Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The nostalgia of the street

ThreeThousand is advertising its Christmas party using a doctored image from The Breakfast Club. I couldn't help noticing the startlingly contemporary way Molly Ringwald is dressed in that film. She wears a white lace neckerchief, a loose-fitting pink V-necked t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, tucked into a high-waisted chocolate brown knee-length skirt, and brown knee boots. You can see fashionably dressed women wearing variations on this outfit right now. I guess I found this particularly striking today, given that I'm wearing a neckerchief, a high-waisted knee-length skirt, and knee boots.

Around the same time ThreeThousand began advertising its party, I was sent a link to a marvellous slide show based on Amy Arbus's book On the Street, a collection of photographs from 1980-1990, which ran in Arbus's column of the same name in The Village Voice. Again, I was struck by the contemporaneity of the image of The Clash in 1981. You could find people in Melbourne right now dressed just like those people from 1981. It looks like an ad for jeans, except they'd never have allowed the non-jeans-wearing dude on the far left into the frame.

Why do these clothes look contemporary? I'm troubled by the distinct possibility that an ironic nostalgia is what's inspiring contemporary kids to dress like the ones in the photos, and what inspires companies to sell that nostalgia to us as lost authenticity. Because let's face it; we're talking about hipsters, and so we must tackle irony. And where there are hipsters, there are clothing manufacturers who believe in the authenticity of these hipsters' cultural activities, and want to jump on their bandwagon in order to market their clothes successfully to people who want the feeling of cool that self-perceived authenticity imparts.

Coined in the seventeenth century to describe a pathological homesickness, nostalgia has come to denote the pang that accompanies the impossibility of returning to an idealised past. In her book On Longing, Susan Stewart argues that nostalgia devalues the lived present, making the idealised past the site of authenticity. She defines nostalgia as "the repetition that mourns the inauthenticity of all repetition". Looks like she's getting all Jamesonian on our arses.

In his oft-cited Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson writes that the nostalgic turn arises from "the enormity of a situation in which we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience". What Jameson calls "the nostalgia form" of postmodern culture "approaches the 'past' through stylistic connotation, conveying 'pastness' by the glossy qualities of the image, and ... by the attributes of fashion". So here, we're talking about "80s-ness".

For Stewart, its utopianism gives nostalgia an innocence very unlike the self-awareness of irony, while Jameson conflates nostalgia and irony (in the form of pastiche) as equally self-aware and destructive products of the postmodern condition. But Linda Hutcheon argues that nostalgia and irony are strikingly similar, because both have doubled meanings. Nostalgia reveals both an unsatisfying present and an idealised past, while irony offers both said and unsaid meanings.

"What irony and nostalgia share, therefore, is a perhaps unexpected twin evocation of both affect and agency", writes Hutcheon. Neither inheres in a text – they’re something that the body makes happen.

As a sense of real time and history becomes lost in the postmodern morass, Jameson argues that the unified modern subject becomes fragmented and loses the capacity truly to feel -- his famous "waning of affect". Jameson doesn't, however, suggest that feelings are altogether absent from postmodern culture: rather, they become "intensities" that are "free-floating and impersonal ... dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria" and anxiety that Jameson likens to the sublime.

But for Hutcheon, nostalgia doesn't destroy affect -- it is an affect.
... nostalgia is not something you "perceive" in an object; it is what you "feel" when two different temporal moments, past and present, come together for you and, often, carry considerable emotional weight. ... it is the element of response -- of active participation, both intellectual and affective -- that makes for the power.

So first imagine you're a hipster. You look at these images and you get excited. You're meshing these images of the past with the contemporary trends you see around you. You're imagining how you'll harness the past, how you'll look wearing these clothes. You'll imagine yourself being Molly as she gives generationalism the finger on one special Saturday. You'll imagine yourself lounging suavely like The Clash. But you'll be doing this now. Then imagine you're a marketer or a fashion designer looking for the next source of inspiration. And you trawl backwards, looking for that thing that'll get you excited. Because making the past seem fresh is your job.

Are you doing this in a thoughtless and facetious way? No, argues Hutcheon. "The ironizing of nostalgia, in the very act of its invoking, may be one way the postmodern has of taking responsibility for such responses by creating a small part of the distance necessary for reflective thought about the present as well as the past."

But it seems to me as though these are two kinds of nostalgia at play here: The Breakfast Club speaks to a mediatised nostalgia; what Hutcheon delightfully calls "commercialized luxuriating in the culture of the past". But On the Street, while also mediatised, speaks to something different -- a spatial nostalgia; a nostalgia of the street. I'm intrigued by Jameson's contention that, since the postmodern subject has lost track of temporality, "I think it is at least empirically arguable that our daily life, our psychic experience, our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space rather than by categories of time, as in the preceding period of high modernism".

I want to envisage "the street" as one of these categories of space. It's worthwhile remembering that nostalgia in its original sense was a longing for place. Perhaps when nostalgia seeks authenticity, it's discursively creating the street as that authentic space. And perhaps that's why marketers still look to "the street" in their quest to render the old new again. And perhaps that's why people collapse images of the past onto spaces of the present in order to create their personal styles.

