Time is a tricky thing. To put it into some sort of order, we have invented the discipline of history—“a pack of tricks we play upon on the dead,” according to Voltaire. Our need for temporal order extends to corralling recent history into nostalgic theme parks—the “me decade,” the “we decade,” etc.
Consider the ’60s. Some observers say the decade really ‘began’ with Kennedy’s assassination (1963), and some choose the Beatles’ Revolver album (1966) for that distinction. Or was it the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco (1967)? Regardless of the decade’s beginning or ending, it’s undeniable that the fashion, art, music and politics of the time made for an identifiable, if not coherent, whole. The same can be said for the ’70s, that interregnum of platform shoes, oil shortages, and 10-minute drum solos.
The “me decade” of the ’70s was mislabelled, I believe; that distinction actually belonged to the ’80s, a high-rolling time of self-indulgence in everything from pop music to fine arts to high finance. The ’90s were pegged as the slacker or grunge era, while the past decade has gone entirely nameless. That lack of a tag line is telling. There is no identifiable “look” to the present time. Skinny ties, platform shoes, Goth hair styles, retro hippie print dresses, porkpie hats, cardigan sweaters: you name it. From the school hallway to the fashion catwalk, anything goes.
We’re all geologists now, rummaging through the glacial debris field of the past. The video mashups of Star Wars films and other pop culture artifacts on YouTube reflect the impulse to put old gems in new settings. The past is endlessly resurrected and reworked through digital media, mostly by unpaid content providers. These folks are not so much the makers of history as its yuk-seeking archivists.
Thanks to portals such as iTunes and YouTube (as well as peer-to-peer networks), an entire back century is now on tap. Old sitcoms, ancient MTV videos, newsreels, and films flow into the home at the press of a key, cheaply or for free. It’s an attention-sucking embarrassment of riches.
In a time when almost every cultural creation imaginable is instantly accessible, there isn’t much of an “underground” culture, in either music or the arts. Underground implies something in opposition, or at least in tension, with mainstream culture. While this was true years ago, it has become less so over time. Yesterday’s hip is today’s commercially viral. Corporate “cool hunters” appropriate the latest trends as soon as they emerge.
“Pop culture has entered into a nostalgic malaise,” writes Jaron Lanier in You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. “Online culture is dominated by trivial mashups of the culture that existed before the onset of mashups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action.”
Mid-range software programs within the price reach of the average consumer allow the bowerbird impulse to go crazy with mixing, ripping, and altering the past. Is this copyright-flouting absorption with digital tech dissolving the sense of a common past, one of the foundations for a shared culture? Bob Horning on the website Pop Matters thinks so.
“We end up nostalgic for the capability for nostalgia, we feel homesickness for a home we never had,” he writes. “This leads to a compensatory attraction to childhood kitsch, to moribund objects (joining a typewriter club is an extreme manifestation of this), to anachronism, atavism, whatever seems genuinely and indelibly marked by a past.”
The result is that we live in a time that feels strangely ahistorical, an era in suspended animation. History, recent and past, has become digitized—just like everything else in this culture. A nostalgic Seinfeld clip circulated on Facebook has the same attention-getting status as an update on the situation in Libya. (It’s strange to think the first Star Wars film is now closer in time to the Second World War than it is to this year’s Egyptian revolution.)
If I were to give a tag line to the first decade of the 20th century, I’d go for the “mixmaster decade.” The next 10 years are anyone’s guess, as far as nomenclature or anything else goes.