Comments on “Invented traditions and timeworn futures”


Invented traditions

Hi David,

I very much enjoyed reading this part of the Meaningness Book. Since you posted the link to it you already know it’s similar to thoughts I’ve had about our modern traditions.

I think you leave out another important countercultural force from your account though. And that is the Neolibertarian conservative business men and women, especially in the USA, sometimes called Neoliberals (though they are thoroughly illiberal), or NeoCons. They were rebelling against the liberalisation of America since it brought with it new constraints on doing business (for example environmental legislation or minimum wage) that threatened their profits and dividends - hence the way of the future is mythical “free markets” that magically set the right price for commodities without “interference” from government or bleeding heart liberals (and ignoring the $billions spent by business in lobbying government).

Sadly the Neolibertarians were rather more effective than the politically ‘left’ leaning counter-cultures and now dominate politics and economics. They were successful partly through imitating the organisational structures of the left, partly through using wealth as leverage (endowments to universities, think tanks to employ graduates and keep their favourite memes in the media; and crucially ownership of media), and partly because, when it looked like the might be overwhelmed at the ballot box, they made common cause with previously apolitical Christian fundamentalists (united by a hatred of secular liberals and not much else). When, for example, NeoCons adopted “family values” they were harking back to a past that never existed (Jesus broke up families and encouraged children to rebel against their parents).

It would be interesting, in particular, to look at how these businessmen redefined debt and indebtedness, thereby completely changing the economic landscape. It was a social evil until the 1970s and then it was rebranded. Banks make money by charging rents on notional money (money not backed by reserves, but simply agreed to exist by everyone involved). Since the 1970s personal indebtedness has increased exponentially from a very low base. Banks and others parasitic on this process have become fantastically wealthy.

When Wired Magazine trumpeted the “Long Boom” back in the 1997 ( , they were recycling propaganda from the High Priest of Debt, Alan Greenspan (Sect of the Treasury and former Goldman Sachs executive). They subtitled the article “A History of the Future”. The long boom was a kind of time worn future (maybe?). In any case the popular view was that this boom fuelled by unlimited indebtedness would go on forever, that the art of economics had been entirely reinvented. In fact they were mining future wealth and spending it now - and the logic can only mean that the future is impoverished. Japan discovered this earlier than most places as they have been in economic recession or stagnation more or less continuously since 1990 precisely because of the scale of individual and business indebtedness.

After a long hiatus following WWII, recessions became regular features of our economies in the 1970s; each was worse than the previous one, because each time some residual debt would carry forward. The one we’re still recovering from (with roots in the collapse of Lehman Bros from too much debt sold to those who could not afford it) is not the last. Debt bubbles are building again in the industrialised nations, China is heading down this route much faster and the conditions for a much worse recession/depression are almost systematically being put in place.

In the sense of your “modes”, I suppose we could say that globalisation has meant that large multinational companies no longer belong to nation states. Most Zaibatsu pay minimal tax anywhere in the world and have no loyalty - moving capital and plant to where labour is cheapest (often the third world). Atomisation in the sense that corporations become laws unto themselves. Also in the Ayn Rand inspired “everyman for himself” ethos that many of these business types express. I gather Rand is still very popular in Silicon Valley.

One more thing there is a broken link from “1960s–80s countercultures”.

The dualist ("right") counterculture & atomized politics

Hi & thanks for this comment!

The missing link is to a page that I’ve drafted but not yet completed, about the “countercultural mode.” It suggests that the “Reagan revolution” was structurally similar to the hippie movement, and that the two have non-obvious similarities. This “dualist counterculture” of the 1970s-80s included the rise of the religious right in America and the supposedly-conservative economic policy of the Reagan administration. (Thatcherism would be the British manifestation, although it mostly lacked the religious and cultural aspects.) My analysis has much in common with the points you make here.

I agree that the expansion of debt is a huge problem, and that banks are largely parasitic evils, given license and subsidies by states to extract huge wealth in exchange for negligible services. After the events of 2008, I think most people agree with this, which means that the lack of any serious attempt to address the problem is a sign of democratic failure.

I will suggest (in a subsequent page) that this failure is (as you also suggest) due to the present atomization of politics. Politics is now driven by tiny shards of meaning—decontextualized “issues” that provoke strong emotions but do not cohere into any useful program. These “issues” are amplified briefly by the media (MSM and social) but cannot result in meaningful change.

This distraction is highly convenient for the powerful economic groups that mostly control state policy.

timeworn futures

Steve Alexander's picture

There’s a Mark Twain interview where he uses the expression “an old idea with a new coat of paint”.

“When a critic goes to a play and then goes and writes about it that it wasn’t based on a new idea, all he should mean is that the old idea didn’t have a new coat of paint.”

Invented Nostalgia and Timeworn Subculture

Kris's picture

Vaporwave is the most Gen Y art movement I’ve seen so far, so I think it is the most important contemporary art movement.

