Retromania, Time Warps, Revivalism & Slovenia

Simon Reynolds’ Retromania – Pop Culture’s Addicition to its own Past gives a good overview of the intensified retromania of the last decades. He describes nostalgia’s integration in 1950’s pop culture, and the ‘memory boom’ of the 1990’s that made retro more … modern. You know, archive fever and cheap hard drives and all that.

Retromania focuses on a sort semiotic nostalgia. It’s about our relationship to content. We’re likely to accelerate and maximize this ‘content retromania’  as Reynolds suggests in an article. But there is also a material retromania that revolves around machines and formats. It’s obviously popular to use typewriters, Moogs and cassettes and delve into medium specifics. Gradually they are emulated, sampled and commodified into plugins and filters. Sometimes they even become specific signifiers, like the needle scratching across the vinyl record signifies interruption in sitcoms. Or an icon of a floppy disk means ‘save’.

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From where I’m standing, it seems that retromania is moving away from content and towards the material. Songs are easy to find, records and machines are not. Reynolds writes plenty about collectors. I think that future collectors might have things like old firmware, ancient software versions, algorithms, or maybe a full multimedia set-up with Windows 95 and Netscape to browse like it’s 1997.

These things are usually described either as nostalgia or appropriation. Nostalgia is bad and appropriation is good, lulz. Nostalgia is non-intellectual and melancholic, appropriation is social and political. Oneothoprix Point Never is quoted in the book to have said that it’s about a desire to connect, not to relive things which I think illustrates this artificial separation quite well.

Reynolds doesn’t mention chipmusic in his book. But who can blame him? While techno, rock and punk emerged from extatic periods of the new, chipmusic was never really new and exciting. When the term chipmusic emerged around 1990, it referred to Amiga music that sounded like previous C64-music. 10 years later, micromusic.net was also looking back quite a lot.

ulan batorrrrr

So – chipmusic was always “retro”. From the start. That’s why it doesn’t really make sense to call it retro. To say that micromusic.net or the 1990s Amiga demoscene was retro, doesn’t really compute. Reynolds talks about two kinds of retromaniacs which I think capture the tension in the chip scene:

The revivalist dissident chooses an era and stays there. Some people still listen to the same chipmusic hits from the 1980s, and love it. It’s some sort of neo-conservatism, a rebellion against the new in mass culture, a freeze in the past. Lots of demoscene vibes here…

Time-warp cults focus on unsuccessful parts of an old era. Go back, and change the future. This reminds me of the 00’s chipscene mantra of “making something new with the old”. And it also makes me think about media archeology and all kinds of lo-fi practices in the context of Phine Artz. It’s not old (nostalgia) — it’s new and fresh! (appropriation). Retrofuturism, I suppose.

I think it’s two useful concepts. If I would have to choose one of these, I would choose revivalism. It feels more honest, somehow. For me it’s not about going back to a certain time/culture. It’s more about the machines. The sweet, smelly machines.

Anyway. We don’t have to choose sides. So nevermind that. We should probably look into stuff like hauntology and retrogardism instead. THE FUTURE IS THE SEEED OF THE PAST as the Slovenian IRWIN/NSK/Laibach said. Perhaps the difference between the past and the future is not so important after all..

Like Reynolds hints in the book – pop culture seems to go in cycles much like the economy. Growth through novelties. Unlimited progress. Forever young. Would’ve been great to read more about that in the book. About cycles rather than linear movements. Because that’s what really makes retromania interesting. If capitalism is going down the drain, so is pop culture.

8 Responses to “Retromania, Time Warps, Revivalism & Slovenia”

  1. pants1 Says:

    i thought both “nostalgia” and “appropriation” were both seen as bad things, really.

    to me, “nostalgia” is a personal thing – you can’t be nostalgic about things you’ve never experienced. it’s about the unconscious links in yr head between things from the past and experiences from the past. when i listen to a certain cd, i always think of my friends from the school class i was in when i was ten, etc. the nostalgic aspect combined with the average age of the most vocal part of the “chip scene” probably explains why a lot of people are interested in gameboys and far less in, say, grundy newbrains.

    “retro”, on the other hand, is an interest in an aesthetic or culture and doesn’t require any first-hand experience of it. it’s less personal, although people can be equally passionate about it. there are plenty of examples from chip music for this, too – i write c64 music but have never owned a c64, etc. (i suppose my main motivations for my involvement with chip music are “retro” (i don’t like the term, myself) rather than nostalgic)

    i won’t say about much about the word “appropriation” since i have little to say about it, but i think (in this context) it’s related to “retro”, but specifically focusing on the aesthetic (or parts/elements of the aesthetic), and disregarding the culture, for better or for worse).

    to use a metaphor, my understanding of “nostalgia”/”retro”/”appropriation” could be:
    – nostalgia: a japanese expatriot reminiscing about his/her homeland
    – retro: someone interested in japanese life, culture and media (a “weeabo”?)
    – appropriation: someone using manga-style artwork on their album covers

    i shan’t make any value judgements about any of the three here. i too am also interested in the hauntological approach, although wary of incorporating anything related to 20th century philosophers into my ideology (that’s how retroooooo i am ;).

    apologies for everything i wrote above being WRONG!

    • goto80 Says:

      My thesis shows clearly how there is a sort of ‘anti-nostalgia’ among chip-people. “It’s just nostalgia” is an insult that we’re trying to avoid. I think it was only Alex Mauer who talked about it an positive sense. It seems to be that way also in other areas, judging from the Retromania book.

