Despite All the Nostalgia for the 1980s…

… that seems to be cropping up these days, it’s not a post-80s world we live in.

It’s in the shadow of the Baby Boomer Generation that we dwell, today: their politics, their economics, their morality, their paradigm. This insight I ran across on the Ivebeenreading blog in a post about a piece elsewhere where Kent Jones “takes after Quentin Tarantino for a poorly thought-out slam of John Ford.”

It’s curious that American culture and history are still so commonly viewed through a New Left prism, by means of which 1964 or thereabouts has become a Year Zero of political enlightenment; as a consequence, the preferred stance remains that of the outsider looking in, or in this case back, at a supposedly gullible and delusional pre-Sixties America. It’s certainly preferable to right-wing orthodoxy, but that’s hardly a compliment. The New Left is now very old but its rhetoric lives on, many times removed from its original context, and that rhetoric seems to have found a welcome home in film criticism.

Can we really afford to keep saying “them” instead of “us?” Is it useful to keep looking back at the past, disowning what we don’t like and attributing it to laughably failed versions of our perfectly enlightened selves? Should we really give ourselves the license to remake film history as we would like it to be by eliding certain details and amplifying others—in this case, selling The Birth of a Nation as the American equivalent of The Eternal Jew, equating a day of extra work with riding for the real Klan, elevating William Witney to King of the Underdogs and sweeping John Ford into the dustbin, and maintaining that the Blaxploitation genre was a model of African-American empowerment? Why do we keep insisting on the de-complication of history if not to justify our own tastes and abolish our discomforts?

There are two questions here, though: one is about defending what one likes for spurious reasons, while the other is about how we approach history we don’t like. The argument that Blaxploitation represented black empowerment, I can’t speak to, but I know full well the dynamic where someone castigates one thing, for moral reasons, and then praises something equally susceptible to moral criticism simply because one enjoys it. I try not to do that kind of thing, but everyone does it occasionally, and we live in a world where that sort of thing is common.

But that’s essentially human: people will always defend things they like, often on spurious grounds, because on what other grounds can one defend taste? Discussions are possible, but in the end, people who like Blaxploitation will choose to see it in a positive light, simplifying it in terms of the empowerment of African-American actors, and those who hate it will choose to see it in a wholly negative light, simplifying towards oppressiveness and exploitation and racism. The truth may be a combination of the two, I don’t know: I haven’t seen enough films from the era to have an opinion.

(There’s also branding. Tarantino, having released Django recently, needs to manage his image. Image management is a weird, weird thing, and one that seems crucial in the entertainment industries: I think of it as “persona bonsai” in that it seems a particularly weird and particularly finicky obsession in our world, but one that is also weirdly widespread.)

To me, the greater concern is how we are supposed to orient ourselves towards the parts of the past that discomfit us. Jones takes Tarantino to task for his position and words regarding John Ford, but a more mainstream example would be Mad Men, especially early in the series: those first few episodes are very busily engaged in building up a picture of the late 1950s as a horrible, horrible, unenlightened place. The derision that underscores a show like Mad Men is, I think, exactly what Jones is talking about when he uses terms like “perfectly enlightened selves,” and “laughably failed.”

But at the same time, the 1950s were actually, truly, a pretty horrible place in ways that we have improved on, arguably, to some degree. Not perfectly, not universally, and not so much so that we can afford to look back and sneer, but we have come a long way. But we ought not to pat ourselves on the backs too hard: after all, a lot of the nasty things women on the show experienced were drawn from the real-life experiences (in much later decades, obviously) of a lot of the women on the writing staff. Gloria Steinem is wrong about the “Mad Men Effect”–

wherein a show is so steeped in nostalgia and impeccable set pieces that the sanctioned workplace and cultural misogyny becomes just another part of the artistic rendering of the era. Are we so bewitched by the clothing, flagrant indoor smoking and brown-boozed cocktails that we overlook politics and behavior that we would in no way tolerate in contemporary programming or—god forbid—our own homes and offices?

Uh…no. The evidence for how off this is, is found in showing the pilot episode to a classroom of Korean students, and then finding yourself having to explain that, yeah, you caught a few things that were sexist and racist, but also missed a bunch because, whaddaya know, South Korea today has more in common with Mad Men than it does with contemporary America.

When you’re going around the room and listening to the small-group discussions, it dawns on you: they’re really, truly not getting it, not all of them; some of this shit just looks like normal day-to-day life for some of these women. Not all of it, and not all of them, but enough that you’re getting blank looks when you ask, “What about the sexism in the party scene, with the jokes? Or Peggy’s first day at work?”

But you realize: you hear male college students saying things approximately as offensive as that in elevators, to female students, and not just occasionally… often enough that, yeah, that’s one or two looks of incomprehension in each small discussion group, and not one of them is all that surprising.

And then you’re in front of the room explaining that yeah, this and that is supposed to be offensive, and trying to figure out how a young woman in the class could actuallysay, “I think women are getting too much power in our society,” (ahem, no, which prompts you to post this later on for the class to discuss) and you realize: these references function as jokes.

