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August 06, 2002


Bruce Sterling's website, Viridian Notes has a list of books recommended by members of his mailing list. A few of them, on the face of it, seemed interesting, so I reserved the ones I could from the library. I just finished scanning one, and I'm disappointed.

Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic {The Aesthetics of Consumerism}, by Daniel Harris, held some promise, on the title alone. But it turns out the guy just rubs me the wrong way. I admit to enjoying writing a snide essay now and then, but this book is one long snide diatribe. As an example, he treats the notion of 'quaint' by giving his views of the Society for Creative Anachronism. They are unflattering, but they are also unfair:

If historians seek to know the past intellectually, those who revel in that most ahistorical of aesthetics, quaintness, seek to know it sensually, not through knowledge but through atmosphere, stripping it of facts and mining it for sensations. Quaintness focuses squarely on the physicality of Olden Times, on their creature comforts, and is therefore set more often in the nineteenth century than the Middle ages, which bring to mind cold flagstone floors and drafty, smoke-filled dining halls draped with mildewed tapestries, whereas the nineteenth century conjures up images of toasty Christmas interiors, brisk sleigh rides and cups of piping hot cocoa.

Sure, read the SCA homepage, and you get the full-blown rhetoric of "researching and re-creating pre-17th-century European history." But talk to people who actually partake of their activities, and you see it's a lot more varied and complex than that. Friends I knew who were in the SCA were avid hobbyists. They knew the era SCA dwelt in, but when they participated in events, it was recreation in the restorative sense, not the historical one. They knew this. None of them was dumb enough to think that the Middle ages was a picnic. Conversely, their SCA outings were just that, and they knew it. So Harris basically takes the marketing pamphlet and has a field day with it.

This book reminds me of the time I was reading The Socratic Dialogues lo these many years ago. I found myself becoming ever more irritated the further I got into the book. Finally I asked my wife, "how come these guys never ask him any smart questions?" In other words, it's easy to make the other guy look like a rube when you are the one putting words into his mouth.

Posted by dpwakefield at August 6, 2002 09:53 PM