Nostalgia for a future past
nr. 3 / 2012
What on earth has become of "the year 2000"? As a teenager growing up in the 1960s I pictured us in the new millennium, smoothly hovering along the streets, surrounded in radiant modernity by 'automatic' things. A world which was visualized by the Das brothers as if it was already there. That was the lure of the year 2000 – everything would be different then. The promises of the present, budding in a faltering technology, would magically become reality in the year 2000. With the futile panic of the millennium bug, this enchantment has evaporated like air from a deflating balloon. Our wild imaginations of the future shrinking away, we now look back. How cozy it used to be. And the future looked so much cheerier, back then.
The 1960s and '70s were a time in which utopia was reinvented. After the War, our parents had rebuilt the world from scratch and decided it was time to finish the job permanently now. What had remained standing during the war was in many places enthusiastically torn down after all, or at best seen as obstacle of progress. Nostalgic lumber. I remember with horror how close a large part of the old Amsterdam Nieuwmarkt neighborhood – where I now live – came to falling prey to the tabula rasa approach with which the planners of the city's subway looked at the terrain above it. Still, their motives were optimistic, built on a vision of cheerful and hard working folks in a smoothly organized city which would facilitate life as a well oiled engine. "Away with all your superstitions", the social democrat governors and engineers of Amsterdam must have hummed while erasing the filigree of the city's medieval center, deemed unfit for modern life.
Their utopia is now dystopia. Awake, the dream of radiant modernity appears as a dysfunctional suburb. The year 2000 – so long the gauging point of a great future – transpired to be a fleeting moment of intoxication, after which everything returned to normal. Not a dream but reality. It is like the philosopher Ernst Bloch remarked: "The here-and-now lacks distance, which, although alienating, produces clarity and overview. Therefore, immediacy, in which reality takes place, is experienced as essentially darker than the dream image, even from time to time without form, and void."
Bloch is the philosopher of utopia as guideline for acting hopefully in the grey reality of the now. His stressing of the importance and value of the present is remarkable and in his days – the first half of the last century, a bloody battle ground of utopias of various kinds – almost masochistic. Bloch is less concerned with a specific goal as he is with the way to reach it, the process that takes place in the now. The essence of his philosophy is to regard the world and any meaningful human activity in it as "noch nicht." These two words – "not yet" – are the most concise way to connect present and future. Bloch contrasts his thought with that of Freud, who according to him doesn't reach beyond "nicht mehr" – "no more." For isn't the Freudian subconscious the forgotten, the repressed, the "no-more-conscious" which has quite literally sunk below the threshold of consciousness? "All psychoanalysis," Bloch summarizes his critique on Freud, "is therefore by necessity retrospective." As phenomenologically inspired Marxist he sees the Freudian subconscious as an expression of a bourgeois "class beyond its expiry date, in a society without future." Aurora versus twilight: "The not-yet-conscious is the psychic imagination of the not-yet-existent in a certain time and in its world, at the frontier of the world." The imagination of man, daydreaming.
In all his future-prone idealism – and he is among many who made the mistake of defending Stalinism as 'realized utopia' – Bloch is primarily the philosopher of the dynamic now, of 'yet.' That distinguishes him from utopists who pin down the imagined future as something that is a fact for all intents and purposes – something that merely needs to be realized. It is the planners' hubris, the intractable ambition of designers, of modernism tout court. For designers and planners in the modernist tradition the design is a model, which once made is fixed – not a proposal but a prescription. Not a process but a product. The result is that the design's links with present and past are severed. The design is 'immediate' in the sense Bloch meant, and yet distanced. Real and yet unrealized. A modernist design is absolute. It exists beyond time.
The modernist claim of objectivity and the ensuing procedures for design and social construction have been increasingly criticized from the 1960s onward. Functionalism – modernism's design methodology – reduces not only the built environment and the useful products that furnish it to their respective functions, but also the people in it. One is a pedestrian or driver, clerk or worker, traveller or resident, and design provides each of those functions with a tailored environment: bicycle paths, highways, office towers, factories, train stations, suburbs. The connections between all of this are a matter of logistics, not of sentiment. But sentiment is hard to eradicate. The defenders of the old tight city fabric with its small houses in the Amsterdam Nieuwmarkt neighborhood grounded their actions on a sentiment, which connected the past to the future while improvising the present. Working from a 'pre-consciousness' of a better world – not a grand design. Human dimension and human action versus the 'human function.' Theirs was the not-yet-crystalized imagination of the daydream – not that of the Das brothers. In the daydream, according to Bloch, "the important destination of the not-yet-conscious is revealed;" hope, a sentiment that demands people to "actively leap into the burgeoning world." There is a DIY element in this thought that makes Bloch topical once again in our times...