Yes, jokes, though not the funny-ha-ha kind. They’re in-jokes of a particularly post-1960s American sort: it is a satire of the past, played straight, and the pleasure derived is one of self-superiority. Ah, how much more enlightened we are than those dumbasses in the 1950s… That’s not to say the show doesn’t take sexism seriously: it’s to say the show takes sexism seriously while using the setting of the past to allow us to gape, to stare in bemused disgust at how brutish those people were, and how much better we are… the men among us, so much more enlightened; the women, so much more self-respecting.

The comedy, there, is in mockery of… what? Our grandparents, essentially. Of course, it’s also melded with nostalgia, of a particular sort–the same sort of nostalgia for traditional masculinity we see examined, explored, and also halfway castigated in The Sopranos, in Breaking Bad, in all kinds of contemporary TV series. Seriously, sometimes I feel like American TV is all about the collapse of traditional masculinity, and the insuperability of its replacement by anything on offer today.

Anyway, that’s a tangent.

Another tangent, one more related to what I set out to talk about, is the ugliness with which some Westerners in Korea discuss this. Some of the most sexist things I’ve heard said about Korean women, I’ve heard from the mouths of white women in Korea–though the Western men give them a run for their money sometimes. The way people look at one culture to another–especially when they are getting off on a sense of superiority, of being “more advanced”–maps really, really well with how we relate to our own past, which, in a lot of ways, is functionally a foreign culture that happens to (mostly) speak the same language as us.


What I want to get at is that there are so many competing modes of interfacing with the past: nostalgia, derision, respect, denial. They collide, they interact, they inform one another, they get nested like conflicting lines of code in a program, they get interlocked, and we find ourselves defaulting into one, or another, depending on what we like, or respect, or long for, or despise, or fear, or feel shame about. It’s almost as if we’re contorted into a bizarre position where all these urges and modes get played out at the same time, in varying degrees, so that finally, we get so exhausted by it all that and retreat into caricatures, however artful or sympathetic.. as if caricature is the default mode for looking at the past.

(I actually think Mad Men gets better at digging past that, to the sense that all people–including us–live within sets of socially-constructed constraints… if you’re paying attention;  how many people ride that horse all the way out into the river, though, I have no idea.)

The thing is, knowing about these conflicting urges, these collectively problematic modes of looking backward doesn’t simplify the task at all… knowing just makes you aware of what you’re doing when you’re doing it, if you manage to raise your head up for a moment and look in the mirror, catch a glimpse on the surface of the water as it passes by. It seems insufficient, wrong-headed, to use grandma and grandpa’s failings as a pedestal on which to elevate ourselves; at the same time, it seems wrong not to acknowledge those failings, and be critical of them… just not to the point where we are effectively blinded to our own failings.

After all, to go back to Mad Men (this is an article I’ve discussed before, in a post about sociohorror and monarchism and vampires, of all things):

“The truth is that a lot of these moments that seem period and horrible for women come directly from experiences that I and the other women writers have had in our lifetimes,” said Robin Veith, the executive story editor of Mad Men. Which may be yet another truth about sexism: We can’t face it directly unless we’re assured that it’s behind us. In order to admit that it’s awful, we may have to feel that we’ve been absolved.

The question of how to navigate between nostalgia, derision, respect, and denial is difficult, doubly so having grown up with the blinders that are bestowed upon a white male kid in North America. It’s a struggle, and one I’ve been considering lately as I start thinking over the project I think is going to become a novel. This world where 

Going back to Davy’s comment, after all, this is a group of white men arguing about how much more or less enlightened we’ve become is bound to miss something crucial about the discussion: they’re white, and they’re men. Davy’s right, after all, to note anti-Irish prejudice in American history, and presumably in Ford’s work… but he doesn’t mention that one of the ways Irish people moved beyond being victims of it was by co-inventing, with other white immigrants to America, that class of people who were members of the “white race” and then pointing out how blacks were not white; basically, by painting an even bigger target on African-Americans’ backs to distract from the target on their own backs.

The closer you look at everything, the more it all goes weirdly fractal, weirdly rabbit-hole-like. You examine things, and they get more complex. Whereas if you treat things like stage sets, then you miss everything that makes it relevant, crucial, important, and ever-more-problematic.

I don’t know, though I think Kent Jones probably hits one of the important nails on the head when he talks about pronouns: do we talk of this or that group of people in the past as “them,” or as “us”? This is true of any group of people, there’s an inevitable us vs. them dichotomy that will spring up. It’s easy to say, the best position is an “us” that casts as wide a net as possible; but when we look at the past, it’s more difficult to be able to say “us” and “them” at the same time… in a way, to balance those competing energies so we acknowledge the continuities and the fact we’re still imperfect people walking (sometimes, crawling or stumbling) along the same road they did, perhaps more enlightened in some ways, perhaps not so much in others, in a few perhaps even less so.

