Postcards from a PhD
I read today, with some disbelief, that the ‘Oxford Dictionaries’ website’s Word of the Year 2015 is an emoji. Not the word ’emoji’ but an actual pictograph, officially known as ‘Face with Tears of Joy’. This was chosen as the ‘word’ in 2015 that best reflected the ethos, mood and preoccupations of the year. For me, that word would have been ‘liminal’, as ‘liminal’ seems to have been omnipresent, cropping up in a bewildering range of contexts, not just the psychogeographical ones in which I first encountered the word. I seemed to read it everywhere this year, in journal articles and artist statements and most conspicuously in The Wire. By June I’d started guessing how many pages of a new issue I’d get through before the L word surfaced. I’m predicting ‘hinterland’ as its replacement for 2016.
Another trope that seems to be gathering currency is that of ‘nostalgia for a past that never existed’. It’s a phrase that I’ve used myself in this very blog and one which I became increasingly aware of building momentum as last year progressed. My latest sighting of a variation on this phrase was in the blurb for Owen Hatherley’s new book The Ministry of Nostalgia, which I read this week. Subtitled ‘Consuming Austerity’, The Ministry of Nostalgia takes as its starting point the uber-trope and industry-in-its-own-right, the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, citing it as the most conspicuous example of what Hatherley calls ‘austerity nostalgia’. A nostalgia not for a specific era, but for a conflation of various products of the post-war period; perceived attitudes and attributes of ‘Englishness’ and public life, of architecture and art, of social responsibility and political aspirations, all of which have been manifested through consumption habits and fetishisation of a particular type of municipal aesthetic.
Hatherley’s argument is not one I can fault, indeed I touched upon similar issues in my post on Englishness last month. In this post I pondered Joseph Stannard’s suggestion that “Certain artists have reduced [Hauntology] to the sonic equivalent of a Keep Calm and Carry On poster”, and I was interested to see that Hatherley had specifically included Ghost Box in his examination of the culture of austerity consumption, albeit as a slightly corrupted manifestation. “Ghost Box records could be a rare example of austerity nostalgia as something genuinely unnerving”, Hatherley suggests: “The fog and mess of actual memory, and a persistent hint of the uncanny, prevents them from being merely reassuring”.
The aspect of reassurance is one which Hatherley repeatedly returns to, suggesting that ‘Austerity 2015’ finds comfort in the idea of the relinquishment of power. At various points, Hatherley describes the (manufactured) object of nostalgia being “the state of being repressed” and “the watchful, protective eye of public institutions”. The fallacy at the heart of this, he suggests, is that the post-war modernist austerity era which we are nostalgic for was one built on nostalgia itself. This was not a period of pure modernity as we like to imagine, or misremember it, but a time of “benevolent, Fabian-nostalgic-democratic modernism”, that is a time of difficult reconciliation of the modern and the traditional in political life, in architecture and planning and in the arts.
I have read reviews of The Ministry of Nostalgia in which Hatherley’s writing is described as ‘polemic’. Indeed, it is consistently impassioned, but polemic by definition implies an attack from a contrary position. The Ministry of Nostalgia for me felt targetless, unless we are willing to target blame simultaneously on human idealism itself and the strange emergent form of 21st century inertia that is not quite apathy, but perhaps a form of mourning for social democracy that seeks consolation rather than reconstruction. That is not to say that austerity nostalgia has not been deliberately manipulated, even deliberately cultivated, that it has not been misused. Hatherley at length discusses the misappropriation of the Keep Calm poster and its general aesthetic, however the appropriation of popular imagery, of tried and tested marketing templates is nothing new. Let us not forget that the subtitle of The Ministry of Nostalgia is ‘Consuming Austerity’ and in that we are all acquiescent, Hatherley included.
For me, The Ministry of Nostalgia is the beautifully written equivalent of throwing one’s arms in the air in exasperation, of exclaiming “How can we have let this go so far?”. Behind all the ephemera of austerity nostalgia, the Keep Calm and Carry On tea towels and Trellick Tower mugs, there is a more serious concern, that of the wilful misremembering of history. Hatherley does draw our attention to this, and at the heart of his austerity nostalgia thesis is the notion of composite time, nostalgia for periods “reassembled in the wrong order”. In his discussion of hauntology he talks of rupture in relation to linear time, of the invention of forgetting and of 50 years of history “running together moments that didn’t coincide”. These are ideas explored in various forms in theories of post-postmodernism which Hatherley sadly doesn’t really touch upon.
There is, nevertheless, no doubt that Hatherley is aware of the dangers of this type of historical revisionism, most pertinently explored in his ‘Family Portrait’ chapter which covers the post-war relationship between Britain and the empire. Austerity nostalgia is concerned with idealising a time pre-Thatcher, of a short period of progress in social democracy that began to be reversed with her election in 1979. The danger here, Hatherley notes, is of misremembering how un-progressive Britain was in many ways at that time. “As much as austerity nostalgia is the imaginary vision of a Britain without 1979 and Thatcher”, he warns, “it’s also a Britain without 1948 and the Empire Windrush”.
A similar sentiment is echoed in cultural terms, of looking back on art and architecture of post-war Britain with the idea that it represented unabashed modernism. Through the eyes of austerity nostalgia, the Festival of Britain, for example, has come to represent a retrospectively idealised vision of the future that never came to pass. That this was the highly mediated vision of a small, homogenous commissioning group and not that of many younger people working in creative arts is forgotten. The forgotten is after all the key theme of The Ministry Of Nostalgia and it’s hard not to use senility as an analogy for discussing the book. Hence, it feels like a book written not with polemical anger at a corrupt system, but with frustration, as one might feel towards a well meaning but forgetful elderly relative.