retromania

“Retromania” is a shorthand term that I personally use for a phenomenon to which attention is drawn in Simon Reynolds’s book of the same name. Retromania is the tendency of post-World War 2 mass culture to recycle itself and ignore the majority of pre-20th century or even pre-World War 2 culture, especially the massive legacy of high culture that generally requires education to be appreciated (e.g., Renaissance art, classical music, 19th century poetry, etc).

The phenomenon is presumably partly owing to the triumph of broadcast and recording technology during this era. This means there is a rich record of the popular mass culture since 1950 available for sampling and reinterpreting, and that this mass culture continues to inform contemporary culture today, potentially dumbing it down to the standards of a consumer-oriented, lowest common denominator kind of culture that is still largely based in the American attitudes of the 1950s and 60s. The culture that is most “popular” is still that produced by the mass media, with commercial considerations propelling it. The mass culture of today recycles the mass culture of the previous five decades, but often ignores the potential of human culture produced further back in history. Thus mass culture remains both strangely fixated on the past (its own past) and also indifferent to the past beyond when it existed. In this it is also like many young people today, who divide time into “now” and “back in the day” (before I was born), a time which includes all the various centuries before “now.”

Retromania is often an aspect of postmodernism as an art form. Postmodernism recognizes the emptiness of the past and past authority, but can’t help being enamoured of the mass culture that pervades cultural life today and has triumphed over both the high culture and much of the folk culture of the past. The recorded culture of these decades – tv shows, comic books, pop albums, films, radio broadcasts and so forth – bring alive (or ghoulishly reanimate) the culture of the recent past, above all America’s.

Thus, much mainstream culture today is both blissfully ignorant of history before television and at the same time obsessed with the culture that has been created since. Retro involves appropriations like “the 70s are back” and suggests that the sum of human culture worth discussing, studying, or appropriating can be found in the widely shared – but manufactured and not really very representative – products of the post-ww2 commercial era.