The Nostalgia Machine

We are living in a transient world. The pace of technological innovation is at a level never seen before. Although perhaps the same argument could be made relatively from most points in history, the fact is, I am writing this in 2015. When most people carry around computers in their pockets, which are individually more powerful than the ones that sent the first men to the moon less than half a century ago. Everywhere everything is becoming more interconnected and the lines between real and virtual are blurring rapidly. Want to get a ride to the other end of town? Taxi straight to your front door in minutes, ready with your own personalised Spotify playlist. Hungry? Gourmet burgers and lobster sandwiches delivered to you warm, steaks almost still sizzling. Want someone to cuddle up with for the night? Swipe right and meet your match! What is most certainly the norm today, particularly in metropolises like London, seemed out of the question even 10 years ago. And what’s more, each year, newer and newer apps, devices and services are launching, at a level that is hard to keep up with, all with the sole purpose of streamlining your life as both an efficient producer within the capitalist machine, and an obedient consumer whose every wishes and desires can be fulfilled instantly at their fingertips with absolute minimal human interaction needed. Every year we throw away the old, and worship at the temple of the new, the shiny, the improved.

The problem is, that it is impossible for us as humans, both individually and societally, to match this pace of change, to adapt accordingly, and so we develop coping mechanisms. One of the most prevalent counter-trends in recent years that has developed, and which has taken form in various facets of life, but which can all be summarised as the Nostalgia Industry. In particular, 80s and 90s nostalgia. A loose collection of everything ranging from Instagram sepia filters, exposed-brick restaurant interiors, 90s RnB revival nights, an increased prevalence of period pieces on screen, both big and small, “90s kids” memes and Buzzfeed clickbait listicles, airwaves dominated by a resurgence of 808s and music harking back to early acid and deep house, the Adidas Gazelles and the bucket hats, and everything in between. The current generation between their mid-twenties and mid-thirties, the young successful urban professionals towards whom most of the new urban development is aimed, is choosing to cope with its quarter-life crisis that comes with the reluctant onset of adulthood and responsibilities, by clinging on to artefacts from their childhood, or most likely an imagined collective childhood.

Now nostalgia is most certainly a powerful emotion. Derived from the Greek nostos, meaning to return home, and algos, meaning pain, it was coined in the late 17th century by Johannes Hofer as a translation of the German word Heimweh, or homesickness. The result is a deep sense of longing and homesickness that causes internal torment, and which can no doubt be a source for great artistic works, as seen throughout history, whether traditional Portuguese Fado music, or the Romantic poets and composers of the 19th century. Nostalgia, or our emotional response to our realisation of temporality, and by default ultimately death, has within it a great deal of potential beauty. However, the role of nostalgia in today’s pop culture seems to serve a few very particular purposes.

First of all, the fetishisation and commodification of a very recent past, coupled with urban decay, helps to add temporality, or a false sense of grounding and rootedness, to the ever-changing facades of modern “liquid” consumer society. Since it is impossible for us to actually keep up with the speed at which it is changing, these artefacts and memorabilia appeal to and hark back to a certain comfort zone from our memories, a time when the world was less complicated. When we could watch cartoons, eat sugar-crusted cereals, and not have to have any worry about the increasingly complicated world where it is harder and harder to make sense of anything at all. In this sense, with nostalgia having the closest meaning to the original Heimweh, it serves as highly potent emotional device. It is natural to seek an antidote to the ever-sterilised and sanitised nature of modern capitalism, through melancholy, through an introspection into the past. That is where this version of the nostalgia industry is so powerful. By adding a simple Instagram filter to a perfectly ordinary picture of a day out in the park, you’ve effectively instantly added a layer of melancholy to mask the mundaneness of today. Suddenly the photo gains a timeless quality, originating from somewhere in the great undefined Past. Thus the very antidote to consumer culture, an otherwise ethereal and otherworldly feeling, becomes shamelessly commodified.

