The Golden Age Syndrome

Chloe Novak bewails the boring state of contemporary culture, which apparently can muster no higher expression than sepia-toned regurgitations of past generations’ honest labor.

Of course my generation blows. I’d hasten to bet that very few of its members would argue otherwise. We’re over-stimulated, over-analyzed, neglected by our pothead parents, self-obsessed, pretentious, apathetic, and full of shit more often than not. There are far too many of us, thanks to free love and cheap beer, and we’re all doing more or less the same thing with our lives (a year off after high school to backpack across Europe and “find ourselves” by sleeping with vaguely foreign clubhoppers in Amsterdam, then college, then shitty job, etc.). But the worst part is how painfully boring we are. We’re not even endearingly square—no, we’re just plain dull.

Case in point: the nearest thing to counterculture—hipsterdom, in most variations—is compulsively fixated on the apparent hipness of past generations.

Why is retro so cool? Why the obsession with all things vintage? With Polaroid pictures, with analog, with Oxfords and penny loafers, with reading Salinger, with films shot on Super 8, with cassette tapes and vinyl collections? It’s one thing to watch all 37 sequels to The Land Before Time in sweet reminiscence, but it’s something else entirely when a twenty-year-old today dresses like Buddy Holly (and then asks his friend to take a Polaroid of it).

This penchant for the past is not limited to an appropriation of all once-cool things, either. Fashionable too are trends that predated any contemporary conception of cool. Victorian-era “frockcoats” (I have no idea, either) and velvet blazers are apparently where it’s at this season, and let us not forget the ubiquitous Gladiator sandals, perfect for that weekend rendezvous at the Colosseum. Maybe next we’ll get to eat chalk to maintain an inhuman pallor!

I, for one, have certainly fallen victim. Whenever I see an over-saturated photograph with vignette edging, I feel just the faintest rush. My aesthetic taste buds, it seems, are hardwired to prefer anything that could pass as an artifact from far away from the here and now. Recently, though, I’ve begun to question the validity and long-term value of this temporal wanderlust.

What other generation spent its youth, money, energy, and talents denying its own time? In her book On Revolution, Hannah Arendt discusses how, for the ancient Greeks, the very notion of changeability derived from the inevitable shifts in the status quo that accompanied the ceaseless influx of new generations. Change occurred, in other words, because there was always a youth to inspire and create it. My generation would throw a wrench in that conception.

Our obsession with the past verges on the pathetic. We usurp the skins of romanticized eras, but we overlook all the meat. We borrow goods once labeled “cool” and strip them of the meaning they held for those who created them.

But this trend is not surprising. We heard about the ’60s from our parents and collectively said, “Shit.” We have little to rebel against—only legacies to live up to. And if the Top 40 on Clear Channel radio stations or The Search for the Next Pussycat Doll isn’t doing it for us, why not just pretend it isn’t really happening?

Our affinity for retro, however, is more of a default position than a well-articulated philosophy. It seems wrong to label it as consciously reactionary, or part of some traditionalist or anti-modern movement à la René Guénon. Sure, we might be quick to decry the abhorrent vapidity of so-called “mainstream” culture, but it’s not clear that the vintage alternative holds any more water.

We could, of course, do worse. At least we’re embracing the past, instead of just casting it off as old fashioned. But we should be able to do that while giving ourselves a place in history, too. Aspiring to the values of a “golden age” (real or imagined) can be worthwhile—so long as it represents more than just the appropriation of fashion trends.

A double major in philosophy and political theory, Chloe Novak spends much of her free time paralyzed by existential terror. She also enjoys baking cobblers and reading about neuroscience and astrophysics, grasping roughly 30% through conjecture and a cursory knowledge of Latin and Greek roots.