The Dialectic of Nostalgia and Irony

In putting together a dialectical analysis, casting the roles of thesis and antithesis is perhaps the single most important action taken. The rest just sort of follows; the dialectic being a template to overlay on phenomena to tease out the shapes of their interaction in the larger world; where they’re headed, and what will replace them.

With the release of the new Star Wars film, talk of nostalgia, already a thing much more discussed in this country than would seem proper were the country not in a state of decline, is at an all-time high. Articles are being written left and right about this and that; every bit of historical, speculative, and other minutia that could be dredged is being rolled out into the digital sphere like so many wooden clocks shaped like animals at a craft fair, and, dragged along with the pettiness of discourse that unfortunately marks the internet periodical culture, considerations of what this nostalgia constitutes; what it  indicates; what the actual thing being wistfully remembered is can’t help but amble around the fitful mind of a man with no emotional attachment to Star Wars whatsoever, a man such as myself.

I suppose the poles of the dialectic I’d like to analyze, the two discursive threads running through the culture at large that have been snowballing into a confrontation, the two things that seem to be the dominant tones adopted once the internet opened up and everyone had a platform to say whatever was on their mind with no editors are the cultural threads of the “ironic” and the “nostalgic”. Which is the thesis and which the antithesis I can’t say, but the culture of omnipresent irony and the culture of tone-deaf nostalgia interact as dialectic; neither should be trusted on its own as both sides are ultimately things drawing one in directions that don’t lead to destinations; each only seems to derive its claims to the authentic or worthwhile through constantly underlining the distasteful excess of the other.

Of course, positing the two as being dialectical oppositions to each other is in itself somewhat problematic as, being secret lovers like any two culturally opposed ideas, we find them folded over each other more often than not.

Let’s explore an article that was picked up by a couple other publications when it was posted that works as a kind of brilliant picture of the emptiness the constitutes the center of the image of the two threads circling each other. The article, titled “This Private Garfield Facebook Group Is the Last Irony-Free Place on the Internet” is a terrific sleight of hand; a false nostalgia for a time and place on the internet that never existed that’s not even backed up by the screenshots in the article; a thing that wants to imagine there was a pure ur-state, an Edenic cyberspace where people could appreciate things like the inexplicably long running comic strip Garfield without people pointing out that it is a bit strange and unsettling to discover middle aged people aggressively fixated on a cartoon cat who hates Mondays and loves lasagna. In the appreciation of Garfield and the unease at the unironic appreciation of Garfield exist two things that in and of themselves aren’t horrible and are understandable. It would take an absurdly authoritarian worldview to say “No! People shouldn’t enjoy Garfield!”, at the same time it would take a self entirely numbed to any sort of hopes or dreams of human progress or there being anything more to life not to be at least a bit disturbed by the soul-crushing display of fatalistic mediocrity inherent in relating to a lazy cartoon cat that does nothing but eat, complain, and be a dick to Odie, especially by people who are presumably old enough to have seen some of the world.

Of course, both positions ignore the larger point that unless your name is Jim Davis, Garfield itself is irrelevant to pretty much anything. Fixation on the irrelevant is, however, one of the few true growth industries this country has. Neither nostalgic beatification nor ironic detachment are actual engagement; while more “serious” publications might take that realization as a call to start admonishing people, I’d like to consider the practical reasons why people on the whole would rather defend their moral right to enjoy Star Wars than the ideals of parliamentary democracy, economic justice, cultural progress, or pretty much anything else. They exist.

That the US is in transition, or, if I’m not being diplomatic about it, decline, isn’t really news. I think most people in this country, even if they don’t grasp the finer cultural or economic points of why it’s in decline, have at least some intuitive notion that shit is not getting better. The distribution of wealth is not any more equitable and is in fact less equitable than it has been since the Great Depression. Etc etc. Read any article about domestic politics that’s run in Counter Punch since like 2008 and you should be able to get the broad points of that story.

It doesn’t seem like a huge stretch to say that the primary pivot point of human psychology is the creation of the simulacra of a sense of control over one’s surroundings. This is not to say a person wants actual control over their surroundings but, in a way, to say the exact opposite. The mind is not a mechanism especially concerned with its own internal coherence; it wants to have its cake and eat it too; why wouldn’t it? It wants control without the responsibility that comes with said control, it wants to perform control; it wants to toil away in the low-stakes and trivial as much as possible the same way the body would usually rather store up fat in case of a threat of starvation than work itself into what is in theory a healthier condition. The trivial gives both the sense of control and the comfort of knowing that a lack of results doesn’t actually matter.

