On Vanity Fair’s “You Say You Want a Devolution?”

• about 600 words

Cultural recycling, the future is the past, and disruptive design.

In January 2012, Kurt Andersen wrote an article titled “You Say You Want a Devolution?” for Vanity Fair. This rather long — but epically written — essay is about cultural recycling.

This arti­cle was also pub­lished on Medium.

In Jan­u­ary 2012, Kurt Ander­sen wrote an arti­cle titled “You Say You Want a Devo­lu­tion?” for Van­ity Fair. This rather long — but epi­cally writ­ten — essay is about cul­tural recy­cling.

It depicts the cur­rent cul­tural land­scape (of the US) as one of stag­na­tion; one which, in con­trast to the tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ments, offers noth­ing new, just remakes of styles and recy­cled trends from the decades before.

“We seem to have trapped our­selves in a vicious cycle—eco­nomic progress and inno­va­tion stag­nated, except in infor­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy; which leads us to embrace the past and turn the pre­sent into a pleas­antly eclec­tic for-profit museum; which deprives the cul­tures of inno­va­tion of the fuel they need to con­jure gen­uinely new ideas and forms; which deters rad­i­cal change, rein­forc­ing the eco­nomic (and polit­i­cal) stag­na­tion.”

Ander­son shows this (among oth­ers) by describ­ing two para­doxes. The ‘First Great Para­dox of Con­tem­po­rary Cul­tural His­to­ry’ being that in the last two decades no new styles have emerged and every­thing is a remake of the past, or as he puts it:

“The past is a for­eign coun­try, but the recent past — the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s — looks almost iden­ti­cal to the pre­sent.”

That means, time travel back twenty years and nobody would notice you. (Now we prob­a­bly know why Sam Beck­ett from Quan­tum Leap had such a great suc­cess at fit­ting in every­where.)

The sec­ond para­dox, he points out, is the obses­sion with style in the last decade, which com­pletely con­tra­dicts the lack of inno­va­tion in the same field (‘hip­ster­ism’) and iron­i­cally works in con­junc­tion with new tech­nol­ogy.

“Now that we have instant uni­ver­sal access to every old image and recorded sound, the future has arrived and it’s all about dream­ing of the past.” – Kurt Ander­son

He even goes so far and spec­u­lates that this may be evi­dence of a tran­si­tion into a devolv­ing — instead of evolv­ing — soci­ety, as it hap­pened in his­tory before (decline of Egypt, Rome, etc.). But, psy­cho­log­i­cally speak­ing, he points out that this styl­is­tic decline may also be rein­forced or even caused by the rapid changes in other fields (like tech­nol­ogy, econ­omy and the awak­en­ing global aware­ness of pol­i­tics), which dis­rupt peo­ple’s lives so much that they want to be com­forted by tra­di­tional styles and by a world that at least still looks the same. We live in post-mod­ernism, which, con­trary to the times before, offers no direct moral guide­lines, but over­whelm­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties. And, as Ander­son observes, this works in tan­dem with big cap­i­tal­is­tic cor­po­ra­tions which profit from this steady styl­is­tic demands with­out fear of get­ting “cre­atively destroyed.”

This arti­cle struck a nerve with me, as I think of myself as hav­ing (most of the time) an indi­vid­ual style. But then again, I’m wear­ing plaid shirts with blue jeans and lis­ten to Rock and Metal music from when I was­n’t even born. I think it’s an enrich­ing expe­ri­ence to reflect on one’s own life after hav­ing read this. Because most of it cer­tainly is true. The big ques­tion still remains though: What can we learn from this? What can we change?

This is where a sec­ond, intrigu­ing arti­cle comes in, which was actu­ally the rea­son I read “You Say You Want a Devo­lu­tion?”.

“Fuck Design, Let’s Set The World On Fire” by Bobby Solomon refines the thoughts men­tioned above and comes to a con­clu­sion which should inter­est every designer: He blames design, which accord­ing to him, is the pixel-per­fect, overly-pleas­ing and non-dis­rupt­ing cousin of expres­sive and inno­v­a­tive art. His solu­tion:

“We need to do things that seem fucked up and weird […] I know our gen­er­a­tion can cre­ate rad­i­cal change, we just have to hurt and bleed and fight and scream to make it hap­pen.” – Bobby Solomon

(This review was writ­ten in Jan­u­ary 2012.)