What is Vaporwave? It’s an informal meme genre based on inventing media that looks like half-remembered pop merchandise you found in a bargain bin, while you were in a shopping centre at 10 years old, being blared with muzak and advertisements through partially faulty Japanese electronics.

It is primarily sample-based, presented in a juxtaposition of conspicuous construction and the glitchfest of faulty electronics, and has had success in spawning multiple subgenres and has successfully entered memespace. It is not yet mainstream, it’s still partially in meme in-joke status, but it’s making extremely speedy traction.

Here are some examples of Vaporwave work, to get a picture: - Most people’s entry point into the genre. A sampling and repeating of “Its Your Move” by Diana Ross, a contemporarily irrelevant song. It sounds nostalgic, it’s warped and Gen Y hasn’t heard it before. Instant classic. Note the bizarre album art. Bonus points for Gen Y trolling the official “Its Your Move” youtube page and saying they prefer the slower original version. - Fan music videos, this guy has made two vaporwave music videos of other artists work, and very clearly demonstrates the deadly sincere, tongue-in-cheek nature of vaporwave. - SimpsonWave

For a slew of images, just search “Vaporwave Meme” in google and enjoy.

To compare, I will describe the timeworn subculture of is an imageboard board dedicated explicitly to cyberpunk media, cyberpunk ideas, and non-explicitly about exploring their relationship to contemporary technological and cultural anxieties as best as cyberpunk nerds can. They also playfully use 90s/early 00s timeworn cyberpunk slang, most notably schway(Batman Beyond). They are knowingly participating in a mythologised pop-media view of high tech low life, and that is quite schway.

I would like it if /cyber/ had more presence and relevance in contemporary memespace, since pink mohawks and green text terminals are schway as drek, but it is far too subcultural, coherent and specific of a vision to hold contemporary sway.

Vaporwave is so successful in contemporary atomisation because of its accepted incoherence, its almost anonymous and decentralised nature of production, resonance with half-remembered media from 10 years ago and degraded media from 20~30 years ago 15 years ago. It makes for very potent meme fuel, and has a natural affinity to Gen Y’s feeling of incoherent displacement and comfort-seeking media consumption.


Awesome! Thank you! Very much apropos. “Sunday School” is some sort of minor masterpiece, I think!

X-punk, for any X, is subcultural almost by definition. Punk was the original subculture, and “X-punk” is a nostalgic attempt to claim affinity with it. So cyberpunk is very much subcultural.

Seapunk” is an interesting partial exception. It’s right on the hairy edge between subculture and atomization. Probably basically an atomized-mode parody of subculturalism. (Hat tip to Rachel Haywire for pointing me at this.)

“Schway” I had to google—first time I’ve encountered it!

Hi David,

Matt Isles's picture

Hi David,

When on a tour around the Palace of Westminster last year, I found it very amusing to hear how it was built in the Victorian era, the Neo-Gothic architecture specifically to give the illusion it’s some very old Medieval building - like you said, legitimising the system.

I thought you might be interested to know that, due to the asbestos in the building, there’s going to be major works on the Houses for a few years. In that time, the main proposal is for the two houses to sit on a temporary boat-chamber on the Thames! Is this fluidity in action?!

(In all seriousness, I think perhaps the English system of ‘organic’ contract law may be a genuine example of fluidity - as opposed to the ‘top-down’ systematic law of the EU…)


English common law

I think perhaps the English system of ‘organic’ contract law may be a genuine example of fluidity - as opposed to the ‘top-down’ systematic law of the EU.

Yes—I gather that Hayek made a cogent argument to approximately this effect. I have read only summaries of that, but it seems right. Common law emerged out of an interaction of pattern and nebulosity, and continues to function as such an interaction.

(The contrast between the British and EU legal systems is interestingly parallel to the contrast between the British and Continental versions of Enlightenment philosophy—Hume and Smith vs. Descartes and Kant, say.)

Although… one needs to distinguish between emergent phenomena and meta-systematic fluidity, which reflects upon them. That is, the common law corpus was emergent but not fluid in, say, the 1600s. Not fluid because, although it had arisen without top-down design, there was not yet much reflection on how it operated.

Royal Traditions

Sasha's picture

I’m confused….????

“The “tradition” of British royal ritual had mostly been invented over the previous fifteen years, and the Coronation was mainly new.”


“Of course, Britain had had genuine royal ritual, presumably for as long as it had had royalty. “

A royal lapse

I’m sorry if the article was unclear. The tradition was allowed to lapse, and then reinvented more-or-less from scratch.

Cranberry sauce

Bunthut's picture

Ligonberry jam (which I did not before making this comment know were different from cranberries, but a per the internet tastes almost the same) is pretty good actually. Its commonly served with game or schnitzel, I would say I eat it 20-50 times a year.

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