Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Nostalgia nostalgia

This week’s theme is nostalgia. Not specific things we are nostalgic for, but the culture of nostalgia in general, and how nostalgia begets nostalgia in exponential time, always waiting for something to fall out of fashion so it can be recycled into popular consciousness as chic and retro and part of the good old 27 minutes ago.

Ours is an interesting generation-

Pause. Let me say, perhaps at the anger of my fellow churnmonkey, that Churn really is a generational magazine, in all the delightful ways that phrase can be spun. Literally generational; both in the sense that the title and background of this page inspire, and in the sense of a specific generation of people. Ours. Ours, who sat in the shadow of the gen-Xers. We had them as the cool older kids to aspire to, perhaps in the same way the flower children of the 60’s had the Easy Rider’s of the 50’s to look up to. Both the 50’s and the 90’s were times of glorious prosperity, and the cool kids of both generations were too cool to care. In the 50’s they were rebels; in the 90’s, they were slackers. We, above all, looked up to cool, apathetic slackers. We responded to their sardonic cynicism with absurdist existential affirmation. We are the generation that realized shows like Adult Swim and the Daily Show*. We are Conan’s target demographic.

But I dwell in the present. Let me return to the past.

Ours is an interesting generation, because we have swallowed the idea of nostalgia as a legitimate indulgence. We have let our past be sold to us over and over again, in slightly redesigned packaging. We saw this happening, and were helpless to stop it. When I Love The 90’s played on VH1 over the summer it felt wrong and too soon and yet oddly, embarrassingly compelling, like sleeping with the girl you just broke up with or going to your 5 year high school reunion.

Transitioning smoothly yet self-consciously between low and high brow, post-modernism was to some extent an attempt to come to terms with the finite nature of art and the near impossible task of creativity. It was art becoming aware and embracing its own death, indulgent yet cathartically reveling in its limitations and swallowing the impossibility of its failed goal of perfect expression. Like being hit in the stomach, art doubled in on itself, and began rehashing its past, reorganizing its own history in an attempt to re-expose us to its previous triumphs.

And the past, it turns out, is an infinite resource for ideas; and as the rest of culture caught on to the lessons of post-modernism, it became obvious that we can in fact market the past to the present. This had been done before- oldies stations have been on the radio since they were newies- but never with the sheer bald-faced determination we see today. And now we are not only nostalgic for our own pasts; we are nostalgic for the pasts we could have had if we had only been born a decade before or a decade later.

And with the access to this information that technology gives us, we can rehash and repackage it in any way we choose for whatever purposes suit the current memory trend. That VH1 has turned into a pop media archive seems both redundant and comforting. Part of the allure of the past is that it is so damn familiar. I don’t need to keep up with what the kids are doing today, I can see my own youth spruced up with fancy graphics and voice overs by Ron Howard. This doubling over, however, could affect the future generations in strange ways. One is that they have no identity of their own; like the children of the 70’s, they could only feed off the dying creative flame of the 60’s. Or just maybe, the next generation will act as if the past is and has always been immediately available, since for their entire life it has been consistently exposed to them as a blurry, unindividuated past that saturates the current culture; and perhaps they will transcend the nostalgia (since they can only be nostalgic for nostalgia itself) and create anew.

* I must say a bit more on this. I find it absolutely wonderful that it is Jon Stewart, who in some sense directly embodies the spirit of generation-X, is now responsible for giving our generation the news. It just feels right, and because we were raised looking up to him and his ilk, we feel so comfortable listening to his words, and so familiar with his humor. And he seems to enjoy taking up the role of teacher, with guiding our political future beyond the apathy of his directionless generation. He is different than, for instance, a Gerofalo, because I don’t think she ever quite left the 90’s; but Stewart seems intent on relating to us, and helping us. He does not retreat to nostalgia.


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