Thinking of Adorno – read through the lens of Baudrillard –, one may also see the stylistic stagnation as a perversion of functionalism, specifically when it comes to the design assumptions behind these mass products. For modernist functionalism is at the root of design; a design needs to be functional. But functional for what, for whom? Once, this functionality lay in the inherent usefulness of the product, the way it fulfilled a user's need. Nowadays, the focus has shifted to how the product is functional to its producer. Anything that keeps the wheels of industry turning is functional. Use as social function is narrowed (or dumbed) down to economic function, and revenue dictates the production process. So when a product sells well, its manufacturer's competitor will not think "how can we make something like this, but better?" but "how can we make this same thing, cheaper?" The all important function of a product thus becomes its potential to hitch a ride on the bandwagon of commercial success. Innovation stagnates while the market – read: the producer – thirsts after new products. What, in this mirror palace of self-replicating life-style industries, is more obvious than copying proven successes from the past, marginally adapting them and market them as new?
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, utopia has become suspect once again. Countless thinkers have declared and analyzed its end, and while they were at it also proclaimed the end of history, politics and, why not, the future itself. It seemed that, in the 1990s, at the threshold of the year 2000, we were not simply on the brink of a new era, but that the new millennium would herald the end of time per se. Perhaps Karl Mannheim, the knowledge sociologist, was right when – even before the war – he worried that "in the future, in a world in which there is never anything new, in which all is finished and each moment is a repetition of the past, there can exist a condition in which thought will be utterly devoid of all ideology and utopian elements"?
Mannheim's fears resound in a recent essay by cultural critic Kurt Andersen in Vanity Fair. He remarked that in the past twenty years – roughly the first two decades of the 21st century – there have been massive changes especially in the technological organization of our lives, but that these are hardly reflected in stylistic innovation, apart from a few really new digital gadgets. This is strange. Compare and contrast the attire and interior decoration of someone in 1992 with how the same person dressed and lived in 1972, and you'll see an almost total make-over. Try and do the same with images from 1992 and 2012 and you'll have great difficulty assigning each the right date. Andersen calls it the two Great Paradoxes of Contemporary Cultural History. The first is that the past older than twenty years seems to take place on a different planet while the recent past has been the spitting image of the present for the last two decades. The second paradox is that this freezing of stylistic innovation coincides with a public obsession with style on a scale never seen before. Strangely enough, he writes, this intensified consciousness of style does not lead people to look for new and unseen things, but to hark back to what has been there all along. It has been observed by others as well, that the past decades are marked by a penchant toward the past, a nostalgic hindsight. The year 2000 has become retro.
Andersen explains the current lack of stylistic innovation in part as a compensation for radical changes in other social arenas – the digital revolution, the ongoing reshuffling of world power and other disruptions; nostalgia-in-times-of-insecurity flavored with a hint of Decline-of-the-West. But he locates the main cause in the economization of culture, which is fatal for culture’s aesthetic and stylistic innovation: "We seem to have trapped ourselves in a vicious cycle — economic progress and innovation stagnated, except in information technology; which leads us to embrace the past and turn the present into a pleasantly eclectic for-profit museum; which deprives the cultures of innovation of the fuel they need to conjure genuinely new ideas and forms; which deters radical change, reinforcing the economic (and political) stagnation." That this vicious cycle is not broken is caused by the intensive commodification of culture. Self expression, this essential driver of style, has become a consumer product available for larger markets than ever, which consequently is provided as mass product by an ever growing Kulturindustrie, as Adorno termed it.
The introduction, around the year 2000, of the Volkswagen New Beetle (1998) and the Chrysler PT Cruiser (2000), heralded the definitive demise of modernism. The only functionality of the design of these cars was a cheeky sentimental one. The PT Cruiser was a family car inspired by cool hot rods from the 1930s and 1940s, low-browed muscle cars in which American young men used to dare each other, cruising along Main Street or in hair raising short track races in the suburbs. The PT Cruiser placed this testosterone surrogate in the hands of the average office clerk to pose like a rebel without a cause and still have place for his two-and-a-half kid on the back seat. Convenient. Sales statistics showed that the car was especially popular with women, which was probably even more lethal for its robust image than the weak engine and the poor driving qualities. Production of the car, a huge success in its early years, was terminated in 2011. It had become outmoded.
