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Feedback on 'The Cult of the New'
Bill Wright (February 2000)
"Each of us can construct our own unique post-modernist world, based on our own very individual preferences." Come off it, Michael. Lifetime choices are not laid out for us like groceries on supermarket shelves. "I'll have one of those, and maybe something from over there." Life doesn't work like that. Most of the time we are overwhelmed by happenstance. We are lucky if we can piece together an explanation of what has happened after the event, let alone being able to pick and choose our way through life. The best we can hope for is to arrive at a vague consensus that something is going on. To know what is going on is such a rare phenomena that we have no word for it in the English language.
I reply (April 2000):
"'Each of us can construct our own unique post- modernist world, based
on our own very individual preferences.' [Me - "RM13"] Come off it, Michael.
Lifetime choices are not laid out for us like groceries on supermarket
shelves. "I'll have one of these, and two of those, and maybe something
from over there." Life doesn't work like that. Most of the time we are
overwhelmed by happenstance. We are lucky if we can piece together an
explanation of what has happened after the event, let alone being able
to pick and choose our way through life. The best we can hope for is to
arrive at a vague consensus that something is going on. To know what is
going on is such a rare phenomena that we have no word for it in the English
You have misunderstood my essay. Firstly I am not talking about choices in life - I am talking about choices with respect to physical objects. In that regard we have a considerable (but not infinite) choice! NB - I might fancy a Rolls-Royce but may have to settle for a Toyota.
Secondly the whole point of the essay was the problem and pathology of an obsession with keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, and with worrying about being "left behind" because of not owning the latest things. My solution was to embrace a post-modernist ethos when the desire for the newest gadgets ceases to have significance or power.
I won't tackle a philosophy of life-choices in this mailing comment. Suffice to say - we have considerably more freedom in this regard than most of us believe. Some paths are very hard but we can still choose to take them. The usual barriers we place in our own way are FEAR and INERTIA.
Deliberate change is always possible - always remember this!
Good point that society keeps changing in order to find security, thus to some extent defeating whatever security it has achieved.
I really appreciated your image of living in a tapestry space of many decades with the objects around you. It's too easy to take this for granted. We do live in a rich time.
I found your argument on the "cult of the new" interesting ... but not necessarily convincing. I tend to embrace the new when it is (in my subjective opinion) better. We still, for example, have no microwave oven, preferring those old friendly macrowaves. But to me the problem is almost the inverse of the thesis you state: the rapidity of change has been so great that people have become alienated from the new, preferring to remain with what they know in many cases. It's the old "Ain't broke" argument again. Australia has a very good take up rate in some areas - new phones, videos etc. But where we were once the world leader in patents and inventions, we are now a world trailer and cannot find the funds in Australia even to develop the few inventions we come up with. Our money prefers takeovers and privatisations to venture capitalism.
I reply (April 2000):
You write: (A193)
"I found your argument on the "cult of the new" interesting...but
not necessarily convincing. I tend to embrace the new when it is (in my
subjective opinion) better. We still, for example, have no microwave oven,
preferring those old friendly macrowaves. But to me the problem is almost
the inverse of the thesis you state: the rapidity of change has been so
great that people have been alienated from the new, preferring to remain
with what they know in many cases. It's the old "Ain't Broke" argument
There are several ways people can behave when confronted with great change. My essay "The Cult of the New" investigated only one of them - the fear of "being left behind" and thus being unable to cope with a changed world.
Of course people can choose to ignore all this change - and continue to get along as they have always got along. This is okay - up to a point. (It doesn't feed you with high-level anxiety like the "Cult" does.)
But eventually - change affects us all. Like a bloated stream after a heavy downpour - the water will eventually reach your valley.
I'll be radical now and say that: "The real problem is not change, but that there hasn't been enough of it!" The stuff that really really needs to change - like our political and economic systems - is not being changed. And we are all suffering because of it.
An essay on "Coping With Change" might be a useful addition to a future "Reality Module."