This post is part of my thinking-through the paper I'm writing. I welcome your thoughts, because I am really cutting it fine now. I leave town on Tuesday morning...


glen said...

yo, i think this is excellent. in terms of the paper I think you should leave it as is!! You are on the ball with your observations and relation to the present.

One tangent: The spatial versus meditatised nostalgia could also be read in terms of potential, close to what Jameson is talking about in terms of intensities. The street is a space of potentiality. The flyer is signaling a certain kind of qualitative potential, of something that is going to happen (ie an event for hipsters). Perhaps this is too much for a 20 min paper? I want to know how the potential of the street and the sign-posted potential of the flyer implicate bodies in action. What is the hipster action? You do it with the imagining, which may be a way in. There it is not so much "I am a hipster" but isn't it more a question of "I've got it going on" sort of thing? This 'going on' is both an action and an event (of belonging). I guess I am asking what are the events, how does the meaning of the nostalgia work within these events? Is it a seduction with peeps bumping flesh after sweaty nights of drinking?

In terms of the general question of recycled fashions i think there is a point to be made about the durability of clothing of actual 'vintage' versus the production of new 'vintage'. Isn't this a technology question that is of the technology of clothing durability versus clothing production?

Ben G said...

Way to get me all excited on a Friday night... My topic for a potential PhD (one doesn't like to presume things about availability of scholarships etc etc) is to do with political nostalgia in Germany and post-Soviet states. I'm also thinking of talking about the ALP, just for the hell of it.

Obviously that's of fairly little relevance here, so I'll move on to something more pertinent. I've been listening to the Children Collide CD and drumming up a review. To my shame, I've never seen the band even though (...or perhaps because?) I knew there was substantial buzz.

The CD has left me disappointed. I hear nothing but nostalgia and irony. The question of affect is interesting to me here because it's music. And one of the primary categories for me -- and a billion others -- in assessing music is the feeling one gets from a song. In Children Collide I hear some riffs and I hear some ham-fisted attempts at lyrics, but I don't hear any genuine emotion spilling out of either.

To give away the first line of my review, it sounds to me like two dudes -- and a substantial audience of hipsters -- recreating the days when "Recovery" was on the telly. So while there might be affect in the nostalgic component of this, when the music enters in, I think that sentiment becomes strangled and lost. The affect of the nostalgic feeling for this style of music is useless in creating affecting music – whatever the overflowing sentiment of the moment prior to turning amps on, hitting drums etc., the music made thereafter carries none of that or any other feeling. The music becomes a referent and a signpost for something else. It's a kind of cipher. Not meaningless, per se, but definitely emptied out of broader emotional resonance.

And then, of course, one looks at the press photos and sees that the grunge nostalgia only goes so far. These two hottt boys wouldn't be seen dead in flannies and ill-fitting jeans. I think they present an interesting example of bricolage -- quite consciously assembling an appealing package from a bunch of options. But also an example of the way, as you say, hipster fashion can take its cues from the past but always with an eye on the present.

Mel said...

Children Collide are also really unimpressive live. I was sure the drummer was speeding up as each song progressed.

Bill Wasik (whose writing on flashmobbing I've been returning to as I write this paper), has some interesting thoughts on hipster music:

Indeed, one could perceive something palpably different, something animal, in the hipster species when the Strokes came over the speakers; and it was, I think, the reckless, self-abnegating joy of this simple unanimity, of oneness for its own sake. The Strokes made a natural object of this unanimity because their sound — derivative candy, 1970s punk simplicity dressed up with some 1990s indie-rock aloofness — was an easy common denominator. They were no Pixies, no Fugazi, no Joy Division, no band to which pledging allegiance implied the endorsement of a principle. They were, moreover, easily discarded, and the top-band mantle has been passed many times since then, in rapid succession—to equally derivative groups possessing the required sheen of sophistication, such as Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, Bloc Party, and, as of this writing, an outfit called Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

Ben said...

Indeed. That Bill Wasik article is full of interesting stuff. I read it some time ago now and the discussion keeps coming back to me. I really like the point about hipster accretion around certain items/events/happennings/bands/books etc etc.

I'd be interested to know what you're saying about it and/or how you're using it, Mel.

Mel said...

I'm still thinking about it, but for this particular paper I'm looking at the depoliticisation of the flashmob because I'm interested in debunking the common cultural-studies idea of the street as a radical space.

Anonymous said...

Hi. Your blog is great ! I leave in France and I love fashion. If you enjoy shoes, take a look on my shoes
Marina (from France)

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to read peoples take on your personality and motivation. It's funny how when you start to put yourself out there you become reduced to series of tags so people can slot you neatly into a pidgeon hole in their head. I also always love it when people let "buzz" affect their opinion on a band. I'm guilty of it too.

Nice blog.

Johnny, Children Collide

Anonymous said...

Hi Mel,

Love reading your blog. It's very insightful. I linked you in a post I made on my blog,

Please keep updating, I'd very much like to hear more of your thoughts.