Everyone gets nostalgic sometimes. Whether it's because it's raining outside and you can't imagine summer ever coming again, or just because everything seems more difficult now you're no longer five-years-old, it happens to us all. Like the permanent feeling that anything we're not doing is far better than what we are doing, it's part of the human condition.
Some of this naturally affects culture as well. But do you get the feeling that nostalgia is starting to take over aspects of culture that it really has no business in? 2011 featured the 'reinvention' of, among other things, country house dramas, tea dresses, riots and the First World War (manifested in several books and a TV adaptation). 2011 also saw the publication of Simon Reynolds' book Retromania, in which Reynolds discussed the possibility that music had reinvented the past so many times that in the future there would be nothing to reinvent. Pop has eaten itself, and all that remains is the unoriginal rehashing of past glories. I think he's right about music, but I also think this theory needs expanding to the whole of culture, because everything is a rehash, and sooner or later we're going to realise innovation is dead.
Bear with me. I know this is the era of the internet, the biggest and most innovative invention, possibly ever. But look at Facebook. Their recent 'timeline' profile means you can now find out exactly what you were doing five years ago, to the day if you want. Technology is being used as an enormous memory bank which we can access at will to wallow in our own and other people's pasts. At the click of a button we can access archive footage from British Pathé, from the BBC's endless I heart the 1980s shows, and the entire history of our ex-boyfriends. In terms of moving forward, we're doomed.
2010's Booker prize shortlist prompted much discussion about the literary 'worth' of historical novels, but that doesn't even scratch the surface. Things cannot really be so grim that we have to look back to the First World War, a time when 10,000 men were killed a week, as a halcyon age. Let's get this straight, there has never been a golden age. The Victorian period when diseases like cholera and syphilis ruled, there was no welfare system and a melancholic Queen ruled over a nation desperately divided on financial lines? And yet Dickens and the Brontes so far dominate 2012, Downton Abbey was the most successful new TV series last year, in a year that also launched Pan Am, about the golden age of sexism and short-lived booms.
How can a generation fix the inequalities in our society when they are paraded in front of us as some sort of ideal, or at the least treated as an amusing anachronistic side issue distracting from the girl meets boy hegemony? Dickens himself would have recognised the problem, even while he did his part for the memorialising of the age. What we tend to forget about Dickens in amongst the Christmas scenes and loveable urchins, is his unflinching depictions of the down side of the Victorian age, poverty, sickness and strife.
And yet, despite all this looking back, we still aren't learning the lessons from history. Lessons like unemployment plus cutting benefits equals riots. Reynolds asks what will the next generation look back on, as contemporary pop music is just an endless revision of the past. But this question has to be applied to wider questions about the future. How can society move forward, get rid of the oppressors of modern life (bankers and Tories), solve the environmental crisis, when our heads are permanently twisted backwards, stubbornly refusing to think about the future? All of these things are possible.
We have to regain the impetus to rebel. Societies that invented the wheel, the steam engine, the internet, are more than capable of solving climate change, of coming up with a different economic system, of avoiding nuclear meltdown or equally damaging war. It's sad that we can't move past the past and into a better future personally, but it might just be catastrophic for society.Suggest a correction