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Haunted by the Past: Retromania and Fear

Ein Gespenst geht um…

Haunto­logy is one of those buzzwords that get thrown around in an attempt to put a fin­ger on cer­tain cul­tural trends. Deriv­ing ulti­mately from Jacques Der­rida, in ref­er­ence to the open­ing sen­tence of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Com­mun­ist Mani­festo, the term nowadays is used to refer to the ‘ghosts’ haunt­ing our cul­ture; the intan­gible spectres of (ima­gined) past and (unreal­ised) futures that inform our ways of think­ing and cre­at­ing. More than the pos­sible futures, it seems to me that it is in par­tic­u­lar the ghosts of cul­ture past that leave their mark on our cul­ture today.


In a time when Ins­tagram and other retro cam­eras are some of the most pop­u­lar smart­phone apps I often won­der where this global (i.e. West­ern) tend­ency towards nos­tal­gia and retro comes from. It is a tend­ency we see in vari­ous domains of pop­u­lar cul­ture, and I think it’s inter­est­ing to briefly touch upon a couple of those.

I’ll start with music, as I’ve noticed - and I’m not the only one - that pop music has been stuck in a bit of a rut lately. First of all, in my view, the last truly mean­ing­ful musical revolu­tions happened roughly twenty years ago. Among these, we could high­light grunge and the revival of rock, house music lead­ing to dance, main­stream hiphop, or even the sub-branch­ing of heavy metal into quite varie­gated new styles. These revolu­tions were based on sev­eral devel­op­ments. Some involved a much-needed re-invig­or­a­tion of an old idiom, such as grunge. Other were based on a fresh influx of ideas from (eth­nic) sub­cul­tures, such as rap and hiphop, or on new instru­mental pos­sib­il­it­ies: house and dance music were the final main­stream cur­rents in a series of elec­tron­ica-based styles begin­ning with pion­eers in the middle of the 20th century.


Since then, the days of my youth, I’ve seen rel­at­ively little in the way of innov­a­tion. The vast major­ity of pop­u­lar music is build­ing on these and other idioms developed at least two dec­ades before, and those artists that do man­age to sound rel­at­ively fresh, e.g. Amy Wine­house, do so mainly because they rep­res­ent a revival of even older idioms, in her case the jazz and soul music of the six­ties, not to men­tion the hair.

It’s time to keep your appoint­ment with the Wicker Man

The under­ground fares little bet­ter. Truly revolu­tion­ary styles such as indus­trial, new wave, punk, metal, and ambi­ent all appeared before I was born, most of what has fol­lowed since is based on the ground­break­ing work made back then. Iron­ic­ally enough, here too the recent styles that sound quite ‘new’ take their inspir­a­tion from older peri­ods. The evan­es­cent witch­house boom was a case in point, with its use of retro synths and ghostly æsthet­ics. More pro­found to me seems the (re-re-)revival of folk music, start­ing with the (post-indus­trial) neo­folk of the early nineties, and joined in the new mil­len­nium by freefolk, new weird, and what have you. Many artists from this move­ment com­bine influ­ences from tra­di­tional folk with mod­ern (and other retro!) influ­ences to great effect, but at its heart, it is another revival. Is it a coin­cid­ence that the term ‘haunto­lo­gical’ rears its head in many attempts to describe some of these new musical currents?

The reas­ons for this appar­ent stag­na­tion in pop music elude me. A part of it may be the decline of sub­cul­tures in the sense that we used to know: rel­at­ively isol­ated cul­tural areas that had the oppor­tun­ity and spirit to develop a (musical) style of its own without influ­ence (or co-opt­a­tion) from the rest of the world. In a world that is ever more con­nec­ted by digital media, sub­cul­tures are chan­ging shape or dis­ap­pear­ing, and their artistic fruits are shared, reshared, and for­got­ten before they get the chance of a longer inde­pend­ent mat­ur­a­tion towards their own voice.

Another area where we see the ret­ro­mania pop up is video games. On the one hand, this seems to be a res­ult of two gen­er­a­tions of gamers ‘grow­ing up’ and think­ing back with nos­tal­gia to the games of their youth. Nin­tendo icon­o­graphy is more pop­u­lar than ever, and some of their most pop­u­lar recent games are evol­u­tions of NES clas­sics from the eighties. An ‘old school’ æsthetic also flour­ishes in the indie games scene, where small developers solve the prob­lem of small budgets by adopt­ing the more lim­ited but more afford­able graph­ical styles of games from two dec­ades ago.

A pir­ate walks into a bar…

But the game nos­tal­gia is not lim­ited to visu­als alone. More and more gamers clam­our for a return to styles of game­play and nar­rat­ive design of a (recently) bygone period. A “golden era of com­puter games, when cre­ativ­ity was king”, as game designer Brian Fargo recently stated in his recruit­ing video for the Waste­land 2 Kick­starter cam­paign. It seems retro-minded gamers are going to get what they want, with Kick­starters like this one, and the one that will allow Tim Schafer to return to the adven­ture game genre. These pro­jects involve estab­lished and cel­eb­rated design­ers who’ve cre­ated some of the can­on­ised clas­sics of the medium, but they also sig­nal some­thing else: an industry that’s moved to a point where some gamers’ demands for great stor­ies and great design aren’t being met (enough), as well as a look towards the past for inspir­a­tion and grat­i­fic­a­tion. No doubt these cam­paigns will res­ult in qual­ity video games - I trust in them enough to invest in the Kick­starter - but they will be expli­citly retro in outlook.