"It is .. the irrational belief that what's new is always better than what's old". Yes, I would agree that this is a belief often ascribed to. However, talk to some architects in particular and you will be told that the irrational belief is often the converse; that what is old is always better than what is new.
I have often mused about having my very own Tardis - mostly to have the room for more books. (It has been theorised that Kevin J Dillon has the original plans for the Tardis - if not the real thing - somewhere at the back of his collection of material. Of course, if he does, he is probably the only person who can find it.)
In my abode is a CD player from 1998, a computer from 1997, stereo from 1988, a car from 1986, table and chairs from 1985, bookcases from various times and the house itself dates from the 1920s.
A "making-do" culture may not work in a growing economy, but in a world of finite resources a consumerist culture must eventually run into a dead end.
On the other hand, I'm not thoroughly convinced by your argument against the necessity of being on the Internet. Without an internet connection, long distance conversations can only be conducted by telephone (relatively expensive) or postal mail (which can take over a week each way)!
I reply (April 2000):
You write: (A193)
I wasn't saying that the Internet wasn't useful or convenient - I was saying that it is not yet an essential service. In your own mailing comment you mention two alternatives to email - the telephone & letters - which can serve the same purpose but which lack some of the time or cost benefits.
When I read about advertising being psychological it brought to mind an article I read in a book recently (sorry, can't quote the title). It seems that back in the middle of last (that really sounds strange) century the dairy industry was finding that there was an awful lot of waste in their manufacturing. They would take the fat out of the milk and use it for butter and cream and be left with "low-fat" milk. This was fed to other animals until some "bright" executive came up with the idea of selling it to people. And the "low-fat" era was born.
How true this is I am not sure but it was stated as fact. I am old enough, as are a few others in this APA to remember the days before "non-fat". All we had was milk (usually straight from the dairy via the milky), cream, butter and cheese. And, unless you had a medical reason for not doing so, that is what you ate, because that is all there was. And I think that, on the whole, the human race was a lot healthier.
I would like to add to your comment about learning the computer - "learn as much as you need to".
Don't know about yuppie artefacts, I guess that we have some packed away that we have accumulated over the years. We won't know what we have until we get the house and get everything unpacked. We do have 2 computers, 2 TV's and VCR's do they count? The benefits or drawbacks of melding two households.
I reply (June 2000):
"Don't know about yuppie artefacts, I guess we have some packed away...We do have 2 computers, 2 TV's and VCR's do they count?" [BLAZON 3 - Feb.2000]
It depends. They only count as yuppie artefacts if they are brand-new, expensive models, with modernist styling. (A wide-screen plasma TV mounted on the wall and costing $19,900 is a yuppie artifact, a 22-year old colour portable with a coat-hanger duct-taped to the back isn't). Yuppiedom isn't defined by the amount of stuff - it is characterised by the high cost, exclusivity, and style-factor of that stuff.
I don't know if it has afflicted Australia yet, but the big thing on British television at the moment is the house make-over show. In one guise or another, teams of interior designers and handymen will move in on an ordinary, unassuming house and radically transform a room, usually in two days flat, with a tight budget and to queasy effect. It is part of that quest for the new you write about, except that the transformed rooms often have motifs stolen from the past (postmodernism, I hear the knowledgeable say, but I'm not so sure - I think it bears as much relation to postmodernism as this year's Marks & Spark's collection bears to last year's designer chic). Sometimes, however, the designers have genuine talent and good ideas, though these are not always best served by MDF and the constraints of the programme. One of them recently complained on television about the rash of costume dramas that have always been a measure of some sort of quality on British TV. No matter when they are set, he pointed out, the interiors we see are always decorated and furnished to the height of contemporary fashion, the characters always wear the latest styles. But life is not like that. Visit a stately home and the rooms you see are always decorated and furnished in a melange of styles that reflect the entire history of the house. You don't get rid of a perfectly good table just because Mr Chippendale has introduced a new design. You don't go to the expense of redorating just because yellow is this month's 'in' colour. It's the same in stately homes (whose owners were so often strapped for cash) as it is in our homes. We always live in a mixture of styles, we always have and we always will.
