Retro culture and looking forward to the past
On an industrial estate on the outskirts of a major city two crowds are spilling out of opposing warehouses. Inside, two raves are winding down. The first crowd is populated by a greying hardcore who have been going to such events since the 1990s. The second crowd is populated with what newspapers have recently been referring to as ‘nu-ravers’, members of a purported rave revival. The two groups blink at each other in the early morning light; both groups’ eyes are curiously dilated. They take long pulls on their water bottles. Irony hovers uncertainly in the air. And then, because two objects cannot occupy the same place at the same time (or more precisely, because one object cannot exist in two places at the same time), both groups explode in an eruption of blood, guts and glow sticks. I wake up from this nightmare, fittingly, in a cold sweat.
There can be no denying that cultural recycling is a defining aspect of the present era. Not that there is anything wrong with an era defined by its obsession with the past – people have lots of good things to say about the Renaissance – but while the need to remodel history is part of the human condition, the pace, intensity and proximity of this urge seem to be increasing.
For the last 50 years our recent cultural and symbolic past has been ruthlessly mined and exploited. Our radios play postpunk, garage revival and electro-clash. Our wardrobes hold skinny jeans, flannel plaid and fedoras. We appear to be seeking anything as long as it has been done before. In part this is a labelling error. Convention makes us define original concepts by comparison with past ones. No trend, music or art is ever recycled exactly. As Ralph Waldo Emerson slyly wrote in his essay ‘Quotation and Originality’ (1876): ‘Only an inventor knows how to borrow.’ Nevertheless the shimmering insubstantiality of pop culture has made it remarkably adulterous to its original time. This is not purely a modern concern. A premonition of our era’s fantastically rapid recycling of the just-before can be seen in fashion throughout the ages. Take the Victorian bustle, which first became fashionable in 1870, was replaced by a more slender silhouette in 1875, and was back in vogue again by 1883. Born, dead and resurrected in 13 swift years.
Peter York elucidated our era’s particularly virulent strain of cultural appropriation and alteration in Style Wars (1980), a collection of essays in which he described how the subcultures of the 1970s cherry-picked from both the ’50s (punk’s Teddy Boy stylings) and the ’60s (the Mod revival). The most famed of York’s characters was the Sloane Ranger – the rich, young West Londoner of the 1980s, who sought to recycle the past through a wooly-headed traditionalism – and in his recently released Cooler, Faster, More Expensive: The Return of the Sloane Ranger (2007) York sets out to show how the type has risen again. Could there be as compelling an example of our recent recycling mania as the sight of one of our greatest critics of cultural appropriation appropriating from himself?
A theoretical justification for the insatiable retro boom of the present (such as that found in Fredric Jameson’s study of contemporary cultural trends Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1991) might suggest that the recycling of forms and strategies in art and culture is due to a need to articulate the specific conditions of cultural production in the postwar period. A psychological explanation, by comparison, might insinuate a variant of Freud’s psychosexual infantilism, in which we have become obsessed with the culture that surrounded us during our formative years and from which we never manage to escape. An economic explanation, on the other hand, would imply that there are more consumers with more discretionary income to spend than ever before, and, as originality cannot keep up with demand, investors desperately seek a safe haven for their cultural cache. The past has an unadulterable triple-A value to it; old trends have been tested before and found adequate. The past offers us a fail-safe gesture, a free ride.
Nietzsche’s theory of the Eternal Return suggested that we should imagine our lives not ending at our deaths but being repeated over and over again for all eternity, each moment recurring in exactly the same way, without end. Those who recoiled from this idea, he said, had not yet learnt to love and value life in the way that they should. The retro boom seems to stand in direct opposition to this principle, making us out to be cultural cowards, intent on reviving the past so that we don’t have to commit to our lives in the present.
Are there universal rules governing cultural recycling? Is there a fixed amount of time that needs to pass before one can appropriate a style? Or is it possible, like a perverted Dr Frankenstein, to revive something that is still alive? If so, what will happen when the appropriation of the past creeps closer and closer to the present? What happens when last week’s trends become this week’s trends, yesterday’s music becomes today’s music? What happens if our cultural recycling begins to overtake us and starts reviving events that have not even taken place yet? Will this finally be innovation, or will we simply be stealing from the future?
George Pendle is currently writing the official biography of Death. Death: A Life, is to be published by Three Rivers Press in 2008.
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