The “’80s revival” has now lasted longer than the ’80s, and it’s beginning to get silly to keep referring to it as a “revival.” I’m sure that Lady Gaga’s appropriation of hair metal on her most recent album is a conscious anachronism, but Eurythmics-like synthesizers have been cropping up in current pop music long enough that nostalgia and irony are wearing thin as explanations. Maybe, I offer, people just like that sort of sound.
By definition, what a “revival” is not doing is carrying on a tradition. I’ve argued in the past that tradition becomes most oppressive when it’s imagined as enduring through time, present in its entirety at each moment of existence. A view that instead imagines each stage of a tradition’s existence as a distinct part of it – a perdurantist view – offers a clear answer to a question that T.S. Eliot strains hard to address in his endurantist model, how one can be part of the same tradition as one’s forbears without being stuck repeating their customs. But I’m beginning to worry that the focus on continuity over repetition that the perdurantist view entails can lead to problems of its own. It’s not good to say that the present stage of a tradition can only contain the new. If we don’t imagine the resources of the past as somehow staying with us, cycles of fashion will chop our tradition into pieces.
And now Simon Reynolds has a new book that calls us a culture addicted its own past. I’ve yet to read the entire book, but I think the way it frames the problem is misguided. What we really are is a culture addicted to the concept of pastness. Instead of carrying on and enriching traditions, we relentlessly index cultural inventions with particular historical times, and this prevents us from engaging with them except as seen through a distorting lens – we see things as parts of our cultural past where we could simply see them as parts of our culture. The problem is not that fixation on the past stifles novelty, but that the nervousness with which many people view their relationship to tradition leads us to value a presentism that we can’t possibly uphold.
In the same way, what’s really dehumanizing about the 21st Century is not that we are treated as animals by science, but the persistent worry that to be really human we have to be something other than animal.