Appar­ently, that’s what we want. But isn’t it ironic that we want games and music in a style that used to be  innov­at­ive? Per­haps it is because we feel that any­thing older is bet­ter than what passes for new these days.

Vin­tage Harry

As far as con­tem­por­ary lit­er­at­ure is con­cerned, I’m not too sure whether it par­ti­cip­ates all that much in this ret­ro­ma­niac trend. Lit­er­ary cur­rents seem to oper­ate on a dif­fer­ent times­cale than those of other media, and if any­thing, the image is a bit vague to me. On the one hand, that is because of my lim­ited per­spect­ive; my read­ing tends to focus on older works, lib­rary and second-hand books, and genre fic­tion. Besides, it is not imme­di­ately obvi­ous to me how lit­er­at­ure could be retro, apart from jacket design, which does show such ‘vin­tage’ tend­en­cies from time to time. A sub­stan­tial retro fea­ture could be use of older lan­guage - out­side of dia­logues - when writ­ing his­tor­ical fic­tion, but I’m not sure if this is done often.

Waste­land Max

A pos­sible ret­ro­mania can be detec­ted in the pop­ular­ity of post-apo­ca­lyptic set­tings and steam­punk in recent fant­astic fic­tion. The lat­ter example is the most dir­ect, thriv­ing on a nos­tal­gia for fant­ast­ical vic­tori­ana, though one could argue this has more to do with a fas­cin­a­tion for his­tory and fantasy than with retro æsthetic per se. The case of post-apo­ca­lyptic set­tings might be dif­fer­ent. It seems to me that the cur­rent fas­cin­a­tion with the concept of the post-apo­ca­lyptic waste­land could in part be a throw­back to the themes of the eighties and nineties, in which the set­ting was given form by films and video­games like Mad Max, the first instal­ment of above­men­tioned Waste­land, Fal­lout, etc. You don’t have to look too hard to trace the influ­ences of that era to more recent works like The Road and The Hun­ger Games. In yet another instance of irony, we envi­sion the future accord­ing to a ret­ro­spect­ive idiom.

Of course, this isn’t all bad. Some things simply were bet­ter in the past, as some of the above examples illus­trate, and prac­tic­ally all forms of pop­u­lar cul­ture build on the vis­ions of the past to some degree. To take some of the bet­ter aspects of yes­ter­day’s cul­ture and use them to rein­vig­or­ate today’s is a good thing. At the same time, some­thing seems to be miss­ing. Whereas the revolu­tion­ary cul­tural cur­rents of the nineties and earlier built on the past and reached for new heights, today’s cul­ture seems mostly con­tent just to dwell on the past. Why could that be?

What fol­lows is mere con­jec­ture, but per­haps I will strike a right note here and there. Ret­ro­mania and haunto­logy are, to me, con­spicu­ous in par­tic­u­lar because they seem to lack a coun­ter­part. Where are the artistic move­ments that, for bet­ter or worse, rad­ic­ally reject the forms of the past, and try to build the future from the ground up? Isn’t that how many of the idioms we nos­tal­gic­ally love today were cre­ated in the first place?

The Inter­net is basic­ally the Jedi Archives

It almost seems as if we rad­ic­ally do not want to even think about the future. On one level, for many people in the West, the present is pretty cosy, and we now have (digital) access to so much past cul­ture that the need to innov­ate is less urgent. If some­thing is miss­ing in today’s cul­tural land­scape, we can simply resur­rect some campy ele­ment of the (recent) past, and if we present it iron­ic­ally enough, we can be cool to boot. Some revolu­tion­ary cur­rents of the past were born as a protest against poverty, isol­a­tion, and repres­sion, and obvi­ously that has little rel­ev­ance to today’s middle class youth.

At the same time, just bey­ond the veil of the future, things are claw­ing at us. It often seems as if more than any­thing, we are all see­ing the first signs of our mod­ern wel­fare under siege, and fear that we might lose our way of liv­ing. There may be some truth to that. Eco­nomic devel­op­ments and increas­ing fin­an­cial insec­ur­ity, social mobil­ity, glob­al­isa­tion, the rise of (domestic and global) ter­ror­ism and tri­bal­ism, these are all issues that put strain on sense of com­munity and secur­ity, and per­haps this is why we have an extra incent­ive to hold on to the present and (ima­gined) glor­i­ous past for dear life?


The long­ing for a bet­ter past is mirrored in many more sociocul­tural trends than the few I’ve men­tioned here. In the Neth­er­lands at least, people are frantic­ally try­ing to (re)construct a national iden­tity, based on per­ceived tra­di­tional val­ues and sym­bols thereof, and this is reflec­ted in the visu­als and lan­guage of our politi­cians and media. Sym­bols like cheese, wind, water, level-headed­ness, as well as lin­guistic labels of ‘ur-Dutch­ness’ [Oer­hol­lands] are util­ised to a great degree to instil some sense of com­munity into the cit­izens, whether it is to sell a product or secure a vote. To me, all this seems like try­ing to catch water in a net.

Should­n’t we rather be facing the future, and secure a place in it? The eighties were an era of cold war angst, yet that did­n’t stop artists from look­ing for­ward. So how do we lift the fog of tomor­row today? Per­haps we should rein­state the future uto­pia along­side the post-apo­ca­lyptic waste­land, and the sepia-toned mead­ows of the past. First in our ima­gin­a­tions, and then in our plans. And cre­ate things that help us get there, or that allow us to escape if we can’t get there in our lifetime.

Ghosts will keep haunt­ing us, but that does­n’t mean we should always acknow­ledge them. We can ignore them and look ahead, or even attempt to exor­cise them.

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