The evolution of the Volkswagen Beetle to the New Beetle reflects the course of recent history; from diligent thrift to droll opulence. The New Beetle is technically closer to its current bigger brothers like Mercedes or Audi than to the bashful working man's car it once was. It's a lot fatter too. The Beetle and Cruiser can be filed as two of the earliest large-scale retro products of the new millennium. The start of a still rising swell of things that pretend they are of old, icons of a nostalgic longing for an idealized past. On the road they were followed by updated versions of the Fiat 500 'Topolino' and the Mini, cars once designed for the common man and now upgraded to toys for young and hip urbanites. Fitted with everything a modern car needs on the inside in terms of power, ease of use, safety and economy; pure styling on the outside. Remarkable in the design of all of these cars is its cuteness. A cartoonish charm of which the effect is comparable with the smile of nostalgic recognition triggered by old photos; how young and sweet and clumsy we were back then. And so authentic.
It is nostalgia of the sweetest kind. A longing for better days, softened by additions of luxury we would definitively not want to do without. The simplicity of the past with today's amenities. If you've ever driven an original Topolino, you'll recognize the incongruities. You can also call it a disorder of the imagination, the description given to the pathology of nostalgia by 19th century medicine.
In our context, we are reminded of Bloch's critical view on psychoanalysis. For the rise of postmodernism coincides with a renewed interpretation of Freud's work, and it is not so hard to view postmodernism's fascination for his "necessarily retrospective" analysis as sign of our culture's uneasy relationship with the present. Nostalgia and irony are expressions of this unease: they undermine the here-and-now. "If the present is considered irredeemable," says Hutcheon, "you can look either back or forward." That is also the analogy between nostalgia and utopia; they both reject the present, albeit in opposite directions. Still nostalgia is not necessarily the reverse of utopia, as cultural historian Andreas Huyssen remarks. He infers a shift in our time of the "temporal organization of the utopian imagination from its futuristic pole toward the pole of remembrance." Utopia and the past, rather than utopia and the year 2000. If in other words we are imagining a future now, it is that of the past. A past in which we could still daydream expectantly about how nice life would be thirty to forty years from now. But that is a future without present, or – worse – one that considers the present as its repressed failure. The present of disenchanted baby-boomers who have abandoned their former utopian zeal and have left any serious engagement as 'so nineteen sixties' behind them. It is the present of "the prison of mere presence, in which we cannot even move nor breathe," as Bloch formulated it in his late years. This insight emphatically points us to the necessity of utopia, once again. Not as a model but as a prospect for action, as pre-consciousness of a deep rooted longing for a future which we have not yet realized. Or in the words of Huyssen: "The end of utopia, it turns out, is the end of the real."
Nostalgia is a word that, syntactically at least, does what it says: it seems to hark back to an august past but is in fact a relatively recent construction. The classical Greek sound denotes a problem that was only diagnosed in the 17th century. A Swiss doctor, Hofer, used the combination of νόστος (home coming) and ἄλγος (pain, longing) to describe the sometimes lethal afflictions and panic attacks he found with Swiss mercenary soldiers abroad. In the ensuing medical literature, nostalgia was classified as variant of melancholy and as such a suicide risk. In the 19th- and 20th century this psychopathology gives way to a more general description – a curable yearning for a geographic home changes into an incurable ache for times gone. Already in 1798 Kant had remarked that people who returned to their coveted Heim after years of absence were often disappointed; they had not so much longed after the place they had left, as the times they had lived there. Nostalgia is the woeful response to the fact that one cannot turn back time.
In her essay "Irony, Nostalgia and the Postmodern," Linda Hutcheon reminds us of this history of the term, departing from the thought that postmodern irony seems to preclude any idea of nostalgia. Insatiable longing doesn't tolerate ironic distance and critique. But Hutcheon – a leading expert on postmodern irony – sees a parallel between the two concepts: their two-faced nature. They are both ambiguous, a term with paradigmatic status in postmodern theory. Irony says what it doesn't say; and nostalgia projects an idealized past onto a disappointing present. The effect of both terms – of both affects – is disrupting. Of course, as Hutcheon also observes, there is undiluted nostalgia, which radically rejects the present and obsessively tries to re-stage the past. Disney's Celebration, for instance, a gated community just outside Disneyland in Florida, is a decidedly un-ironic retro-utopia, a really existing fantasy modeled on a 1950s version of the American Dream. But the cars mentioned above seamlessly match nostalgia and irony. As Hutcheon remarks in another context: "...invoked but, at the same time, undercut, put into perspective, seen for exactly what it is – a comment on the present as much as on the past." In the postmodern version, that is, "nostalgia itself gets both called up, exploited, and ironized."
Ernst Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung. Frankfurt am Main, 1959 (written in the US between 1938 and 1947)
Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories - Making Time in a Culture of Amnesia. New York, 1995
Linda Hutcheon, Irony, Nostalgia and the Postmodern. Toronto, 1998
Max Bruinsma, An Ideal Design is 'Not Yet'. Amsterdam, 1999
Kurt Andersen, You Say You Want a Devolution? Vanity Fair, January 2012