A 21st Century

The Rise and Fall of the Eclectics

Illustration — The Eclectic Trap
The term ‘eclectic’ was first coined in reference to a group of Greek and Roman philosophers who chose to buy into doctrines from different schools of thought, rather than commit to belonging to one recognised school. Eklektos, (ἐκλεκτός) translates literally to mean ‘picked out, or select.’1 In some aspects of progress, this approach to thinking appears logical for a civilisation or movement that has become developed. For once the path travelled by collective thought hits a plateau, perhaps it is only natural that it should wish to relax and spread itself out.

However on the eclectic path forwards, hiding amongst the initially seductive pick and mix style, are distractions that can lead the inexperienced creative thinker to places where indecision and inconsistencies are all but guaranteed to occur. Their path of course routed here from the very beginning by a lack of initial direction or focus. If not careful, the eclectic thinker risks getting sucked into a network of rabbit holes, which ultimately leaves them lost amongst the endless possibilities.

Even the best thinkers can fall victim to eclecticism’s trap, and the unwary become effectively disabled by the luxury of choices available. At best, seasoned eclectics continue to solve problems by simply glossing over the details and obscuring the real issues with shiny irrelevancies. Whilst short-term solutions can achieve short-lived harmony, they do so largely at the expense of meaningful new discoveries.

Therefore a weakness of eclecticism, at least within the design of objects, lies in its potential to lean in the direction of indulgence, pulling on a designer’s whims to create what they like, or even what the board members ‘think they want’, over necessarily what’s most relevant or needed. These diversions have powerful allure, so much so that we’ve been wasting precious time trying to perfect predominantly outdated modes of living.

Whilst preoccupied in the tweaking of ever more minor details, and deluged by a tsunami of new technology, we’ve allowed an entirely new set of design problems to stockpile around us. If nothing else, this era of cultural stagnation has proved that progress is difficult, when you’re busy looking sideways and backwards at the same time.

Within societal structure too, as time passes, eclectic thinking can cause significant harm. The collapse of the Greco-Roman era of civilisation was not purely the result of over-expansion or increasingly bold Barbarian attacks.2 Some historians suggest part of the cause of decay was due to a metaphysical disease – metaphysics being the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time and space.

The largely pagan world of the time, where people worshipped multiple gods like Artemis, Athena and Apollo, was struggling to keep alive its own convictions. This was because philosophers at the time began to confuse what the true convictions of the faith and system of gods were. The thinking became increasingly ‘eclectic’. The more different schools of thought were embraced, the more the structure that held these civilisations together began to fail.

The collapse was therefore rooted not just in decay, but also in the distinct absence of clarity. Likewise, the stubbornness of the powers in control didn’t help, for they failed to adapt and agree on which singular belief system to progress with next. Largely thought processes of the mind, or ‘intellectual thinking’, had turned the destiny of a whole empire towards a downward spiral.

On a hot and wet summer’s day at Woodstock ’94, a hip hop outfit called Cypress Hill from South Gate, California, arrived on stage to an excited and already caked-in-mud crowd. After performing ‘Cock The Hammer’, and only 11 minutes into their set, the singer B-Real turned to the 350,000 strong crowd and announced: ‘They say we’re generation X, I say we’re generation fuck-you.’

It might have been Woodstock ’99, which ended in a shower of glass and wall of flames, but here in ’94 was the first Caesar-esque stab in the festival’s back. Five years later a second attempt at the festival’s rebirth descended into the widely documented chaos that meant it would never return to the same upstate New York town, coincidentally called ‘Rome’. Discordian, postmodern, punk, and self-destructive in nature, this first verbal flash of a knife was also a poignant warning sign to a generation beginning to follow belief systems which had not just lost their way, but as Woodstock ’99 proved, were beginning to totally cave in on themselves.

Four years later Lauryn Hill recorded a track called ‘Lost ones’ in Kingston, Jamaica. The song, whilst reportedly a dig directed at her former Fugees bandmate and ex-lover Wyclef Jean, also celebrated with grand irony the wider artistic stagnation of this postmodern era.3 One line became a poignant soundbite, sampled, played out, scratched, rewound and remixed to dancehall crowds worldwide: ‘Everything you did has already been done.’ It was to inadvertently become a motif for a generation now officially gazumped by their own postmodern culture. A generation widely celebrating eclecticism, resampling everything, and happily retreading artistic, cultural, and intellectual ground already very well trodden before.

This same generation whose minds B-Real captured back in ’94 is much the same generation that has continued on a path of global warming, coral bleaching, overfishing and species extinction in the full knowledge it was on this damaging path. In the summer of 2017, the sight of luxury cars and businesses burning during the G20 meeting in Hamburg was watched by newly settled Syrian and Egyptian refugees with utter bewilderment. ‘They are crazy. I can’t believe my eyes,’ said Mohammad Halabi, a Syrian who had arrived in Germany as a refugee some 18 months earlier. ‘They have such a beautiful country and they’re destroying it.’4

Acts of self-harm like this could perhaps be viewed less simply as overt anarchistic violence, and more deeply as ironic symbols of a whole generation which is lost, and therefore willing to actively do great damage to itself. Each car set alight, a bright visual alarm bell of its time. Lit not just by flames, but also by the smartphones of passers-by on the global social media stage.

The self-sabotage on display here serves as an effective metaphor to the damage we’re also knowingly inflicting upon our own planetary home. Likewise, it poignantly reflects the prevailing absence of sufficiently meaningful new ideas about the direction that modern society should take next. Perhaps this is because long-term eclectic thinking is a form of laziness that eventually encourages self-parody. In some ways we are all complicit, because it is now capitalism’s turn to become the belief system that is fresh out of ideas.

