Cottagecore & Frontier LARPing
Since Tumblr ceased to be the home of a certain type of internet discourse, many of the conversations that used to stay siloed on that platform have made their way onto Twitter. As this has happened, I’ll occasionally run into Twitter exchanges that are a bit baffling to me, regardless of how extremely online I may be. Here’s a recent example that I’d like to discuss.
Tweet 1: twitter leftists aren’t at all prepared for the coming wave of cottage core moodboard making tiktok ecofascist racist e-girls but that’s not a conversation anyone wants to have.
Tweet 2 (reply): it sucks so much bc i feel that a lot of the queer anarchist ppl that fall under the cottagecore aesthetic are getting drowned out by the neo manifest destiny aspirations of white trad fems who are trying to revive a white mans burden mentality with the environment.
Tweet 3 (reply from OP): absolutely yeah. with aesthetics the ~horseshoe theory~ is kinda a real thing lol. im still mad thigh high socks femboy coder light up keyboard aesthetic got taken over by fash so I feel u.
To be clear, my online bona fides are strong enough that I understood all of this exchange except for “cottagecore.” I had to look that one up, which some of my friends were surprised by. I was briefly mocked. But I’m just being honest. Here’s what I learned: cottagecore is an “aesthetic” based on a romanticized version of rural, agricultural, homesteader lifestyle, which is pretty obvious on reflection.
This conversation is lamenting that this aesthetic of acting like a quasi old-tyme farmer is being taken up by young conservatives of the more extreme traditionalist variety, even though the interlocutors see this is aesthetic as originally having been the terrain of the left. (The discussion about the ‘high socks femboy’ is basically just saying that this same thing has happened before with another aesthetic that I’m not going to bother to track down but we can use our imaginations.)
Upon understanding this conversation, I had a few thoughts that I feel compelled to share, as I think they’re important.
Since the industrial revolution, with exceptions given for some commune living, romanticizing the rural and provincial over the urban and the metropolitan has *always* been the domain of conservatism. As a philosopher, Heidegger’s provincialism and obsession with German farmers is a great example of this. Looking to Germany of that era, the Nazi’s entire “blood and soil” ethos was essentially premised on this conflict between the metropolitan or cosmopolitan, which was directly associated with rootless, wandering Jews, and the rural, which was associated with the strength and resilience and rootedness of the German peasant farmer.
Looking to a contemporary example, it’s safe to say that Tom Cotton’s speech about the superior qualities of Wyoming during the recent discussions about DC Statehood in congress was a variation of this same logic that is implicitly at the heart of cottagecore. Cotton’s praise for the hardworking, salt-of-the-earth population of Wyoming, in contrast to the transient, rootless, weak, and tarnished residents of DC is generally how this kind of romanticization is leveraged rhetorically.
This struck me as worth discussing as this discursive binary between the city and the rural (or the cottage) has been a defining trait of America since its inception. It defines the American imagination in a lot of ways. I’ll state the opposition much more directly, and you can gut check if this holds up to how these concepts play in your imagination:
“The city” is a site of filth, stagnation, corruption, weakness, and decadence.
“The cottage” is a site of strength, purity, revivification, and of noble, character-building struggle.
To understand how we ended up with this binary at the heart of the American imagination you need to understand how Americans have understood themselves and their relationship to wilderness or wildness — which is a third term distinct from the city and the cottage — since the first colonizers came over from England.
In the American imagination, the confrontation with wilderness and wildness brings us back to life after urban living has sapped our spirit. Think of early English colonizers coming from London, which they saw as decadent, sinful, filthy and weak. They arrived on a continent that they saw as completely wild and in need of taming (the same was of course true of the continent’s tribal populations, which I will return to as an aside at the end of this ‘essay’). The act of confronting the wild and the untamed revivified the spirit of people that had been weakened by the ease of city life. Once the wilderness had been tamed and brought into some kind of order that was at the service of the colonizers, we now have our cottage.
This logic is so prominent in American culture that it is the explicit reason why Teddy Roosevelt created the National Park System as manifest destiny was threatening to turn the entire continent into settled and ‘tamed’ land. The park system was intended to preserve ‘wild places’ so that boys would still have spaces to struggle and become men.
