Written by Shawn Funk
There are no doubt times when we all feel the impulse to bury ourselves in the nostalgia of our past, but where does this feeling come from? Indeed, there is some hopeless feeling about the immediate present that brings about this feeling. Like there’s nothing left to be done but speak of the past, like there is nothing left to create in the present. You might call it an exhaustion of the present, a lack of vitality, or a generally hopeless feeling about the present and future prospects. My point is as we feel ever more desperate in the present, our appeals to nostalgia strengthen accordingly. Indeed it is strange that our current ideas of the future in pop culture posit a hopelessly corrupt, disease-ridden, crumbling failure of humanity while our ideas of the past take on a strange utopic quality of a past that was never there, a romantic abstraction. We are not entirely hopeless yet: but still, this peculiar dichotomy in our popular culture could suggest a current of mistrust and cynicism toward the state of our institutions.
We spend most of our time working, so it’s a real bummer if you hate your job and have no prospects for anything else. It is pretty rare to find a person who loves his job so much they are willing to come in on their day off and do it for free. How many of us truly love our jobs? Don’t fuckin’ lie! Those that hate their jobs for whatever reason find little satisfaction in a society that values job titles and productivity; they must find value in something else, but what is there? The present is hopeless; the rock is too heavy. Meaning slips away, boredom sets in, and despair follows, fracturing our sense of the present and forcing us to look back with haloed eyes. We end up searching for that simpler time when job titles didn’t matter, when nobody cared about politics, when things were new, when your mom still packed your lunch. It is this time that is continually brought to the fore when we consume nostalgia. Unsurprisingly, marketers have picked up on the power of nostalgia, and they are re-inventing the past with warm fuzzies every week in the products that flood the market.
This nostalgic feeling in all of us has spurred the creation of an entirely new segment of consumer goods that hinge on the recycling or “bringing back” of old forms to satisfy these nostalgic feelings. It permeates a breadth of the products of our mass culture: automobiles, fashion, film, art, toys, and even food. You always hear of cultural goods from the past “making a comeback.” You can go through a cycle of being a total loser, the coolest, and everything else in between, with, more or less, the same pair of pants, given you wait long enough. Interestingly, these old forms are brought to the present not as they were but instead based on a set of ideas in reference to that old form; marketers call that kind of styling throw-back, retro, vintage, or old style, among other names.
Okay, so who cares? Who cares if we recycle all of our ideas? What’s the matter with that? What’s the problem with reusing our ideas? Why does it matter if we recycle old ideas? Where does it say that you can’t reuse an idea? How can you say that you can’t reuse an idea?
Yeah, so my main concern here is how many times can our culture continue to say the same things over and over again until we go retrograde? Culture has taken on a metonymic quality, as the same is spliced over and over again until our cultural expressions, stretched to their limit, thin out, and lose their vitality. I can’t help but think all of this recycling of the past is indicative of a culture that has run out of new things to say. Have we lost our vitality? Are we destined to be forever inscribed in a hackneyed sequel, never original, lacking depth, creativity, and courage?
Friedrich Nietzsche indicates that the vitality of a culture is measured in its ability to create. A culture that loses vitality becomes decadent, meaning that the standards of taste have degraded to the point where one can no longer distinguish between good and bad. Consider the endless replication of the past in our cultural products and the fact that we can hardly differentiate between truth and lie. Maybe Nietzsche has a point here. Like a powerful drug, binging on nostalgia stunts creativity and halts progress because it takes us away from our present. Advertisers have utilized this powerful appeal to remake our history into images of the “past,” reducing it to a series of fads and spectacles repackaged and pre-digested for mass audiences. So what’s the problem here? A madman might suggest that all these products are merely another foil to distract us from our shitty lives and prevent us from doing something about it. You know, bread and circuses. That madman might be right. I might be that madman.
New products generate market interest because they reflect current trends and values. Thus, those same products brought back from the dead decades later or revamped with vintage themes can be understood as reflections of our past values and prosperity. Thus, the past is captured, and laid out before us, mythologized in a dreamy tapestry of feeling, taking on a new meaning as it is ripped from its place and time and lodged into another. A culture based on the mass production and consumption of images will conceive of itself in a way that aligns with the images it produces. These images will come to define ‘the times’ by exuding the dominant values and ideas of the culture at a particular time. It is these values and beliefs that the consumer is harking back to when they consume products that produce the feeling of nostalgia.
In the 1990s, Coke changed from a 500ml generic glass bottle to a curvy “new” plastic bottle which was formed to look like the shape of a woman’s body, emulating the glass bottle from the early era of Coca-Cola. What is its meaning? It’s much more than a reference to an old bottle. Advertisers don’t sell products; they sell ideas. Coca-cola is, thus, selling an idea. A vision of the past, not ‘the past,’ but an idea of the past. Do you think they might make it a happy past? Thus, the new bottle does not refer to the old glass bottle. Its reference is contemporary, designating our current conceptions or ideas of a time past. Thus, the vitality of the original concept is lost in the gleaming abstractions of the present, which hark back to an origin that never really existed. I use this example here because I remember when these bottles came out. I was enamoured with the old-timey feel of the bottle, and I thought it gave me a taste of a time long past, even though I never lived it. Now I know I was just a stupid kid who saw a television ad, nothing more. There was no more “old-timey” in that new coke bottle than in the old generic-looking bottle. I was just sold.
Further, Disney has chosen to remake older films (of which many were copied from earlier folk tales) into new “live-action” films, galvanizing all those 30-somethings to relive their childhood through these “new” films. No need for the originals anymore. Stranger Things is set in the 80s and does a great job of recreating the 80s feel, but is that actually how people in the 80s felt as they lived out their lives in that time? Further, Star Wars is now as popular as ever with all of the new spin-offs in the works. Comic book heroes have transformed themselves into action heroes. The best movie soundtracks are the ones with the most classic rock hits. How many Spider-man reboots have there been? This list goes on forever, but my point is that what is being sold is not the content of these products. These products are nothing without the nostalgic obsessions of our culture to remember the past in some sort of unreal mythed up way. It’s no coincidence that places like Disneyland have garnered so much attention from the older generations that grew up consuming their products.
So I guess my super serious argument shapes up like this. Since we live in a sharp but subtle state of despair, we are prone to look back on our history with heart-shaped glasses, giving rise to nostalgic tendencies. As our present situation grows evermore hopeless, our lapse into nostalgia intensifies. Industries then capitalize on this feeling and create what can only be identified as some bizarro feedback loop that endlessly posits our existence in the context of a sequel, forever imprisoning us in an eternal moment where we are forced to watch reruns of America’s Funniest Videos forever. Is that hell? The implication here is that nothing new will ever be created. This conclusion is cynical, divisive, extreme, lacking clear evidence, and fantastic in its own right. However, you don’t have to be a theorist to see how obsessed we are with re-issuing the past. We love sequels. Until next time…