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“she seems to be very opinionated when watching a movie” | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Have we reached a point of cultural stagnation?

Jerry Seinfeld puffy shirt

I thought it was just me. I thought it was a function of getting older seeing the world differently: through tireder, more cynical eyes. Because I’ve been thinking for a while now that we’re due for 90s nostalgia to hit — seeing as these things usually work in 20-year cycles — and I have no idea what “90s nostalgia” is supposed to look like. Like, in the 1970s when 50s nostalgia hit, we had Happy Days on TV and Grease at the movies. In the 90s, when 70s nostalgia hit, we suddenly had an entire cable network — Nick at Night — devoted to 70s television, and we saw hipster readings of Brady Bunch episodes on stage.

Now, it’s 20 years since 1992… when, arguably, the 90s truly began, with the election of Bill Clinton. If someone were to create a new sitcom set in 1995, how would it look much different from the world today? Sure, there’d be some silly jokes about AOL, maybe, but other than that…? Someone would have a giant cell phone, probably. But it wouldn’t really look retro, not in the same way that Richie Cunningham looked retro in Happy Days.

Somehow, “I love the 90s!” simply does not have that certain zing it would seem to require. I figured it was just because I’m old enough to remember the 90s as an adult.
But I’m not alone in thinking about this! Kurt Andersen in Vanity Fair:

Since 1992, as the technological miracles and wonders have propagated and the political economy has transformed, the world has become radically and profoundly new. (And then there’s the miraculous drop in violent crime in the United States, by half.) Here is what’s odd: during these same 20 years, the appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. The past is a foreign country, but the recent past—the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s—looks almost identical to the present. This is the First Great Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History.

Think about it. Picture it. Rewind any other 20-year chunk of 20th-century time. There’s no chance you would mistake a photograph or movie of Americans or an American city from 1972—giant sideburns, collars, and bell-bottoms, leisure suits and cigarettes, AMC Javelins and Matadors and Gremlins alongside Dodge Demons, Swingers, Plymouth Dusters, and Scamps—with images from 1992. Time-travel back another 20 years, before rock ’n’ roll and the Pill and Vietnam, when both sexes wore hats and cars were big and bulbous with late-moderne fenders and fins—again, unmistakably different, 1952 from 1972. You can keep doing it and see that the characteristic surfaces and sounds of each historical moment are absolutely distinct from those of 20 years earlier or later: the clothes, the hair, the cars, the advertising—all of it. It’s even true of the 19th century: practically no respectable American man wore a beard before the 1850s, for instance, but beards were almost obligatory in the 1870s, and then disappeared again by 1900. The modern sensibility has been defined by brief stylistic shelf lives, our minds trained to register the recent past as old-fashioned.

Yes yes yes! The recent past no longer looks old-fashioned. When we want to invoke a “retro” feeling today, we have to go back, at a minimum, at least 30 years, to the early 80s. But even at that point, there are only a few signifiers that say old: legwarmers, for one. It wouldn’t be that hard to time-travel back to 1982 and find someone who wouldn’t look out of place today. It would be almost impossible to travel back to 1972 or 1962 and do the same thing.

What the heck happened over the past 20 years? Andersen thinks he knows:

Why is this happening? In some large measure, I think, it’s an unconscious collective reaction to all the profound nonstop newness we’re experiencing on the tech and geopolitical and economic fronts. People have a limited capacity to embrace flux and strangeness and dissatisfaction, and right now we’re maxed out. So as the Web and artificially intelligent smartphones and the rise of China and 9/11 and the winners-take-all American economy and the Great Recession disrupt and transform our lives and hopes and dreams, we are clinging as never before to the familiar in matters of style and culture.

If this stylistic freeze is just a respite, a backward-looking counter-reaction to upheaval, then once we finally get accustomed to all the radical newness, things should return to normal—and what we’re wearing and driving and designing and producing right now will look totally démodé come 2032. Or not. Because rather than a temporary cultural glitch, these stagnant last couple of decades may be a secular rather than cyclical trend, the beginning of American civilization’s new chronic condition, a permanent loss of appetite for innovation and the shockingly new. After all, such a sensibility shift has happened again and again over the last several thousand years, that moment when all great cultures—Egyptian, Roman, Mayan, Islamic, French, Ottoman, British—slide irrevocably into an enervated late middle age.

So it’s either a temporary glitch, a slowing down of some aspects of our culture while other aspects speed up. Or else it’s the beginning of the end of American innovation. (These excerpts here, long as they seem, are but a small slice of Andersen’s essay. I recommend reading the whole thing.)