In this way, the commercialisation of this vaguely timeless nostalgic aesthetic also serves a secondary purpose. Because it exists in juxtaposition to the perpetual newness of consumer society, it becomes its justification. Particularly in late capitalist society, after the collapse of the global financial markets in 2008, and the rising consciousness within the public discourse of the shortcomings of capitalism and consumerism, new products are overladen with a layer of nostalgia in order to gain a level of legitimacy. As Jonathan Moses writes in Open Democracy, the appropriation of this aesthetic, which is has in many ways been associated with anti-capitalist and anarchist movements of yesteryear, is a reaction to our collective boredom with the gloss of glass and steel which is often times the face of an ever-changing modernity. It also represents capitalism’s terrifying ability to subsume and appropriate all the forces on its fringe, those ideas that even oppose it. For instance in the narrative surrounding sustainability, rather than a conversation about reducing our consumption and demand, we hear about in investing in new and better technologies, feeding into the same growth paradigm which has left us in this mess to begin with. Similarly, with regards to the aesthetics of ruin and nostalgia, we find ourselves obsessing with the new which is purpose-built to not feel new, to subvert the regular expectations that come along with new development. One walk from Shoreditch, through Bethnal Green, down Mare Street and on to London Fields, and the line between bohemia and gentrification is increasingly blurred.

However, as mentioned at the start of this article, nostalgia is a powerful emotion, one that has been the breeding ground for many an iconic piece of art in the past, and similarly now, not all nostalgia is a cynical marketing ploy. Among the many new aesthetic movements to have evolved in recent years, one of the most obscure yet fascinating manifestations is surely Vaporwave. It can be loosely described as a musical and artistic genre which evolved mostly on the Internet some time in the early 2010s, which samples retro ambient and easy listening music, as well as brightly neon visuals, and outdated advertisements, and then repackages it into a new product, often with a musical as well as visual component. The results can vary — everything from nu-disco sounds to mainstream trap leanings, as well as music reminiscent of old-skool electro and funk, and an entire canon of work produced by anonymous and unknown producers. However, nostalgia, and a yearning for a past, but more likely just a more innocent time in our own lives, is central to the emotions evoked by Vaporwave. What distinguishes an artistic movement like this from other nostalgia-oriented trends is that it takes from the past and manages to create a sound, and a resultant emotion that is altogether futuristic and indeed new.

In its ability to repackage the old and present it as an entirely new product, it also serves as a biting critique of consumer society. Artist Saint Pepsi, for instance, uses sounds and visuals entirely taken from old Pepsi commercials, and creates a strangely psychedelic funky disco-house sound. Due to its existence precisely within the crux between a past that is fast becoming outdated/obsolete, and a future that is rapidly approaching with every day, all the while immersed inside a hypercapitalist society, it is in equal parts both an ode , as well as counterpoint to, this consumer digital age. However, Vaporwave is not merely a concept, since its results are often times gorgeous, as well as laden with an overwhelming feeling of melancholia, even in its most upbeat manifestations, which is further compounded by its presentation, tracks named in foreign languages and alphabets, bright neon visuals, anonymous producers. All of these components are in fact aspects of the same sense of escape and yearning central to nostalgia, evoked by our dissatisfaction with modern society, as well as an inability to keep up with the rate at which it is changing.

Thus it can be said that the nostalgia industry is ambivalent. Although on the one hand it can be seen as a cynical marketing ploy that exploits a natural tendency to seek a counterpoint to the speed of our digital age, however, it can also lead to some most intriguing aesthetic results. That is perhaps because, being a member of the target generation, that some such works do resonate with me, such as the aforementioned “Vaporwave”, or even to some degree the stylised and fetishized ruinations of gourmet burger joints and dive bars built less than a year ago. Who knows, perhaps it’s an ironic appreciation after all, which is all the more telling of this day and age, but that is a topic for another day.

October 29 2015, London

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Aranyo Aarjan

North London Bengali, writing about politics, culture, football and climate