Early in the 21st Century many media technologies and their attendant corporations advanced cultural co-option to a nostalgic phase. With the spread of mass media and technological artifacts, memories once firmly rooted in places in the past now float free of historical context, their auras lost, their eras unknown. “By replicating the work many times over,” writes Benjamin (1968), “it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to reach the recipient in his or her own situation, it actualizes that which is reproduced” (p. 221). Benjamin argued that the reproduction of art democratized its experience but also rid a work of its aura. With the mass mediation of cultural artifacts since Benjamin’s time, nostalgia has become its own aura.
The memories are priceless. You lean on the memories.
— R.L. Osborn, Generation F
In his book Culture Jam (1999), Adbusters Magazine founder Kalle Lasn describes a scene in which two people are embarking on a road trip and speak to each other along the way using only quotations from movies. We’ve all felt our lived experience increasingly slipping into technological mediation and representation (Debord, 1994). Based on this idea and the rampant branding and advertising covering any surface upon which an eye may light, he argues that our culture has inducted us into a cult. “By consensus, cult members speak a kind of corporate Esperanto: words and ideas sucked up from TV and advertising” (p. 53). Indeed, we quote television shows, allude to fictional characters and situations, and repeat song lyrics and slogans in everyday conversations. Lasn (1999) argues, “We have been recruited into roles and behavior patterns we did not consciously choose” (p. 53).
Lasn writes about this scenario as if it is a nightmare, but to many of us, this sounds not only familiar but also fun. Cultural allusions invoke a game of sorts. They create a situation that one gets or one doesn’t. To get it is to be in on the gag. Our media is so saturated with allusions that we scarcely think about them as such. A viewing of any single episode of popular television shows Family Guy, South Park, or Robot Chicken yields references to any number of artifacts and cultural detritus past. Their humor relies in large part on the catching and interpreting of allusive references, on their audience sharing the same cultural memories. Hip-hop, with its rife repurposing of sounds via sampling and lyrical allusions, is a culture built on appropriating cultural artifacts and recognizing shared memories.
Memories… You’re talking about memories.
— Rick Deckard, Blade Runner
In Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), the advanced humanoid androids, known as Replicants, base their “human” past on implanted memories. Their intelligence is impressive but not grounded in a larger cognitive context. They are programmed with memories to make them more human (Bukatman, 1997). As CEO Dr. Eldon Tyrell explains to Deckard,
We began to recognize in them strange obsession. After all they are emotional inexperienced with only a few years in which to store up the experiences which you and I take for granted. If we gift them the past, we create a cushion or pillow for their emotions and consequently we can control them better.
The cushion of nostalgia buoys us all. We often feel not only justified but emboldened by superior claims of previous times, even if we don’t quite remember them the same. “Of course things used to be better!” we think. “The past is not the issue at all,” writes Norman M. Klein (1997), “it serves merely as a ‘rosy’ container for the anxieties of the present” (p. 11). In the face of current complications, much like the Replicants in Blade Runner, we long for times we never knew. Lasn argues that this makes us victims of corporate commodification of culture. We’re no better than Replicants, walking around with implanted memories courtesy of the mass media, and its rampant reproduction of artifacts. To most of us though, the sharing of memories, of cultural allusions, bonds us together, gives us a sense of belonging. A lot of this togetherness is due to the technological reproduction of media. As Benjamin (1968) writes,
…technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record (p. 220-221).
Replicants are obsessed with photographs. Where the Replicants can’t be sure of what they know (Tosca, 2005), the pictures provide a visual totem, a physical connection to the implanted “cushion” of their memories (Bukatman, 1997; Heldreth, 1997). Where such photographs, as well as phonograph records, are reproductions of scenes and sounds respectively, those forms have given way to digital reproductions of both. Another layer removed lies the manipulation of the digital to replicate its previous analog form. Their remediation represents a crisis of context when filters on digital photos that make them look old and a digital effects that make recordings sound like scratchy vinyl (Katz, 2004). It’s not only longing but also the undermining of that longing.
Because the search for authenticity is a well without a bottom.
– Vanessa Veselka, Zazen
Like Lasn, whether mass culture is a site of exploitation or emancipation was a crucial concern for Benjamin as well (Scannell, 2003), but he was equally concerned with authenticity. “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity,” he writes (1968, p. 220). The empty nostalgia of our implanted memories holds no original and no original context. Benjamin continues,
The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical–and, of course, not only technical–reproducibility. Confronted with its manual reproduction, which was usually branded as a forgery, the original preserved all its authority; not so vis à vis technical reproduction (p. 220).
