Artificial Nostalgia and the Decline of a Culture

A few months ago I not­ed the curi­ous phe­nom­e­non of new wave Chi­nese cen­sor­ship, where young peo­ple raised in a heav­i­ly cen­sored soci­ety have to learn about for­bid­den events (like Tianan­men) so they can con­tin­ue to sup­press it on the Chi­nese inter­net. They are, in essence, hav­ing to cre­ate new mem­o­ries for them­selves so they can learn to sup­press it in oth­ers.

This makes mem­o­ry, already an inher­ent­ly fun­gi­ble thing, into an arti­fice. The young peo­ple learn­ing about mas­sacres and democ­ra­cy move­ments nev­er expe­ri­enced them or learned of them grow­ing up, but they have to inter­nal­ize what those move­ments meant and sig­ni­fy in order to sup­press them from ever hap­pen­ing again. It is a ten­sion that might be unre­solv­able.

There is a flip side to this idea, though. As the aca­d­e­m­ic Andreas Huyssen puts it, “The past is not sim­ply there in mem­o­ry, but it must be artic­u­lat­ed to become mem­o­ry.” Things need to be expressed in order to be remem­bered — whether to be sup­pressed again or cel­e­brat­ed because of their arti­fi­cial­i­ty.

MEL Mag­a­zine recent­ly did a fea­ture on young peo­ple rock­ing out to a sub vari­ant of vapor­wave music, itself a micro genre of retro-sound­ing, pseu­do-nos­tal­gic music that is usu­al­ly fuzzy and elec­tron­ic sound­ing and dat­ed between the mid-80s and the 9/11 attacks. It is meant to be evoca­tive of a time dur­ing one’s youth when you would hang out at the mall with noth­ing to do.

What’s so inter­est­ing about the evo­lu­tion of this style of music (and art) is how embed­ded it has become in the cul­ture — nos­tal­gic for a peri­od many of the cre­ators nev­er knew, and which many who lived through would­n’t have described as espe­cial­ly love­ly or pleas­ant. It is, in oth­er words, an escape into a past that nev­er exist­ed, to avoid a present they dis­like.

San Junipero, from sea­son 3 of Black Mir­ror, is a clas­sic depic­tion of this nos­tal­gia.

But that’s the thing with nos­tal­gia, isn’t it? The elder­ly peo­ple now who pine for the 50s aren’t exact­ly remem­ber­ing how tumul­tuous that peri­od of Amer­i­can his­to­ry was — and nei­ther are the peo­ple now pin­ing for the ear­ly 90s. Back to the Future came out in 1985, and fea­tured time trav­el back­ward and for­ward 30 years, to 1955 and 2015. The 80s are fur­ther away from us than the 50s were dur­ing that film, which itself was a big exer­cise in nos­tal­gia.

It’s not exact­ly rare to have this deep-seat­ed desire to expe­ri­ence things that took place long ago — John Koenig calls it “Anemoia,” or nos­tal­gia for a time you have not known. Enlight­en­ment philoso­phers were obsessed with ancient Greece and Rome. And into more mod­ern set­tings, we get that feel­ing as well. When my work was focused on the for­mer Sovi­et Union, that sense of anemoia was strong, whether from peo­ple fan­ta­siz­ing about being a British sub­al­tern trav­el­ing the silk road, or imag­in­ing them­selves as a char­ac­ter in Alek­sander Borod­in’s sym­phon­ic pow­er In the Steppes of Cen­tral Asia.

But with kids who weren’t even alive on 9/11 get­ting super into the mall­wave aes­thet­ic, I feel like there is some­thing else going on beyond the usu­al gauzy sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty that the past is, by def­i­n­i­tion, cool. For one, they aren’t rev­el­ing in the actu­al past — the mall­wave style is about a styl­ized, imag­ined ver­sion of the past. (Now, one could argue that this is true of all forms of nos­tal­gia, but it’s rare that the imag­ined past is inten­tion­al­ly mis­lead­ing.) In this case, the ver­sion of the mall that peo­ple are nos­tal­gic for seems like an apoc­a­lyp­tic ide­al — emp­ty, cav­ernous air con­di­tioned spaces, filled with stores but no peo­ple.

The teenagers inter­viewed by MEL explain this as a form of escapism. “It’s not just the music, it’s also the aes­thet­ic that comes with it,” one says. “The imagery is clean­er, its brighter and it’s more calm.”

One adds:

It’s just a cou­ple of hours in a day where every­thing at least feels okay, that I don’t have to wor­ry about whether or not I’m going to get a job, the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in the U.S. — all that shit. I guess it makes me think that there was a bet­ter time, or a time when peo­ple in this coun­try felt bet­ter.”

