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26 March 2012 @ 10:56 am
There and Back Again  
(Cross-posted from The Katipunan Collective)

In Midnight in Paris--Woody Allen's penultimate essay about nostalgia--it was the 'pedantic' and marginal character of Paul who voiced out the anxiety that undergirds the film: that every generation falls into the "erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the ones [they] are living in." This 'golden age thinking', as per Allen's writing, is a romantic denial of "people who find it difficult to cope with the present." A quick survey of today's popular culture would then be very revealing, as our sensibilities appear to be hegemonized by the those with wistful imaginations. Take, for instance, most of the films nominated for Best Picture in the last Academy Awards: The Artist and Hugo harked back to the pioneering years of cinema; War Horse and The Help were period pieces; and Midnight in Paris and Tree of Lifeused vignettes of the past to speak about the present.

Perhaps one of the most successful attempts to tap into this collective desire for the past is AMC's multi-Emmy Award winning series Mad Men, which returned for its fifth season last night. It might appear to be business as usual for the ad men of Madison Avenue as the marketing campaign for the show hinted: the debauchery, lust, swagger, confidence, and gallantry of the sixties are definitely back. Changes, however, will be noticeable and definitely in order. Peggy Olson is no longer the naive and conservative girl who came out from the idyllic fifties, and the serene ideal of the suburban upper-middle class household has been invaded by emerging norms related to divorce and unconventional family arrangements, as embodied by the predicament of the Drapers.

The show will take place in 1965, right smack in the middle of the West's transition to more politically charged times. By 1965, the Civil Rights movement had won its most important battle; Camelot had already fallen; and while the United States had successfully averted a close shave with nuclear conflict, another war in a distant land had to be fought for in the name of progress and freedom. In a few years, the energy of the youth will burst into the streets and demand for new ways of thinking about the world--that the dichotomy between the blaring red of Communism and the metallic sheen of the Free World is no longer sufficient to explain why things are the way they are.

While it appears that we enjoy more freedoms today in the realm of thought, practice, identity, and with the use of our very own bodies, why do we still yearn to go back to the times when things were otherwise? What did those times have that we want to--but can no longer--palpably grasp in our hands? How do we explain the success of contemporary cultural products like Mad Men in capturing the imagination of a constantly distracted generation?

It might also be helpful to look at other productions that aimed to bank on the success of Mad Men in our search for provisional answers: ABC's Pan Am and NBC's largely unsuccessful and short-lived Playboy Club. Similar to Mad Men,these shows provided a basic sketch of the 60s as it integrated themes like the gender divide, cultural commodification, and heightened State paranoia. While both outputs failed to live up to the expectations of television critics and enthusiasts, they both inform us as to why nostalgia is a potent element in today's popular culture. They demonstrate the spirit that animated those times, which was the penchant for novelty and a thirst for exploring what has yet to be known. Everyone transformed benign naivete to ruthless innovation, in such a way that utilitarian goals went hand-in-hand with a sense of social restraint. In short, mass culture has not yet fully exploded and garnered currency, and novelties such as air travel and social clubs were still the territory of the privileged and the glamorous. It is difficult to think of such things in those terms today: air travel has been 'tainted' by the image of the migrant laborer, and notions about sex are no longer confined to curiosity and art but is now a contentious political discourse. Advertising as well has been 'corrupted' by the kitschy sensibilities of the masses and has relied on their purchasing power to deliver its promise to companies.

The sixties, as with previous periods in time, had something to look forward to. For them, it was the unlimited possibility of the future literally outside this world. Any innovation back then was provisional, and ultimately were tools to jettison mankind out of their wretched rock into the vastness of space. In contrast, the present seems to be marked by regression via the vessel of nostalgia. Don Draper himself defines the concept for us in one of the earlier and most memorable episodes of the show. Nostalgia is a "pain from an old wound." In essence, it allows us to "travel the way a child travels" where we get lost into our primordial aches and desires.

This trend in popular culture might be a symptom of a more menacing reality. It exposes the panopticism diffused into society, where our only means of escape is going back to our inner selves and to live off the myth of older times. Yet we should also realize that what we are living through is a consequence of the ambition of those times--we are the picture of uncontrolled economic progress, and we have transformed science into a force that feeds our insatiable need for new commodities. To use an image from Stanley Kubrick, we no longer fear the bomb--we have learned to love it.

Ironically, the only way we could probably substantiate these speculations is for our future selves to look back into the past. Perhaps, we can transform the act of reaching out to the past from a static endeavor to a kinetic one. Whatever we make of it today relies on our capacity to frame history and to fulfill promises and potentials. Relishing the ache and the pain of yearning need not numb us into lethargy.