Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

Our other 1950s

Why the new 1950s-themed threads? Recently, I’ve been finding something strangely fascinating about the 1950s. Perhaps a picture will help explain.

Kotula\'s 1960 poster shows American road construction in the heroic style, reminiscent of socialist realism. To me, at least, this version of commercial design as a neon-inflected industrial heroic is bizarre, but also oddly inspiring. Now, the 1930s were also a time of inspiring aesthetic and political movements: but perhaps too inspiring. The inter-war years had a level of radicalism I find difficult to imagine, and so it seems to me that any left-wing enthusiasm for the 30s runs a real risk of being nostalgic in a paralyzing way. What’s so interesting about the 1950s is that many of the things that appear so radical in the 1930s—technological progress, social democracy, modernist design—reappear in the 1950s as banal. I’m a fan of the banal in general, but especially in this case, where the imminent future of modernity appears to be in the process of making itself immanent, overlapping with the most trivial advert for swimsuits or ham.

What underlies this cultural shift, I think, or part of it, is that the 1950s had to deal with being the time in which the dreams of the 1930s came to pass, in William Morris’s sense:

But while I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name (A Dream of John Ball).

Whether through the construction of institutions that, if you squint, look a bit like socialism, or through consumerism’s fruition as a kind of neon simulacrum of the realm of freedom, the 1950s flickered between a genuine victory for collective social projects (the NHS, for instance), and a strangely nightmarish parody of the socialist vision (the job for life). The 1950s, then, were the end of history not as peaceful decline into senesence, but a terrifying combination of stasis and uncertainty.

Hence the 1950s’ particular attitude to the future. It’s not an accident, I think, that the flying cars and jetpacks that populate the future that seems to have gone missing are largely inventions of the 50s; our idea of future kitsch comes from the fact that it was in the 50s that the future became kitsch. The future as neither a grand and heroic telos, nor as an unattainable absurdity, but something else, or both at once.

But why resurrect the 50s now? Because perhaps we are still living in the 50s, in two senses. We live with an image of the future and a concept of futurity that was developed in the 50s; but we are also experiencing a sort of repetition-as-farce of the 50s. If the 50s were the period in which the dreams of the 1930s were, in their way, achieved, are the early years of the 21st century not the period in which the long neoliberal dream has finally achieved its full triumph? A rather parodic triumph, to be sure, as the market economy begins to fail even by its own curious standards. In which case, the 50s can be a useful reference point, a period of  both stasis and creation dialectically dependent on one another, and a reminder that the time of the end of history is not the end times.