The year 2006 is a little early to try to figure out what has been happening in the last five years. Unfortunately, the different cross-currents of cultural and social change may only be understood once they are no longer of immediate concern. There is a few social phenomena that could be guessed at, however, and to me, the popularity of knitting among the young, educated intellectuals is one that is worth speaking of.
I am speaking mostly out of anecdotal evidence here. I know that in my own social group, it is a popular activity, and this seems to be true of everything2 as a whole. I have noticed some lifestyle pieces in the local paper about the popularity of craft nights in some local establishments. Portland also has some small cooperatives based around various craft type projects. Whether knitting, or other small scale crafting, is really something that is more popular than it was twenty, fifty or a hundred years ago, is something that would take a lot of involved sociological research to try to come to an answer on.
in my own view, it is indeed a sign of some of the issues of the early 21st century. Since the late 1950's, Americans have won more and more negative liberties, until there are very few social and cultural structures waiting to be broken. At the same time, many forms of material wealth have been increasing. The ability to communicate, and the variety of cultural life to be experienced, is great to a degree that it would have been hard to imagine even twenty years ago. All this should leave the young, college educated people of today fairly happy. However, not all is perfect. Living conditions and job prospects are not always assured for the young today, even for those with graduate degrees, and there are lingering clouds on the economic horizon, that, while too complicated to get into here, certainly are worrying. The United States has also been at war for 4 and a half years, the third longest war in our history. All of these things are causing quite a bit of worry. But what are the young intellectuals going to do about it? As I have stated before, most of the symbols of repression have been removed from our culture, there is not the feeling of thick-necked police sergeants siccing dogs on non-violent marchers that there was during the civil rights era. While anger at corporate dominance still shows up in people's emotions, and politics, it is something that people have become jaded to, perhaps through repetition. After all, if you go out and watch any corporate, Hollywood movie, chances are that an evil corporation will be a stock villain. And in opposition to the current society, the answers seem to be limited: the days of heading for the barricades and seizing power seem to be gone. It is not just that the people of my generation are cowards. It is that having seen so much, the idea of bringing history to a close through a revolutionary manifesto or master plan seems somewhat quaint.
So what do you do in a world where the problems you face are nagging but not always apparent, where the things you find wrong with the world's political order seem too engrained to change, and where the idea of social or political revolution seems impossible, if not plain quaint? You take matters into your own hands. While chances of the workers of the world spontaneously throwing off their chains and seizing the means of production and leading the world into a post-patriarchal, post-Descartian society seem a little far fetched, you have some means of production in the form of needles and yarn. Perhaps not enough to free yourself from wage slavery, but perhaps a better way to spend your time then writing another manifesto or expose of capitalist hijinx. At the end, you have produced something material, something to assert your independence over the impersonal, incomprehensible web of global production. It is true of knitting, and also true of more involved projects: brewing beer, making biodiesel, reverse engineering the twinkie or writing free software. In any case, it is taking a "bottoms up" approach to a society that seems to be too confused or obstinate to reform en masse.
As a social movement, knitting and small craftmanship has many good things. It provides a concrete embodiment of ideals of self-sufficiency. It allows solidarity, both within the group, and outside of it, based on a topic that can be shared widely. It also allows people to think technically about projects, a skill that can be scaled up as needs demand. And, it saves the rest of us the trouble of having to read more manifestos.
On the other hand, I wonder why so many very intelligent, energetic people have seemed to turn their energy away from larger things. Has the world become so imcomprehensible and unchangable that the best minds of my generation can't think of anything better to do than to make a sweater? When conditions either get so bad that we must take action, or there is a sea change for the better in our society, will hours spent nervously making scarfs with our hands prepare us for it?