Whilst eclecticism can be useful to an artist making cultural commentary, and also a lot of fun too. Eclecticism as a creative path into the future will always be flat, simply because it spreads itself so wide. To quote Professor Brian Cox: ‘Civilisation needs an exciting new frontier as well.’But in order to keep progress and innovation moving, it helps if the edge of progress is pointed and clear in its principles – to quite literally help cut through all the crap. This can come in many forms, from a philosophical viewpoint – through which people act, to a shared destiny – which a motivated group works restlessly towards.

A culture that embraces eclecticism as a way forward for too long is taking risks, because this approach also leaves the door open to its much more dangerous friend, ‘nostalgia.’ Whilst nostalgia might seem harmless at first glance, with its warm golden view of what things were like in the past, in the hands of ideologues, it is a dangerous political weapon.

Celebrating the past is something that society can thrive on, in the form of festivals and entertainment. However, in the wider context of propelling science and culture forwards, nostalgia drags stubbornly at the heels of innovation, at best providing short-term satisfaction, which is then repeated over time, to weaker and weaker context. As generations pass, this nostalgia of the mind is simply not sustainable because of the perpetually fading relevance to which it clings.

Looking backwards to the past through rose-tinted goggles, shapes our mental picture of what the past was like. Building a future on a distorted view of the past will only lead to an ever more distorted future as well. This can be especially dangerous when applied to both design and politics, and leads to increasingly cartoon-like versions of reality which veer towards the pastiche.

We see this mistake played out through history many times over. In late July 2012, the Olympic Games opened in London to a predominantly nostalgic interpretation of British history with a ceremony that glazed over hardships endured under the feudal system and during the Industrial Revolution, or even by the present day NHS, replacing facts with fraudulently romantic interpretations of the past and present. Of course, it was only for entertainment purposes, but some five years later, the British public voted to leave the EU surfing a similar wave of nationalistic nostalgia – looking backwards to the past with only the haziest notions of historical accuracy, much to the neglect of the future.

When the Joker asked Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) if he’d ‘danced with the devil by pale moonlight’, he wasn’t necessarily talking about flirting with the forces of eclecticism or nostalgia. But by somewhat ironically leaving the door open to multiple interpretations, he equally might just as well have been.

Perhaps then for us mere mortals, and for the benefits of society as a whole, it can be consistently more reliable for us to move forwards, by first acknowledging the sometimes harsh realities of the past, and staying true to only the most important details of the present. In the design of anything that attempts to boost the quality of our lives or improve the condition of the world around us, setting clear parameters at the beginning of the process relating to how it is intended to perform will be crucial to the success of how it is later judged.

A problem cannot be effectively solved, unless first there is complete honesty surrounding all the factors relating to how and why exists. This observation is particularly poignant in relation to climate change, or to any unsustainable practice. And if the aim or purpose of any ‘thing’ is muddied right at the very start of conceptualisation, then it will unfortunately only further cloud the environment to which it is later applied.

Worse than this are objects, ideas or things that serve no effective purpose over being ‘sold.’ (This highlights a flaw that urgently needs attention, regarding where we perceive there to be the most value.) Short-termism creeps in, inhibiting the potential for what we make to be truly useful or stand the test of time. From here we land on another negative side effect, namely wastefulness.

Thus, weak parameters unfortunately have a tendency to give way only to further forms of weakness, which even the best mimics and gimmicks eventually can’t hide. In the development of 1950s American mainstream pop music, this led to what New Yorker journalist Robert Rice called a ‘hodge-podge of fast-selling musical bric-a-brac.’6

The cyclical process of innovation will be more sustainable if it taps into the endless power of relevance first. Staying sincere to the problems will always lead to more genuine solutions – and at best, the creation of completely fresh alternatives. Using this approach also ensures that a more adaptable path of progress is possible. This does not mean that ideas cannot be borrowed from previous generations, so long as they are repurposed in a way to best suit the context and challenges facing the ‘new’ time.

Humanity, as it evolves, does so through the process of imagining, creating and building on a very grand scale. Some of its best inventions even come from the happy accidents that occur during this relentless process of chipping away whilst working to solve very specific problems.

The recurring dilemma of eclecticism is that when you’re stuck in a room that’s so big and full of exciting and stimulating things, it can be almost impossible to find the exit. A hundred years ago the Modernist Movement in architecture was partly a run for the escape hatch from an increasingly eclectic Victorian era full of decorative excess and gaudiness.

Major movements through history (be they artistic, economic, social or cultural) require purpose, definition and the right context. Up till now, what we’ve been lacking the most is a tight enough set of parameters to help us move forward with new conviction and in new directions. A solid launchpad if you will, or a means of framing how we ‘see’, which feels truest to the present time. Perhaps in order for us to see a new path, a few things needed to fall into place first, and a few other obstacles equally needed to move out of the way. After all, when starting any new journey, it helps too if circumstances also happen to smile.

Next ︎
Chapter 3 —
The Bauhaus Function

Credits & Notes

Wikipedia Page
‘Eclecticism’, wikipedia.org

R.G. Collingwood
cited by E.F. Schumacher Small Is Beautiful
Vintage Books (2011)

Carl Williott
‘The Story of the Fugees’ Bitter Breakup and Unforgettable Legacy’
uproxx.com (10 Nov 2016)

Kenza Bryan
‘G20 Summit: Refugees call Hamburg rioters “crazy”...’
The Independent
(09 Jul 2017)

Brian Cox
The Three Wise Brians
BBC Radio 6 (Dec 2017)

Robert Rice
The New Yorker (1953)


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