Yesterday, Vox published a first-person essay detailing the anachronistic existence of two insufferably twee hipsters who live as if they were insufferably twee 19th-century urban gentry. Fuck these people.
Please read the article first, but in summary: Two assholes decided to live like extras in The Knick, and defend themselves against their haters by espousing the simple pleasures and ethical superiority of wearing a corset and not having electricity. The couple, Sarah A. Chrisman and her partner Gabriel, live in a “Victorian port town” in Washington state, and have slowly divested themselves of modern amenities like refrigerators, heating, and any social awareness. By stripping away modern amenities—they frame this as “study” of “history”—they have become “mindful” of everyday life, and they “increase their awareness of their surroundings and the way things they use every day affect them.” Chrisman writes of how wearing 19th-century clothes makes her aware of things like “posture, movement, [and] balance,” sounding like ad copy for Shape-Ups, which are similarly based on 19th-century scientific principles.
To conclude the article in the most tone-deaf way possible, Chrisman writes of their perilous existence that “[they] know the world is a cruel place for anyone who doesn’t fit into the dominant culture.” Yes, truly, the gauge of society’s cruelty is the plight of wealthy, intentionally self-marginalized whites. Fuck these people.
Perhaps they’re right. Maybe they’d be happier in an era when they could more easily flourish in the “dominant culture,” like the 19th century. Since they regard themselves as such students of the time, I’m sure they’re prepared to engage with the full spectrum of the “dominant culture” of the Victorian era, including such popular contemporary pastimes as epidemic disease, famine, slavery, lynchings, imperial aggression, and anti-Semitic pogroms.
Then again, maybe not. Neither of these two nitwits actually engages with the culture of the time. (Chrisman posted an article on fucking Vox, for Chrissakes; she’s not staying in and studying her phrenology textbook.) Almost all of Chrisman’s engagement with the past is through her experience with the “authentic” material goods and trappings of the period: She and her partner ride stupid old big-wheel bikes, wear stupid wool clothes (EVEN TO THE FUCKING GYM, GOD, FUCK YOU GABRIEL), read by the flame of a stupid oil lamp which I’m sure isn’t at all a fire hazard, and hand-hew table legs to think about modern disposable culture, or something.
Which is fine. There’s a lot to be said about the wastefulness and disposability of modern consumerism. But these arguments championing the materiality of the past are pretty revolting when they willfully ignore the context in which those materials were created. (“Those Hugo Boss uniforms the Germans had were so stylish!”) Were she an actual inhabitant of 19-century Victorian culture, the cotton for those covers Chrisman writes about painstakingly stuffing would have been farmed on slave plantations and woven by fingerless children in sweatshops. The rubber for the tires on her and (fuck Gabriel) Gabriel’s stupid bikes would have been sold by genocidal rubber barons in the Putumayo who shot Indians for sport. The entirety of high Victorian culture was based on the premise that British culture was exceptional, and British culture was exceptional because it conquered and dominated much of the known world; Victorian culture was colonial culture, and there is no separating the two. If you want your icebox fridge, you have to accept that it would be stocked with food taken from starving Indian peasants mixed in with a Lithuanian’s severed thumb.
Victorian culture didn’t emerge from a vacuum; it was the cumulative product of centuries of imperialism expressing, brutally, the notion that the white British aristocracy were the only people who mattered, and that everyone else could be crushed under the wheel of their stupid bikes. For that matter, the couple’s quaint naïveté about the era is, itself, positively Victorian—in much of the same way that the 19th-century British liked to think they’d just tripped and fallen dick-first into a global empire.
There is no value of lived experience generated from this exercise, which is so devoid of the actual context for the Victorian-period trappings it fetishizes that these two would have been equally served privilege-LARPing the life of a moisture farmer on Tatooine. There is no authenticity in of any of this. Have they been checked for typhoid lately? Has Gabriel (fuck Gabriel!) been drafted to fight in the Boer War? Does Sarah come from a family of landed nobility to live such a life of leisure? Did Gabriel (fuck Gabriel) get his arm torn off in a shuttle-loom accident when he was 14? These people are the anti-vaxxers of modernity, except they actually have vaccinations, so they don’t have to worry about dying from polio. They are anti-tech Silicon Valley libertarians who believe identity is derived from what stupid shit you surround yourself with, regardless of what horrors brought it to you.
This isn’t only ignorant, or revolting; it’s also bad history. Studying a source without contextualizing it means inventing a context for it—in this case, the rose-colored notion of a simpler and more “proper” time—that will inevitably be wrong. As we’ve seen, this sort of idealizing of an imagined past ... well, it tends not to work out so well.
I want to send these people a hundred years into future to meet another couple who fetishize the previous century like they do, and to see them discover, with horror, that yesterday’s Victorian sophists are tomorrow’s teen Vine stars and Dan Bilzerians. The past is garbage. More to the point, Sarah Chrisman and Gabriel (fuck Gabriel!) do not need to cosplay 1874 to experience the pleasures of a life privileged with abundant space for mindfulness; one concerned with bicycle rides and dress-making and blossoming into one’s “true self”; one in which the world visits no greater cruelty upon them than the occasional sneer at an oddball sartorial choice. They already have that life—it has already been gifted to them by centuries of compounded privilege bought by the death and struggle and oppression of others, and they emphatically are not rejecting it. They imagine that they found it in the trappings of the past; virtually everyone else who has ever lived—nearly everyone alive now—has had to settle for hoping their descendants might arrive at it in the future.
Fuck these people.
Follow Adam Prosk on Twitter @adprock.