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Utopia, dystopia, and the eternal present of Amish time

 

Traditional_Amish_buggy
Traditional Amish Buggy. By Ad Meskens (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

When I was a kid, the first time I ever heard of the Amish was when I watched the movie Witness for the first time. Much later, in the first decade of the aughts, I lived for seven years right in the heart of Missouri Amish country, where horse-drawn buggies on the shoulder of the road were a frequent sight, and where I regularly rubbed shoulders with Amish people in stores, at garage sales, and elsewhere. Between those two extremes, I took an undergraduate college sociology course at Mizzou titled simply “The Old Order Amish,” taught by a highly respected professor who had himself grown up in an Old Order Mennonite community (and who, as I just now discovered, died only two months ago). So all of that amplifies my personal interest in this brief and thoughtful reflection by University of Wyoming English professor Arielle Zibrak on the possible meaning and lessons of “Amish time” for a 21st-century technological society that has become obsessed with future visions and intimations of collapse and dystopia:

Wendell Berry wrote that American society’s inability to see the Amish for what they are is indicative of the most basic flaws of the American progress narrative. I think we’re beginning to see the frayed edges of that narrative’s unraveling. While the future used to appear to us as Marty Mcfly’s hoverboard, robo cops, and casual space travel, it now seems more frequently to come in the form of close-knit roving communities that communicate via flare and cook game over open fires, e.g. McCarthy’s The Road or Frank Darabont’s “The Walking Dead.”

We usually cast these fictional futures as dystopias. But if Margaret Atwood is right — and she should know — “within every dystopia there’s a little utopia.” And I can’t help but wonder if, as our vision of the future continues to shift, our view of the Amish will shift with it. For now, the best I can do is to try to learn from the Amish.

These days, after another move, I’m living out west, where my little sedan is itself a buggy parked alongside the giant pickups at the superstore. I can’t be around the Amish anymore in the sense of space. But I can try to be closer to where they are in the sense of time, which is neither the past nor precisely the future (even if there’s a zombie apocalypse or the hipsters keep defecting to dairy farms and haberdasheries) but is squarely inside of the mystery of the present.

MORE: “On Amish Time