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Entries in #apocalypse (1)

Tuesday
Sep112012

Considering Apocalypse and Retro Culture

There's a great article just up at Longform, "The Revolutionary Energy of the Outmoded," that you can find on its original blog here. I'm still digesting every rhetorical move Christian Thorne, professor of English at Williams College, pulls when it comes to placing our '90s (and beyond, certainly, but the piece was written in 2003) near-worship of retro culture and obsession with apocalyptic films and books side by side. It's not a comparison that I would have thought to make on my own, but as I read the piece, I kept having those moments of complete recognition, the kind that make you feel kind of like an idiot for missing something that's so obvious once it's been explained to you.

And maybe it's because I'm also slowly making my way through The Gift for the first time, wherein Lewis Hyde (at least so far--don't spoil the ending!) argues that objects-as-gifts within a constant cycle of giving/receiving have a fundamentally different power and identity than objects-as-commodities as we know them in western capitalism, but what stood out to me most was this:

...[there] lies the buried aspiration of all retro-culture, even (or especially) at its most fetishistic. If you examine the signs that hang next to the objects at Restoration Hardware and other such retro-marts—these small placards that invent elaborate and fictional histories for the objects stacked there for sale—you will discover a culture recoiling from its commodities in the very act of acquiring them, a culture that thinks it can drag objects back into the magic circle if only it can learn to consume them in the right way. 

As a writer who is so often concerned with objects within my own work, and as a 30-something living in the 21st century who's necessarily been steeped in this retro-culture, reading this was less an "Aha!" moment than an "Oh. Duh." 

Thorne takes it one step further:

Underlying retro-culture is a vision of a world in which commodity production has come to a halt, in which objects have been handed down, not for our consumption, but for our care. The apocalypse is retro-culture’s deepest fantasy, its enabling wish.

I'm just skimming the surface here; the essay incorporates, the Left Behind series, Blade Runner, Delicatessen, The Truman Show, classic Chaplin-era slapstick themes, and, briefly, film noir.

I'll be giving the thoughts it's generated for me a lot more consideration myself. I'm not writing a novel set in the past, but I am writing a novel set in a foreign country and culture that is often exoticized, and idealized, in a way that's related to how we approach our reconstructed past. A large part of creating the world of 21st century Shanghai on the page, and making sure that the reader feels the same disconnect as my main character, lies in the objects that Will encounters. The objects are also implicated in the supernatural elements of the story. This and the distancing from home culture that living abroad necessarily creates seems to endow them with the kind of weight that Thorne argues we fantasize about getting from the apocalypse. The latter effect really just imposes another kind of scarcity; the former actually does, deliberately, endow them with magic of a sort.

I'd also be lying if I said that I've never considered writing an apocalyptic novel. At the moment, though, I think Octavia E. Butler has me beat out of the water before I've even made an outline, so that one's on the shelf for a bit.

I'm hooked. The essay is definitely worth a read.