question of the day: Have we reached a point of cultural stagnation?
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.
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.
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'
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."
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.
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Fri Jan 20 12, 8:00AM
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by MaryAnn Johanson
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