Tuesday, October 31, 2006

nostalgia for the future

Good thoughts from K-Punk (plus ancillary riffage from Owen) on nostalgia for the lost public sphere in Ghost Box, Mordant Music, et al. Intriguing that what would have been stuffy and faintly oppressive to, say, the mods in the Sixties, representing patrician/maternalist bossiness and bureaucracy, could now be harked back to wistfully by denizens of a UK transformed by 25 years of post-socialism and privatisation…

Nostalgia: K-punk does his best, but really, there’s no point in denying that it’s a component of Ghost Box. Certainly of its appeal, possibly of its motivation. More than either, though, it's simply a functioning component of what they do: the memoradelic machine wouldn't work
properly without the associational triggers that they can set in play, the bygone aura that coats certain sounds and references. There is a sense in which their music is felt most by those within a certain age range, who grew in the UK during the Sixties and Seventies. It’s not exclusive by any means (there are Americans and Commonwealth citizens who have fallen under the G-box spell) but some of the richness is lost if you don't have that memory matrix. But you could say the same of dub and roots reggae--as much it turns the heads of us and other outsiders inside out and upside down, it’s inevitable and natural that we only pick up on a fraction of the vibration felt by someone who’s lived within that music’s forcefield since infancy.

Ghostbox's is a complicated nostalgia, evocative and invocative. And a key strand of it is the “nostalgia for the future” element. Now I’m having more and more problems with the rhetoric of futurism (“kinda late in the day for that surely Simon?” you’re right… you’re quite right)… because what we’re really talking about is a future-now feeling, something that feels utterly of-the-moment and in that sense seems to be tilted to the future… but of course that futurity is very rapidly (sometimes almost instantly) turned into datedness, affixed as a period signifier … nothing dates faster than yesterday’s idea of the future… Furthermore what seemed to be futuristic at a given point can in hindsight turn out to be have been a dead end, or nothing of the sort… Also, we didn’t always know at the time what the true future-portending currents in our culture/society were… and we don't know what they are now, so how could we recognise the future if it manifested itself as an emergent force, be sure that was what it is? This quote by a Radiophonic Workshop member, Roger Limb (and what a name that is)
neatly captures one aspect of this multifaceted paradox: “The trouble with the future is that you never fully know about it until you’ve passed it…”

Nostalgia, I was amazed to find out, was actually a neologism, coined in the 17th Century by a fellow called Johannes Hoffer. It originally meant homesickness (nostos = homeland, algos = pain or the ache of longing) and was regarded as a real medical malady suffered by people like soldiers on a long tour of duty in foreign lands; it was an anguish that could drive some to suicide. It survived as a medicalised term right up until the American Civil War, and then shortly after that converted to mean a vaguer melancholia. But nostalgia was originally a word tied to a sense of nationality more than the past per se, “the pain a sick person feels because he is not in his native land, or fears never to see it again”. “Nostalgia for the future” then could be the longing for a country yet to be founded, a new New World. In the Ghost Box et al inflection it is a longing for a better, greater Britain that could have been, or that is felt to exist somwhere out there, in some alternate present/parallel future, if only the country had taken a different fork in the path of time.

“Nostalgia for the future”--all this got me wondering who actually came up with the phrase. In the Wire piece I attribute it to David Toop, from a review he did of Black Dog and god-help-us B12, in 1993 it must have been. But in the longer version of the piece I had a bit saying “although I suspect Toop was channeling some elder”. And just the other day I stumbled on a concurrent or slightly earlier use of the phrase in a 1993 book by Arthur Kroker called Spasm: I was looking for some good stuff he did on sampling and dug out this book, which came with a CD of Kroker and some musician buddy’s attempts to put into praxis their sampladelic theories (the results horrendously/hilariously unlistenable and clunky as I recall; I’ve long since jettisoned the CD). But one of the tracks is called “Nostalgia For the Future”.

I expect Kroker got it from Baudrillard, though, who once declared: “Fiction is not imagination. It is what anticipates imagination by giving it the form of reality. This is quite opposite to our own natural tendency which is to anticipate reality by imagining it, or to flee from it by idealizing it. That is why we shall never inhabit true fiction; we are condemned to the imaginary and nostalgia for the future. " That was 1986, "Utopia Achieved".

Another possible source (most likely the route to Toop) is a 1989 interview with Brian Eno actually titled "A fervent nostalgia for the future" - Thoughts, Words, Music and Art. Part Two.” in Sound On Sound, February 1989, and conducted by Mark Prendergast, during the course of which Eno talks about his New York video paintings:
"The films arise from a mixture of nostalgia and hope and from a desire to make a quiet place for myself. They evoke in me a sense of what could have been, and generate a nostalgia for the future.”

A bunch of earlier instances of the phrase came up on my search:

* Isaac Asimov apparently wrote a book about the illustrations of Jean Marc Côté --- Future Days: A nineteenth-century Vision of the Year 2000, 1986 --in which he defined a spirit of "nostalgia for the future" among European intellectuals in the latter part of the
19th century.

* the transhumanist philosopher F.M. Esfandiary wrote a book called Optimism One (1970) which talked about his "deep nostalgia for the future."

while the historian Daniel Blatman has also used “nostalgia for the future” to describe the sensibility of the left-wing underground Jewish press in the Warsaw ghetto

The earliest instance of the phrase I can find, however, is from music writer Ned Rorem in his 1967 book Music From Inside Out, in which he claims:

"Music is the sole art which evokes nostalgia for the future."

Needless to say I'd be fascinated to learn of any earlier attributions of this meme-phrase.


Post-script

Talking of music and retro-futurism, a big-up for Resonance FM’s Jim Backhouse and his project Xylitol--really enjoying the Xylitol mini-LP Functionary, the debut release from Jim's own Pierogii label. From its 3 inch CD packaging and the John Baker/Radiophonic Workshop sample on “cultus pyrex,” how long can it be before Jim is commissioned to do a concept EP on mobile libraries for Ghost Box?


You can also hear Jim deejaying some sinistronica, some bucolica (a Belbury Poly track, verily) and some quirktronica on his and Magz Hall’s You Are Hear show @ Totally Radio

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