Retromania (book review)

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When hell is full the dead will dance on your iPhone. Or: Data overrun, buffer overflow. A few thoughts about the obsolescence of the future and Simon Reynolds’ “Retromania”.

by lfo demon

Should I write a review of last year’s book? Simon Reynolds is still holding lectures on “Retromania”. And to be honest, the book is too good to let it pass by unnoticed (1). It holds many continuative thoughts about the state of (pop) culture. Nevertheless, its subject doesn’t stop at its reception. Just one year later, the book appears to be derived from another era with its long explanation on the iPod. iPod? Do we still discuss this today? It seems to be as out dated as talking about Windows 95 (2).

The writing style is catered to a bigger audience. “Retromania” is easy to read with its personalized anecdotes. The parts about theory are small excursus in footnotes. I got the impression that Reynolds read a lot during his studies, but didn´t continue this in his last books. He does refer to certain classic titles from Freud, Derrida, Spengler (p.170), but those excursus stay more or less rudimentary. Here, theory is like coffee table chat where certain names are dropped like dress codes. Been there, done that. But I won´t be too harsh because the approach is cleary journalistic and not oriented to a scientific standard. And I´m also wondering if it is possible to abstract broader insights from the described phenomenon.

The answers to the question of”why” stay vague, and so do the concepts. In the end, the term “retro” is as elastic as a rubber band: rock museums, DJ Shadow, reenactment, the feeling of nostalgia, The Beatles, Punk, Rave – you name it. And it looks like there is no containment of the subject: Retro can be found everywhere. This is reminiscent of the principle: if you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. A sceptical demur: are all of the described observations evidence for “Retro”, or are they heterogenous phenomenons that have nothing in common and are subsumed under the label “Retro”? The presence is always built on the past – and on what else? The cultural industries have always already exploited existing culture. Walt Disney wouldn´t exist without the Brothers Grimm. But Reynolds’ main thesis is pop culture´s “addiction to its own past”. According to clinical findings, what is the daily dose that determines addictive behavior?

And when is the “past”? A little thought experiment: If I buy a vinyl record today and listen to it constantly every day, when does my behaviour start to refer to something “retro”? Even as I finish writing this sentence it is already part of past. As soon as I have recorded a piece of music we talk about the past and not the present. On one hand, I have the fleetingness of human forms of expression, on the other hand, I have options to conserve them in substance through memorization carriers that are resistant to time and can reproduce the conserved social actions over and over again. With this comes the illusion that it´s possible to store time via freezing. Nevertheless, something of Now-Time is preserved in recordings. For example, in every recorded piece of music is a compressed echo not only of individual expression but also of the historic form of society.

So “Retro” is a certain use of the past by the presence. But not all music is used in a cultish Retro way. The paths are interwinded and unfathomable. When someone pronounces something to be the “Golden Era”, it is based on socialization and other factors. Techno works different than Rock music; Rock was always conservative. Within Techno music there are some old records that end up at the rummage sale crate. For other sub genres like UK Rave from the period of 1990 to 1993, record prices are exorbitantly high (p. 233).

So who decides what is in and what isn’t? We´re not talking about the individual, but about aggregated individual decisions here: descisions that form an audience or the masses. Pop journalism, like the music industry, has to manufacture masses – it has to channel individual desire. “Retromania” is about the production of consensus. If I write only about my local favourite band, nobody would buy my book. On the other hand, pop journalism is also driven by personal interest. I don´t want to read about every band. When talking with others about Reynolds’ book”Rip it up and start it up again”, I got the impression that reading inspired a desire to listen to some of the mentioned bands. But some chapters were tough. The history of pop isn´t so important that I would read the history of U2 voluntarily. Writing about something seems to constitute the subject: Pretending that Throbbing Gristle or Joy Division were important shapes a certain narrative of history and forms a collective. But they were not important for me in my youth.

Music is based on populism. And populism isn´t meant only in a negative way. Music production aims for publicity, and for an audience that is bigger than me. And it is unsatisfying to stand with 5 other people at a musical event. The nature of music is social and it relates to others.

One can only try to gather evidence for a change within music, but a coherent picture will not show up. How is digital technology interfering with the economy? It´s probably not only the monetary economy – which is discussed all over the place by record companies and sales of sound storage medium – but economy in a broader sense: libidinous economy. What is happening with my attention and my interest in music? Conservative technological pessimism (3) postulates that everything was better in the past and technology (today: internet, computer, ego-shooter games; formerly: VCRs, Comics, trains) overburdens the individual and causes undesired social behaviour.

It´s surely an option to lean back in response and think of Karl Marx or Joseph Schumpeter and the idea of “creative destruction”. Capitalism creates new technological industries and ruins them – but this is not a new phenomenon. From the perspective of theory this is a calming insight, but it is not for the participant of society who is part of this process. It would be interesting to examine the illusion of the post-fordist lifestyle: the comfortable idyll in western countries after the second world war when nobody could imagine that those massive industrial buildings built by men in the cities of Detroit or Essen (Germany) would be ruins just a few years later. But people stay behind and have to live with those ruins and arrange themselves within new conditions: no more jobs at huge industrial companies, no more motor cities. Simon Reynolds tries to get the historical dimension of technology. For example, the CD existed before the internet and made digital access to music possible. The remote control of CD players gave the option to skip through tracks, shuffle them and press pause (p.70). But this seems a bit too far-fetched since tape decks have remote controls too and with vinyl records it is easy to skip. It is also a relativization of the current revolution via the internet: the availability of music is virtually unlimited. The CD might have been an evolutionary step towards the era of digital music, but the revolution doesn´t logically derive from it.

