Author ········· Taylor Dorrell
Published ······ February 11, 2020
Language ······· English
Published ······ February 11, 2020
Language ······· English
Euphoric Nostalgia: 21st Century Postmodernism
Jules from Euphoria (Eddy Chen/HBO)
Walking through the mundane landscape of a Midwestern American town, the snow melting into the yellow grass, might at first appear to be a realist environment of alienation and boredom, but if you’ve just watched a film set in the same environment with a soundtrack from the 80s, this same contemporary environment is elevated, romanticized. Our culture today is centered around the desire to romantice the present. This is done not only through shifting narratives to glamorize instead of stigmatize, but also through different means of recycling the past. Whether it’s using the past to reflect on the historicity of today or presenting today as a spectacle of the past, both create what Fredric Jameson called ‘nostalgia for the present’. All of which exist in the context of this stage of capitalism, which fetishizes all forms of culture to a form of romanticization through commercialization, regardless of the intent.
We have made the here and now into a commodity which is to be pinned down as having a historicity or nostalgia, as being presentable, palatable, sellable. The result of this market desire to create instant cultural nostalgia before history has ossified, before meaning has crystallized, is the overbearing presence of recycling the past in the context of ‘late capitalism’. It’s not only the form in which we use past content in our current context, but the way in which these methods are quickly consumed into a superstructure or economy, instantly utilized and drained for every penny, implemented in the cycle of desire.
The Haircut: Identifying Nostalgia
We have hardly evolved past the methods Jameson speaks of in Postmodernism. His 1991 book, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, is all but too applicable to much of 21st century culture. With movies like Hot Summer Nights (which takes place in a surface-level stereotype of the 80s), Baby Driver (which takes place today, but mine as well have been the 80s), and mid90s (which gives the fringe skate culture of 90s the nostalgia it needed to match the mass commercialization of that culture today). One of the more obvious shows is the 2016 Netflix series, Stranger Things. A perfect example of looking to a past of stereotypes not only in the content of the characters and aesthetics, but even the stories. Those who grew up in the 80s admire the accuracy of the aesthetic and commodity driven aspects of the show; the clothes, architecture, toys, bikes, fashion, even the story structure, which references 80s TV shows and films. While the show isn’t shot on film or watched in a theatre, or a low quality tv, but instead consumed in mass on laptops, phones, and flat screen tvs, we of course look past the political and economic implications of this cultural phenomenon.
...every position on postmodernism in culture - whether apologia or stigmatization - is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today.
Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson, 1991, p. 3
To admire the show for the content via mass produced commodities, haircuts, and aesthetics, is to crystallize, not only the past, but the ways in which we will historicize our present. To do so, we will implement, and search for, the same recognitions of aesthetics and commodities in culture today in an attempt to place the here and now in a position of romantic reflection, of nostalgia. The methods utilized in film to create a feeling of nostalgia for the past, playing the music, showing the stereotypes, the characters walking in slow motion, we are given a framework to generate the same feelings towards the here and now.
… what is at stake is essentially a process of reification whereby we draw back from our immersion in the here and now (not yet identified as a “present”) and grasp it as a kind of thing - not merely a “present” but a present that can be dated and called the eighties or the fifties.
Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson, 1991, p. 284
In the 2018 film, mid90s, the same method was used, but is brought closer to today. We see Stevie, who goes into his older brother’s room to have a religious experience, a cultic experience, of looking at, feeling, interacting with the commodities which manifested the culture of that time. The shoes, the CDs, the posters, the images are put on display, are only really enjoyed by Stevie because of his brother’s demand to stay out of his room. Is this not the same enjoyment that nostalgia for the present breeds? In such contradiction, in the lack of truly being able to experience nostalgia in the here and now, by being told by our older brother that we cannot have the Thing, are we not setting a limit which is to be breached in our pursuit? In today’s capitalism, desire is never fully satisfied, but pleasures are found in the never ending pursuit, and as limits are set, we find the surplus enjoyment - we find hints of nostalgia for the present through culture.