This is repli­cat­ing the same false sense of opti­mism that directs oth­er forms of cul­tur­al nos­tal­gia. Only, it does­n’t actu­al­ly engage with ear­ly 90s cul­ture in any way. In the long form videos, some of which are dom­i­nat­ed by ambi­ent noise rather than music, you can some­times hear heav­i­ly dis­tort­ed or processed sam­ples (like “UNITY ℬ⚈ℳℬ” by the clev­er­ly named death’s dynam­ic shroud.wmv), but it isn’t exact­ly rev­el­ing in the actu­al cul­tur­al impact of, say, Bruce Spring­steen the way peo­ple who are nos­tal­gic about the 60s rev­el in the impact of the Bea­t­les.

This refusal to actu­al­ly engage with the era that is the tar­get of nos­tal­gia strikes me as some­thing new, and not par­tic­u­lar­ly healthy. When young peo­ple in a cul­ture start to see lit­tle to look for­ward to, and instead des­per­ate­ly want to con­jure up hap­py things to remem­ber, it does­n’t exact­ly sug­gest things are going well.

Talk of decline, how­ev­er, is pre­ma­ture. Far-right agi­ta­tors and pseu­do-fas­cists love to talk about “cul­tur­al decline,” as if “the West” has nev­er before encoun­tered inso­bri­ety, sex­u­al lib­er­tin­ism, an influx of peo­ple from dif­fer­ent parts of the world, and gen­der-bend­ing (hon­est­ly, you guys, read a damn book). Even talk of “impe­r­i­al decline,” as left­ies like to speak, does­n’t quite fit: while coun­tries like Chi­na and Rus­sia are chal­leng­ing the U.S.-created lib­er­al glob­al order, they haven’t yet over­turned it — and the U.S. still enjoys con­trol or influ­ence over almost every major glob­al gov­ern­ing body.

No, this isn’t a decline, but a sys­tems change. Right now, in the Unit­ed States, we are fac­ing our own chal­lenge to the rul­ing order — politi­cians like Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez are chal­leng­ing the mod­el of rich old white men rais­ing cor­po­rate mon­ey to run for office; trans activists are chal­leng­ing the stul­ti­fy­ing and anti-sci­ence notion of human expe­ri­ence being lim­it­ed to two gen­ders, African-Amer­i­cans are demand­ing their voic­es and expe­ri­ences be heard and val­ued, and so on. You can almost name your issue, whether it is wealth inequal­i­ty, wom­en’s rights, gay rights, the envi­ron­ment, any­thing real­ly, and find peo­ple push­ing for more inclu­sion, more respect, and more con­sid­er­a­tion of the groups and peo­ple who are typ­i­cal­ly ignored and left behind.

At the same time, there is a con­cert­ed back­lash against these forces of change. One of them is in the White House, for exam­ple. And in Trump there is the dark side to false nos­tal­gia: think about how many Trump vot­ers long for an imag­ined 1950s where every­one was nice and things worked well — it nev­er exist­ed, but the idea of an idyl­lic 1950s is very appeal­ing for peo­ple who feel their sta­tus as unques­tioned over­lords of a cul­ture being threat­ened. It makes sense to want to return to a time when they had unques­tioned author­i­ties over “the blacks” and women were kept at home and denied work, and queer peo­ple could be freely demo­nized with­out a care in the world. That sort of past is com­fort­ing to peo­ple who don’t like feel­ing equal to peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent.

The sys­tem of Amer­i­ca, in oth­er words, is being chal­lenged. And the deci­sion to sequester them­selves in an imag­i­nary world that sort of feels a lit­tle famil­iar but still nov­el and a bit sooth­ing, is a human reac­tion to that chal­lenge.

L.P. Hart­ley famous­ly wrote, “The past is a for­eign coun­try; they do things dif­fer­ent­ly there.” You could say that about the present, too. Life for young peo­ple is mea­sur­ably hard­er and less secure than it was for their par­ents. And yet, young peo­ple are far more equal in out­look, far more racial­ly and gen­der-diverse, and far more tol­er­ant and open than their par­ents were. Much as the boomers love to self-con­grat­u­late their cul­tur­al activism (free love, man), they wound up per­pet­u­at­ing and wors­en­ing the very inequal­i­ties they opposed as teenagers dur­ing that same tumul­tuous peri­od they now miss and vote for qua­si-fas­cists to sim­u­late. Mil­len­ni­als and the youngest peo­ple, and a pret­ty large num­ber of Gen-Xers too, are look­ing at a more fun­da­men­tal change.

That isn’t to say Mall­wave is rev­o­lu­tion­ary. It’s noth­ing of the sort — if any­thing, it rep­re­sents a head-in-the-sand reac­tion to uncon­trol­lable forces act­ing far away. But the mind­set it rep­re­sents real­ly is some­thing fas­ci­nat­ing. There is a sys­tems change tak­ing place in Amer­i­ca. No one can say if it will work, or if the regres­sive forces of white suprema­cy will vio­lent­ly beat it back. But while it’s going on, and all the social anx­i­ety that comes with it, we can at least have a decent sound­track to lis­ten to.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.