April 22, 2015

Why the past can be, you know, kind of important

I've said it before but perhaps not here, so I'll say it now: I think James Lileks is one of the most talented writers around, and one who really understands the intimate connection between nostalgia and the development of pop culture.  It isn't just that I agree with so much of what he writes; it's that so often he does it so much better than I would.  He can say in a paragraph what it would take me a whole page (or two) to explain.

And so I'm going to go back to something he wrote last week, and while it doesn't pertain specifically to television, I think it strikes at the heart of what I'm all about here.  The topic, among other things, is the snarkiness of today's youth culture, and the inclination to believe the only important things are things that have occurred in the last fifteen minutes.  "Teens only care about the immediate culture," writes someone in "the dreadful Grievance Scratching Post known as Jezebel." "They are not stuck in dead-time nostalgia. They have never heard of Missy Elliot.*  They do not care. That is OK. Teens plow their carts over the bones of the dead."

*Neither have I, to be honest, a statement that is meant to be neither boastful nor filled with regret.

I think it's that last part that gets me the most, plowing their carts over "the bones of the dead."  It not only disrespects those who do care about more than the immediate culture, it shows a great disregard for the dead themselves, who deserve a hell of a lot more respect than that.*  Apparently it hit Lileks the same way as well:

*If they had a favorite Bible passage, which they probably don't because that stuff is so unhip, it would probably be "Let the dead bury the dead."

And so on, and on, mostly crude and ignorant and not caring what you think, because that’s so TEEN. The word the author is trying to avoid is “dumb,” because “dumb” would suggest that there is an element of gaseous vapidity in “cool.” Can’t have that. “Cool” has been elevated to the highest of human aspirations. Of course, if the author believes that Missy Elliot is some historical standard, the ignorance of which is a measure of the mind, well, that’s rather revealing. The passage stuck out because I was a Teen in most of the clinical descriptions of the term, and was also interested in “dead-time nostalgia” as well as the “immediate culture.” Things that came before me were interesting. They helped to explain why Now turned out as it did or made you wonder why Now was different from what they expected. This wasn’t that unusual. My bound copies of Life magazine at the library, some girl’s shelf of Little House on the Prairie stories.  [Emphasis mine.]

It's that bold-faced section that explains so much about why I focus on the things I focus on, why I write what I do on this site.  It's not an approximate parallel, but it will do.  What interests me about the relationship between television and modern culture is seeing how things were portrayed, how some events and movements might have been predicted while others were totally off-base.  It's being able to see how things develop over time, what was considered important at one time as opposed to another.  It's understanding how television mirrors our culture at a given time, and how it might shape it as well.

There's a phrase I've come to use frequently, which says that "text without context is a pretext."  Simply put, it means that without understanding the context in which something appears, you can't really begin to understand what it means.  Invariably you'll put a contemporary spin on it, you'll try to view mores of the '50s and '60s through the cultural standards of the '00s and '10s.  For me, looking at the artifacts of a TV Guide, the views glimpsed out a window in a sitcom, or the issues discussed in a crime drama - those tell me more than what the plot of a show is about.  They tell me about people, about how we've evolved not only as individuals but as a society.

Lileks continues with his comments.  The original subject was the 1964 World's Fair in New Your City, and how that Fair is viewed by many today as kitschy and simplistic.  Substitute classic television for the Fair, and I think we can agree:

Anyway. Teens have to be cool because cool is great, the sole arbiter of worth, and so teen mentality is the best and most authentic - and that’s what counts, right? Not whether you are good or learned, but whether you are authentic. To what? To yourself. Of course. Because what else is there, really. The people who came after the Fair were devoted to demolishing all the pieties and certainties of their forebears, having gazed upon them with adolescent wisdom and found them lacking. After they had uprooted all the certainties and decided what an Authentic Person should believe, they were left with nothing but a Utopian ideal, a hissing miserabilism over its failure to be manifested in all aspects of society, and a set of shabby tattered folklore about a golden age between 1967 and 1973.

In a future article - maybe next week? - I want to return to the idea of virtue as expounded upon by St. Thomas Aquinas, in relation to some of the things that I think make classic television superior to television of today.  This statement, by the way, is not meant to infer that all classic television was great, that all contemporary television is crap, and that there aren't any contemporary shows that can be called superior to those of the past.  That's just ridiculous.  But it's the emphasis, the underlying conceit of particular givens that inform today's shows, that may help to explain what it is that engenders such affection for classic shows - affection that, I submit, goes beyond a simple sentimentality, a nostalgia for things past.*  And that's not old-fogeyism either.

*We shouldn't forget to draw the distinction between nostalgia and sentimentality, either.  They're two quite distinct and different things.  Not enough time to go into it now, but we will later, I promise.

I'm sure that, to those who plow their carts over the bones of the dead, I must be a tragically unhip character, if I'm even worthy of consideration.  That's all right, because a well-placed curiosity is one of the defining characteristics of humanity, and in an age that's becoming increasingly inhumane, it's a characteristic I don't mind having.


  1. Interesting piece. The best definition of 'cool' I found, at least as it applies to the objectives of today's youth culture, is "popularity without achievement." We now live in a time when someone who falls down amusingly in a viral YouTube video achieves the same level of fame as someone who spent years honing an actual talent - writing, painting, acting, singing. If teens no longer recognize the difference, or have no interest in how the pop culture of the past informs their present, then we live in very sad times, indeed.

    1. Popularity without achievement - I really like that. I've got a piece I'm working on for this coming week that touches on that, and from an interesting source. I'll be interested in your thoughts on it.

      And yes, sad times indeed. I try not to think about it too much, but sometimes it's just in my face.


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