Having said all that, there still is a rush to the future, though it is often more a steady plod than an outright dash. It's part of human nature, and goes back to what JACK was saying about 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'. We do change, we do upgrade. Things get worn or damaged, we get tired of the old, seduced by the new, we have a windfall, and so things are thrown out and replaced. And unless we are deliberately buying an antique, we tend to look for the latest specs, the most up-to-date design. In part this is simply because the latest is all we can get, older versions are no longer available. The upshot is a steady move towards the new that is driven not so much by social pressure (except in the case of fashion) as by the simple necessities of day-to-day life. If you like, we can't help moving forwards because it is the closest we can get to standing still.
I reply (April 2000):
You write: (A193)
"One of them [house interior designers] recently complained on television about the rash of costume dramas that have always been a measure of quality on British TV. No matter when they are set, he pointed out, the interiors we see are always decorated and furnished to the height of contemporary fashion, the characters always wear the latest styles. But life is not like that. Visit a stately home and the rooms you see are always decorated and furnished in a melange of styles that reflect the entire history of the house. You don't get rid of a perfectly good table just because Mr Chippendale has introduced a new design...We always live in a mixture of styles...and we always will." [Books 2. Feb 2000]
(We have been afflicted by a house make-over show - "Changing Rooms" - but it seemed so trivial I've never bothered watching it.)
I have suspected this fact about historical dramas - but lacked a sufficiently detailed knowledge of styles & fashions throughout history to be sure. Perhaps we have been creating (unconsciously) a sort of collective quasi-past to set alongside the quasi-presents of advertising & popular television.
It is this juxtaposition of rooms from differing historical periods that made my visit to Hampton Court Palace in July 1992 so deeply memorable. A chapel from Henry VIII's time - incredibly intricate carved oak panelled walls, and a high gilded hammer-vaulted ceiling - heavy beams, dark wood, impressive but also oppressive; Regency rooms - (early 18th century) - amazing painted ceilings, ornate cornicework, renaissance tapestries (grand but rather faded), lots of paintings, opulent furniture, grand carpets and drapes, high windows, mirrors, chandeliers - much lighter in tone, but too ornate for my tastes; a small suite of Victorian rooms (1840s) - dark red walls, built on a more human scale - I liked these best.
[See Dan McCarthy further down]
According to my father, the Americans had a throw away culture during World War II. Where the British would carefully repair pieces of equipment, the Americans would simply toss out parts and replace them with new parts. OPA is "new invention" a redundancy?
I reply (April 2000):
"OPA is "new Invention" a redundancy?" [Drainpipe 13 - Feb.2000]
No - it's poetic amplification!
RE: The Cult of the New.
The cult used to serve good purpose. In the old days it was the drive of science, and part of the great secrets of the Methuselah's. (Eric van Lustbader, Ninja, 1980) It does diss-service to associate the cult with consumerism. That capitalistic cult is right in being criticised for its excesses. How can the new products satisfy the cult of the new? I find this a challenge unanswered in your document.
This challenge is also the one that Faust had to cope with in the classic by Goethe. Look around you and see all the products that money has bought you. Look at all the products in an hour and they will be mostly the same, apart for a bit of dust. Only the rocks and gems show such a persistence of form! The sky outside is changing with the minute. The flowers and grass moves and changes and grows. All of nature is dynamic, and changes, and moves in its cycles. And so the use of products to satisfy the cult of the new is doomed to failure. Only natural objects can be truly new because they are continually changing.
Again, to know the new, you have to check that it was not something from the past. So there is a long road here, of knowing the past so well, that you can spot the future as it pokes through the present and becomes the past. The journey of learning the past, means watching out for all the new things, and seeing them in their context. When you are one with nature and familiar with its workings - then you can more readily spot the unfamiliar where newness is making its appearance. The journey of the cult of the new means the ability to stand between the past and the future in the present. To be un-attached as the zen teach is to be uninhibited by your possessions. The zen crafts people build things 'outside' of time on the bridge so they are eternal and classics.
