Like many of you presumably, I watched the Gilmore Girls return on Netflix and tweeted about Castro on the weekend. You will struggle to find a more 2016 sentence than that.
This isn't a review and there are no spoilers below but the Gilmore Girls return was more or less perfect. The following hilarious tweet shows you how the death of Fidel Castro and a 1990s television show about a single mother are related:
All I could think of was… memberberries.
Continuing its run of satire that cuts with a super cooled surgical knife, this season South Park has introduced the concept of memberberries. They take the form of conscious, un-killable, invasively-growing fruits that trigger debilitating states of nostalgia.
The sort of nostalgia represented by the memberberries is a dangerous, insular, toothless world-avoiding one. It is the nostalgia of JJ Abrams, who actually appears in the series where he is asked to reboot the American national anthem.
A JJ Abrams reboot is one with all the fibre removed, leaving only a rapidly absorbed, blood sugar spiking, children's menu version of the past. His star films -both wars and trek- are juice boxes when compared to the hunter gatherer ranges of the originals. But you can't remove the fibre from these films and still have them react the same way in your body. Particularly when it comes to Star Trek, it is supposed to be lumpy. It is supposed to be a low-budget acid trip created by a rainbow of drunks, cultists, sexual deviants, and utopian Californians.
Gilmore Girls managed to avoid the refined sugar route to the reboot. When you watch the episodes it becomes painfully obvious that the characters have lived continuously in the heads of the show's creators since the program finished. It lacks the tasteless arrogance of a JJ Abrams reboot: I'm going to do it my way and it's going to be better. The denizens of Stars Hollow aren't costumes pulled out of studio storage. They continued to live after we went away. (One of them even died.) It's proper fiction.
And the "reality" or even "brutality" of a reboot or resurrection is thoughtfully and confidently woven into the actual storyline itself. The passage of time and the inability of simply "going back" is thematically present in the seasonal shape of the series and is also textually present in the journeys of most of the characters - in particular Emily and Rory. It is the first show I have seen return that really nails what can be re-membered and what cannot.
The refined sugar approach to nostalgia is what made #MAGA such a good spell. This is the whole point of South Park’s satire. It is the fond warmth of inaccurate remembrance. (Actually that's only half of what made #MAGA such a good spell. The other half is that it might actually work.) Failure to distinguish between refined and whole nostalgia is what will keep the left in the wilderness until the pseudo-left grows the fuck up. Which brings us back to Castro and another tweet:
No One Can Remember It For You Wholesale
Memberberries are a childish reaction to the challenges of the day. the pseudo-left mourns Castro and gets Che Guevara tattoos while ignoring their mistreatments of so-called identity political allies (gays, etc). The pretend version - liberalism without empire, Obama’s above hypocrisy, etc- is easier to digest but it still gives you diabetes in the end.
On the other side of the coin, there is a faintly volkish dismissal of nostalgia as something only a weak or declining culture indulges itself in. The barely concealed subtext being that we should send all our beautiful blonde children mountain climbing and only teach kids industrial engineering and martial arts. Clearly this sort of creeping techno fascism needs to be banished wherever we find it growing.
And I wonder if the problem isn't with that word, "decline". A better one might be Camille Paglia’s use of "decadence". In a Rise and Fall model of culture, decadence is the phase a society goes through before the end. I wrote about this in the archonology series but some of its manifestations include the rise of celebrity chefs, a rose-tinted view of a culture’s past, and the promotion of gender fluidity –all of which occurred during the last days of Rome. Where I think people misunderstand Camille Paglia, is that she observes the arrival of the decadent age without judgement. It is -to borrow a phrase from myself- just our point in the timeline -neither good nor bad. Had we lived seventy years ago, we would be navigating a different cultural phase.
Typically, the unending wave of reboots, comic book movies, faux-old-timey fashion and beverage trends, are all used as evidence that our culture is entirely without new ideas. The tank is running on empty. And there is certainly something to that perspective. In a lot of ways it is decadence by another name.
But lately, I've been wondering if there isn't a sort of "unlicensed psychotherapist" interpretation of what's going on. We seem to be caught in a very specific time loop - as if we were trying to expunge the last 30 or 40 years (of financialsation, centralisation, liberal warmongering) in particular. It is as if the collective unconscious is attempting to play out a sort of "do over" of a traumatic experience. I pondered this over the weekend because the other thing Twitter was talking about was the fact that Shepherd Book also died. It led me to thinking that there is a 10 year gap coming up behind these late 90s cultural personalities where we won't have anyone to mourn on Twitter. (Sarah Jessica Parker, maybe? See what I mean?) The refined sugar nostalgia we see all around us is evidence we have been caught in a noosphere loop. Our unconscious might be telling us we took a very wrong turn a few decades back and it does have a tendency to be right about these things.
Returning to Camille Paglia, in a recent interview with Tyler Cowen, he teasingly asked if she was a Conservative now -which is an impression she can accidentally give off given how much she complains about contemporary or modern culture. Her response was revealing and probably presents some worthwhile guidance for the age of member berries.
She said she wasn't a Conservative because Conservatives view what happened in the past as being better than what happens today. It is a permanent decline model, or at least a stasis model. She can't be conservative because she is very optimistic about what the future holds, or could hold. Just because things are shit now doesn't mean they have to be shit in the future. Just because the new Star Wars is much worse than the originals doesn't mean film is incapable of getting better, doesn't mean culture is incapable of delivering richer experiences than those delivered in the past.
That strikes me as a particularly useful map for navigating between valuable things such as history and culture and self-indulgent things such as nostalgia. It allows us to extract and recohere “the good” from the shit show around us. It also -you may have noticed- gives us a pretty stark to-do list: Make. Better. Culture.
Onwards, then. No sleep till Stars Hollow.