Dec 27, 2011, 12:25AM

The Mysterious Persistence of Old Styles

Writer Kurt Anderson grapples with the creeping danger of pastiche.

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Television shows no longer go away; cancel one and it comes back as a movie, and half the other big movies that year will be sequels or comic book spinoffs. Wait, is that a new thought? No, not really. But it’s useful, and now Kurt Andersen has got a hold of it. In the January Vanity Fair, the man who wrote Turn of the Century and helped launch Spy becomes the latest observer to remind our modern world that it sure likes recycled cultural product. He adds a thought that hasn’t been kicked around as much: Along with the recycling comes an ominous lack of change. All that cud chewing seems to have slowed down whatever cultural metabolism produces new haircuts, classic literature, and kicky ways of making kids dance.

Andersen traces the recycling trend to the early 1970s, when nostalgia crazes started breaking out. The trend gathered force with the rise of Lucas-Spielberg Hollywood, and reached a sort of tipping point in the past couple of decades. You can tell the difference between people in a 1972 photograph and a 1992 photograph, he says, but what about a 1992 photo and one today? And it’s the same for buildings, movies, songs, for high art and low. The Internet and other breakthroughs are changing our daily lives, but the furnishing of our lives keeps on keeping on. “The past is a foreign country, but the recent past—the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s—looks almost identical to the present,” Andersen writes. “This is the First Great Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History.”

It has a follow-up. Andersen says that attempts at style and taste have become big business since the 1980s (“stylish retail went mega-mass-market in America” is how Andersen puts it, and he cites Target, Barnes & Noble, and Starbucks, among others), but what constitutes style and taste seems to have been locked in place. He calls this “the Second Great Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History. Because you’d think that style and other cultural expressions would be most exciting and riveting when they are unmistakably innovating and evolving.”

Andersen explains the Second Paradox by pointing to big business. When a Goliath is making money off a product, it doesn’t want to monkey with that product. America’s “massively scaled-up new style industry naturally seeks stability and predictability. Rapid and radical shifts in taste make it more expensive to do business and can even threaten the existence of an enterprise.” Starbucks doesn’t want to change its easy chairs and Old Navy wants to keep selling blue jeans. To me this sounds like the argument that there’s a car someplace that runs on water but the big boys refuse to sell it. American car companies did want to keep turning out the same product, but the Japanese came along and grabbed their market with something new. Of course, it may be possible that all the style-dependent industries—clothing, furniture, cooking ware, coffee joints—are being sat on by Goliaths who are all simultaneously heading for a comeuppance.

Andersen’s First Paradox demands more space. I mentioned that it’s been raised before, but that certainly doesn’t undermine the point. People keep saying we recycle cultural product because that is in fact what we’re doing. I’ll note that Andersen does not say the point is now well-established. Academics take as a given that this is the post-modern age and discuss it with terms like “referentiality” and “intertextual.” But it seems like lay observers are always being struck by the insight all over again.

For the record, the first time I came across the notion was in 1977, when the late critic Kenneth Tynan published a profile of Mel Brooks in The New Yorker. Tynan had to watch High Anxiety, the latest Brooks film. It was a lumbering 94-minute comedy in which every joke was pegged to an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The experience so unnerved Tynan that he lobbed into his piece a long paragraph about pastiche and the creeping danger it posed to all of us. Vincent Canby, the chief film critic for The New York Times, had been making noises about Brian DePalma and the tendency of film school grads to direct movies about movies. But I think Tynan may have been the first layman to tell us the problem went beyond film school, that our culture had developed a habit.

What’s behind the trend? Andersen’s Second Paradox covers the past quarter century but stops there. For the rest he invokes change, “all the profound nonstop newness we’re experiencing on the tech and geopolitical and economic fronts.” His list takes in just recent changes (“the Web and artificially intelligent smartphones and the rise of China and 9/11 and the winners-take-all American economy and the Great Recession”), but we can agree there’s been plenty of change before that, enough to explain a countertrend in nostalgia and recycling. And in fact Andersen sees the great change kickoff as coming around the time of Sgt. Pepper and beanbag chairs. He points to the 1960s and its “relentless and discombobulating avant-gardism,” and says it drove the various culture industries to begin “looking backward for inspiration.”

There’s something to that, but not enough. First, let’s go back before 1960. In 1900 the typical American was a farmer, a house servant, or someone who employed a house servant. In half a century all that had changed beyond recognition. There’s a reason why “When I was your age” became a stock set-up for jokes. The joke books were assembled during a period when adults who grew up without dishwashers, college educations, radios, telephones, or cars (“walked nine miles in the snow and thought nothing of it”) were addressing kids who grew up with all those things and more, kids raised under a new order of life. The social historian Frederick Lewis Allen wrote about the period in a book appropriately called The Big Change. It came out in 1952, long before geodesic domes and 2001.

