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Nostalgia on Trial

Joel Karanikasal reflects on retromania, postmodernism and the resurgence of nostalgia with a distinct Y2K comeback.  

This issue of Grapeshot is in a way all about nostalgia. It’s about the fact that our era has become one of resurgence. Seemingly everything from the early 2000s is returning. It’s not just the Y2K aesthetic, but fashion, photography, film, music, and every form of culture that ambushes us like spectres of the undead. 

But here’s the worst (or best?) part; the culture of the early 2000s was itself derivative and nostalgic. Music nerd/historian Simon Reynolds documented this abundantly in his enthralling 2011 book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past. Whether it’s Adele, Lady Gaga, The White Stripes, or the Arctic Monkeys; every commercially prominent trend in early 2000s music was recycled and mined the sounds of the past. Wedded to yesteryear, retromania denied the present its own distinctive, unique feel.

Contrast this to 1966, when a piece in Aspen magazine celebrated what the young were doing with popular culture: 

“The age of the new mass arts is moving us upward, inward, outward and forward. In this era of exploration, there are many breeds of navigators, but few are more daring than the poet-musicians who are leading our pop music in new directions …”

Notice the refreshing absence of any hint of nostalgia.

Who can we blame for this regress into retromania? According to Reynolds, if the past was our drug, then the internet was our dealer. For the first time in history, the average person in the 2000s had a colossal, virtually free archive of culture available at their fingertips – an archive reaching back many decades into the midst of pre-digital history. No wonder we refused to let the old stuff die. 

Lest it isn’t already clear, I’m not a raving fan of nostalgia. I’m perfectly open to the charge that this is because I resent my own ‘chrysalis’ – the awkward, in-between stage of adolescence. I didn’t love being a teenager and I was incredibly relieved the moment people started to treat me like an adult who could, at minimum, hold a conversation without being pandered to. What’s there to look back at? Just a litany of embarrassments and insecurities. 

Nostalgia obviously isn’t for me. I’m one of those weird people who clings – like a monarch butterfly to its empty chrysalis – to the belief that the future is more exciting than the past. So I’m a little disturbed that the Internet has been so crucial in preserving the past, not the way it ought to be preserved (in a museum), but as an ever-present, ubiquitous, hauntingly retro zeitgeist. It’s as if our collective generational chrysalis is being artificially prolonged. The very notion of chrysalis implies wriggling out of a cocoon – an evolution, forging ahead, creating and destroying, rising higher than we could. 

The internet was supposed to be the epitome of futuristic techno-optimism. The late anthropologist David Graeber put it this way: 

“The Internet is a remarkable innovation, but all we are talking about is a super-fast and globally accessible combination of library, post office, and mail-order catalogue. Had the Internet been described to a science fiction aficionado in the fifties and sixties and touted as the most dramatic technological achievement since his time, his reaction would have been disappointment. Fifty years and this is the best our scientists managed to come up with?” [2]

Graeber, clearly, was one of those Boomers reminiscing on the old days when kids expected to be piloting flying cars and visiting the moon when they grew up. This itself is nostalgic. But even I’d probably be nostalgic if I’d grown up in such an optimistic milieu, fed on a diet of science fiction, news about the space race, and exciting cultural revolutions. Even when the economy went pear-shaped in the 70s, the response among young people was to be vigorously self-assertive in their distress – punk rockers exploded onto the scene, their music rebellious and often stylistically barren, but certainly the opposite of nostalgic. They were declaring war on the past. [3]

What kind of movements have my own generation led? Where are our revolutions in culture? What hopes have we dreamed for the future? Millennials are literally defined by their nostalgia for the 90s, while my generation – the Zoomers – are sadly following a similar course. [4]  We’re far too young to be a nostalgic generation. We’re barely in our 20s.

There is another, bigger historical bogeyman we can blame. Obviously, the retreat of modernism and the advent of its offspring ‘postmodernism’  has everything to do with our society’s nostalgia mode. Modernism looked forward to the future. It was epitomised by the poet Ezra Pound’s 1934 imperative All modernists in some way heeded this instruction; if not by bending literary and artistic forms like Joyce and Picasso, then by putting some stock in a grand narrative of progress. Like Graeber’s science fiction aficionado, modernists expected their descendants to be doing utterly zany things with technology. Modernism was clear about history: it moved, and it moved in one direction, and that direction was forward.

Nowadays we regard modernism as an anomaly, in which the transition (if you like, chrysalis) from rigid, traditional values into the modern age of self-consciousness and fluidity temporarily unleashed a furiously creative force. But this force had an expiry date. We couldn’t be inventing things anew forever, could we? It was inevitable that, with the twilight of modernism, we’d sink into endless pastiche, irony and revivalism.

