Arts & Culture, Opinion

27th March 2020

The Great Rewind: 21st Century Cultural Decay – Opinion

Opinion pieces are the view of the author and in no way reflects the view of the Liverpool Guild Student Media or Liverpool Guild of Students.

Culture has lost its momentum. 21st century art seems to have an increasing reliance on the past, forcing new technologies to recreate existing works instead of constructing new and exciting cultural forms.

Sony has announced the arrival of its latest portable music player to commemorate the Walkman’s 40th anniversary – taking the shape of the original Walkman and even sporting a cassette decal to fully lean into its retro appeal. The device itself, however, only plays digital files much like a phone or MP3 player but with one additional feature – the ability to artificially degrade your audio with a faux cassette hiss effect.

Photo by Li Zhang on Unsplash

‘Lost Futures’

The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher popularised the concept of ‘lost futures’ – the idea that we are no longer capable of imagining a new vision of the future and are therefore forced to look to the past to rediscover how the future was imagined back then.

A symptom of this ‘slow cancellation of the future’ is that new technologies are subordinated to the recreation of past cultural forms. For example, the film Ready Player One (2018) utilised ground-breaking CGI technology only to create ultra-realistic renditions of beloved icons from the past such as the Iron Giant, Godzilla, and the DeLorean. The Lion King (2019), Jurassic World (2015), Aladdin (2019), Dumbo (2019), Star Wars (2015-2019) are just a few of the many examples of new technology simply being used to reproduce the past. In fact, at the time of writing, Den of Geek claims that there are a staggering 121 movie reboots currently in the works. Is this a case of corporate boards playing it safe by re-using tried and tested IPs? Is it a sign of a deeper cultural malaise and a collective inability to tell new stories? Perhaps the two scenarios are mutually reinforcing.

Stranger Things (2016) stood out as a fresh and imaginative piece of programming that like Ready Player One, was fully aware of its referential disposition – however, it continues the trend of creators reaching wholesale into the past for spent styles to sell to a new audience, where children consume the same aesthetics that their parents once did, in lieu of something culturally relevant. Not only does Stranger Things use 80s iconography as a vehicle to generate novelty, but its inception was consummately inorganic in nature as its key themes were decided via algorithm using Netflix’s near-decade’s worth collection of big data. Once again, new technology is being used only to repeat the past at the behest of the profit motive.

This issue isn’t exclusive to the world of corporate filmmaking – artists all over the world use modern editing software to drench their work in VHS noise, CRT scanlines, vinyl crackle, tape reverb, analogue synthesizers, and other such artefacts of the 20th century. Whether it’s Lana Del Ray’s visions of Americana or Mac DeMarco’s jangle jams, many tastemakers no longer sit on the cutting edge of culture, instead they look back to the aesthetics of bygone eras – revelling in a miasma of unearned nostalgia. The persistence of this trend suggests that there is an underlying cultural desire to rediscover the past rather than look to the future.

‘Future Shock’

Mark Fisher wrote about ‘future shock’: the sensation of being paralysed by the sheer newness of the work you are consuming, where the earliest point a piece of art could possibly exist is in the cultural moment it was created, and not in any previous era. I would personally claim that ‘future shock’ is an increasingly rare occurrence. Besides the occasional encounter with a SOPHIE or JPEGMAFIA track for example, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that the art of the future will be severely diluted amalgams of previously existing modes, advertised as fresh and exciting but in reality banking on the audience’s waning cultural memory.

To some, it’s obvious that late capitalism’s creeping tendrils are at the root of this – stripping underprivileged creators of their time and energy in return for hours clocked exporting spreadsheets, the ‘common-sense’ rejection of studying the arts because it doesn’t serve the market and the strict instilment of the profit motive into the minds of all corporate cultural creators skulking around their open office spaces. To others it’s simply the natural slow-down of what was a period of unusually rapid cultural and technological advancement.

Whatever the case, it would appear that for newer generations as Mark Fisher so aptly put it:

“Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to have it resold to them forever.”