The Future All Over Again


THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – September 20, 1999


The Future All Over Again

THE IMPULSE BEHIND MODERNISM was to embody the sensibility
of the present moment, not some woozy recapitulation of the past. One of
offshoots, however, was a kind of set decorator’s futurism, a picturesque
sci-fi aesthetic driven by the assumption that if today looks spiffier than
yesterday, then tomorrow is sure to look even spiffier. The future was thus
designed in detail during the middle third of the century, particularly in
the sixties, with NASA space capsules and astronaut suits, the New York World’s
Fair, mod Courrèges shifts, “Star Trek,” and—finally,
definitively, in 1968—Stanley Kubrick’s “2001.”

Immediately thereafter, with the rise of be-here-now
Luddism (health food, macramé, Earth shoes), followed by disillusioned post-hippie dystopianism
(the movies “Blade Runner,” “Brazil,” “Mad
Max”), any kind of hopeful speculation about the shape of things to
come seemed corny and uncool. Instead, fashion designers (and artists and
architects) in the nineteen-seventies and eighties were virtually obliged
to rediscover and rehabilitate historical styles: long slim skirts and jackets
with big, Joan Crawfordish shoulder pads; expressionist and figurative painting;
pediments sitting on Corinthian columns and loggias made of stone.

But the pendulum swings. The computer revolution
and the endless bull market on Wall Street have made technological optimism
respectable and even chic again. As if on schedule, here in the anteroom
of the new century we find that we’ve been equipped with the pocket
communicators and tiny lasers and big-screen videophones of Tom Swift and
Captain Kirk; as far as accessories go, the future is turning out more
or less as promised.

Fashion designers, however, don’t seem to be up to the task of reinventing
fashion for the new millennium. On the eve of the year 2000, they are returning
to nineteen-sixties conceptions of the future: this season, we are being
pitched “futuristic” fashion that looks vaguely 1966 because
the mid-sixties were the last time the future was conjured in earnest. As
we finally stand on the threshold of the future, it’s being marketed
as a form of crypto-nostalgia. The future? Been there, done that.

For their final collections of the twentieth century,
nearly all of the most ferociously with-it designers at least dabbled in
sci-fi a-go-go. Alexander McQueen created shiny circuit-boardpatterned
catsuits, and put them on runway models who had been groomed to look like
extraterrestrials. Daryl K showed hooded black balaclava tops that turn
women into utterly fab nextgeneration commandos. This last round of fashion
shows was like “Austin Powers,
Part 3,” in which the hero winds up in the twenty-first century, but
played straight, without jokes.

It’s not just fashion designers who seem cowed by the challenge of
creating evocations of the new century which are actually new. At Disneyland,
executives considered various schemes for updating the section of the Magic
Kingdom that simulates the future, but they finally gave up; henceforth,
Tomorrowland will be presented as a strictly nostalgic view of the future.
The futuristic heroes of “Men in Black” dressed and acted like
circa-1962 cool guys, and worked in a cool-in-retrospect circa-1962 headquarters.

These “Groundhog Day” games of endless replay are by now a familiar
syndrome, a kind of obsessivecompulsive disorder afflicting the whole culture.
For the last quartercentury, pretty much every realm of art and entertainment
has been trapped in its own self-referential loop. The cultural landscape
has begun to seem like some vast M.C. Escher panorama, a slick, airless,
and slightly maddening Möbius construction that, no matter how clever,
almost never takes us to wholly fresh places, to destinations outside the
maze, where things look and smell new. It’s time. ©