The Perpetual Renovation

Our historical moment loves projects.

What happened to #CabinPorn?

Not where did it go. It definitely lives on for the 342K Instagram followers of the Cabin Porn account, 399K followers of Cabin Love and 19.5K followers of Cabin Candy. Cabin Porn’s eponymous monograph seems well-enough stocked on Amazon. But something has certainly changed.

“Why can’t all these people stop looking at cabins? What is the allure?” asked The Atlantic in 2012. I was one of those people, and six years later I’ve stopped looking.

Last summer, I went on a date with a man that manages logistics for tiny cabin getaways near metropolitan centers. Through him, I learned that customers– even those mainly there for the Instagram– are disappointed by less than total isolation. He invited me to stay in the New York City escape– located on none other than Staten Island. Not in the habit of staying in tiny cabins with men I just met, I politely declined. It was probably for the best– operations at the New York getaway were disrupted by the grim discovery of a body on the shore near the campsite.

I guess that’s the problem with escape– it’s never total. Someone shows up to disturb our perfect tableau of tin mug, flannel blanket and firewood. Or else, we ourselves intrude when our simple desires become more complex.

“Without architectural solitude, Cabin Porn does not seem possible,” said The Atlantic, “If we look closer we begin to see small hints that the cabin is not as remote from civilization as we may think; TV antennas, satellite dishes, power lines, and roads pop into view.”

The 2016 film Captain Fantastic depicts one father’s struggle to live with his family off the grid. The film took aim at two sorts of moral failing: ultra-modern tedium, and the stubborn refusal to accept modernity. This paradox collapses the myth of the tiny cabin as a balsam-scented crate for the American Dream. The cabin (dream) cannot be possessed. Moreover, we don’t want to possess it.

Daydreams of A-frame homes and itty bitty stone chalets have been replaced by the mindset of perpetual renovation. Our historical moment loves projects, and we’ve found plenty of fodder in the home improvement genre of reality TV. In a New York Times ode to House Hunters, Bobby Finger notes that HGTV’s lineup of “personality-driven home-improvement shows — Property Brothers, Flip or Flop and Fixer Upper — has made it the ninth-most-popular channel on basic cable.”

A Fixer Upper spinoff series called Fixer Upper: Behind the Design premiered just last month, delving deeper into the design aspects of the original show’s home makeovers. However, the aim is principally the same: to feed our current hunger for ongoing results. Renovation itself is an ouroboros, and one gets the impression that viewers would be just as happy to see the completed renovation immediately undone after the ‘big reveal.’

After all, who wants to be complete? Which is to say, my boredom with pictures of the perfect cabin escape mirrors the way we’ve come to relate to the perfect body.

In 2004, a show called The Swan remade ‘ugly duckling’ contestants with coaching, therapy and dramatic plastic surgery– but primarily the surgery. This premise may seem too shocking to sell now, but in reality The Swan is airing around us all the time. We’ve swapped dramatic unveilings for the far more insidious notion that renovation– of ourselves, and our environment– represents equilibrium.

Once upon a time, self-improvement was something you did when you needed to improve. Now self-improvement is not a mechanism that we turn to, but a responsibility that we lapse from.

“My skincare is a baroque dance of cleansers, exfoliators, toners, essences, serums, oils, hydrators, moisturizers, sheet masks, sleeping masks, lip masks, and sunscreen. I perform it — often with the sullenness of a teen — every morning and every evening, and when I don’t, I feel a sense of guilt that I can imagine only as Catholic,” writes Chelsea G. Summers in her excellent essay The Body That Ages. The inevitability of becoming oneself (that fragment of a David Foster Wallace quip so compelling that David Lipsky used it as a book title) has lost its profundity.

We pursue renovation as a means of avoiding finality. It is easier to accept its Sisyphean scope of work than to settle down in the cabin of our own limitations. And while this pressure has always existed, the seamless integration of commodified betterment into the digital platforms we are (literally) addicted to has hastened the internalization of the renovation mission. Before and After commercialism was once obvious, and easier to detect. The sweaty optimism of self-improvement evangelists like Richard Simmons looks extremely conspicuous compared to the sleek minimalism of today’s gyms, facial primers and supplements.

The perpetual renovation is a subtle current running through all of the media we consume. Distracting from greater issues.

Of the popular Queer Eye reboot, in which five fabulous queer men set straight a lackluster hetero one, Kathryn VanArendonk writes, “Queer Eye wants to wrap Black Lives Matter, toxic masculinity, self-care, prejudice, and how to choose a good patterned shirt all inside the safe, affirming cover of a reality-TV makeover series.” Ultimately the show contains, “exfoliants and conversations about privilege, celebrations of self-care and attempts to reframe a man’s idea of “self” within the world,” but it’s clear what the audience is really watching for.

A popular meme format is to mock the exaggerated acting at the beginning of infomercials, in which people fail spectacularly at life without the product for sale. However, those actors were a smoke signal. A way to tune out what came next. A means for the critically thinking person to dissociate from the sales pitch.

Now, the infomercial people are the most competent ones you know. Will you believe them when they tell you that your work is never done?