- Nostalgia is a powerful factor in the development of new ideas and policies. As long as people have memories, nostalgia is a perfectly natural response to an environment that's gradually become uncomfortable, even hostile. It provides us an escape from reality just as much as it presents an attractive vision for redeeming the future by ushering a return to a more virtuous time and place. Since we tend to remember things in fragments, there is a deliberate selectivity in what we want recall, which makes nostalgia an exercise in incomplete image-making. Even if the details of what we remember have never been forgotten, it doesn't ensure that we understand very well what really happened at the time.
Lindsey argues that this nostalgic view of the post-war period is misguided, as it fails to take into account social and geo-political context unique to that time. While economic inequality was less dramatic, the unequal treatment between blacks and whites, men and women, union and non-union, corporate cartels and entrepreneurs helped make it so. Cultural and social changes since the late 1960's have made it impossible to return the supposed glory days of the 1940's and 1950's. In addition, a world war that destroyed the industrial competitiveness of Europe and the eventual rise industrial competitiveness around the globe ensured that the good ol' days of highly-paid manufacturing jobs and a growing middle class were to due to expire from the start. Lindsey explains that the economic policies pursued in the 1970s and 1980s were not part of a plan to destroy the post-war era of prosperity and social harmony, but as a response to its inevitable exhaustion due to a changing reality beyond any one actor's control.
Beyond providing a broader perspective about the overall issue of inequality, Lindsey's article is valuable as a quick primer on the economic history of the last half-century. It illustrates the connection between cultural values and economic phenomena, and that the success of a policy is only as good as its reflection of the culture that surrounds it. As values change over time, it is only prudent that goals will have to be reassessed as well. Likewise, what was once considered a problem in the past might be an advantage today, so it is reasonable to pose new questions for new times rather than applying the same old questions for a different set of circumstances. Inequality today means something quite different in the world fifty years ago, especially when seen in the context of absolute wealth and standards of living. Pursuing an abstract social goal like equality risks ignoring more tangible needs of the day-to-day life of average people.
Although Lindsey's article considers the short-sightedness of nostalgia in economics, there is a correlation with recent architectural discourse (but of course!). For anyone who has followed architectural trends in the last 40 years, it is obvious that nostalgia for an idyllic past has been a major influence on building design. Whether it is in the historicist strand within architectural postmodernism or in much of the work of the New Urbanist movement, there is an overt desire to restore the look and feel of a distant time and place. This is usually done in complete detachment to the reality of the current context, as portrayed by the juxtaposition of highway with speeding cars next to a lifestyle center designed in a style that originated from a time when streets were designed for pedestrian traffic and horse-driven wagons.
Just as nostalgia is memory based unrelated fragments, much of the historicist design is only skin-deep--elaborate facades made of thin veneers of foam insulated stucco or masonry veneer supported by a modern framework of steel and concrete. Instead of being connected to larger contemporary notions of space, time and transparency, the historicist project tries to recreate a fragmented reality all to itself, as an escape from an overarching reality that is beyond anyone's control. Just as we are bound to choose memories that recall pleasant feelings, erecting pseudo-European renaissance villages in modern-day suburbia is our way of choosing a happy reality that is completely of our own imagining. It's not as if there's any public will to bring back monarchies, guilds, philosophical humanism and a triumphant church hierarchy and other major influences on our beloved architecture.
Or maybe that's the point. After all, nostalgia is manifest in post-modern or post-structuralist reaction. When language, symbols, images or meanings aren't what the seem to be, when truth is relative depending on one's perspective and power, when context is what you make of it, maybe the superficial application of historic styles is the most 'honest' way expressing the reality of our times.
- Another article that I came across interested me less about its subject- Walmart - than the valuable nugget of insight into a major problem that affects American society today. Charles Platt, a former editor at Wired magazine, went undercover to see what it was like to work at the world's largest retailer. Beyond his observations about the efficiency of the way Walmart operates, and the highly autonomous decision-making on the salesfloor, which are both well-known, I was more taken by his restating of an obvious fact that is often ignored when debating the pros and cons of Walmart (a personal note: I don't like to go to Walmart- the dull decor and mediocre selection turn me off ). Writing on the relative low wages paid to workers (which are still better than many other retail outfits), Platt briefly summarizes the concept of value in the determination of wages:
- Finally, there was a short piece referring to one of my favorite films- Amadeus. Even though it first came out in 1984, this masterpiece by director Milos Foreman never tires from the dozens of times I've watched it, primarily because it offers one of the most compelling views into the mind of an artist. Especially near the end, when Mozart dictates his Requiem Mass to Salieri while on his deathbed, it is fascinating to watch the composer (brilliantly played by Tom Hulce) describe the piece's underlying musical structure while completely overwhelming his rival's comprehension. "Give me time..." yells Salieri, begging Mozart to slow down so that he can catch up in inscribing the notation, not realizing that this musical genius' life on earth was already running out of time. That's the nature of the creative mind, which has no respect for time and which tumultuously works through ideas and details on its own before ever putting them to paper.