- Blog Post by: James Lileks
- September 18, 2012 - 11:59 AM
Here’s another editorial cartoon from the 1900 Minneapolis Tribune collection. Good luck figuring out the context here.
Does anyone have much nostalgia for 1900? It seems we only start to connect with the 20th century around 1912, when a certain ship had an unfortunate experience at sea. There are insufficient pop-culture relics - or, we just don’t connect with the things they had. Can’t get a feel for the music or the theater. It’s like a dead spot in history - we can imagine the 19th century, because we have buckets with different components. Civil War / the Frontier / Gilded Age. But the early years of the 20th century seem like everyone was sitting around waiting for movies, jazz, and radio to be invented.
When we say “we” I mean “me,” of course - if you’re a student of the era it must seem quite alive, and a fascinating prelude to the 20s, when modernity really begins. But for most people, I’ll bet, there’s no hook on which they can hang their preconceptions. It’s just . . . back there.
There are hints in the picture. Figure it out. Google a little.
I was thinking about nostalgia this morning, wishing I used to feel about it the way I used to do. (Kidding.) I love nostalgia, because it’s the lazy man’s form of history. The fascination with “vintage” and “retro” on the web is nothing new - the first faint stirrings of nostalgia in popular culture happened in the 40s, when suddenly the Gay 90s became a golden age, sorely missed for its humble virtues and easy living. In the seventies nostalgia became a small industry; things were grim in the present, so we simultaneously looked to the 50s (“Happy Days”) the 20s (gangster movies, Liberty magazine reprints) and the 30s (movies like “Paper Moon.”) Anything to escape the present.
Now everyone’s bombarded by nostalgia, thanks to the internet. The past is the present. Everything’s there, waiting to be gathered in a list or remixed. BuzzFeed has a new site devoted to the past, and this makes an Atlantic Wire writer wonder if there’s a downside. Of course there is! There’s no long thumbsucker essay if there isn’t. I agree with most of this, but I'm not too concerned that the internet is Eating the Past, as the article suggests. Anyway,. Atlantic says of the BuzzFeed site:
These reminiscences are quintessentially BuzzFeed: a bit giddy, full of photos, and so buzzily told they are old-writ-new, familiar fare of old people repackaged for the youngs. Fun! Nostalgic! And ready to be spread via social media avenues and across the Internet in ways that were only just beginning to be considered in the '80s and early '90s, times which get their due attention on the vertical.
Alongside an early Sophia Vergara poolside workout, to which one can only say:
If that’s an obscure reference, it’s because . . . it’s an obscure reference. I’ll explain later. The writer continues:
Yet as someone who lived the full length of the '80s in a talking-and-walking state, it's a weird sensation, this rebranding of our stuff, now being appropriated for those who weren't even there to experience it in real time. A nostalgia blog for days in which we lived: Is this necessary? Don't we have other things that still haven't been said yet; do we have to rush to reclaim the past already?
Sure, it’s necessary. Absolutely. And the people who lived through it should be the ones curating the recent past, precisely because they experienced it - otherwise, context gets stripped, allusions are lost, and the markers are placed. By “markers” I mean those moments when culture had a pole-shift. I remember seeing a Miles Davis video on MTV - yes, they played such things - and the colors and clothing styles were completely different from the usual palettes and styles of the 80s. I remember thinking: the 80s are done. Here comes something really new. (And ugly.) Without annotation, everything gets dumped into the “retro” bin. The article continues:
What used to be the shared fond memories of a certain generation are suddenly fodder for endless blog posts in the style of the way we do things now. Imagine, in the old days (i.e., pre-Internet), how you might attempt to learn about the 1950s. You'd order some books and magazines, maybe, or find them at a yard sale. You'd go to a library and study the microfiche. You'd talk to someone who lived back then, or watch old videos of programs you managed to find. You'd gather the evidence and you'd interpret it on your own. Today, all you need to do is turn on your computer, and the stuff is here for you, handily packaged, consumable—even, sometimes, the work of interpreting it has already been done for you. . . . To some extent, though, this constant making-into-blog-fodder of everything should have been predicted. There is nothing not up for consumption by the giant Internet beast that's only growing bigger.
Close, but not quite right. The “interpreting” is rather lackluster. It’s either snarky captions or just a batch of stuff sprayed up without any appreciation for the cultural connective tissue, or ability to see why not everything in the presentation hangs together. It's 90s next to 50s next to 80s, without an overriding plot to show how we got from there to here.
It's not that different than what's always happened; the Internet just makes all this faster and easier, more universally accessible, more automated. But it also means that its value as nostalgia starts to become debatable. No longer is it the possession of the small group of people who knew it when and can hark back to it; it's breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the entire Internet, it's suddenly a collective history. And in looking at such things online, it's not that we're homesick, it's just a new kind of reality. We don't long for what was so much as it becomes hard to remember what any of it used to be.
I don’t know what that means. Unless she means that the way the internet shapes our conception of the past overrides our personal memories. If that’s the case, I’m not particularly worried. If anything, it brings back what I've forgotten.
There’s also the matter of nostalgia for eras one did not experience - it has some of the same emotional characteristics, but it’s based on an imaginative reconstruction of an era that’s about as accurate as assembling a jigsaw puzzle in the dark. It’s fun to try, though. I was on a 30s kick a year or two ago, and watched a batch of Cagney. At the end of one Warner Bros. assembly-line feature, he turned to his best gal and said: “Vuss you dere Sharly?” I had no idea what he was talking about. You know the audience would have gotten it, every one of them. What the devil was he talking about?
Much later, I was watching a movie called “Baron Munchausen” - a 30s version, not the Gilliam film. The Baron said: “Was you dere, Charley?” to his companion - soft CH. Ah. That was his trademark retort, when someone questioned his stories. It was the DY-NO-MITE of the early 30s, a catch phrase.
Pop culture is made up of thousands of details like this. The internet can’t get them all down in one place, and that’s the problem. A handful of signifiers defines an entire era for most, and the subtleties are lost.
But it’s better now, if you’re nostalgically inclined. I used to buy old Life magazines, take pictures of the ads with a big video camera, use a frame-grabbing card to get the images into my computer, which I uploaded to my AOL home page. Nostalgia was all over the internet in 1997, but all most people could do was talk about it.
Now every single issue of Life is on Google, every word indexed. It’s an astonishing thing, and it’ll only get better. If nostalgia ain’t want it used to be: good.
Oh, that picture of that guy? Walter Monheit. The faux movie-review column in Spy that bore his name had one word for the Vergaras of his day: OOMPH! Which was borrowed from the 40s, as it turns out. Ann Sheridan was known as the “Oomph Girl.” We didn’t know that in the 80s. Take you ten seconds to run down today.
My point? I don’t have one. Maybe this: whatever the downsides, we live in the era of the most vast library ever assembled. The internet makes the Library of Alexandria look like the Bookmobile.
PS Google has all the copies of Spy, too.
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