ubiquity of the telephone–and the change in its initially imagined purpose by the nascent Bell Telephone–would be a good example of this. (For a very readable short history of the early telephone, see the first chapter of Bruce Sterling’s _The Hacker Crackdown_.)

    I agree with your comments about propaganda being what it is. In fact, you reinforce my point. The notion of a “happy, onward” personal and social “progress” is what is being sold, and through which things are being sold.

    Nor would I disagree that the origins of this are found in time centuries before the late 19th century. My comments point to the force it has obtained over the past 125 years, or so.

    Jaques Ellul is by no means the sole critic whose remarks upon these matters call for careful digesting. As you are undoubtedly well aware, there is a list of authors who cogently address these questions, of which Ellul is but one voice.

    April 22, 2011 at 3:48 PM

  10. Okay Soi granted. You disagree with Ellul’s critique. Obviously I know there are many other thinkers. It is my opinion that Ellul’s thought give the best argument about the role of technology. I have simply leaned on him because that is as far as I will take this discussion in this particular essay.

    My original subject was that we have lost a vision of the past because we are trapped into thinking that somehow the more current thoughts, styles, philosophies are superior to the past. I think my biggest problem with the left leaning anarco-eco movement is that they tend to judge all of the past by a rather narrow set of current criteria. And that would be a fairly good example of what I was actually trying to discuss.

    Now that is as far as I will follow these ideas pursuant to the essay above. It really is my considered thought that they have little to do with the idea of considering the past as a country with rights of its own. In another context I would be happy to slug it out. But in the interest of anyone who has braved this far into the post and was hoping to discuss the past, history or time, which are the real subjects enclosed, I will leave this here and save the discussion for another day.

    This isn’t meant to be offensive.

    Rather I am reminded of what a preacher once told me: When you’re teaching the book of Genesis you aren’t required to teach the book of Revelations at the same time.

    Thanks for contributing all over the place though.


    April 22, 2011 at 7:44 PM

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