Kill yr. idols (Notes on Retromania and Hauntology)

A couple of things heard recently that have had me thinking on Retromania and Hauntology.

Noticed quite a few tracks recently that seem to be aping Burial in one way or another. Now both Zomby and xx are notoriously omnivorous in style, but is it just a value judgement to say that they’re simply rehashing rather than working in a generic space opened up by a previous artist? It seems to be that in pushing for the shock of the new in music certain members of the blogosphere are harking back to a golden age which never existed (The founding tenet of conservatism), rather than espousing a Nostalgia for the Future (Hauntology). I’ve heard enough also-ran post-punk bands to know that 1981, while a more interesting year sonically than 2011, was by no means some permanent revolution in which everything sounded new.

But what of a 23-year-old comparing the present year to 30 years ago? Is this a symptom of retromania manifest, or a necessary step towards judging whether something is new or not? In combing through history upon listening to a new track to find antecedents, have we already fallen into a trap laid by nostalgia? It seems that any assessment of art’s newness requires an archivist’s eye as judge, and this is really a retromaniacal technology.

Moreover, this points to perhaps a generational particularity of Hauntology: though I enjoy many artists under that grouping, do I experience it in the same way as someone 20 years older? What exactly does Hauntology offer to young people, particularly those who know no other way to live than in a post-modern structure? ‘Nostalgia for the future’ may offer a way back to a situation in which utopianism hasn’t been foreclosed by its political enemies, but I doubt whether this option, of pulling ourselves back in order to slingshot forward into the future, is open to people of my generation in the same way. It is often said that the advances of socialism/modernism would take generations to rebuild once reversed, and on a cultural level this may be the point that we’re at now. That is not to say that political positivity is intrinsically dead, but on a cultural level we should consider that we may be at that foretold point wherein consciousness has to be rebuilt from the ground up once more. 

There has long been the problem of the ‘anxiety of influence’ in literature, art etc. wherein the author/artist takes on a predominant influence and tries in some way to pervert that influence to his own ends. Everyone can be traced back by the historian, but what essence is left in retrospect that gives an artist their newness? From a strictly Marxist view of art this might simply be the particular economic circumstances brought about by a generational gap, so that a writer’s interest to the critic might lie simply in their mapping of socio-political co-ordinates at their time of writing in the tradition of a previous writer, who in turn mapped their own co-ordinates.

By this view, the age of retromania tells us much about the Post-modern, globalised and virtualised epoch of the present. Its globalised nature is particularly important as this points to a new trend facilitated by technology: Where artists would previously travel in space for influences ie. African non-realist painting for Picasso, Reggae for certain punks, they now travel in time, and by necessity they can only travel back, ie. Moon Wiring Club to Radiophonic Workshop, Ariel Pink to AOR, Animal Collective to a certain section of Psychedelia. This is necessitated by the globalised world leaving no stone unturned; the fruits which far-flung places can bear in terms of new influences becomes progressively less exciting, the potential for newness worn out by a world in which any place on earth is accessible to any relatively affluent westerner willing to travel. Marx’s prediction that expansion across the globe would eventually exhaust itself has finally proved to be true, though expansion into time has begun in the age of Retromania.

Viewed this way Reynolds’ criticism of the ‘event horizon’ of retro, in which a period has spent so much time fetishising the past that future periods have nothing to feed off of when looking back to it, strikes very close to the age-old complaint of anti-globalists that globalisation homogenises space. If retro homogenises time, how is this qualitatively different from the homogenisation of globalised space? This brings to mind not that the development from space exploration to time exploration represents some sort of degradation on culture, but the notion that there might not be anywhere else to go from there. Could there be an intelligible ‘fifth dimension’ of culture? Judging by the current trend, this is most likely to come from some technological advance or another if it does, as increasingly technology drives our thought processes rather than vice versa.

‘Newness,’ though, is virtually impossible to objectively measure: with Simon Reynolds it is impossible to judge to what degree he and others of his generation have become jaded with music, how their breadth of knowledge compares to their early days to which they look back with wide-eyed astonishment at bands they might have thought derivative had they been born another 30 years’ previous.  Most interesting punk and post-punk was a kind of Pop-izing of modernist art, literature and Science Fiction – Some would argue these mediums largely dried up creatively in the ’20’s, ’50’s and ’70’s respectively, and for the sake of that argument we might say that pop music’s cooling off is a direct delayed reaction.

There’s no doubt that the Modernist 20th Century was the most fast-paced, exciting century in history in terms of culture, but in hopes of returning to a similar outlook we might do well not to set the past up as greater than it was, so that it becomes a millstone around our necks that prevents future creativity and politics from flourishing.

More to come when I’ve actually read Retromania…


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