Consider the Preppie/Yuppie trend that defined contemporary culture in the 1980s. It was cultivated in the late 1960s by the editors of the Harvard Lampoon.
What an act of sedition this was. Just as the "counter culture" was installing it with Maoist ferocity, these kids were imagining a trend that would be counter veiling in every way. Hippies and politicos might be bend on constructing a world that was egalitarian, communitarian, anti competitive, experimental and innovative. Preps and yuppies didn't care. They were individualistic, mainstream, upwardly mobile, competitive, conspicuously consuming, status conscious, conventional, and conservative.
As cultural observers, as Chief Culture Officers, we want this warning early. To know in the late 60s what would happen 20 years later, we would have been as gods. Actually, we would have been time travelers. We would have found ourselves surrounded by people making life bets on the current trend, even as we knew better.
This is tough luck for the CCO who also knows that the 80s regime would be repudiated in its turn by the 90s. Poor CCOs! They can't ever commit to the moment. They see how arbitrary and unnecessary is the "inevitable." Not so much gods then as those ghosts in Wim Wender's Wings of Desire. If they haven't seen it all before, they soon will.
The question: is there a trend that feels inevitable at the moment but is beginning to lose its purchase on (and in) our culture. I think one candidate could be the local movement.
This came up as an assumption of the 1960s when people scorned corporate farms and went back to the land to grow their own. Local food networks have flourished ever since, thanks in part to Alice Waters (Chez Panisse), Jessica Prentice ("locavore"), Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon (The 100-Mile Diet), and Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle). The local movement has changed restaurants, markets, farming, and manufacturering. It has changed what and how we eat. It has transformed the lawn of the White House which thanks to the Alice Waters now sports a vegetable garden.
Why do I think this might be passing? I have very slender evidence. I did an interview with a famous chef a couple of months ago, and it was clear that he had completely "moved on." For most of us, the idea still hums with a little something, something. It is odd and interesting. It is engaging and endearing. It still feels like it belongs.
But what I heard in the voice of this chef was utter disinterest, and the conviction that the idea was well and truly over. This is a great moment for the anthropologist or the CCO, to hear someone talk about something in a way that says that its cultural potency is over. It doesn't mean that a mass redefinition is upon us or even that it will arrive anytime soon. But it does mean that its possible to think of the trend this way. And this strikes with the power of revelation. Wow. We find ourselves gasping with surprise. It's possible to be dismissive about something some many people care so deeply about? Wow.
This isn't so much "proof of concept" as "proof of death of concept." The idea that had captured our enthusiasm is shown to be just another idea. We can see it without it's charisma attached. (It's a little like that moment when we fall out of love with someone who has dazzled us. Suddenly they are just another person. Wow. Really?)
The first condition of concept death has been satisfied. Someone has seen through it, someone highly placed and influential. They have stripped it of its charisma. And now the second condition of death-of-concept can be set in train. The diffusion wave can launch. And for all we know its building even now. This creek bed looks dry enough but well up the mountain there is perhaps a consensus gathering. The smart CCO instructs his or her organization to "get out of way" and with any luck everyone is up and out of the way before the new is upon us.
Yes, I know, the local movement is attached to other powerful trends, especially those that now seek to protect and repair the planet. But this is always true. All trends have friends in high places. There are threats and dangers everywhere. Other trends wait their opportunity. Or it may be that what kills the movement is not a competitive idea. It may simple too small an idea to sustain our interest. It is, after all, mostly about "no." And ideas that are mostly about "no" tend to leave as quickly as they come. We like "no." We like "limit." But we don't like them for very long.
Now it's time to keep an eye out for other faint signals. Like this one from yesterday's Wall Street Journal in a treatment of Lynden B. Miller, one of the reigning designers of the public garden. The WSJ says Miller "has little tolerance for fads such as gardens composed entirely of native plants." And it quotes Miller as saying, "There's a big vocal movement but I do not feel pressured. I will not be pressured."
Yes, yes, I know, its a different domain. But here again is that sturdy, unstudied, disinterest in the trend that matters so deeply to others. A flat denial. An "I don't care what you say about it, it just doesn't matter." Oh, this inflicts a terrible wound. No trend survives it. The zealots will protest their outrage. The trend itself will struggle onward. But the everyone else knows that this can only end badly. And it's time for the CCO to construct an exit plan and when necessary to issue his or her most useful advice: "Get out of the way."
Kaufman, Joanne. 2009. She Creates Urban Edens. Wall Street Journal. October 20, p. D9.
I don't honestly think the local movement is done for. It just played out that way when I wrote this up. My objective was to show that we want to see through current trends.