Postcards from a PhD
Five months on from reading a paper by Paul Grainge (which I blogged about here), last week I finally got my hands on a copy of his book Monochrome Memories when an ex-library copy popped up on Amazon, sparing me the ordeal of negotiating the interlibrary loan system. The New England Institute of Art Library’s loss is in this instance my gain. Grainge describes Monochrome Memories: Nostalgia and Style in Retro America as an exploration of the visual mode of black and white film and photography and how it relates to the construction, representation and preservation of American national meaning in the 1990s. I’m aware that sometimes describing something as ‘very readable’ has an air of damning by faint praise, but Monochrome Memories really is very, very readable. Grainge has a gift for concise definitions, for contextualising and signposting in his work which makes his arguments very easy to follow.
Before diving in I made sure I’d brushed up on my Frederic Jameson – Grainge’s work draws heavily on Jameson’s notion of the nostalgic mode, the past realised aesthetically through stylistic connotation and consumed as pastiche. Grainge is by no means a compliant post-modernist though, his argument rejects the assumptions of amnesia and notions of historicist crisis that pervade postmodern critique. In fact Grainge’s criticism of Jameson’s lack of consideration for the way meaning can be produced through cultural recycling seems to act as a bridge between postmodernist theory and the post-postmodernist ideas of people like Marc Auge and Gilles Lipovetsky which I have been investigating lately. It is a mistake, Grainge suggests, to judge nostalgia in terms of ‘postmodern depthlessness’, nothing more than a form of consumption. Instead, the nostalgic mode, he argues, can be “examined politically in the context of particular negotiations of identity and historical meaning”.
This idea is examined further in the third chapter of Monochrome Memories, which focuses on the use of black and white images in Time magazine during the 1990s and the association with this visual medium and authenticity. Drawing on Victor Burgin, Grainge suggests that in a photographic context colour transforms historical flux into the product of news, but that monochrome reverses this process, transforming news into history. This leads us into the realm of changing perceptions of time, of new experiences of temporality and the way in which the presentation of events occurring in the present can engender feelings of nostalgia for the time we are living in, due to the associations between monochrome and a non-specific ‘pastness’. Particularly interesting is the way Grain draws on the Flaubert quote about pleasure being found first in anticipation and then in memory. He theorises that the present is now understood as a future past, that “it is given the wholeness and aura that retrospection and the passage of time can provide before the passage of time has taken place”, in essence evoking an anticipatory form of nostalgia, experiencing the present with an understanding of its place in the archive of historical narrative; a very interesting take on the idea of ‘nostalgia for futures past’ that seem to abound in discussions of musical genres like hauntology and vapourwave which play with ideas of temporality.
Later Grainge turns his attention to monochrome in film, further exploring authenticity and how this contributes to the creation of a narrative of the past by creating coherence. The contentious issue of the colourisation of black and white film is discussed in relation to an increased fetishisation of artistic authenticity. Grainge identifies two forms of nostalgia that come into play with this issue, firstly nostalgia for authenticity, for a past unthreatened by postmodern simulcra, and secondly a nostalgia linked to values, taste and cultural heritage. This raises some interesting ideas for me in relation to the disruptive functions of nostalgia in the age of multimedia, specifically in regards to the way in which technological change has made revisiting, and reevaluating, media possible, leaving me pondering questions about the democratisation of memory and the way this can challenge the canon of popular culture.