The Pursuit: Rap Snacks
There’s a method that implements notions of creating nostalgia for the present while examining today in shows like Euphoria, which utilizes technology and contemporary themes to romanticize our complex time into a palatable encapsulation of the 2000’s. Starting with identifying Gen Zs as the 9/11 generation, in other words being an infant during - completely missing - the Event that has defined the start of the 21st century - triggering much of the foreign intervention and world affairs which drives the US today - we are exposed to a new context. One in which the subjects do not have the experience attached to the nostalgia for the 80s and even the 90s. The characters, and the generation they represent, are not afforded the privilege of experiencing the decades in which culture romanticizes. We only see the past decades through images, through culture, through nostalgia, and the lenses history has developed.
The list [of traits identifying the 50s] is not a list of facts or historical realities (although its items are not invented and are in some sense “authentic”), but rather a list of stereotypes, of ideas of facts or historical realities.
Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson, 1991, p. 279
In Euphoria, starting history from 9/11, from the birth of a generation, the spectrum of historicity is shifted. It’s not in the 60s where the nostalgia and desired culture lies, but this century.
Focusing on themes like internet pornography, drug addiction, and sex, we don’t see this as a condemnation, or a symptom, of our complex anarcho techno capitalist driven world, but instead, and perhaps unintentionally, a romanticization of it. They are portrayed at first as being somewhat vicious, but then are seen as silly. Kat is skeptical of being a camgirl for creepy old men, until she sees it as a complete joke and form of income. While most themes are still socially condemned today, the implementation into a popular show was inevitable. Like punk, rap, and any aspect of culture that was anti-establishment, they are quickly consumed into the superstructure. The skate culture that Stevie came to be apart of in mid90s, which at the time was considered the counterculture, has today peaked as an industry. Nothing sells better than ‘going against the grain’, or “romantic representations of such rebellion”.
What has happened is that aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally: the frantic economic urgency of producing of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to airplanes), at ever greater rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic innovation and experimentation… Not only are Picasso and Joyce no longer ugly; they strike us, on the whole, as rather “realistic,” and this is the result of a canonization and academic institutionalization of the modern movement generally that can be traced to the late 1950s. This is surely one of the most plausible explanations for the emergence of postmodernism itself, since the younger generation of the 1960s will now confront the formerly oppositional modern movement as a set of dead classics, which “weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living,”...
Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson, 1991, p. 4-5
Culture which was considered on the fringes, is quickly sought out to be the next Object. As they are implemented into the mainstream, commercialized, and institutionalized, the next generation is made familiar through video games, art classes, documentaries, YouTube videos. Our music taste derives from Guitar Hero, TikTok audio, movie soundtracks.
In Euphoria, Rue and Jules try to revolt and leave the small suburb for the city, but Rue realizes before leaving that maybe this fantasy that there is a more ‘real’ place at the end of the train ride is just a fantasy. That “... there is no longer anything to discover at the end of the line,” (Jameson). That revolting by going somewhere else, to find the ‘real’ people, experiences, won’t change anything. Rue realizes that there is no ‘revolt’, “No Oedipal revolts are possible any longer in this American small town…” (Jameson). All that Rue and Jules can do is remain “unpredictable and immune to reification and categorization… to evade the ultimate objectification by another’s Look…” (Jameson).
There’s, more specifically, a romanticization of this drive which consumer capitalism has garnered. One which is fueled by pleasures and enjoyment that are never fulfilled and constantly pushed farther and farther around the corner. This takes place in front of the backdrop of popular music, neon lights, slow motion scenes, as 17-year old Rue narrates with a crackled nihilistic voice.
The End Game: The Sequels
It’s only in the presence of someone who everyone can agree is objectively ‘bad’, or disruptive - in Euphoria, this is Nate - in which a route to the fulfilled perfect life can be reached. Rue finds purpose in solving this issue, in restoring and prolonging her relationship with Jules. This is essential in popular films today that introduce a drab realism in the beginning, but then offer a villain or tragedy of unrealistic and timely proportion that plays the part of solving and uniting the original cast. It’s the films that are built around the Event, around the world ending, the president being in danger, the terrorist attack, etc., that we most gravitate towards.
