Reflections on Changing Times and Our “Frozen Culture”

We’re sure you’ve had your fill of year-end lists by now. But as we transition from recapping our favorite bric-a-brac from the past year to delivering more interesting  content here at Projector, let us take a moment to reflect on the times we live in and how they’re a-changing. As pop culture nerds, we tend to focus on the material, visual, and audible, but these things seem awfully small in relation to the many developments and disasters effecting our global political climate, environmental instability, and what it means to be alive in 2012.

But how do you simplify such things into list form? We can hardly address the events of Arab Spring without writing a lengthy and impassioned essay, while on the other hand, we’d rather not contribute more than a single sentence to the discourse on the Occupy Movement here in the states. We could eulogize the passing of Steve Jobs with equal parts high-praise and character insight, but how do you make light of the unease one feels watching celebratory flag-waiving over the deaths of Osama Bin Laden, Kim Jong Il, and Muammar Gaddafi? What one photo best sums up the tragedy of the earthquakes and tsunamis that devastated  Japan, and how do you itemize such events next to MTV bringing back Beavis and Butthead?

Speaking of TV, we wanted to discuss our favorite episodes of Breaking Bad, Louie, and Curb Your Enthusiasm (one could construct a global politics lecture on the humor of “Palestinian Chicken” alone), but then we’d be forced to admit that we missed out on many critics’ favorite HBO Dramas like Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire. Even more embarrassing, with Mad Men off the air, 2011 was the year we finally caved to Reality Television– although none of the dancing celebrities or drunk Jersey girls variety. Instead, Chance got hooked on American Diggers, Pawn Stars, Storage Wars, and Extreme Couponing, while Peter took to watching Swamp People and Hillbilly Hand-Fishing alone with a cold Budweiser.

But even in the midst of these important cultural events and seismic shifts too numerous to account for in short, the world of pop culture often leaves me feeling like we’re stuck in a pattern of repitition, or going in circles. I keep thinking back to a recent article by Kurt Anderson for Vanity Fair titled “You Say You Want a Devolution?” where the author poses his theory on our culture of nostalgia:

“Since 1992, as the technological miracles and wonders have propagated and the political economy has transformed, the world has become radically and profoundly new… Here is what’s odd: during these same 20 years, the appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. The past is a foreign country, but the recent past—the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s—looks almost identical to the present. This is the First Great Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History.”

Anderson sums up his argument: “For most of the last century, America’s cultural landscape—its fashion, art, music, design, entertainment—changed dramatically every 20 years or so. But these days, even as technological and scientific leaps have continued to revolutionize life, popular style has been stuck on repeat, consuming the past instead of creating the new… Not coincidentally, it was exactly 20 years ago that Francis Fukuyama published The End of History, his influential post-Cold War argument that liberal democracy had triumphed and become the undisputed evolutionary end point toward which every national system was inexorably moving… But in the arts and entertainment and style realms, this bizarre Groundhog Day stasis of the last 20 years or so certainly feels like an end of cultural history.”

Read the rest of Anderson’s piece and the counterpoint debate sparked in the comments section over at Vanity Fair.

Bonus reading: Maria Russo throws in her two cents on the essay for Salon in a response titled “Is 2011 Really Just 1991?” and author Simon Reynolds addresses similar themes in his book (and ongoing blog) Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past