On Reactionary Cute: How Childish Images and Nostalgia Hack Our Minds
(CW: Child abuse.)
In the piece I wrote clarifying the Utopian Impulse, I quotes from George Trow. Specifically the passage:
“Adulthood” in the last generation has very little to do with “adulthood” as that word would have been understood by adults in any previous generation. Rather, “adulthood” has been defined as “a position of control in the world of childhood.”
Which I shortly followed with the statement that “Ambitious Americans, sensing this, have preferred to remain adolescents, year after year.” I feel that this deserves greater analysis. I've read a number of pieces on this recently, and find it an especially profound insight.
In the piece "The Babysitters Club" by Jesse Barron, written for Real Life magazine, which examines "cuteness in the service of power-concealment". Largely, the article is concerned with the more personal side of things – the services and agencies that make use of these design tools don't respect their customers. Barron identifies the catch-22 of the situation late in the piece: "My frustration with these apps only tells me I'm becoming the child they're informing me that I am. That's the scary part, a dignity so fragile that a cartoon hamster breaks it."
I discovered this piece through A baffler piece by Rachel Hawley, entitled "The Corporate Logo Singularity", which was subtitled "Against the creepy cheerfulness of a thousand smiling san serifs". In this piece, Hawley, a graphic designer describes the movements within the graphic design world around the creation of logos. She examines the trends away from serif fonts and toward bright colors, and examines the broad effect of them, noting that "Taken individually, any of these wordmarks might effectively communicate the intended quality of friendliness and approachability; together, their cheerfulness is downright creepy, like the painted-on smile of a clown's face." She makes the move that Barron didn't, looking at the broader social implications, writing that
there is the idea that simplicity signals trustworthiness. This is, of course, misguided—the devil doesn't actually need that much detail to hide in. But the central aesthetic function of the minimalist-kindergarten-utopia style is to euphemistically downplay the increasingly terrifying amount of power that multinational corporations and tech companies wield over us.
My read is a bit different, because I encountered Trow before I really took the time to examine these pieces or what they write about corporate logos and interface design. This is, if anything, a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem – did we regress to a childish state and invite this treatment, or did this treatment make us children? Barron (and by proxy, Hawley) seem to suggest the latter. In light of Trow, I feel it is mostly the former.
However, as I've talked about previously, you have to take both Cultivation Theory and Reception Theory into account: we shape the culture around us, and the culture shapes us. Then, the next stratum of culture responds to the shaping, it's built from it, the foundations are bolted to that bedrock. We're in a situation where we've been sold the building blocks of a childish identity, and then advertisers and corporate creators are saying "kid stuff is in right now, let's try to cash in on that", reinforcing the trend.
The basic idea here is articulated in the first chapter of Simon May's book The Power of Cute poses the central question: "cute is colonzing the world. But why? And why, so explosively, in our times?" He waxes on about the uncanny and indeterminate qualities of cute, but one of the most pressing things he asks, in that question-asking chapter, is "What if . . . the explosion of Cute reflects one of the great developments of our age, at least in the west: the cult of the child?" Which he then follows up by saying "For the child is, I suggest, the new supreme object of love, which is, very gradually, replacing romantic love as the archetypal love."
May argues that the locus of sacredity for western culture is now located in childhood, and states that this has caused a breakdown of sorts: the boundary between adulthood and childhood has not simply grown porous but has been breached altogether: adults are now given license to act childishly, and children have their worlds invaded with adult concerns (consider the gray statesmen denying climate change is happening, and the children delivering speeches to the UN calling for action to be taken.) While I think this is a fairly adept read, I think there is an important clarification that needs to be made: while childhood is sacred, children are not necessarily sacred – otherwise no one would be fine with our government putting them in cages.
This exploded boundary explains a good deal – like why so many men love to play dress up as soldiers, buying tactical everything in matte black. It's the same aesthetic they were sold as little boys when they wanted to be adults. It also provides a grounding for the pernicious fascination our culture has with teenage sexuality: if there is no force to the division between childhood and adulthood, then there is no perception of transgression from the subject (the loss of a proper concept of transgression only makes it more difficult.)
One might ask how we got here, but that's a topic for a historian (May's book seems to be a good trailhead.) If I were to have to venture a guess, I would look to the addition of liminal states between child and adult: the teenager, the "emerging adult", and so on. Another suspicion would be the emphasis placed on youth culture since the 1950s, and especially the youth culture of the 1950s and 1960s. If your life is effectively over at 30, then of course you're going to live in denial about being over thirty, of course you're going to tell war stories about what you were doing when you were nineteen, of course you're going to lie to yourself.
