Imagine if all of human culture was represented by a single book, and the maximum size of this book was more or less fixed. Each generation would create their own version, but expanding the book would not be an option. If you wanted to add new knowledge, ideas, beliefs and practices, you would have to remove other pages to make space. Forgetting would then be the vital counterpart to inventing.
The question is: in producing your own generation’s version of the book, how much would you choose to copy out from the previous generation’s books? And how many blank pages would you have for new human ideas? This was a practical question in the days of copyists. Libraries of codices, or books, as we now know them, were perishable and expensive.
Our records of the early centuries of Christianity are reliant on which records the Vatican and other authorities selected to be actively copied and stored, again and again, in their archive. There are substantial records from this time relating to the Council of Nicaea. Yet the heresies excluded from the Church at this time – for instance, Arius, who questioned the nature of the Trinity – are largely known through a few quotes used against them by their detractors.
There is nothing politically or psychologically simple about forgetting. A point made with great dexterity by Jacques Derrida, the deconstructionist philosopher, who explored the role of remembering and forgetting in Archive Fever (based on a lecture given – suggestively – in The Freud Library).
Your answer to the ‘how many new pages’ question will sit between two extremes. At one end is the ‘nothing new is valid’ conservative position. There are American Republicans who believe that, since climate change falls under the broader question of God’s providence, we don’t need to concern ourselves with it. (One who thinks exactly this happens to chair the House Energy Committee!)
At the other end of the spectrum is the ‘blank slate’, futurists who believe that everything we once thought we knew is wrong and should be swept away in the name of progress. A viewpoint that is arguably responsible for the spiritual, nutritional and architectural deserts that are today’s cities.
In between these two positions is where most of us will sit. In fact, our present time is probably characterised by a retreat from blank-slate futurism to a kind of middle way. But at which end do you sit? I imagine we all vary on this, personally and temperamentally. And we may not be consistent – for instance, in our liking for both futuristic gadgets and arty-crafty homes.
The green movement tends to sit at the conservative end. Greens are stereotypically anti-science (nuclear, GM, fertilisers and antibiotics, for example) and pro ‘back to nature’. It’s a different sort of conservatism to the Republican right wing – it’s a villagey, pastoral and romantic tradition. So that greens are generally anti-hierarchy, anti-organised religion and anti-corporate, while political conservatives are often pro all of these. Where they have found agreement, interestingly, is in new mutualism and localism; the ‘Big Society’.
But the green movement is, in general, anti-economic growth and in favour of turning back the clock to reskilling, crafts, localism, community. There has been a recent reaction against this, with Stuart Brand, Anthony Giddens and others arguing that the impending crises in energy, climate, food, water, biodiversity and so on require innovation, not retreat. But are these perhaps exceptions that prove the rule?
The current fascination with eclectica maybe needs to be looked at in the context of this question. I am a big admirer of the sheer creativity that goes into the ventures founded by such pioneers of upcycling as Worn Again, ReIY and Elvis & Kresse. But the founders of these ventures themselves will tell you that they see these as interim measures. They are designing reuses for waste when there should not be any waste in the first place. And they are increasingly getting involved in designing a first generation of products with their second and third lives firmly in mind – the workman’s jacket that is always intended to become a cycling bag in its next incarnation – as prescribed in the seminal book Cradle to Cradle (Braungart & McDonough, 2002).
I have been a fan and advocate for these and other similar upcycling businesses. But I can’t help feeling doubtful, too. Is fetishising the familiar really a way forward (as with retro, pick-and-mix, bricolage). Can we ever remix away our problems?
I see postmodernism – as the overarching cultural trend behind all this – as always potentially decadent; the signs of a society that has lost its way, is regressing, is eating itself. The remix culture is always on some level as dumb (even if as funny) as the famous display in the 1990s Tokyo department store of a crucified Father Christmas. There are also concerns about all this as surrogate consumerism – the methadone being offered to us by charity-shop chic. And even within conscious or conscientious consumerism there are other choices that can be made; like living well with less, treasuring the durable, voting with your wallet, and so on.
What I suspect we need is a much deeper remix. Human beings are not a blank slate, and we do seem to need familiar, or perhaps even archetypal, forms and cultural patterns to find what’s in front of us livable. (If we learned anything from 20th-century design, it is that too much novelty in our living cultural environment is alienating and lacks both human feel and intuitive sense-making.)
But irrespective of how much apparent change is comfortable, we are going to need to get through some drastic changes. So we need to found these remixes upon much more radical alternatives to the status quo. Instead of clothing what is plainly a destructive way of life in hippy garb, we need to find something akin almost to a new world religion or political idea – one that feels right but also dramatically changes our course from impending oblivion to at least an inkling of hoped-for improvement. This is not impossible; there have been many such revitalisation movements in recent cultural memory, from Gandhi to Gorbachev.
We need more than a reworking of our designer lifestyle accessories in delightful new combinations. We need to mix and match capitalism and communism, cooperation and competition, love and greed. We need to devote at least some of the massive resources – not least of human energy – that we waste on the epic human hamster wheel that is the global economy, to creating genuine progress.