Retrograde Zeitgeist or The Wheel of Culture

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Mike Tellalis (he/him)

Art by Anest Williams

Hey fellow humans. Let’s get a little deep for a minute.

I was born in the year 2000, yet most of what I dig (value culturally), existed over 20 years before I was born. The books I read, the music I listen to, the films I watch… no, deeper. The very life I lead is infected with remnants of an era that I never even lived in.

I know I’m not alone, and that some of you reading this right now have felt this at least a little bit. It’s no secret that collective nostalgia plays a huge role in all manners of cultural expression in the modern age, expressed especially through film & music. And it seems that our generation seems to dig, look to, respect, idealise, obsess, whatever you want to call it, the 60s and 70s cultural vibe, vibration, look, feeling.

Those bell bottoms you own, that 35mm film screening you went to see, that record player you keep. The film cameras, the 60s, 70s, and disco nights. The list goes on and on.

Have you ever asked yourself why this is a thing? Why we sometimes purposefully put ourselves in positions of technological inferiority? If it’s not for practical reasons, and – despite ad nauseum debates – the arguments for quality are also fuzzy (see: CD vs Vinyl for distortion rates), then what is it?

Look, I’m just a humble seeker of truths. Media students don’t @ me. But it seems to me there’s 3 things here:

1.     A genuine affection for a physical medium, almost as a direct reaction to the digitalisation of all media. Holding a big shiny record and having it on your shelf, placing the needle carefully and hearing the crackle in anticipation, etc. It’s a more tactile & personal experience than pressing a button on your phone. 

2.     More appreciation for the artform. Or, similarly, a new way of increasing status based on this ‘connoisseurdom’, linked again directly to the ease & accessibility of the digital medium. Taking a picture on your phone is easy and good and all… but I have to go out and buy my film, I roll it into the camera, I know how to manipulate ISO & apertures; therefore, I am more hip, cool, artsy, because I care more about the process.

3.     A semi-subconscious manifestation of the adoration of 1960s counterculture – the last real awakening of forces such as feminism, civil rights, social unity, free love. The breaking down of traditional, conservative agents. Compounding this, a distinct feeling that things in our day have remained the same, or even gotten worse. Those ‘good old days’ of hippies must therefore be emulated.

Number 1 is individually harmless – in fact, it’s probably useful to the development of the arts. For instance, just look at some new Indie music (e.g. Mildlife, King Gizzard, Mac DeMarco, Parcels) combining new & old technologies to create some inspired stuff that’s miles ahead of assembly-line pop music. Moreover, personal enjoyment in consuming culture should always be primary. If you find it nicer, don’t think about it too much! Just enjoy.

Number 2 is where it gets shaky though. It allows for a kind of dumbing down under the guise of the aesthetic. Hollywood historically loves embedding superficial status in its movies (think of all the 40s and 50s movies about rich people), and this is no different. It’s an easy way to make any movie seem cool and vintage. Guardians of the Galaxy, Joker, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Wonder Woman 1984, La La Land, Sex Education on Netflix. They’re all decently rated… but how much criticism is sacrificed and overlooked by critics because these films/shows have an old soundtrack, vintage cars, and cool fashion, so that the hipster in the audience feels unique and distinguished?

Number 3 is the one I really want to highlight here. So let’s get real scholarly. Real historian-like. Because that’s the kind of idealised thinking that can make you fret about your own short time on this planet.

According to sociological theory, culture moves in cycles. Strauss and Howe (1997, in a book, et al, and all that Harvard stuff) go so far as to say culture moves in only 4 predictable cycles, each 20 years long to indicate the distinct periods of people’s lives. According to these sociologists (who are, incidentally, the ones who coined the term millennial), we are in a period of crisis that should culminate in 2025.

This work has been criticised for being horological and unfalsifiable. But, hear me out, my sociology professor. Perhaps our glamorisation of the 60s was that it was the last ‘awakening’. We idolise that cultural clarity because we crave it in our time of crisis. Subsequently, the feeling of a ‘lost opportunity’ breeds a certain adoration for that which we think happened, what we think was there. It was one of the first times in history that people began thinking seriously about women’s rights and inclusion, sexual revolutions were happening, people expanding their minds, leaving behind backwards thought patterns… Eastern philosophy entered the west’s collective psyche. This all laid the groundwork for the social progression going on today. We idolise the hippies as the fore-parents of our own truth, so we want to emulate their whole thing like a child would an actual parent. A Retrograde Zeitgeist.

I think everyone’s familiar with the feeling of ‘Juvenoia’ – the phenomenon of concerned disappointment & paranoia, in the cultural progression of ‘kids these days’, teenagers, and other juvenile agents. Boomers on zoomers, etc. What’s weird about it today is that it seems a certain group of young people are exhibiting signs of this (usually older in age) juvenoic thought about people in their own age group. ‘Music these days is just so bad, I wish I was alive in the 60s.’ How many times have you heard this kind of talk?

What I want to leave you with, o Reader, is that I don’t know anything. And neither does anybody, really. The 1960s and 70s seem cool and groovy, when you watch Easy Rider, or Dazed & Confused, or That 70s Show, whatever, but in reality they’re just movies. To glamorise and wish for another reality (or idea of) is to miss finding your own reality. As Hesse put it:

‘When someone seeks, then it easily happens that his eyes see only the thing that he seeks, and he is able to find nothing, to take in nothing because he always thinks only about the thing he is seeking, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal.’


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