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Cultural Indicator


Many evolutionary biologists believe that our hands — a biological marvel unique to the human species in sheer nuance and breadth of structure and capacity — actually co-evolved with the use of stone tools in a remarkable gene-culture co-evolutionary loop. Which means that these evolutionary biologists would not be surprised to learn of Etsy’s recent valuation at over $600 million, and its meteoric rise during the past few years as millions of twitching fingers finally found an outlet.

It wasn’t always like this. Not too long ago, making things by hand was mostly for poor folks who couldn’t afford to buy stuff other people had made, or for grannies who grew up during the Depression and carried their knitting tics into the 1980s, when their lumpily color-clashed hats and scarves (the sorts of accessories that are now coveted by hipsters worldwide) would languish in the recesses of their grandchildren’s closets — far too mortifying to wear in public. There was also the contingent of people who never stopped making mawkish gewgaws to adorn the thin walls of their suburban homes and keep their Precious Moments figurines company — the type of tragic woman vividly skewered in classic Onion character Jean Teasdale, who searched for beauty and life only where Hallmark and Disney told her she could find it. And we mustn’t forget the upper classy ladies who never stopped practicing the genteel arts that served as indicators of their copious amounts of leisure time (and hence the financial prowess of their bourgeois husbands) — their enthusiasm for tasteful needlepoint, embroidery, and porcelain painting persisted unscathed through the 20th century.

But what about the hip young “craftivist” whose entire lifestyle is built around a DIY sensibility? She had a brief macramé-tangled, tie-dye-stained run in the late 60s and early 70s, but she was too busy defying the feminine mystique and proving her workplace prowess in the 80s and beyond to pick up a knitting needle or recreate a Victorian cabbage rose in silken floss, stitch by painstaking stitch.

Demographically, Etsy’s millions of sellers and buyers are overwhelmingly young, female, college-educated, and childfree. Although there’s no shortage of unironically mawkish gewgaws to be had on the site, some of the top-selling vendors inhabit a completely different aesthetic space —the edgy, kitschy, biting, macabre and surreal (check out the SweetHeartSinner shop if you can’t visualize this). So what happened in the early 21st century to bring about this new breed of crafter, not to mention their “maker” brethren who tinker in hackerspaces with metal, wood, and 3-D printers?

The Marxist would say that what we’re witnessing today is a natural result of late capitalism. Similar to the artisanal food revival, the modern-day DIY renaissance stands in strong counterpoint to the “buy shiny new stuff” movement, which soared in post-war America and hit a fever pitch during the Big Brand era in the 1980s. The roaring (or sputtering) engines of capitalism want people to buy new stuff, more stuff, bigger stuff, better stuff, in order to continue to fuel the fire. There is nothing more threatening to a widget business than a growing group of people who can make their own widgets. Hence the subversive attitudes of a lot of contemporary DIY folks — they are warriors as much as their Gen Y farming counterparts.

We evolved to use our hands to make things for ourselves — useful and beautiful things — and what’s happening now is a full-on re-embracing of the deep and primal pleasure we get from hands-on creation. Marx wrote extensively of the alienation that was an inevitable result of capitalism, and his insights were quite prescient. Something inside us goes terribly awry when we spend our days working to make things we do not personally care about or benefit from, and when we spend our days consuming things we did not create, things that were created by indifferent people managed by predatory people. Something goes dead and numb within us, and the alienation builds, and we drug ourselves to ease the pain. But we can only be disconnected from our labor for so long before something must change. Marx didn’t live long enough to witness the shift from late capitalism into the DIY revolution, but I’d like to think he’d be pleased at what he saw — perhaps handing out leaflets at Occupy encampments and striding through Maker Faires in sheer delight.

Clearly, commodity fetishism is still alive and well, and an exhumed postmodern Marx would find much to grumble about, Etsy valuation notwithstanding. But there’s so much energy around the DIY movement right now that it’s possible to envision the beginnings of an entirely new sensibility emerging. Where is this all going? If we look to the bleedingest edges of this indicator, we see some fascinating glimmers. Some DIYers have moved beyond the world of handknitted hats and postmodern chokers. They’ve sidestepped Etsy — that halfway house for commodity fetishists — and are going further and deeper into the realms of the handmade. There are two significant currents here at the tips of the fringe: the hackers and the paleos. While the hackers happily embrace new technology, learning to weld and wire and work with 3-D printers at hackerspaces where people share tools and skills and ideas, the paleos retreat into the wilderness to learn lost skills like flint-knapping, hide-tanning, shelter-building, hunting and gathering, and starting a fire from scratch. At Maker Faires worldwide, both types can be found happily coexisting, united in an urge to become self-sufficient amidst the carnage of late capitalism. As long as we still have our hands, we might just make it out alive.

Why cultural indicators?

© egg, 2012. Excerpt from upcoming book by Hilary Bromberg, The Birth of Neonaturism.