All of these tribulations may seem trivial, but, as Jaron Lanier (2008) writes, “…pop culture is important. It drags us all along with it; it is our shared fate. We can’t simply remain aloof” (p. 385). If pop culture is just recycling plastic pieces of the past, where exactly it is dragging us? Simon Reynolds (2011), who calls our obsession with the past, “retromania,” draws a parallel between nostalgic record collecting and finance, “a hipster stock market based around trading in pasts, not futures” (p. 419), in which a crash is inevitable: “The world economy was brought down by derivatives and bad debt; music has been depleted of meaning through derivatives and indebtedness” (p. 410-420). In such a scenario the “original” is even more revered (i.e., maintains its aura) not only in spite of but also because of its replication. It’s hard to be a purist when nothing is pure.
Popular culture is the testbed of our futurity.
– Kumayama in William Gibson‘s Idoru
Nostalgia is now its own aura. The digital reproduction of cultural artifacts, images, sounds, events, and moment-events has rendered authenticity irrelevant. With an empty past to fill with greatness unattainable, context has become a floating concept. Technological mediation does a great deal of its work by manipulating context through the replication, reproduction, and circulation of moment-events. For example, quotation, which, by definition is to use something deliberately astray of its original context (Schwartz, 1996), is the most transparent form of allusion. All of the pieces of the process are present: the allusion itself, its source, and its appropriation. Allusions work by mapping one context to another. By translating something from one context to another, a new meaning is brought to bear. All meaning is in some way mediated by a mapping as such (Hofstadter, 2007). The new meaning is dependent, however, on recognizing both the original and new contexts. George W. S. Trow (1980) writes of television, “The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it” (p. 82). Debord (1994) said the same about mass media, that it had no historical context, no stable memory. Now media has gone not only digital but also global via the internet, the web, and mobile technologies of all kinds. The aura of the artifact is all but completely disconnected from the artifact’s historical context.
Below the surface of these new media, distinguishing context is even more dodgy. As Clay Shirky (2010) writes, “Since all the data is digital (expressed as numbers), there is no such thing as a copy anymore. Every piece of data… is identical to every other version of the same piece of data” (p. 54). Unlike most analog media, there’s no such things as an original in the digital. And like some technological “Funes, The Memorious,” our digital archives hang around to haunt us. They never forget.
With this in mind, Abby Smith (1998) emphasizes,
…the need for preservation experts to develop a keen understanding of the context in which non-object based information is used, in order to ensure capture of all the vital data necessary to meaningful retrieval. When all data are recorded as 0’s and 1’s, there is, essentially, no object that exists outside of the act of retrieval. The demand for access creates the “object,” that is, the act of retrieval precipitates the temporary reassembling of 0’s and 1’s into a meaningful sequence that can be decoded by software and hardware. A digital art-exhibition catalog, digital comic books, or digital pornography all present themselves as the same, all are literally indistinguishable one from another during storage, unlike, say, a book on a shelf (p. 6).
Analog media show their wear through patina of use. Books show “shelf-wear.” Vinyl records–even compact discs–display gouges and scratches. Scratches, scrapes, scars, stretches, tears, marks, and grooves: These are analog concepts. Digital artifacts black-box their wear, hiding their story and its context from us. We have to hold it all in our heads.
Implants! Those aren’t your memories. They’re somebody else’s.
— Rick Deckard, Blade Runner
If we are to avoid being or becoming mere Replicants, we have to be more mindful of the contexts floating around us. Being able to translate data into meaning requires our paying closer attention to the banks it bridges.
Benjamin, Walter. (1968). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Illuminations. London: Fontana, pp. 217–252.
Bukatman, Scott. (1997). BFI Film Classics: Blade Runner. London: British Film Institute.
Borges, Jorge Luis. (1962). Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings. New York: New Directions.
Debord, Guy. (1994). The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books.
Heldreth, Leonard G. (1997). “Memories… You’re Talkin’ About Memories”: Retrofitting Blade Runner. In Judith B. Kerman (ed.), Retrofitting Blade Runner. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 308-313
Hodstadter, Douglas. (2007). I Am a Strange Loop. New York: Basic Books.
Lewman, Mark, Jenkins, Andy & Jones, Spike. (2008). Freestylin’: Generation F. Wizard Publications/Endo Publishing, p. 19.
Katz, Mark. (2004). Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Klein, Norman M. (1997). The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory. New York: Verso.
Lasn, Kalle. (1999). Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America. New York: William Morrow & Co.
Reynolds, Simon. (2011). Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. New York: Faber and Faber.
Scannell, Paddy. (2003). Benjamin Contextualized: On “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Elihu Katz, John Durham Peters, Tamar Liebes, & Avril Orloff (eds.), Canonical Texts in Media Research. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Shirky, Clay. (2010). Coginitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. New York: Penguin, p. 54.
Smith, Abby. (1998, May/June). Preservation in the Future Tense. CLIR Issues, (3), 1, 6.
Tosca, Susana P. (2005). Implanted Memories, or the Illusion of Free Action. In Will Brooker (ed.), The Blade Runner Experience: The Legacy of a Science Fiction Classic. London: Wallflower Press, 92-107.
Veselka, Vanessa. (2011). Zazen. Brooklyn, NY: Red Lemonade, p. 31.