Wednesday, November 01, 2006

nostalgia for the future #2

No less than four-- Stanley Whyte, Ian Penman, Stephen Trousse, Kevin Pearce--email to point out the glaring ommission from the nostalgia 4 da phuture list: “Nostalgia” by the Buzzcocks, on 1978's Love Bites.

The lyric:

I bet that you love me like I love you
But I should know that gambling just don't pay
So I look up to the sky
And I wonder what it'll be like in days gone by
As I sit and bathe in the wave of nostalgia for an age yet to come
I always used to dream of the past
But like they say yesterday never comes
Sometimes there's a song in my brain
And I feel that my heart knows the refrain
I guess it's just the music that brings on nostalgia for an age yet to come

About the future I only can reminisce
For what I'e had is what I'll never get
And although this may sound strange
My future and my past are presently disarranged
And I'm surfing on a wave of nostalgia for an age yet to come

I look I only see what I don't know
All that was strong invincible is slain
Takes more than sunshine to make everything fine
And I feel like I'm trapped in the middle of time
With this constant feeling of nostalgia for an age yet to come


I guess it is one of those meme-phrases that spontaneously emerges from different lips at different times because what it describes is very real

For instance I’d be surprised if Ballard hadn’t somewhere in his writings come up with a similar formulation of words, independently of Rorem.


Michael Jason Dieter chips in by mentioning Walter Benjamin as a pre-emiment theorist of all this, “especially in 'the Arcades Project', where a kind of materialist history is mapped out. The notion that the past commodities, for instance, still hold a kindof utopia waiting…" And “Walter Benjamin wrote on the complex fore-history carried through material objects as resembling a ‘dreamscape’. Indeed, his spectral analysis of theParisian arcades was premised on a retrieval of the latent potentialities embedded in the concrete form of past commodities, or the garbage cast-offby modernity. By implementing various relational and montage-basedtechniques, the futurity or utopian promise originally associated withthese items might be drawn out by an individual and fully realised in thepresent. In doing so, Benjamin theorised the linear continuum ofhistorical progress could be brought to a standstill, stretched outlaterally across a network of time, to reveal the actual experience ofmodernity in a ‘flash of lightning.’ Somehow, teleology would becircumvented, and the assignation of events exploded within the practiceof history itself. The result would be a pure dialectical image, a variedconstellation that finally made legible the geography of contemporary lifeas a communicable form.”

The one bit of Spectres of Marx that never seems to come up in discussions of hauntology is the (admittedly glancing) allusions to Benjamin’s “weak messianic power”. Which (excuse me if this is poorly grasped; I’m only just struggling through Spectres now, so this is largely derived from the mostly hostile Marxists’ responses to Spectres in that Ghostly Demarcations collection, plus Derrida's hilariously petulant and wounded response in the long afterword) I take to refer an idea of keeping alive a sense of utopian possibility and change-will-come during periods of contraction/reaction/stagnation/reversal, when all hope of revolution or change seems to have gone. In political terms I imagine this involves preserving the knowledge of historical breaks that happened in the past ... the Bolsheviks, the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, 1968... or more vaguely, just the notion of building a better society/social engineering/grand collective projects of amelioration and emancipations... The “weak” presumably connoting a sense of fadedness and faintness (as well as ineffectualness--vague hopes rather than a political program, the party with its science of history pointing the path to tomorrow). The “messianic”, because it relates to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, also to the millienial/prophetic mystico-political line running back through the ages (all that stuff Norman Cohn wrote about; also Marcus in Lipstick Traces)… “gnostalgia for the future” to borrow a Penman pun… and again a point of convergence with dub & roots, Rasta’s apocalyptic confidence that Babylon-shall-fall… … With the Ghost Box lot, this politically dissident dimension isn’t there so strongly, it’s really more the cultural aspect--keeping alive the idea of the futuristic and unforeheard as a possibility: not so much “change” as “strange will come (again)”… Mind you, Ghost Box’s formative predecessor Stereolab had both aspects going on: the nostalgia-for-the-future of analog synth worship/Neu!-fetishism, but also the Marxist don't-stop-thinking-about-tomorrow element, e.g. Laetitia singing re. capitalism “it's not eternal, it's not imperishable/oh yes, it will fall”…


When we talk about “nostalgia for the future” there’s really two different if related syndromes. The first is the classic ache for tomorrow, the utopian impulse expressed not (as it was for most of human history) through the idea of a lost golden age but as an orientation towards a future state of perfection. The second impulse, more common today, is really retro-futurist: that sensation of wistfulness induced by looking at old science fiction movies, images from 1950s science fairs and technology exhibitions, modernist cooking-ware and furniture from between the wars, etc etc. Or listening to early analog synth music, avant-classical, moogy wonderland bizniz. It’s a postmodern emotion, mingling poignancy and camp, pathos and affectionate amusement, the virgin sense of wonderment partially recovered but checked by a hindsight awareness that none of this actually transpired.


I wonder what’s going on when we use the word “futuristic” to describe a piece of music. Rather often, I think what we’re talking about falls into the second version of “nostalgia for the future”, ie. the music is playing with received ideas of the futurist/futuristic. That was clearly going on with a lot of the early Eighties synthpop, and maybe even with Kraftwerk. Human League is a good example of this. Or at least you could say there was a mish-mash of genuine modernism and retro-futurism, with Ian Craig Marsh and then Martin Rushent supplying the former and the second aspect coming from science fiction buff Oakey and Thunderbirds-fan Adrian Wright.

I wonder also if describing something as “the future/futuristic” is more often than not a retrospective designation. For instance, flicking through a Roxy Music book (David Buckley’s fine The Thrill of It All) I stumbled on Martyn Ware’s reminiscence of seeing Roxy for the second time in Sheffield:

In the wildest excesses of rock iconography , I’d never read about, let alone seen, anything as excessive…. If you had taken a photograph of them and showed it to someone in America at that time, they’d probably have gone “faggots”! But that’s not the message it was saying to us: it was saying “the future”. It’s an exciting thing when you’re 16 years of age”.

I wonder if that’s how he really felt at the time. It feels like a hindsight comment, something processed by memory. Most likely as a teenager he just boggled, it felt utterly NOW/NEW.

(You can have that sensation--being ambushed by the unforeseen/unforehead--with music that doesn’t involve any of the conventional signifiers of “the futuristic”.
The arrival of Morrissey in 1983 felt like that. Here was a complete original (persona-wise) and a fresh sound; something completely unexpected, and all the more of a break with pop normality, how we thought the Eighties was set to proceed, through its rejection of synths, sequencers etc. )

Roxy Music are a classic example of a group playing with received ideas of the future, they were the original retro-futurists, the first postmodern popsters, probably. But to go back to the idea of not knowing what in our current cultural moment is actually future-portending, you could argue that the production of Avalon in 1982 was far more future-istic than the first two Roxy albums in the literal sense of pointing ahead to how a lot of rock music would sound in the CD age.

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