Reinforcing this infantilization, beyond the simple emphasis on "cute" is the issue of nostalgia, which Edgar and I have been writing about a lot lately, and which one of our intellectual forerunners (here's this piece's Mark Fisher shoutout) wrote on extensively. The longing to return to childhood emerges as a powerful and unavoidable sense of nostalgia, but it is a desire that can never be truly satisfied: you can never see Star Wars for the first time again; you can never re-experience the first time you listened to "Strawberry Fields Forever"; you can never play the first level of Super Mario Bros. for the first time ever again. But, much like an addict seeking to recapture the bliss of oxycodone in a syringe full of heroin, we can't bring ourselves to stop repeating the ritual.
And it is a ritual: Nostalgia is, at root, magical thinking. By reenacting the past, we somehow think that we're able to recapture the feeling of the past, to go back to the point where we were when we first said the words and made the gestures. But not even memory works like that: it isn't a faultless record of the past, it is a recreation of prior events in imagination. Remembering is remaking. But none of this allows you to recapture the feeling, because you're only creating a syntygmatic variation on the paradigm of events. The past is unreachable, but very real.
And yet we keep trying to strip-mine it, searching for the materials to create an eternal, perfect shopping mall where it is always the exact moment you first saw the movie poster for Shrek and you're about to go and meet with your friends in the food court, because that's what you do with shopping malls.
My own suspicion is that, as Grafton Tanner writes in Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts, our current Nostalgia-addiction is fundamentally a reactionary trend. One of the main points Tanner makes, early on, which is closely related to the ideas of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine (which I am reading now), is that the first decade of the 21st century was littered with shocks to our collective system – 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 Financial Crisis – and we have retreated into comfort as a reaction. This is the Smart-Phone-as-security-blanket model of contemporary culture, but it's only an intensification of forces already present. Even before the first tower fell, there was an inability to move on from the past. I was born in 1986, and in all four decades I have been alive, the '80s were in, as sure as a skipping record is going to repeat a meaningless phrase with inhuman precision (look for our forthcoming analysis of Stranger Things; which we’re watching now. Time is a flat circle, we're all liars, and nothing means anything.)
This brings me to another work I've read in the past few months, Yale University Professor of Philosophy Jason Stanley's landmark How Fascism Works, which connects each of its ten chapters to one of the ten traits of fascism he has identified. The first of these is "The Mythic Past", and he asserts that "It is only natural to begin this bok where fascist politics invariably claims to discover its genesis: in the past. Fascist politics invokes a ure mythic past tragically destroyed." In short, fascism is nostalgic – and it's easy enough to make the jump from an appreciation of the past to the reactionary statement that "the past was better."
In short, while nostalgia is value-neutral in moderation, it is difficult to reach a reactionary mindset without nostalgia.
I'm reminded of another passage from Trow:
During the 1960s, a young black man in a university class described the Dutch painters of the seventeenth century as 'belonging' to the white students in the room, and not to him. The idea was seized on by white members of the class. They acknowledged that tehy were at one with Rembrandt. They acknowledged their dominance. They offered to discuss, at any length, their inherited power to oppress. It was thought at the time that reactions of this type had to do with “white guilt” or “white masochism.” No. No. It was white euphoria. Many, many white children of that day felt the power of their inheritance for the first time in the act of rejecting it, and they insisted on rejecting it and rejecting it and rejecting it, so that they might continue to feel the power of that connection. Had the young black man asked, “Who is this man to you?” the pleasure they felt would have vanished in embarrassment and resentment.
In short, nostalgia as we currently understand it (not in the classical, and very important, sense that Edgar mentions time and again,) is a feeling of (potentially conditional) ownership over something, and it is this entitlement that leads to reactionary thinking. The perception of possessing a right that does not exist leads invariably to feelings of resentment when that right is not respected – as it shouldn't be, because it doesn't exist. In short, nostalgia is in many ways the opposite of history. It is saying "this is mine", without asking "what does this mean?"
The issue of cuteness and infantilization that I began this essay by touching upon feed into this. We're sold nostalgia, day in and day out, whether it's tickets to go see a multi-billion dollar movie based on a merchandise-driven franchise from the '80s or a prestige television show about sexism in the '60s ad business (which the audience will invariably read as "wasn't it glamorous to be a rapist in the 1960s?") When they sell us cuteness, they're selling us personal nostalgia. They're selling us the memory of a time before real responsibility, they're selling us the memory of being powerless and free from responsibility, or a time before you had to buy your own toilet paper.
So what does it mean to be sold your own childhood in 2019?
Our desire for a simpler time is carved up and packaged and sold back to us, intensifying it. This intensification is robbing us of our ability to deal with complexity, and we live in a time when we have to learn very fucking quickly to deal with complexity, or we are going to die. Understand that if you long to go back to being a child, understand that the best case scenario is that someone will make you watch the adventures of those class traitors in the Paw Patrol, and the worst case scenario is being abused by a pedophile border control agent while you're in an American concentration camp. Neither of those is a desirable situation, but children can't fix it. Only a responsible adult can, so maybe it's time for us to be responsible adults.