No More 5AMs: On Trash Television, Suits, Disco Demolition, and Cryptids
This morning, I had a wake up at 5AM. This has been a thrice-weekly ritual for me during the semesters, because I've been given 8AM classes, and I like arriving early to make sure that things are working properly (the IT department on my college's campus has been severely understaffed for a while – where are all those young people's tuition payments going? And, while we’re wondering, are the kids going to be okay?)
This is the last 5AM I have for the foreseeable future – I'm not coming back next semester, as Edgar and I are moving. While I don't like waking up early, I think being up early is quite nice: in the dawn light, during what John Steinbeck called “The hour of the pearl” in Cannery Row, there's a pleasant, unfinished quality to the world. Almost like a level in a video game that isn't done rendering: a sense that anything can slide into existence, remade and renewed. Of course, the effects on my health are more than I like. Falling asleep at 9PM, and becoming incoherent for a time before then, has taken its toll. I already have enough bad habits, I don't need this on top of it.
But I will miss that sense of newness.
I think (and correct me if I'm wrong,) that we all do, from time to time. Because while we're all perpetually future-shocked, shipwrecked on the shoals of current events, none of it feels new. This is part of what I was trying to get at with that piece I wrote on the Utopian Impulse: a drive to escape the world as it now exists.
There's been precedent for this in the past. The Vedic Religions – Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism – hold escape from the cycle of reincarnation as their desired end goal, as did the ancient Greek Orphic movement and its derivatives, including (ultimately,) the Gnostics.
In more contemporary times, you can see similar things in phenomenon of European settlers in the Americas defecting away from their countrymen to “go native.” You can see it in the emergence of science fiction and fantasy, in the occultism of the late 19th and early 20th century, and in the blossoming of the counterculture of the 60s.
But as I can see it, something happened in the twelve years between 1968 and 1980 (largely during the almost culturally nonexistent decade of the 1970s.) During this period, something of a renunciation happened, and the rising tide of libidinal outpouring was replaced by Ronald Reagan and Cheers. This isn't to say everything stopped after 1980, but there was a break, an aesthetic discontinuity between the 1970s and 1980s, around the time of the emergence of the neoliberal economic paradigm that currently dominates economics departments and the minds of people who see vaping as a personality trait.
I recently took it upon myself to do a bit of unscientific research and try to figure out what all happened around this time. Please note, I'm not being terribly rigorous here, and I'm not proposing anything like a causal connection here.
So, just a random smattering:
Film and Television. As far as I can tell, before the eighties, local television predominated – there were, of course, national networks, but with the emergence of Cable News in the 1980s, and the FOX channel after that, the mindshare for local channels – the home of such things as late-night B-Movie and art film showcases – declined. Culture was made much more standardized and sanitized, brought into lockstep in a way that hadn't existed before.
Suits. I don't know enough about fashion to fully articulate the point I want to make here, but I'm going to try, because this is where I first noticed it. During the 1970s, men's suits had more elaboration and more novel features (Some, like wider lapels, I think, were good; some like a double back vent, I think couldn't die soon enough,) while in the 1980s, men's suits more closely resembled those of the 1950s. There was this sharp turn towards a sack-like fit, padded shoulders, and a frankly boring palette (making everyone look like children playing dress up.)
On the other hand, ridiculous as it seems to us now, during the 1970s, people wearing suits at least looked like adults. They had to pick a suit that fit them, and there were a number of patterns (many, I reiterate, looked terrible, but as a man who occasionally wears a suit, I'd like the option at least.)
The Death of Disco. We all associated disco and the 1970s, but it's interesting to note that on the wikipedia page for “music of the 1970s” the word “disco” appears nine times and the word “rock” appears 124 times. We can probably peg this to a particular date, unlike everything else I'm discussing here – July 12, 1979 was “Disco Demolition Night”, which was a baseball promotion in Chicago, where a crate of records brought by attendees of a double header was blown up between the two games (those who brought a record received their ticket for less than one dollar.) The field was so damaged by the explosion that the White Sox had to forfeit to the Detroit Tigers.
Not only that, but after the explosion, many of the 50,000 person crowd charged the field in a mob and had to be dispersed by the police.
The anti-disco backlash is commonly (and in my mind, correctly) thought to be an out growth of specifically white toxic masculinity – people of color, queer people, and women expressed themselves through disco, and this was squashed.
Cryptids and UFOs. This is the strangest one – but I've noticed something odd about this. During the 50s, 60s, and 70s, there were urban legends about cryptids, reports of UFO sightings, and weird happenings. While these haven't vanished, they sharply dropped off, despite (or maybe even because of!) the preponderance of media featuring these things.
Please note, I'm not saying “all the cryptids vanished!” or “the feds killed bigfoot!” or “the cryptids have been ghosts all along!” anything like that – I'm saying that the fact that these reports have slowed to a trickle is weird. Much weirder than anything that they actually reported, and the fact that this happened around the time that there was a major renunciation in elaboration in men's fashion (possibly the biggest since the French Revolution. I don't know, I'm not a fashion historian,) and a backlash against freedom of expression by queer people, people of color, and women (categories that I want to acknowledge overlap.) And all of this happened around the time the modern economic paradigm came into being, there was a sharp conservative turn in western politics, and the global community had its first intimation of the sort of ecological crises that we see today.
I think those things are related.
I think that some kind of tendency, drive, or energy – not a mystical energy, not really, but a sociological energy, a sort of trans-personal libido – has been blocked since about the period I'm talking about, and some parts of our society, I think, have gone septic without it.
So whatever this energy is, it's key to what I'm calling the Utopian Impulse, because when I'm talking about that, I'm not talking about imagined places or perfect worlds, I'm talking about that tendency within us to try to reach for it. The Utopian Impulse is the part of us – as artists, as critics, as viewers, as radicals, that's trying to reach Outside and close the spark gap with that energy that's been blocked.