Time to put nostalgia in the past

I don’t believe it’s con­tentious to say that we live in a cul­ture that loves to look back. In fash­ion, the ’80s revival – the sec­ond (at least) in liv­ing mem­o­ry – has been quick­ly fol­lowed by a ’90s revival (dit­to). In cin­e­ma we have films based on 1960s super­hero comics and pop­u­lar child­hood games fran­chis­es like Bat­tle­ships or Ram­page. In music bands like Tame Impala are unself­con­scious­ly mod­elled on ’70s rock while young artists such as Jamie XX make music that’s soaked in nos­tal­gia for a time they sure­ly can’t remem­ber.

Recent­ly Cen­ny­dd Bowles, after watch­ing the band God­speed! You Black Emper­or, was dri­ven to write this:

I’m tired of bygone-era fetishi­sa­tion. What would a futur­ist God­speed sound like? A band of sim­i­lar scope but a palette more RGB than sepia? I’d be more inter­est­ed by a God­speed whose visu­als would be drones/VR/scarcity rather than film strips/manuscripts/burned build­ings. Is any­one mak­ing music that asks legit­i­mate ques­tions about the future, rather than the past or present?

The film­mak­er Adam Cur­tis has a the­o­ry that our cul­ture is sta­t­ic, that there is no pro­gres­sion in the pop­u­lar arts and media, which he expounds very neat­ly in an inter­view with New States­man:

All cul­ture always goes back and feeds off the past, it can’t help it, but there are two ways of doing it. Either you can go back and get inspi­ra­tion from the past and cre­ate some­thing gen­uine­ly new, which is the whole his­to­ry of all sorts of things – not just art and music. What both­ers me at the moment is that you get a very dif­fer­ent sense out of pop cul­ture, which is that it is lit­er­al­ly like a form of archae­ol­o­gy.

It should be not­ed that I’m not against ref­er­enc­ing his­to­ry — I strong­ly believe that we can use his­to­ry to pro­vide more con­text about mod­ern soci­ety. What I’m explic­it­ly deplor­ing is nos­tal­gia — because, as David Den­by says in Has Hol­ly­wood Mur­dered the Movies?:

Nos­tal­gia is his­to­ry altered through sen­ti­ment.

This idea of pop culture’s slav­ish devo­tion to the past heav­i­ly informs Lau­ra Hudson’s review of Ernest Cline’s Arma­da, his ’80s-ref­er­enc­ing fol­low-up to his ’80s-ref­er­enc­ing best-sell­ing debut:

Do we want to tell sto­ries that make sense of the things we used to love, that help us remem­ber the rea­sons we were so drawn to them, and cre­ate new works that inspire that lev­el of devo­tion? Or do we sim­ply want to hear the litany of our child­hood repeat­ed back to us like an end­less lul­la­by for the rest of our lives?

This is the impor­tant part: “cre­ate new works”. What Cen­ny­dd and Adam and Lau­ra all make clear is that to make an inter­est­ing future we need to actu­al­ly think about the future. To fur­ther quote from the David Den­by piece:

What’s nec­es­sary for sur­vival is not nos­tal­gia, but defi­ance.