Now that there’s only two years left in the decade, it’s time to start thinking about the zeitgeist. The Guardian‘s John Harris looks at the Noughties from the point of view of our future selves and sees the 1990s. He writes, "the spirit of the age also revolves around a big paradox: that in an era of supposedly rapid change, our popular culture is defined by a mass refusal to let go of the past." He cites a number of examples of rampant nostalgia in British and American culture, including the Police’s recent US tour, the highest-grossing in the nation in 2007, and the delirium surrounding the Led Zeppelin reunion concert in London.
Harris has a point: on a day when we’re breathlessly awaiting Steve Jobs’ keynote speech announcing the latest incremental improvement in Apple’s product line, our cultural preferences are often mired in the recent past. Is the backward-looking culture of the 2000s caused by broad cultural exhaustion? A culture industry that puts predictable profit streams ahead of innovation? Or is it a symptom of unfocused dread, like the Happy Days nostalgia of the 1970s? Harris solves the technology-nostalgia paradox by arguing that technology itself enables nostalgia:
[F]ixating on the past is an in-built aspect of the human condition, but limited technology used to keep it in check. We had space and productive capacity only for so much stuff: a hidden hand cleared the cultural world of outdated clutter. And now? Bandwidth and memory grow exponentially, TV channels extend into the distance, and providing the means by which the classes of 77, 87 and 97 can get back in touch is a cinch. The same technology that we once thought would propel us into a fast-changing future stokes nostalgic appetites and condemns us to a present so laden with repetition that it’s beginning to feed back on itself.
Let’s assume for a moment that Harris is right, that nostalgia is the dominant cultural form of the 2000s. I’m not convinced that this is the case; I think he’s placing too much emphasis on the first two terms in the dominant-residual-emergent process of culture. The whole new/nostalgia paradigm is too crude to describe broad cultural trends.
So we’re too nostalgic for our own good–remind me again why nostalgia is such a bad thing.
What if nostalgia were really a means to make sense of what is first experienced as an isolated cultural phenomenon. What we’re seeing may be a new way of interpellating ourselves into history. In traditional historiography there’s a buffer zone between the present and the past of school textbooks. This buffer zone is the period of living memory, now preserved in vast databases, and constantly rewritten as vividly and spontaneously as lived life.
Imagine devoting hours developing one’s Facebook profile only to have the next generation–and the generations now seem to be separated by five years rather than twenty–forsake the site as hopelessly passé, a mass movement fueled by mad texters and people with too busy to properly care for their own narcissism that’s run its course. It’s easy to imagine Facebook nostalgia sites popping up as people try to make sense of what the phenomenon was about. Rather than endlessly revisiting one’s online social network, people may be trying to figure out what they were looking for in the first place. They may also be trying to convince themselves that Facebook was more than a meaningless cultural fad, more than a ghostly remnant of a culture of transience.
An entirely new culture every decade may be more than we want, need, or are able to make sense of. My own preliminary candidate for emergent cultural phenomenon that we’ll later define as most fully representing the 2000s is political discourse itself–the bitter partisan divisions of the 1960s without the amelioration of the Beatles. But I guess that would be backward-looking.
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