So, to critique Andersen’s views, it’s not that the 1960s were a sudden eruption of newness that left people dazed and scrambling. They were the moment when newness, already accelerating, found a gear nobody knew it had. Either way, of course, the population was culturally knocked for a loop and Andersen’s basic time sequence stays in place. But some differences do emerge.

For one thing, we can now explain a large fact about the counterculture that Andersen doesn’t quite know what to do with. He says that, post-1960s, shell-shocked culture makers looked to the past and gave us the nostalgia waves. But he also has to allow for a hefty piece of “to be sure,” as in: “Some 60s counterculturalists had dabbled in the 19th century—the Victoriana of Sgt. Peppers and Haight-Ashbury houses, the folkish fictions of Bob Dylan and the Band, the stoner-cowboy fantasies of the Grateful Dead and the Hells Angels.” That’s a whole lot of dabbling by some big-deal counterculturalists, and it’s all before the buzzer went off in 1970.

Of course, even Andersen’s “to be sure” passage understates matters. Olde-tyme costume games were for everybody, not just rock bands. The hippies didn’t try dressing up like people on space stations, they dressed up like their idea of Indians and pirates, and for many of them it was more than dabbling. A large chunk of them did it full time, and by the end of the 60s they were following through with olde-tyme eating and living arrangements—for examples, communes where people farmed their own crops and children ran about like bear cubs. These weren’t historical recreations, but they were a cousin to that sort of effort: attempts to make a future that would be like the primeval, a new dawn. The counterculture was, among many other things, a giant exercise in nostalgia. New as it was, it was still a reaction to all the newness that had come before, to the Big Change.

And everybody knew it. Sociologists talked about “the new tribalism” and the hippies’ “search for organic identity.” The hippies and their like complained about the nature of modern society: “I am a human being, do not fold, spindle, or mutilate” and so on. The remarkable thing about Andersen’s argument is that he overlooks this line of thought, one of the most remarked on in 20th century America: alienation in the supermarket, beatniks’ would-be spontaneity, cartoons in Mad magazine about listless suburbanites living like hamsters in cages. Kurt Vonnegut threw in a sideways jab about the preoccupation with a freer, more virile past in his first novel, Player Piano. Like The Big Change it came out in 1952. 

Being a style maven, Andersen thinks that newness comes down to new looks and sounds. For him the 1960s were “that time of relentless and discombobulating avant-gardism, when everything looked and sounded perpetually new new new,” and the people it discombobulated were “cultural creators—designers, artists, impresarios.” Of course, being a magazine writer, he’s also willing to rope in standard big-think items. China, Reagan’s America, smart phones—anything for the sake of causation. (Fifty years back it would have been the Bomb.)  Paste it all together and he’s got his history scheme. The style pros overdosed on newness, and before they could sleep it off everybody—pros and audience—was hit by a brain-rattling succession of Sunday supplement topics. These left pros and audience in a defensive crouch that has grown deeper and deeper, and now we have to wonder if we can stand up again.

It’s not the most solid argument. Just the switch in causation is enough to indicate that he should have worked things out a bit more. The various big-think items on his list also make up a tempting target. Roll them out and they get across their common message, namely that change is afoot, big change. But after a moment passes, you have to wonder: Were the Chinese Olympics really that upsetting? Does the thought of the Internet weigh on you like the atomic bomb weighed on your granddad? I can see how it could stir up a few collective twitches, cause focus groups to inspire Bill Clinton’s handlers with a reassuring slogan like “Building a Bridge to the 21st Century.” But freeze the culture? No, not that and smart phones and China and 9/11. Of the list, the one unqualified terrifier was the last item, and one of that item’s chief cultural effects was, of all things, to drive people to spend more time on the Internet. We wanted to argue with each other about George W. Bush and his plans for the Muslim world.

So what’s the real explanation for the style freeze? Because, let me hasten to say, Andersen really is on to something when he points out that 2011 has a mysterious resemblance to 1991. (To put it in terms I understand best, Cineplex terms: Check out Groundhog Day or Basic Instinct. They work or don’t work in the same ways as they did when they came out. Die Hard isn’t a period piece; it’s a Hollywood action film like the action films that Hollywood makes today.) Given all the spinning out and consuming of cultural product, how come there’s so little change?

My guess is that the reason ties in with the reason for the great newness shock of the 1960s. The Big Change didn’t end when Frederick Lewis Allen wrote his book. It has continued as before, broadening and deepening, with the hippies’ pushback managing only to soften its edges. We have yoga classes, but that goes only so far. Everyone knows this is no longer a society where big families sit around long tables, or where neighbors find themselves thrown together in the course of a typical day. The car and TV matter more than neighborhoods and cousins—possibly more than parents, once you’re grown up. The newness we fight by watching The Godfather over and over or curating our Replacements CDs is the newness of a society where being alive now means being lonely.

We still haven’t worked that out, but we have to; otherwise life just isn’t enough. And when we do, a hard cultural rain is going to fall. Or something. At any rate, there should be enough change to keep Kurt Andersen happy. 


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