There are many examples of people whose first actions upon finding out they’d gone suddenly bankrupt was to treat themselves to an expensive and fancy meal or spend whatever’s left on drugs instead of essentials. The tendency was perhaps most memorably immortalized in fiction in the character of Hurstwood in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Though this is probably the last thing the person should do logically, it makes a good deal of sense; it creates the environment of normality or even prosperity, of comfort. It’s a symbolic revenge taken against the money for its sudden betrayal; a nonsensical leap of faith forces the individual to shun the money the way the money shunned them. The thrill of a large purchase, of buying a boat or a fancy car, is to proclaim, accurately or inaccurately, power over the money and absolute faith in one’s future prospects. The need to state such things would seem to exist in direct inverse relation to how true they are; the loudest public pronouncements an individual makes are usually made primarily for their personal benefit; they’re ways of screaming down the voice in their head saying the opposite and the tangibility of the object purchased, the presence of witnesses who saw them purchase it, reinforces the ironically false notion that by this enactment of ritual their financial success and security has been actually accomplished. Of course the boat or whatever usually gets repossessed by the bank a little while later.

So the performance of capitalism, having been stripped of its practical and linear, logical dimensions since industrialization reached the point it could feasibly provide living essentials for everyone, lives on in an increasingly symbolic and religious form centered around self-flagellation in the face of its entertainments and conveniences. The state of uncritical fandom is in substance a stance of the esoteric; the ecstatic; the excitement and joy at what are visibly mediocre, manipulative, cynical and calculated works like Star Wars needs to be performed repeatedly in public as a ghost dance to hide the emptiness and dissatisfaction that increasingly lies at the heart of American capitalism. We are judged on our ability to consume in a state of ideological or spiritual purity even by the ostensibly well-intentioned and progressive voices increasingly taking various entertainments to task for their sexism and racism. While such an appraisal of mass entertainments is long overdue, the satisfaction with pandering sloppy works that repeat themselves and their cultural assumptions but with the Madlibs style insertion of figures of different groups doesn’t address the underlying problems of self-satisfaction at imperialistic attitudes; of our desire to play out with purity and fresh naive excitement the act of being duped and pandered to, of our deadly attraction to a form of congealed capitalism that grows increasingly toxic.

The nostalgic stance is problematic insofar as it holds close like the memory of a beloved parent an object that more actually resembles an inflamed appendix; a part of the person that is nonetheless toxic and should be extricated. The purely ironic stance is perhaps helpful to balance out the waves of toxic omnipresent nostalgia that grips the culture whenever something like a new Star Wars film is released but at the same time only has the sum effect of making the person question or double down on their commitment to keeping the inflamed appendix. As anyone who’s had appendicitis knows, the only thing that solves the problem is to remove the appendix entirely, even if it requires some time in the aftermath to recuperate.

Nevertheless the image returns again and again, outside comic-cons, outside movie openings, when new Iphones are released, every Black Friday at shopping outlets around the country, this strange inverted parody of either the Great Depression era bread line or the true believers lined up to kneel at Mecca, consumers who prove the purity of their devotion to the experience of purchasing an item through their will to suffer and inconvenience themselves for it; who sit through 18 hour film marathons and spend countless hours fashioning homemade outfits to celebrate their buying a movie ticket to show that they are the genuine ecstatics, that in a world increasingly cynical about the act of buying stuff they can still believe simply like pilgrims.

And so, to return to the initial question of the dialectic between the resistant ironic and the embrace of the nostalgia object, it should be pointed out that a synthesis has already been come to in the form of what I would call “high kitsch”, the embrace of the garish and hideous specifically for their being garish and hideous. While it resolves the intellectual problem I put forward at the beginning of this essay, it doesn’t solve the larger problem of the embrace of the consumer identity as that of a religious pilgrim, with purity displayed in blind love in the face of product, in capitalism and representative democracy as ideals that we perform increasingly magnificent and decadent ghost dances around because we no longer actually believe in them.

That’s a big problem. I’ll explore it here in further essays.

 

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