10 May 2009


Momus at Click Opera has a cool idea about how pop culture reflects time. It turns out that it's not quite true that “pop culture has no memory.”
If you read an old email and find you were talking about Friendster in a way you'd now be talking about Facebook — and catch yourself struggling to remember what Friendster even was — then that email was probably not written in what we're calling “the present”. It was probably written in the next timezone on my diagram, and the most important one in this essay, the anxious interval.

The anxious interval is the recent past. It's long enough ago to feel not-contemporary, but not long enough ago to feel utterly removed. It's at an uncomfortable distance, which is why I call it “anxious”. You could think of the anxious interval as the temporal equivalent of the uncanny valley, that place where robots are similar enough to us to give us an uncomfortable shudder. You could also say the anxious interval is a place, a style, a set of references we avoid, repress, sublimate, have selective amnesia about, stow away, throw out, deliberately forget.

If there's a stock exchange of reputations, the people who made their names in the current “anxious interval” are on the skids. If they're artists, they're dropping on Artfacts.net and if they're pop musicians they're not charting as high as they once did ...

Mike at the Online Photographer has been reflecting on how this is true of physical things as well: he calls it the Trough of No Value.
One of the problems of historical preservation is that people only tend to preserve things that are valuable. And the problem with that is that value fluctuates over time.

The problem is that many kinds of objects go through a period in their potential lifespans when they don't “pencil out”—they're not worth keeping or preserving because they're not worth any money.
For some objects, what pertains would more accurately be called a trough of low value, not no value—remaindered photo books and certain old cameras come to mind—because they never actually quite reach zero value. But other objects might accurately be graphed considerably below the $0 line—those would be things that are worth nothing but that require maintenance, expense, or storage space to keep and preserve.

Momus calls the era a touch earlier than the Anxious Interval the Goldmine: the period that's Coming Back. Right now, that's the ’80s, and being of an age when I first encountered pop culture during that time, I'm experiencing a weird echo. I'm spooked by the realization that I was actually a bit hipper than I realized when I was young; a number of obscure things that I dug twenty years ago are making a comeback, stronger than ever. Plus, with the advantage of distance, I can enjoy a lot of things like '80s pop songs that I couldn't bring myself to enjoy the first time around. On reflection, this isn't really surprising, since people my age who went into the culture industries are now about at the point in their careers where they're empowered to act on their early obsessions.

Momus explains another part of why I'm spooked by this. He says that just before the Goldmine era is the Anxious Echo, stuff that has gotten stale and uncool the second time around. As time marches on, my youthful enthusiasms are going to hit that again. I'm kind of dreading another round of that.

At least the Beatles are forever.

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