      Like you say, nostalgia is an emotional thing and therefore quite personal. A melancholic longing for a ‘home’ that you can’t get back to.

      I think that also exists on a cultural level, though. I remember getting sentimental about the C64 when I was like 13, and how that whole home computer hacker culture will never come back. It wasn’t caused by personal experiences, because I didn’t really have any. But there was a sadness there, that I didn’t know where it came from. But probably it came from the older demoscene ppl I was hanging out with, the TV/movies I was watching, the books about hacker culture, etc.

      I can also be sort of ‘nostalgic’ about the 1960s in a similar way. I’ve been fed with documentaries about the progressive 60s, perhaps made by people who weren’t even there. But there is this aura about the 1960s that is probably quite different to what actually happened.

      Maybe sometimes it’s even easier to be nostalgic about something when you *don’t* have personal experiences of it. Pure fantasy. No boring reality checks.

  2. pants1 Says:

    maybe we do need some words to distinguish between kinds of nostalgia? firstly a longing for something (real, imagined, or both) that has passed and shall not come back (i believe this is known as “saudade” in portuguese?) – I experience these feelings definitely r.e. chip music and also the perceived loss of innocence that seems to have happened in internet culture, amongst other things… and you are right, not having experienced first-hand the things being nostalgised (maybe not a word) definitely can provide extra rose-tinting to the spectacles.

    these sensations are however clearly not the same as the “nostalgia” where old feelings and memories are revisited via the medium (medium as in “person who talks to the dead”) of objects/aesthetics/media (media not as in “people who talk to the dead”) from that time.

    but either way, i think there is an anti-nostalgia bias in culture in general, and i saw it (in an angsty ihatemodernculture sort of way) as being a symptom or part of a more general trend in which sincerity is not valued very much.

    something as personal as nostalgia has no place in our hyper-fashionable society, everything has to be hidden behind the facade of cool myspace CSS and a perfectly posed facebook profile picture. (or is this just the nostalgia speaking…)

    personally nostalgia is something which could be explored more by all people i think.

  3. goto80 Says:

    I think the original meaning of nostalgia was a longing for something that you cant get back. I guess it’s not like that anymore though. So it’s actually possible to be nostalgic about nostalgia.

    ho ho ho

    I’m reading a book called Evocative Objects. People – mostly pretty old academics – talk about how objects have affected their lives. Their way of thinking, working, creating, etc.

    For them it’s completely normal to explain how they got attached to the object in the first place – and it’s usually a social/cultural thing. Often as simple as feeling fun/love when you used the object in your childhood. Falling in love for the first time on a BBS will make you fall in love with the computer.

    For me it’s much more complicated than that. Or atleast I’d like to think so. I want to think that it’s about rational choices, personal preferences, aesthetics, blablabla. Perhaps it’s all bullshit. There are emotions involved with using technologies and objects, and it’s not strange to feel connected to them.

    +

    Nostalgia is bad if you like progressivism, The New, growth, rationalism, originality = stuff that is important for capitalism, I suppose.

  4. Marilou Polymeropoulou Says:

    There’s so many things that have already been said here. What I’d like to add is that just because “nostalgia” or “appropriation” or even “retro” had a definition in the past, it doesn’t mean that it cannot change. Among other things, language is very dynamic and goes hand in hand with historical/cultural changes. See for example Internet memes; if I saw “Ermahgerd” you may know what I’m talking about, but someone 30 years ago wouldn’t have a clue.

    In the same way, I think we need to redefine nostalgia without forgetting its historical background. I think nostalgia can be experienced in several ways, according to how people feel about it. People can feel nostalgic about anything they somehow feel connected to.

    Affect theory as introduced by Gabriel Tarde is interesting, and ironically enough, his theory has been revived by several sociologists recently (see for example http://mellonseminaremotions.wikispaces.com/file/view/Affect+Reader-Intro.pdf). Also, material culture is very much in line with what Anders is saying in the last comment. It’s all complicated but there is a way to analyse it.

    In the case of chipmusic, I personally realised that there is an interesting generation gap. As you said, among the revivalists lies a bit of demoscene. I don’t think this is a surprise, seeing that purists also hail from the demoscene. As you’ve written in your dissertation, there’s a need to state the orthodoxy in the scene, and the purists are usually the people feeling the responsibility to do it. It’s very much like the relationship of modernists and post-modernists.

    I’m not sure nostalgia is seen as something bad when it comes to capitalist societies. Rather, it’s just another element to use for marketing. See for example political parties that are looking back to the “golden age” of their countries and promoting the ways of the past in order to built a safer future. In every field there’s a bit of retro/nostalgia…

  5. goto80 Says:

    For me there is sadness in nostalgia. It’s more like missing something, rather than longing for it. It’s always bitter sweet.

    In that sense I argue that it’s different from the feelings that appear from reliving a smell, song, object, etc. Perhaps ‘epiphany’ can be a suitable replacement word sometimes.

    I agree that nostalgia is a sort of desire, that can be used efficiently in advertising and political rhetorics (both left & right). And perhaps also in (capitalist) pop culture. But it has to re-framed into a progressive force – retrofuturism, old but new, etc (which Reynolds also writes about in the book). Otherwise it’s just sentimental crap for old people :)

  6. When Misuse of Technology is a Bad Thing | CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] new is not always new. Retromania and remix culture means that it’s ok to just combine or tweek two old things, and then […]

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