“The future has arrived and it’s all about dreaming of the past”: Have we reached the end of cultural history?

You must read this fascinating cultural analysis from Kurt Andersen, who argues that even as we experience breathtaking advances in science, technology, and communications, the American cultural landscape “has been stuck on repeat, consuming the past instead of creating the new.” I’m going to pull some lengthy quotes, but there’s so much more:

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. […]

Go deeper and you see that just 20 years also made all the difference in serious cultural output. New York’s amazing new buildings of the 1930s (the Chrysler, the Empire State) look nothing like the amazing new buildings of the 1910s (Grand Central, Woolworth) or of the 1950s (the Seagram, U.N. headquarters). Anyone can instantly identify a 50s movie (On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai) versus one from 20 years before (Grand Hotel, It Happened One Night) or 20 years after (Klute, A Clockwork Orange), or tell the difference between hit songs from 1992 (Sir Mix-a-Lot) and 1972 (Neil Young) and 1952 (Patti Page) and 1932 (Duke Ellington). When high-end literature was being redefined by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, great novels from just 20 years earlier — Henry James’s The Ambassadors, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth — seemed like relics of another age. And 20 years after Hemingway published his war novel For Whom the Bell Tolls a new war novel, Catch-22, made it seem preposterously antique.

Now try to spot the big, obvious, defining differences between 2012 and 1992. Movies and literature and music have never changed less over a 20-year period. Lady Gaga has replaced Madonna, Adele has replaced Mariah Carey — both distinctions without a real difference — and Jay-Z and Wilco are still Jay-Z and Wilco. Except for certain details (no Google searches, no e-mail, no cell phones), ambitious fiction from 20 years ago (Doug Coupland’s Generation X, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow) is in no way dated, and the sensibility and style of Joan Didion’s books from even 20 years before that seem plausibly circa-2012.

Andersen goes on, providing many more examples. He concedes that there are exceptions — current cultural creations that are truly new and exciting — but their rarity merely proves the apparent rule:

Ironically, new technology has reinforced the nostalgic cultural gaze: now that we have instant universal access to every old image and recorded sound, the future has arrived and it’s all about dreaming of the past. Our culture’s primary M.O. now consists of promiscuously and sometimes compulsively reviving and rejiggering old forms. It’s the rare “new” cultural artifact that doesn’t seem a lot like a cover version of something we’ve seen or heard before. Which means the very idea of datedness has lost the power it possessed during most of our lifetimes. […]

Look at people on the street and in malls — jeans and sneakers remain the standard uniform for all ages, as they were in 2002, 1992, and 1982. Look through a current fashion or architecture magazine or listen to 10 random new pop songs; if you didn’t already know they were all things from the 2010s, I guarantee you couldn’t tell me with certainty they weren’t from the 2000s or 1990s or 1980s or even earlier. (The first time I heard a Josh Ritter song a few years ago, I actually thought it was Bob Dylan.) In our Been There Done That Mashup Age, nothing is obsolete, and nothing is really new; it’s all good. I feel as if the whole culture is stoned, listening to an LP that’s been skipping for decades, playing the same groove over and over. Nobody has the wit or gumption to stand up and lift the stylus.

His sobering conclusion:

We seem to have trapped ourselves in a vicious cycle — economic progress and innovation stagnated, except in information technology; which leads us to embrace the past and turn the present into a pleasantly eclectic for-profit museum; which deprives the cultures of innovation of the fuel they need to conjure genuinely new ideas and forms; which deters radical change, reinforcing the economic (and political) stagnation. I’ve been a big believer in historical pendulum swings — American sociopolitical cycles that tend to last, according to historians, about 30 years. So maybe we are coming to the end of this cultural era of the Same Old Same Old. As the baby-boomers who brought about this ice age finally shuffle off, maybe America and the rich world are on the verge of a cascade of the wildly new and insanely great. Or maybe, I worry some days, this is the way that Western civilization declines, not with a bang but with a long, nostalgic whimper.

Be sure to read the whole thing.

Andersen’s argument has been made by others as well — among them Simon Reynolds, author of Retromania (read an interesting Salon interview here) and Patton Oswalt, whose famous Wired magazine article laments the decline of originality in geek culture and blames it on the Internet-enabled easy recyclability of the past.

It’s indeed a compelling argument, though not airtight: see, for instance, some pushback from Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, who concedes some of Andersen’s points but argues for the robustness of global cinema and the continuing innovation in computer and video games, among others. Cowen’s readers also point out something I heartily agree with, which is that literature for kids and young adults has progressed by leaps and bounds in the past twenty years, spawning highly sophisticated fantasies and new genres like Brian Selznick’s not-quite-describable text/illustration narrative hybrids; there’s never been a better time to be a young reader devouring stories. And of course there’s the revolution in food and dining: what’s available in restaurants and recipe books today is far, far better and more interesting than anything I can recall from two or three decades ago. A commenter makes an interesting argument: “Perhaps the perception that we are in a sort of aesthetical plateau has more to do with a change in the way innovations happen now vs. the past. Now we have small marginal changes built upon previous innovations that go in every direction, whereas in the past there were more or less unified waves of radical change that made the transition a lot more obvious.”

Much food for thought.

(via Bob Cesca; image via Salon)

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