Are popular music makers — and their fans — more enthralled to the past than any other group in America? That’s the argument of Simon Reynolds, as filtered through this review by Nicholas Carr. I would be curious to know what others think. My inclination is to say, No — “retromaniacal” though it may indeed be, today’s pop music is not unique along that dimension. I would agree with Carr that what we are witnessing, when we see The Beatles top the charts again 50 years later, or visit a bar where the DJ is playing vintage Motown vinyl, is not quite nostalgia: “Whereas nostalgia is rooted in a sense of the past as past,” Carr writes, “retromania stems from a sense of the past as present.” I would disagree that this curious “sense of the past as present” is peculiar to music. After all, what motivates the dominant mode of legal analysis today, originalism, but a “sense of the past as present”? What else, if not that, motivates the self-anointed Tea Party’s ready invocation of the struggles of the 1770s, or, at the other end of the spectrum, accounts of racial grievance built around “anachronistic allusion“? 

A “sense of the past as present” seems to me to be, if not the dominant strand, certainly an important strand, within 21st century American culture across the board. Or anyway, that’s certainly the argument that Daniel Rodgers makes in Age of Fracture, his recent attempt to make sense of the last 30 years. In the 1980s, Rodgers observes, “the boundary between past and present virtually dissolved.” While academic historians continue to insist that past and present are radically different, many realms of American intellectual life have given way to a new vision of what Rodgers calls “radically foreshortened, instantly accessible time” — a vision expressed in the resurgence of eschatological Christianity; in microeconomic theories that assume “rational actors” moving through interchangeable slices of days or years; in lawyers’ and judges’ attempts “to locate a trap door through which one could reach beyond history and find a simpler place outside of it.” And so, perhaps, one might add, in the musical stylings of 20- and 30-somethings for whom time is an open field to run on, and any influence you can find there is a good influence. Any influence you can find there is an influence that can plausibly be sliced and grafted upon your feelings and circumstances of today.

When I was a child, I often listened to an “oldies” radio station that specialized in the ’50s and ’60s. As I grew up, I noticed that “oldies” stations kept expanding their jurisdiction. Meanwhile Top 40 stations began to boast of playlists encompassing the best of the “’80s, ’90s, and today!” Everything overlapped. College kids started having ’80s parties; then they kept having ’80s parties and added ’90s parties to the rotation. No one I can think of has yet provided any plausible account of what the ’00s were. For that matter, no one I can think of has yet provided any plausible account of this weird decade fetish we’ve got going. But it seems, in a way, of a piece. It’s like each decade is now just a different place you can go, depending on how you’re feeling; the decades are rooms along a hallway, always still there, rather than moments that were crucially shaped by the moments that went before and definitively left behind when they were over. Chronology is geography? Maybe this has something to do with virtuality? (Or, maybe I’ve just spent way too much time on the Internet.)

So, to sum up — and I realize I’ve now walked a long way away from the barn — we’ve got no present, and the past is always present. What does this mean? Who knows. Is this bad? Maybe; maybe not. Probably, I’d say, with the answer I’d give to almost any question, “It depends.” But if in fact this has happened — i.e., if in fact American culture has totally blurred past and present — it is, at the least, tempting to speculate about why. One theory I’ve heard is that a sharp past/present dichotomy makes most sense in times of prosperity and stability — such as the 1950s, when the world seemed to be getting better all the time (to bring it back to pop music, if you will, though in dutiful ’00s way, to do it anachronistically) and global conflicts, while many and frightening, had a certain logic within the all-encompassing epistemological framework of the Cold War. In such times, you don’t need the past, and it’s also not clear why you’d want the past, gloomy and poor as it was. Conversely, at moments of great cultural and social flux, it is either more tempting or, perhaps, simply more instinctive to collapse past and present into a single field. As law professor G. Edward White has written, in moments of flux, contemporary actors “have a less clear sense of what their present ‘is,’ and thus a hazier impression of the discernible differences between ‘past’ and ‘present.'”[*]

And, I’d add, of the differences between present and future: After all, the same inability to mark lines between yesterday and today also makes it difficult to be sure that it’s not tomorrow. What we’ve got, in other words, isn’t retromania, so much as what I’ll label, in an ugly neologism, temporomania: a real cultural problem with temporality, with where to draw the tick marks, with how to hold our present moment still long enough to get our minds around it. Is this also why we have such trouble imagining bold political programs? Is this why we seem so collectively ambivalent about shoring up our institutions and infrastructure? Well, who knows. And yet, I know this: it’s why William Gibson has stopped writing science fiction:

Wells and Heinlein, I imagine, had a really good idea of where we are now, so they could afford to kick back and imagine where we’re going. I don’t know about other science fiction writers, but I don’t feel like I’m all that clear on where we are now. I think I’m expending my creative energy trying to map or match the remarkable weirdness of the present moment.



[*] Now, to be sure, I would not necessarily make the claim that our present moment actually is a moment of greater flux than the 1950s — how would you measure such a thing, anyway? and also: the 1950s! lots of flux! — but there does seem to be something to the notion that people today feel like we’re in a time of unprecedented flux, and that big-picture geopolitics don’t provide the same organizing framework for making peace with that flux that geopolitics once did — not to parrot the Fukuyama “end of history” line or anything, but I do kind of agree that if your society has got multiple existential wars and battles going at once against Terror, Drugs, Crime, Big Government, Climate Change, for Family Values, for other Family Values, etc., and probably some other ones I’m forgetting, it gets hard to keep track. But then, who knows.

2 thoughts on “Retromania

  1. really interesting post

    and it’s also exactly what my book Retromania is looking at

    digiculture leading to a spatialisation of time, the simultaneity of all the past decades of popular culture

    there’s a whole bit in Retromania about William Gibson no longer writing books set in the future and this concept of atemporality that he and Bruce Sterling have been kicking around

    i need to check out this Daniel Rodgers book Age of Fracture

    1. Wow, thanks for reading & commenting — I’ll definitely add Retromania to my reading list! Being in a History PhD program, I’m trained to separate past from present so it’s fascinating and, I think, important to think about what this new “atemporality” will mean for the study of history and how future students will/won’t engage with it. The post is just based on reading the Carr review, but I’ll definitely look forward to reading your book in full.

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