I think it’s very interesting that whilst I’ve been returning to the late 1990s and early 2000s through my writing, all of a sudden things that were popular then, are reappearing everywhere for me now – and I’m speaking specifically about popular things from between 1998, and 2003, rather than the general 1990s nostalgia that’s been pervading the current cultural production for the past few years now (do you know anyone who doesn’t own a pair of mom jeans now?)
This year, two albums are coming out that seem to be speaking to me from that time too. When Mum drove up to Yorkshire to give us the news that dad had died in 2002, we only had two albums in the car for the return journey. Dido’s No Angel, and David Gray’s White Ladder. These are now my ‘sad music’, so I only really listen to them when I’m in the mood for some catharsis. However, it is really interesting to me that Both David Gray, and Dido are releasing new albums now, that seem to rehash the techniques and styles of their previous ones, just as I’m delving into the history and happenings of that same time period. As though the universe were conspiring – or I was unwittingly bitten by some zeitgeist-like bug that is making me think I want to write about the early 2000s.
We’ve lived through a lot of cycles through culture, the re-birth of the 80s around 2008 where I happily bought a ra-ra skirt, wore a lot of frost pink lipstick, and was obsessed with synth-pop and British New Wave. The 90s/70s revival which we’ve been living through now: sliders, and mom jeans, and rave culture, and flares, and flannel – although grunge has been conspicuously absent. I wonder if we’re about to enter into a rebirth of early 00s culture. Whilst this could be quite funny (everyone is now thinking of low-rise jeans, and footless tights, and putting foundation on their lips instead of lipstick – I can feel it) I wonder if it is part of the seismic returning and recycling of culture that has come to define the last 50 or so years – and what will happen when we come to try and recreate the 10s? What will we re-appropriate for the new decade ahead, when a lot of the cultural expression has been recreation of old ideas, in music and fashion in particular?
I wonder if my current fixation on that period of time, being obsessed with my dad’s movements in the months preceding his death, the depths his depression took him, and the concomitant production of my own depression born out the fissures created by that trauma still resonating within ‘my life now’, are symptomatic of a return culturally to the products and feelings of the late 1990s, and early 200s. The twin voices of Dido and Gray, which are synonymous for me to the production of my own grief, and became a way of coping with that, are now present in the surface landscape again – spectral weathers from the deep. Yet their albums were produced at the same time as these feelings of inward reflection, and time travelling memory were brewing in me.
‘watch from the wings as the scenes we’re replaying’, Mark Fisher quotes Ian Curtis’ lines from ‘Decades’ by Joy Division, as an illustration of depressive ontology. In that we always return to the same simulations, ‘like a junky hooked on every kind of deadening high.’ Yet I think it is perhaps a little more pervasive than that – I am a depressive, but it is not just me cycling through the last five decades of cultural production. There seems to be almost a sense that everyone is saying ‘but there is nothing new to make.’ but there must be always something new – otherwise what is the point of it all? what are we doing?
Obviously, it seems to me that it’s just the production capital over all else, that drives the production and reproduction of old products. What is the point of making new things, if you can get people to buy something that’s already been made before, and call it retro. We’ve got tonnes of old radios at home. Dad used to refurbish them, patching up their bakelite, and replacing their valves. Yet, I’ve got a new Roberts digital radio that I was given for my 21st birthday, and it looks like the old ones, but functions like the new ones. ‘Classic Design’ you’ll say – yet everyone’s house is starting to look like a reproduction of some Swedish writer’s retreat in 1961, all midcentury modernism and pale woods. I went to the London Art Fair this year, and even there the Piper and the Nash paintings were in full force: so out of fashion about 15 years ago, and yet returning. Fisher says that Ian Curtis wrote with the iron certainty that everything we do is pre-scripted. I don’t know if that’s true – or if it’s just that everything we do has already been done, but we do it anyway just to be seen to be doing something.
This is the first time that the cultural return cycle has reproduced things that I remember from the first time around (which in their turn are probably just recycled from the time before and the time before and so on) – but it is odd to me, it doesn’t seem to bring about the happy nostalgia, which I saw described on The One Show as the newest business model of the coming year. They had cultural theorists there saying that nostalgia, as big business, points to a need for the country to feel safe within memories of childhood – like fully grown men building late 80s gaming rooms in their basements. It was comforting, they said, to return to the safety of youth, and the cultural pastimes of that time recreated that feeling of safety.
I don’t know that they do make me feel safe, though – they make me feel unsettled, caught in stasis, preserved artificially for testing later.
Perhaps the cyclical returning is more indicative of the pervasiveness of the will to live, though. I wondered if that’s what Mark Fisher was getting at when he wrote that ‘whatever you do, you can’t extinguish it, it keeps coming back.’ But then Mark died too, so the truth in that is sort of marred anyway – because quite clearly, with Mark, and Ian Curtis, and countless others, it can be. Maybe it’s not the life-will that is always returning, but some kind of force to keep us going as long as we must, until we needn’t anymore. That feels a little like i’m saying there’s something guiding it, and I’m not sure that I think there is, but I can’t work out why we’re repeating moments over and over. I remember watching K-PAX for the first time, where Prot says that, due to the expending and condensing of the universe – we’re doomed to repeat everything over, and over, and over again, in exactly the same way – so we’d better make sure we get it right the first time. But if we’re repeating it, always, then how do you know that this is the first time you’ve done it? How do you know that there isn’t an alternative to what you’re doing already? How do you know, that you’re not doomed to fuck it all up in the end anyway?
Fisher states that depression is just a way of looking at the world, which it is. But he also positions the state of depression as a production of capital – and I think that this cyclical returning is so clearly symptomatic of that. Jodi Dean spoke, in Mark Fisher’s Memorial Lecture, that so often an alternative to the production of capital in this way, is ignored because we can’t see the alternative. This is also symptomatic of a depressives way of addressing issues – or at least I have found it to be so. There’s an alternative, should I be able to think without the ontological lenses of depression obscuring everything – but I can’t, because I can only look through those lenses.
Dean spoke tirelessly of ways in which we can combat capital. She’s right, there are ways to combat it – and her Q&A, though battling people who seemed just so Goldsmiths about their approach to Marxism, and their etymological issues with the word ‘Comrade’ seeming to dominate the discourse, continually expressed that there are routes of exit, should we wish to ‘dice with death’ and undertake them, and the involve a radical dissection of our actions within capitalism, despite our raised voices decrying it.
My issues with Dean’s lecture aside, I think the core message, of coming together politically to mobilise against the machinations of capital is inherently positive, and entirely possible if we are to move against the dissociative slide towards the depressive. Depressives, inherently, isolate themselves. I know that I cut out the depressive sides of me, and give a sunny face to everybody else. Combating the depressive’s view of the world as something that cannot be changed will only come if we unionise depression. That sounds mad. But I wonder if there’s something in it. I’m not calling ‘depressives of the world unite’, or maybe I am… But the view that the world turns without care back onto things that have already happened, and that we cannot interfere with this cyclical returning is what capital relies upon. It has to. We have to remain hooked in, feeding off of the ‘safety’ message that monetised nostalgia is offering.
What if we didn’t?
The question: ‘Is there alternative’ from Mark’s Capitalist Realism relies upon us to answer it.