Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

Nostalgia and Style in Retro America: Moods, and Modes, and Media Recycling

Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

Nostalgia and Style in Retro America: Moods, and Modes, and Media Recycling

Article excerpt

If current levels of U.S. retro consumption are allowed to continue unchecked, we may run entirely out of past by as soon as 2005.

U.S. Retro Secretary, as reported in The Onion, 19971

In the last three decades of the twentieth century, nostalgia was commodified and aestheticized in American culture as perhaps never before. One may posit a variety of factors contributing to this emergent retro fascination, including diversifying markets for memory, the growth of the heritage industry, the political aesthetic of Reaganism, the demographic size of a baby-boom generation entering middle age and the attendant selling of the "boomer" past, the proliferation of technologies of time-shifting and digital reproduction, and a representational economy of recycling and pastiche. In no singular way, these all helped develop nostalgia as a cultural style, a consumable mode as much as it can be said to be an experienced mood. Mocking the prevalence of American pop-cultural kitsch appreciation in the late 1990s, the irreverent online magazine The Onion ran a headline story that cautioned of an imminent national retro crisis, stating: "U.S. Dept. of Retro Warns: `We May Be Running Out of Past.'" In many ways, this was satirically engaged with the kind of crisis scenario envisaged by critics who often read the proliferation of nostalgia as a sign of 1) creative bankruptcy, 2) millennial longing, 3) temporal breakdown, 4) postmodern amnesia, 5) other kinds of prescriptive malaise. The reservoir of American popular nostalgia has been generously tapped in recent times and this has encouraged a trend in rather foreboding cultural diagnoses. Instead of joining the warning calls levelled against the current retro "crisis," satirically couched or otherwise, I want to explore the status, as well as historicize the development, of nostalgia as a popular style in American media culture.

There is a critical tendency, across various disciplines, to explain the new preponderance for the past in terms of what Jim Collins has called, and criticized as, a "Zeitgeist model": that is to say, a mode of analysis that accounts for the rising stock of nostalgia by relating it to a governing narrative or cultural temper (7). The zeitgeist model is especially prevalent in accounts of the initial "nostalgia boom" of the 1970s, a phenomenon that can be seen to include films like The Sting and American Graffiti, sitcoms such as Happy Days, the flourishing of "retro-chic" in the fashion industry, the turn towards historic preservation in city architecture, and the burgeoning interest in heritage evidenced in, and inspired by, dramas like Roots. Explaining the growing currency of nostalgia, emergent in the 1970s, critics often refer to a sense of national crisis. Writing in 1979, Fred Davis argued that "the current nostalgia boom must be understood in terms of its close relationship to the era of social upheaval that preceded it" (90). For Davis, nostalgia is a social emotion but also a "distinctive aesthetic modality" that can emerge in climates of transition and in response to the yearning for continuity. In cultural terms, Allison Graham relates the production of nostalgia in the 1970s and 1980s to a moment of creative exhaustion, a time where "popular art no longer springs from creative associations with a contemporary social reality" (364). She suggests that America is drawn to its recent history and the re-creation of cultural artifacts because of a certain alienation and detachment from vital issues experienced in the present. In different ways, these arguments link nostalgia to a prevailing cultural experience and condition, the consequence of socio-political disorientation and creative enervation.

While the production of nostalgia may have grown in tandem with a sense of cultural crisis, it cannot be reduced to this explanatory model; the commodification and aestheticization of nostalgia, in the 1970s and beyond, cannot be contained within theories of loss and malaise. …

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