As was already noted, this fundamental dialectic of the American mythos demands that we confront the wild without letting it subsume us. Were you to embrace the wild without taming it, you would be akin to an animal or *gasp* an Indian. We have to sprinkle some civilizational seasoning on it and make homesteads and cottages. We need to tame the chaos. By bringing bits of the urban with us to impose order onto disorder, we create a temporary best of both worlds scenario. Our intellect and labor tames chaos, turns it into workable material that is at our service. But this is fleeting condition, as even the cottage will eventually become “citified” again. Hence the need for manifest destiny — and hence the reason why America immediately started getting into foreign wars (the Spanish-American war, to be specific) as soon as we ran out of land for westward expansion.
What I’m getting at here is hopefully clear by now, the “cottagecore” impulse in Americans is inseparable from the colonial impulse that is ideologically infused into every fiber of American culture. It’s why even the most “progressive” people I know love camping so much. You get a small taste of the wild to help re-energize you. And to make a very natural leap from camping back to Hitler, this ideological impulse is the reason that the Nazis actively studied American manifest destiny and policies towards tribal peoples when developing their provincial blood-and-soil “aesthetics”, their theory of Lebensraum, and their own genocidal policies.
With all of this in mind, there are three points to make about the conversation on Twitter that led me here in the first place:
1. Of course the Right will come take your “cottagecore” away, it was always theirs to begin with.
2. I’m personally suspicious of anyone who loves camping. I also grew up in the woods, so this is more of a personal issue, I suspect. I’m also 80% joking, though I do have my eyes on you.
3. When you describe every thing in terms of “aesthetics”, everything becomes completely malleable, because you’re talking about it as simply a husk that can be filled with whatever ideological content people see fit — and the far right had a huge head start on imbuing meaning into the cottage.
The only people who would be surprised that young conservatives with eco-fascist impulses will come along and co-opt your “cottagecore aesthetic” are people who have separated aesthetics from the ideologies that give those aesthetics semantic content in the first place.
It’s hilarious and very sad that a certain segment of the internet left has actively embraced the “aestheticization of politics” whether they realize it or not, especially given that Walter Benjamin coined the phrase to describe how Fascism gives you the semblance of agency through superficial gestures without actually changing power structures. When all of our politics and identity markers become nothing more than aesthetics without any actual ethical commitments standing behind the back of them, everything is up for grabs for anyone to populate with meaning as they see fit as all of our aesthetic gestures will remain hollow.
This is a long, roundabout way of justifying why I think we should go back to calling people out as posers. Again, this may fall into the domain of my critique of camping. I’m kind of joking. But I’m kind of not. When everything becomes aesthetics as floating, malleable signifiers, we lose track of material history and the unconscious inertia of ideology.
If any of this rambling is interesting to you, I’d recommend reading Richard Slotkin’s trilogy on the mythology of the American West. Particularly Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, as it shows how pervasive the “city x wilderness = cottage” logic is to American pop culture, the way that we tell stories, and what we expect from narratives.
It should be obvious that in America this same logic has informed how we think about race. Whiteness stands for civilization, where as non-whites to varying degrees represent wildness. bell hooks’ essay “Eating the Other” in Black Looks breaks this down way more effectively than I can; I’d recommend that you read that essay if this topic is of interest to you, as anything I have to say will basically be parroting her. But in short, the racial Other in America can substituted into this essay anywhere I said “wilderness” and it holds up.
Whether it’s oversexualizing non-whites, seeing non-whites as more animalistic, more prone to violence, or more spiritual and more “connected to nature” (see: the Noble Savage) — all of these stereotypes and narrative tropes are part of the larger narrative that ‘civilization needs encounters with the wild to stay spicy.’ But the non-whites that provide the spice have to be tamed & assimilated. But there’s a lingering sense of disappointment if there’s too much assimilation because then all the exciting allure of wild and exotic alterity is washed away. It’s why Carlton on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is seen as a joke, whereas Deebo in Friday is seen as both hilarious and terrifying.
If you want a representation of how race and wildness have become inextricably intertwined in our cultural imagination, Dances With Wolves is the perfect film.