The more formal leap, however, will come when for the individual “victim” - male or female - is substituted the collectivity itself, the U.S. public, which now lives out the anxieties of its economic privileges and its sheltered “exceptionalism” in a pseudo-political version of the gothic - under the threats of stereotypical madmen and “terrorists” (mostly Arabs... for some reason)... These collective fantasies… depend for their effects on the revitalization of ethics as a set of mental categories, and on the reinflation and artificial reinvigoration of that tired and antiquated binary opposition between virtue and vice, which the eighteenth century cleansed of its theological remnants and thoroughly sexualized before passing it on down to us.
Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson, 1991, p. 289-290
Euphoria, the 2019 show adapted from an Israeli show of the same name, while looking at new symptoms of 21st century capitalism, simply utilizes these symptoms as the costumes of nostalgia to play out the story of a collective ‘functioning society’ that meets an entity, which is seen as the evil, who simply wants to ruin their lives. The terrorists, the palestinians, the illegal immigrants, etc., are the only thing standing in the way of our capitalist utopia. This is the fantasy that sustains our culture. The ‘purpose’ found in the Event will reveal itself as just a part of a process that cannot be satisfied, the drive. Only going through the fantasy will expose the purpose as a fantasy which filled the gap, the lack, of meaning in Rue’s life. However, does being exposed to the mechanisms actually cause us to stop this attachment to a symptom?
An Israeli soldier poses on an armored car for her Instagram. Accounts like @hot_idf_girls post images of ‘IDF Female Soldiers’ in uniform and not in uniform for their 110k followers.
In the 2018 Marvel film, The Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos, who is a product of a civilized democratic alien society, succeeds in destroying half of the population in our universe. This is the end of the film. In the proceeding 2019 film, The Avengers: End Game, the response of the surviving superheroes is to rise out of defeatism, not with a realist optimism, but a realization that they can simply invent a time machine overnight to go back and fix the problems. Instead of confronting the here and now, we create an oppositional figure to limit our enjoyment and the result is finding enjoyment in this process. In End Game, after killing Thanos - which did nothing as he already killed half the population - the Avengers pursued the means of bringing him back, through the past. They pursued a means of going back in time to when the Avengers were united against the Thing. Once confronting reality without the Thing that sustained their fantasy, being exposed to the symptom, they invent a time machine to go back to the Thing. Instead of confronting the issues as symptoms, we instead find enjoyment in them. We invent the time machine, we bioengineer, we invent the next Thing to sustain our fantasy driven enjoyment. We are trapped in the cycle of desire, which fuels the fight against the Thing, and at the same time, sustains the lack of any real change.
Instead of acknowledging this in film, we either get a positive ending or a cliffhanger, but if the film or show performs well financially, a profit driven sequel will shatter any conclusiveness from the first. Season 2 of Stranger Things is met with a larger version of the monster, which acts as the glue for the friend group who integrates a character, but fights the same entity. In the third season, more of the same. There is never a stasis or a 0, instead always a 1 in which we are fighting to get back to 0, back to the way things were. This is the way in which nostalgia for the present operates today. We will never be able to experience the nostalgia of the here and now, but through culture, we can fight to. In this fight, which is never won, we support the structure that cannot function without drive, without contradiction.
The Trump campaign made a controversial video of Trump superimposed on Thanos from the Avengers.
The Trump campaign made a controversial video of Trump superimposed on Thanos from the Avengers.
Since we are really never at 0 or 1, but always at -1, or, always trapped in a symptom or negation, the fact that we see ourselves at 1, or fighting to get to 0 through fantasy, our current ideological state is one that is sustained through nostalgia for the present. In never being able to fully exist and identify with the here and now, we either never confront our lack, or more pressingly, implement our lack into the narrative, only used as a nostalgic costume in our fantasy that disavows the costume in favor of confronting the Thing, sustaining our fantasy.
In our attempts to instill historicity into the here and now, we expose our inability to do exactly that. The here and now only becomes the present when implemented as nostalgia in culture and advertising.
...I’m not sure we can tell the difference any more, as we peer across our historical gap and try to focus the landscape of the past through nostalgia-tinted spectacles.
Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson, 1991, p. 290
The image used for a 2017 New York Times article titled ‘Baby Driver’ stirs Nostalgia for iPods