Weirdly, the Onion sorta predicted our situation almost 15 years ago:

U.S. Dept. Of Retro Warns: ‘We May Be Running Out Of Past’

November 4, 1997 | ISSUE 32•14

WASHINGTON, DC—At a press conference Monday, U.S. Retro Secretary Anson Williams issued a strongly worded warning of an imminent “national retro crisis,” cautioning that “if current levels of U.S. retro consumption are allowed to continue unchecked, we may run entirely out of past by as soon as 2005.”

The Onion worried that nostalgia for the recent past was getting too recent:

Such a warp, Williams said, was never a danger in the past due to the longtime, standard two-decade-minimum retro waiting period. “However, the mid-’80s deregulation of retro under the Reagan Administration eliminated that safeguard,” he explained, “leaving us to face the threat of retro-ironic appreciation being applied to present or even future events.”

“We are talking about a potentially devastating crisis situation in which our society will express nostalgia for events which have yet to occur,” Williams told reporters.

The National Retro Clock currently stands at 1990, an alarming 74 percent closer to the present than 10 years ago, when it stood at 1969.

Nowhere is the impending retro crisis more apparent, Williams said, than in the area of popular music. “To the true retrophile, disco parties and the like were common 10 years ago. Similarly, retro-intelligentsia have long viewed ‘New Wave’ and even late-’80s hair-metal retro as passé and no longer amusing as kitsch,” Williams said. “We now face the unique situation of ’90s retro, as evidenced by the current Jane’s Addiction reunion tour: nostalgia for the decade in which we live.”

Did we perhaps subsconsciously appreciate, on a cultural level, the danger we were in, and so we built in some stagnant buffer for our sense of retro to realign itself?

(I’ve long pointed to the Onion as proof that we are beyond satire, but I had not previously encountered the publication as being so prophetically postsatirical.)

Have we reached a point of cultural stagnation? Can we get into gear again and start creating a world worthy of retro? Or are we moving into some new cultural phase that precludes it?

Thanks to Bluejay for the Andersen link.

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • Nathan Merrill

    Four years later, I’m doing some research for a Wikipedia article about 2010s fashion, having come across the 90s fashion page and noticed that things haven’t really changed for a lot of people in a long time. Admittedly I am hardly a fashion maven, but I know lots of folks who wear 15-20 year old clothing and who look indistinguishable from everyone else.

    I don’t really know why this might be. I’d suggest maybe clothing is just keeping better these days, but I don’t think that’s it, seeing as people still have old stuff in their closets.

    It might just be our ability to capture images of the past and replay them on television and the Internet have frozen us in time, as stuff doesn’t date as quickly as it used to due to the march of technology.

  • Nathan Merrill

    One thing worth noting is that several past trends have more or less ended or proved themselves to be unwieldy.

    For instance, the speed at which we have transmitted messages has changed; in the past, it took weeks to send messages across the oceans. We narrowed that to days in the 1800s, then acquired the telegraph, then the telephone. Then we developed television, then the Internet. Today, we can instantly communicate with anyone, anywhere on the planet, sending video, audio, text… whatever.

    Communication has more or less hit its endpoint – there isn’t any faster communication than instant.

    Heck, we can even communicate across time, as evinced by my responding to this three years later.

    Likewise, cars and planes have stopped increasing in speed due to physical limitations. The idea of super-fast cars and super-fast planes no longer bears much relevance – we travel at pretty similar speeds now, but it is generally fast enough, as we can get to anywhere on the planet within 24 hours, physically. This kind of destroys a lot of futuristic seeming ideas, and high-speed rail has been reality for decades at this point.

    More energy-efficient stuff just isn’t all that exciting to talk about.

    Guns aren’t much different, either.

    The biggest area of change is in computing technology – but even there, we entered the era of “good enough” circa 2009 or so, and while it continues to improve, we aren’t seeing the same sorts of leaps and bounds we saw before.

    Drones and self-driving cars are probably the two big things, automated things which do their own thing, but… well, how exciting is NOT doing things, really? And the idea of a robotic kitchen is old now, dating back to at least the 1950s. Even if we make it reality, it won’t be anything new sci-fi wise.

    I’m not sure what’s LEFT in terms of day-to-day stuff.

  • Nathan Merrill

    This is remarkably insightful, but I have to wonder if that is only because we haven’t figured out how to do that “properly” yet.

    Still, you are right that we’re seeing massive evolution on the games/internet front.

    Then again, I’m responding to you on a four-year old platform now.

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