A central point for retro is digital recording of audio and video and the expansion of archives via the internet (4). Looking into the near future the next change is ante portas: streaming services like Spotify and special mobile flat rates from telephone companies for music streaming. The platform, which is more relevant for independent music, works without royalties for streaming. Those developments question the principle of “owning music” and collecting. Reynolds is describing a phase of senselessly downloading and stockpiling mp3 files without ever listening to most of them (p.110). Data overrun, buffer overflow. The individual as an extension of the computer – the raison d’être is handling information. When there are virtual personal assistants, like modern butlers, to handle the customer’s Email account, is it too absurd to think of somebody to handle the “incoming” mp3 folder? If there is binge drinking, there is definitely binge collecting.

It is true: “Recording is pretty freaky, if you think about it. But sampling doubles its inherent supernaturalism” (p.313). If you look at Boards of Canada the way Reynolds does, this seems to be true. If you look at voice samples on Smart E´s records, sampling seems to be less creepy. Nonethelss, there is an uncanny aspect, which is endless repetition. Past tense is not wearing away and falling into oblivion, but is constantly present. It´s not vanishing and making space for something new, but haunting the present. Think of the digital graveyard Youtube. Libraries are mausoleums of knowledge and human culture, and nowadays you can get the graveyard on your smart phone and let dead people sing and dance by pressing a button. This is as macabre as Norman Bates: the parental Super-Ego of the decayed culture gets preserved mumified and dictates the life of the living. The dreams and desires of the dead burden the living (5). But if there is the option of commemoration, there is also the option of forgetting something. There are positions that remind us that forgetting digital information is a necessary part of the digital era (e.g. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger) to contain the vast amount of data.

Naive anarchistic surges: no museum, no archives, no dealing with history. Form luddite groups. Reinvent a new praxis of dealing with technology. Don´t leave anything behind or anything that can be used to manufacture. Don´t record anything. Leave no traces.

Collecting books and records is part of a libidinous economy with its “too much is never enough” (p.95). A diagnosis for this state of culture could also be “consumption overload” or “permanent stimulus”. I personally react with apathy to it. I refuse to make a choice to select something from the constant stream of commodities of available music. Sometimes it seems that I can only decide based on the criteria of pure arbitrariness. But then I can´t question the principle of permanent decision itself (6). How do we relate to oversupply? How do I react to the permanent overdose of music? Do I listen to full albums or do I skip through them on Youtube, and then buy the release with the only result that it gets covered in dust in iTunes or on my record shelf?

We live in a world of permanent availability of cultural goods. I can listen to almost everything whenever I want to. But what happens with my desire? I would guess that surprise is becoming rare, and rarities are also dying out. Everything gets conserved in a digital state. For older events from the pre-Youtube era, digital memories are weaker. But the data collectors on discogs are busy and complete the missing information. No musical style is so unusual that there isn´t a nerd who finds the missing information and puts it on the net. But I´m wondering if there is enough interest there to deal with all music. So probably I am wrong, and it is not the question if there are “Unknown Unknowns” (Donald Rumsfeld) – either in the past as rarities or in the future as undiscovered styles – but is rather the question of if I have the desire to search for it.

Each historical phase seems to have its own psychological mental states and fetishisms. Reynolds takes Rave in the 1990s and its phantasm with space travel. Wasn´t there a recurrence of space travel phantasies of the 1960s? And then didn´t Punk with “No future” happen? If we look at some ideas about certain time periods, change seems to be swift. Technological optimism fights with other ideas about conclusive authority. And today Space optimists are at their historical ancestral space: at the lunatic fringe of society of harmless wackos. This may be another reason why Newt Gingrich, with his ideas of colonies on the moon, didn´t make it as a candidate for the republican party in the US presidential elections. But somehow back in the 1960s an unbroken belief in a golden future was passible – with no Challenger and Columbia catastrophies which re-spelled “space” into “grave”. It´s an astonishing fact that a few years after two world wars people would adopt such a naive hope. But those times are over, at least at the moment. So if each epoch has its own psychic constellation, nowadays a detached fatalism in the sign of massive state deficits and financial crisis in the USA and Europe is the current paradigm. Believing in the future doesn’t seem like an option.

And so everything continues and at the same time it doesn´t. “We have this paradoxical situation of speed and standstill” (p.427). But hasn´t it always been like that? This sentence by Reynolds seems almost like a direct quote from the “Ecplise of Reason”, which T.W. Adorno and M. Horkheimer wrote back in 1942. It looks like the future is historically outdated. Capitalism started a lucrative business in recycling the Dead and culture entered the age of Retro.

Simon Reynolds – Retromania. Faber and Faber, 2011.

1 The following text is not a normal “review”. I don’t distinguish strictly between my thoughts and the ones of Simon Reynolds. The ideas are fragmentary as there are too many topics which can´t be discussed in detail. My text is influenced by talks I had with Christoph Fringeli and Pure.

2 If you are searching for a sphere where the past is still fading away – it is software. There are niches like Retro gaming, but in the mainstream there is still a clear model of historic progress. And everything outside this ends at the digital junkyard – like Win 95.

3 A current example from Germany: The neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer diagnoses a “digital dementia” in society: 04.09.2012 –

4 Reynolds stays with the example of Youtube and describes it as everything but a company. With the “cultural” dimension, the aspect of economical interest is missing.

5 There is a economic dimension on that too: Music of the Dead isn´t vanishing but still constantly there beyond the grave craving for living people´s money. Micheal Jackson might be the most prominent example. To put it in a non-zombological way: the amount of musical products on the market is constantly growing. You can guess now what effect this has on the income of artists.

6 I think it is good idea to remind oneself that radical alternatives can be envisioned. Take Bill Drummond and the No Music Day:

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