Soft Surreal Barnyard Fantasies, or, Revival

             So in the previous post I engaged, with great brevity, this cultural trend of fascination with old-timey objects, leading to this kind of logic that old-timey nouns (e.g. “fifty-cent piece”)–>anachronisms–>nostalgias, however you want to interpret those arrows, dear reader. Well, I want to pick up on that again. Claro.           

            By “old-timey” I think I am really referring to the first half of the twentieth century, and, more specifically, to farm-ish, rural kinds of apparel, tools, musics, values, and ultimately mythologies. I’m talking about Cracker Barrel, and who would of thought, but this culture, at least as I see it, is rearing up full throttle in the hearts of our largest cities and of the most urban peoples among us. You see it in clothing, in the dingy flannels, huge knit hats and tough canvas pants and bags and whathaveyou. You read it in writing, all the sparrows that fly through all the rafters in all the poems.You see it in the beards, the care-not haircuts, the keys latched to belt loops. You hear it in the resurgence of bluegrass, jug bands, and especially folk music. And you see it in design, the hand-stitched (oh yeah, knitting and crocheting) and the wood-carved, or the facsimiles thereof. My point being, all these examples point to an increasingly ubiquitous, contemporary style that in many ways defines a subsequent counter-culture. 

            Now, there a few things to be certain about with this. 1. I feel a personal affinity for this culture, mostly because my own contrived identity was/is so close, so I really don’t mean this in any chiding or jocular way, at least, not yet. 2. This is a particular sect of urban youth and is not any more or less important than hip-hop, club, punk, hardcore, etc. Certainly, in fact, it gets interwoven and diluted among these other cultures and definitely varies in intensity according to an individual’s commitment. 3. On this point, like many youth cultures, it is strongly centered around musical taste, a very reductive definition/history of which is a return to melody, vocal harmony, lyricism, and the heartfelt and true that were so derided by musics of the nineties, alternative stuff that promoted a view of the world as hopelessly vapid and monetized (caveat: gross generalizations up in here, also), and which concluded that any sincere response to said world was in fact merely naivety. Or perhaps that the only sincerity was in the insincere. Hmmm, at any rate, one successor to that (i.e. nineties alternative culture) is this blowback ruralism, which at this point is firmly present. 

            But what I really want to get into is more specific, an aspect of this culture that I will call, for the time being, Soft Surreal Barnyard Mythologizing. Several times a year, my neighborhood explodes in an arts & crafts frenzy, filling streets with EZ Ups and beer trucks and stages and the like. One of the best reasons to live in Chicago is for these events, and as much as I can I make it to them, all over the city. But my neighborhood’s festivals exhibit the culture I am trying to get at with particular tenacity, and what I have found most interesting, quite specifically, at these art fairs, is the staggering amount of woodland and barnyard animals I see printed, etched, stitched or otherwise represented on whatever product, all number of small birds, cats, squirrels, rabbits, owls etc.—a veritable Charlotte’s Web. Now, it’s not merely the presence of so many animals—hey, animals are neat, always have been, and I hope always will be—more it’s the design with which they are so often rendered, this kind of softness, I think the proper term is illustration, so we get a style much akin to those in animated bucolic adventures like Watership Down. So my question is, where did this come from? 

            I have many explanations, and most of them place this trend in a fairly complicated maelstrom of cross-vectored nostalgias. Shall I make a list? 1. Nostalgia for the time period when such animated features were prevalent, late 70’s through the 80’s (which, in turn, most often, were remembering back another 30-40 years)—as in, precisely when the people embracing this culture would have been children. 2. Nostalgia for childhood through animals (do I need to explain this? Kids love animals). 3. Nostalgia for childhood engagement with animals as metonym for the rural homeland, the farm-from-which-one-came-to-the-city (if even that history is merely cultural, that one in fact was raised Schaumburg). 4. And perhaps most importantly, nostalgia for this place as seen through the opiate-like lens of remembrance and invention, the dark annals of childhood, the glorious, innocent, learning-heavy, seemingly pure engagement with something (animals) that is truly Other, which, in turn, provides a kind of self-learning and self-development (I do not have fur, so what do I have?). My point being, when I carry a tote bag with a big, illustrated owl on it, I am in fact taking part in a kind of surrealism that is a result of near tectonic forces of nostalgic layering, for a thing itself, for a thing I did not in fact have but feel I should have had, and for the very media that has convinced me of this. So no, I am not Robert Hass or Gary Snyder or Muir or Leather-Stockings or Chief Seattle or whatever—my renderings of nature are not so close; they are instead guesses at nature that have been filtered through assumptions and culturally propped-up aesthetics, and the mark of this filtering is apparent. 

            The reason I’m being such a littler pisser about this, beyond the obvious reasons that “nostalgia” seems unarguably pejorative, that nostalgia is deceiving, is that it is also really CONSERVATIVE and distracts us from the larger, pressing issues of what it means to be an ADULT, among other adults, making decisions, being social and human and dealing with a far wider array of Others than the farm-dream can ever afford. The other issue I have is that I can’t help but feel that this culture is entirely ironic, that people are drawn to it not because it’s rural but because, in fact, it’s urban, in a really edgy, self-effacing way. I find all of this powerfully fascinating, and I very much like neo-cultures and all the complexities they bring. But I also cry caution. We are appropriating, but more importantly, we aren’t looking in the right direction.

2 thoughts on “Soft Surreal Barnyard Fantasies, or, Revival

  1. Great post dude. Along these lines, do you think there is an argument to be made that news reading and writing is inherently a liberal exercise? What I mean is, if nostalgia is conservative, does that mean that to be conservative is to ignore or suppress change? And that conservatism discourages interest in the events of the present day? Or do you not mean conservative in the political sense so much? How many more questions can I fit in this field? Maybe none.

  2. Thank you Jay! You get at a really interesting point about nostalgia and, perhaps more so, conservativism. I mean a very bare bones conservatism politics-free (if that’s possible)–simply, as a preference for the past as the ideal state of affairs. And of course I mean the problem with this is that it MIGHT “discourage interest in the events of the present day,” though that argument is much less tenable with this particular group. But one could certainly argue that the narcotizing effects of nostalgia inhibit one’s ability to think in a forward direction, and short of specific examples, I do think this happens among rural-y hipsters. Of course, you can see odd inclusions of conservative thinking in more prevalent and established liberal movements, like the move to organics or local foods, which I think is viewed as a progressive-return kind of oxymoron. Perhaps the lesson here is that the conservative/liberal dichotomy has lost a great deal of purchase as the availability of lifestyles and requirements for ethical living have become larger and more complicated. News reading and writing is a bit of a different beast, since it is presupposed by facts 🙂 and deals largely with current events. The past is only relevant in news insofar as it is helps explain something happening now. I would argue that the future likewise has such a prerequisite. So I don’t think news writing is inherently liberal but in fact attempts to straddle them, as so many members of the news media, perhaps anxiously, stress.

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