The great prophet who presciently described our postmodern age was the philosopher Frederic Jameson. In the early 80s, he saw unfolding before him a “society bereft of all historicity that is simultaneously unable to present anything that is not a reheated version of the past.” [5]

The late English writer Mark Fisher would update Jameson’s critique by describing the post-Cold War 21st century as permeated by a sense that “the end has already come, that the future harbours only reiteration and permutation. Could it be that there are no breaks, no ‘shocks of the new’ to come?” [6]

So nostalgia – at least for Jameson and Fisher – is not about individual or collective longing for the past. It isn’t even psychological, nor is it just a marketing tactic. It’s a structural, cultural phenomenon that emerges when the conditions for ground-breaking change have fallen away. Thus for Fisher, the labels ‘alternative’ and ‘independent’ don’t designate something outside mainstream culture; rather, they are styles, in fact, the dominant styles, within the mainstream. Fisher gives the example of Kurt Cobain, whose path from alternative, independent grunge rocker to MTV star symbolised the generation that had “come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it even happened”. [6]

The striking part of this story is that Kurt Cobain was born in 1967. If he represented the generation at the end of history, stuck in a world where counterculture is futile or impossible – then what does that make of us Zoomers? The angsty Cobain ‘belongs to an older moment’,  says Fisher. What followed him was a “pastiche-rock which reproduced the forms of the past without anxiety.” Perhaps the resulting cultural mood, dominated by ‘retro contemporary’ music, is best described as comfortably numb.

What’s true of rock is true of everything else. Culture has become a sort of autonomous sphere largely divorced from practically existing reality – even if the world is changing, cultural nostalgia can provide a distant reassurance that some things never change. Although Jameson and Fisher were on the Left, the Right actually makes a profoundly similar diagnosis. The only difference is the Right usually call it ‘decadence’ rather than ‘postmodernism’ or ‘late state capitalism’. They seem to be obsessed with the decline of the Roman Empire; as W. H. Auden said, the scariest thing about ancient Rome wasn’t its collapse, but the fact that it persisted for centuries “without any creativity, warmth or hope”.

Are we – as the cliched question goes – like Rome? I hope not. We Zoomers have to deal with a unique set of challenges no generation has ever faced, not even the Romans. We are perched at the peak of the Anthropocene – the age of humanity’s dominance over nature. That dominance is crumbling; our survival as an organised species is threatened by abrupt climate change. The toll on civilization will be enormous no matter what. We could surely do with some creativity, warmth, and hope.

But due to its nostalgia, pop culture seems incapable of ever channelling and externalising the deep malaise that we feel into something productive or subversive. We’ve inherited an ageing postmodern zeitgeist and doubled down on its bleary nostalgia. We can barely imagine doing anything really novel with the internet: the ‘meme cycle’ gives us an illusion of change, but the only change is in the increasingly surreal deconstruction of the format of the meme. In our epic conversion of humour into shibboleths like ‘Amogus,’ we Zoomers have completed postmodernism. I heard someone call Gen Z humour ‘post-ironic neo-dadaism’. We should congratulate ourselves for that, I suppose.

I hope my qualms about nostalgia are clear now. I see it as a symptom of the jaded world we were born into. It isn’t really our fault, and in any case, it’s a structural problem. But every nostalgic ghost that’s summoned for our consumption reminds me of the ‘end of history’.  The end of the new. The end of real progress. The premature surrender of Zoomers to nostalgic indulgence, just when they ought to be channelling their disquiet. I wish the 2020s could be a decade that would put Zoomers on the map, stamped with our own unique epoch-changing vibe, the way that the Boomer’s youth revolt did in 1966.

Is my hope realistic? Or is it just another vestige of modernism? Probably the latter. It really does seem as if no shocks of the new are to come – at least not any that surpass ‘breaking boundaries’ on TikTok. That’s a gut-sinking reality if true. I don’t want the terms of this decade dictated by those who neither know nor care about the complexity of being a Zoomer. The world actually is changing, and Gen Z’s economic and social lives will invariably change too. It would be a shame if we become merely victims of change instead of – as Nietzsche once said – making our fate beautiful. [8]

I don’t believe it’s inevitable. For all our nostalgia, Zoomers do have an energy whose subversiveness is semi-dormant. We are post-ideological sceptics, but that comes with being heirs to Western nihilism, with its enfeebling surplus of self-awareness. Still, Zoomers are deeply interested in the ‘inner life’ and being ‘real’,  we are more psychologically sophisticated than probably any other generation, and many of us are horrified in the face of the utter stagnation and trivialisation of the culture we’ve had to endure. 

We can still claim this decade as our own. We should claim it. 

[1] Savage, Jon. 1966: the year youth culture expanded, The Guardian, 2015.

[2] Graeber, David. Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit, The Baffler, 2012.

[3] Taylor, Tom.  In what ways was punk a rebellion against the social conditions of the 1970s?, The Bristorian, 2019.

[4] Harlow, Stephanie. How are Gen Z and millennials driving nostalgia?, GWI, 2023.

[5] Fisher, Mark. K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher, 2004-2016. Print.

[6] Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, 2009. Print

[7] Murray, Charles. Comfortably Numb, 2020

[8]  Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science, 1882. Print


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