I indicated before that I would not blog about Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head because his content is too close to things I already blog about plenty. However, I would like to bring one thing — one thing! — out of his book:
It is fashionable to scoff at the idea of a “privileged” moment in culture (for example, the Baroque era for organs, or the decades before the 1990s for automobiles) that is better than any other moment. Let it be conceded that the orchestral organs of the early twentieth century must have swelled the worshipers of that time with an aesthetic-religious experience no less real than that of their Baroque predecessors. To speak of decadence, then, smacks of nostalgia, that thought crime that popular writers are quick to detect in anyone who glances backward.
Yet our low regard for nostalgia often seems not to rest on some substantive standard of excellence, in light of which a preference for the past is seen as missing the mark, but rather expresses idolatry of the present. This kind of “forward-thinking” is at bottom an apologetic species of conservatism, as it defers to and celebrates whatever is currently ascendant. [p. 222]
Crawford’s remarks here are an aside, not really part of his main arguments. Yet he describes well our knee-jerk disdain for tradition and the past, which I previously blogged about here. This particular idea is of significance to me not for its musical associations, though his example of Baroque vs. 20th-century organs offers an obvious musical connection (about which Crawford discusses only craftwork, his pet project, skipping past purely musical and aesthetic considerations). Rather, Crawford is right that the nostalgic frame is regarded as no less than thought crime, especially by technophiles easily impressed with gadgetry. Accordingly, the accusation of being a Luddite or not “with it” resounds in the ears of anyone without the latest electronic accouterments. Crawford puts the lie to that notion fairly handily in the course of the book. I find it curious, too, that he turns the word conservatism on its head.
Since the time of my initial post, however, the dilemma of ceaseless, destabilizing flux has taken on new dimension (at least from my vantage point). Whereas the argument used to be mostly about those who felt they were being left behind by a culture always on the move (yet surprisingly not so when one looks deeper), it has now also become about individuals losing themselves to ideation. Crawford’s subtitle speaks to this directly: on becoming an individual in an age of distraction. From time to time, I point to The Compulsive Explainer (see blogroll), who also circles around the idea of people now being nothing, nonentities, absorbed in and by their machines, especially the computer. To go just a little further, this is what it also means to observe that the U.S. has progressed out of agrarian, manufacturing, and service economies into an information economy. Progress is the wrong word, of course, but it encapsulates what I have been saying for some time now, namely, that we’re living in our heads, in a world of our own imaginations rather than in the real world of things.