Levi Stahl puts it very well, once again in terms of Mad Men, at the end of his aftorementioned post at Ivebeenreadinglately:

Simply put, it is dull when it focuses on the sins of the past–Look, pregnant ladies are smoking! People are homophobic!–and fascinating when it shows us that every life is lived within constraints, and that the individual struggle to escape or come to terms with those limitations is what is interesting. The past may have been less enlightened than the present, but it was no less complicated and multifaceted. As Jones says, it shouldn’t be “them” and “us”–it’s all us. We’ll be the past ourselves soon enough.

That said, I think there’s something to be said for thinking in terms of posterity in terms of how we approach the present–our own posterity, that is: I would rather be from an age people didn’t look back upon and wince… an age that would be harder to sneer at than most.

The problem is, how to get people on board with thinking forward in that way? How to inspire people to greatness, in the present, during such a profoundly nostalgic age, where blogs are filled with longing for, and obsession with, yesterdays many of us never saw or experienced ourselves? It’s enough to drive one to question one’s own creative work–why am I wanting to write a jazz-infused SF novel where the 1950s are still with us? Which of these horses am I riding now, and into which river? How will my own creative work play to this problem, and how will it challenge our easy answers and lazy shorthands?

Fear seemss of often to drive people in the opposite direction–from acknowledging complexity and thinking forward; fear, and a lack of humility. And whether you’re trawling for votes, or money, or fame, or viewers, or readers — in any of those cases, pandering to fear (of one’s own failings) and to a lack of humility is a fool-proof method of getting what you want… fool proof, because it’s always possible to turn people into bigger fools than they are, simply by telling them that the one thing they don’t need is humility.

2 thoughts on “Despite All the Nostalgia for the 1980s…

  1. I think I know what you mean about the nostalgia, how distancing oneself from the past allows one to both castigate without having to temper one’s criticisms by self-reflection, and to fetishize a society that may be more imagined than the contemporary reality.

    On the one hand, I have a personal nostalgia for the time between the end of WWII and the Vietnam war, the enthusiasm for science, the optimism of the era… despite the fact that the scientific community (and sci-fi scene) was basically an Anglo old boy’s club, and that is something I feel very strongly about. I’m not sure how to reconcile the two, never was, but now, reading this post, I feel maybe the key lies in accepting one’s considering oneself as a part in a greater whole rather than a perfect self-contained entity all in oneself (which if you think about it, is pretty arrogant).

    1. I think I know what you mean about the nostalgia, how distancing oneself from the past allows one to both castigate without having to temper one’s criticisms by self-reflection, and to fetishize a society that may be more imagined than the contemporary reality.

      Yep. Wish I could have said it in so few words. And so clearly!

      On the one hand, I have a personal nostalgia for the time between the end of WWII and the Vietnam war, the enthusiasm for science, the optimism of the era… despite the fact that the scientific community (and sci-fi scene) was basically an Anglo old boy’s club, and that is something I feel very strongly about. I’m not sure how to reconcile the two, never was, but now, reading this post, I feel maybe the key lies in accepting one’s considering oneself as a part in a greater whole rather than a perfect self-contained entity all in oneself (which if you think about it, is pretty arrogant).

      That’s precisely the thing I’m trying to address, yes. I was talking with Mrs. Jiwaku about this and thinking of the world of jazz music the other day. You know, we think of the 1950 as a time of oppression of black people in America, but then you stop and ask yourself, “So why have I never heard of a female tenor sax player from the 1950s?” There was an atmosphere of quite acceptable sexism even among those oppressed black men, who at the same time were inventing one of the most cerebral, amazing, complex, and difficult forms of art that humans have ever engaged in.

      Do we criticize them as sexists, sympathize with them as victims of racial prejudice, celebrate them as profound and revolutionary artists? The answer, to all of these questions, is yes… but we can get there neither by being nostalgic, nor by dismissing them wholesale.

      (I’ve faced similar problems in the past, reading early SF. There’s some profound bigotry in the work of H.G. Wells, which I can neither deny nor excuse, though his writing is really important to me both personally, and as a foundational cornerstone for SF in general. It’s pretty discomfiting to read In the Days of the Comet if you don’t know what you’re in for: while the man is essentially inventing the idea of posthumanity and a proto-version of the Singularity, the racism and sexism on display in the text is painful to read, as I discussed here.)

      As you say: seeing oneself in terms of the boxes we live in, in terms of the system of which we are also a part, helps with the humility, which is the kryptonite to our all-too-human superpowers of arrogance.

      Or, I suppose, we could speak in terms of balancing tensions. I just finished writing up a critique of a novel for a friend, which deals a lot the tension between the impulse towards nostalgia and gleeful embrace of something on the one hand, and a thoughtful, angry criticism of the dark side of the same thing on the other hand. Doing this effectively is really, really hard, and I personally tend almost always toward the criticism side, something common in politicized fiction. But I think if the balance can be struck, it can make for something extremely satisfying and richer than just nostalgia or criticism alone, no matter how well done it is.)

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