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.