How the World Weaponizes Our Nostalgia Against Us

Hauntology and its pernicious effects on media and thought

Jared Barlament

--

Yonge and Dundas Square, Toronto (image by Tungsten Rising on Unsplash)

It’s not a secret that corporations are manipulating the popular consciousness by profiting off of standardized and reinforced “nostalgic waves” every 20 years or so after a trend’s initial peak. The idea is that any given time, the young people of that time feel a mass sense of nostalgia for the popular culture of around 20 years prior. Armed with that info, clothes manufacturers have pushed the appropriately timed throwback styles, movie producers have rebooted the trendiest nostalgic franchises, and music producers sign artists with passing resemblances to stars from that hottest era. It’s no coincidence that y2k is everywhere now right after 90s nostalgia was finally sucked dry.

Which is all common knowledge, right? And not especially surprising, either? Corporations profit off of everything; did anyone expect their nostalgia to be sacred? But it goes deeper than that, of course, and it only ever gets worse. It’s not just that Hollywood execs are money-hungry and morally bankrupt. It’s that not one sector of entertainment — not movies, music, books, theater, sports, seriously, anything — has made the choice to innovate over just mindlessly retreading old formulas for success ad infinitum. It’s not just that any one industry or any one profession or class of people have lost all creativity. It’s that, seemingly, everyone has, or at the very least no worthy works of art are considered safe enough bets anymore to receive the investment needed to get popular. Piggybacking off of the success of franchises from 30 or 40 years ago is just so much easier and so much more lucrative, and what’s easy and lucrative today may as well be worshipped. Nostalgia has always existed, but it’s only now causing problems in its domination over all other forms of public expression.

This is, therefore, a criticism not of Hollywood but of culture more generally, and it’s one that was identified and named not too long ago by writer and political and cultural theorist Mark Fisher. Fisher, who first came to fame in the 2000s for coining the term “bullshit jobs” in his book of the same name, again in the 2010s put a name to one of the most insidious social phenomena of the day, which he termed “hauntology”.

--

--

Jared Barlament

Author and essayist from Wisconsin studying anthropology and philosophy at Columbia University.