You pick up on some of this in your post-modernist plea to have a variety of eras in your environs. This can serve two purposes. The first purpose can be to diss-associate yourself from stagnation in any one era or fashion style. The second purpose can be to have a turn over of brica-brac and so keep the decor continually new. Keeping to any one era or style can limit a person's world view tremendously.
It would be as bad as someone who was afraid to go onto the bridge and only stayed on one side of the river.
Wishing you all the best
I reply (April 2000):
Your comments on the "Cult of the New" are valuable. I tackled it with the purpose of divesting the consumerist mentality of its power. I can tackle mankind's need for novelty and the new in another essay. I might call it something like "The Cult of the New - Revisited."
Re: your comment to Jack-: "The stuff that really, really needs to change - like our political and economic systems - is not being changed. And we are all suffering because of it."
I agree that serious changes are needed in both spheres. However, I suspect that we would disagree as to what changes are needed. And therein lies part of the problem. When you are dealing with things like that, which are inextricably bound up with people and their lives, there will be disagreement over what is needed. As a result, change, when it happens, does so gradually. Unfortunately, it can and does often mean that change in circumstances and technology leave change in what might be called the human attributes of life far behind. I am not sure what can be done about that.
I reply (August 2000):
"Ryct Jack-: 'The stuff that really, really needs to change - like our political and economic systems - is not being changed. And we are all suffering because of it."
I agree that changes are needed in both spheres. However I suspect that we would disagree as to what changes are needed. And therein lies part of the problem. When you are dealing with things like that, which are inextricably bound up with people and their lives, there will be disagreement over what is needed. As a result, change, when it happens, does so gradually. [Ramblings 15]
It is not really a problem if we disagree on what changes are needed - as long as we can agree on what the problems are. Different viewpoints help ensure that all sides of an argument (pros and cons) are being considered. We can harness this collective intelligence.
I'm not sure that I'd concur with your 'radical' statement that there has been insufficient change, particularly in some social areas. The economic and political systems have changed, in my lifetime, but in the wrong direction and with not enough development of new coping systems.
Politically we have become more selfish and self-absorbed and are less willing to use the political system to assit those least able to help themselves. Economically we have abandoned the hybrid capitalist/welfare state model that seemed to me to be a decent attempt to move the economy and society forward together. It has been replaced by a brand of 'economic rationalism' which idolises privatised and corporatised work structures even when these are shown to be less efficient and less productive than the previous institutional structures. Downsizing of business to increase efficiency has led instead to the destruction of communities and to cycles of joblessness and depression in strata of society. Today economic correctness is far more of a problem than what is called "political correctness."
Comment to Paul Kinkaid: The interior designer is no doubt correct in fact but my opinion is that he is wrong artistically. The purpose of art is not to duplicate nature but to distil the essense of it. Drama is not a comprehensive account of all the characters' actions movements and utterances, but the unravelling of [a] significant thread of events. Anything extraneous to this thread should be included only if there is a real reason for doing so.
The settings for a period play serve to establish the atmosphere of the period. Unless it cintributes in some other way, anything from outside the time detracts from this atmosphere.
With regard to Internet usage, the 7:30 report the other day stated that only 26% of urban households had internet access, and only 15% of rural households. Therefore this "new" item has not yet been fully integrated into our society.
Like yours, our house is a conglomerate of past and present. New (or updated) computers and 2nd hand furniture. Our wealth (??!) is spent on the kids and on books - and even the kids wear hand-me-downs and hand-mades rather than anything fashionable.
RYCT me: No, they are all far from new. We have now added a laser printer and a scanner.
The computers are definitely exclusive, if you define that word as being unique.
Copyright © 2003 by Michael F. Green and others. All rights reserved.
Last Updated: 14 September 2003