Rise of the Retronauts
Salon recently published an article titled Will Nostalgia Destroy Pop Culture? It’s interesting reading, but a brief summary might go something like this: For reasons not entirely clear, the current generation of young people is increasingly obsessed with rehashing and repurposing retro culture—a trend which threatens our capacity for innovation.
At first glance this article (which promotes author Simon Reynolds’s new book Retromania) is the same “we’ve reached the end of history” story we’ve all heard many times before. In fact, there are some excellent arguments being made which support the idea that almost nothing is original. But it seems like Reynolds may have a point. Since reading this article a week ago I can’t help but see retro everywhere I go (see gallery below).
There is another startling aspect to pop culture’s current obsession with the past as well. Never before in human history have science and technology progressed so rapidly. Technologically, we are living in a golden age of innovation with no end in sight. So why are we living in the past?
Reynolds offers one possible reason which makes a lot of sense to me:
The past has taken the place of the future in people’s imagination. That might have something to do with politics as well … No one can quite picture a future that seems positive or exciting. At one time the future seemed to suggest grand projects. Now the space shuttle program has been shut down. If I look at what young people are watching on TV and at the movies, when they’re looking for heroism and romance, they’re watching quasi-historical fantasies, it’s not future fantasies. It’s “Game of Thrones,” “Harry Potter,” and that kind of thing, as opposed to going to outer space or the year 3000.Speaking as a young adult struggling to enter the professional world in the Great Recession, I can report that it is much more comfortable reminiscing about an idyllic past than wondering where my
Reynolds also points to the 1960s—the cultural yardstick we’ve been using to gauge progress for the last fifty years—to illustrate all the momentum we’ve lost:
In terms of how it was covered and how it was felt at the time, the ’60s was just a long period where there was a sense of hurtling forward. It was happening on multiple fronts simultaneously — the beginning of feminism, civil rights, the space race, the Beatles and all that. In the early-to-mid-’60s, there was a lot of very modernistic space age-looking fashion. On every cultural front, people were breaking down barriers. In pop music, it’s the decade the other decades have all defined themselves against. Punk was the inversion of the ’60s in a lot of ways, but it still kept a little of that idealism and the belief in change. The ’80s were defined in a lot of ways as a repudiation of ’60s ideas, and ’90s rave culture was a return to drugginess and all that.
Reynolds also suggests that our stagnation (too strong a word?) may have something to do with the very same technological innovation which is juxtaposing our backwards looking culture:
It was gradual, but with the arrival of the Internet, and broadband access, and the rise of this kind of strange collective archiving thing, [looking backward] became irresistible. Now people put stuff on YouTube because it feels like they’re doing something worthwhile and this enormous archive has developed … Now all the records in the known universe are basically accessible at the click of a mouse … I remember living in a culture of cultural scarcity.Perhaps our collective pessimism combined with our unprecedented access to all things passed is too tempting for today’s youth—why live in the depressing present when it’s so easy to re-experience the twee trends of yesterday?
The Atlantic responded to all the retromania with The ’90s Are All That’ and the Ever-Accelerating Nostalgia Machine, a sound rebuttal to cautionary voices like Reynolds, arguing that the latest wave of affection for the near past is nothing new.
What are your thoughts? Are we too obsessed with the past? Too afraid of the future? Or are we just as creative (and nostalgic) as we have always been?
For more, you can check out my visual diary of retro culture after the jump.
Gallery: Rise of the Retronauts
Retro is everywhere. Here is a collection of cultural time travelers that I’ve noticed in the past week alone.