Thoughts on the Zombie Contemporary

I keep running into the idea that culturally we’re stuck. The latest was an article penned by NYT columnist, Jason Farago titled, "Why Culture Has Come to a Standstill." Certainly I’ve seen this standstill in contemporary art (mine isn’t immune). Most definitely we're stuck on a broader societal level, we’ve been stuck recycling old ideas for some time. There’s not much culture that appeared 30 years ago that’s qualitatively different from today. Music is pretty much the same, movies, art, fashion—all really haven’t changed. One may be able to point out an instance here or there, but the broader swath has been relatively unchanged.

There’s a large overlap in what my kids (now young adults) have been into and what my wife and I are in to. They listen to music, wear clothes, watch tv shows from the 90s, 00s, 10s and it’s not nostalgia or retro for them. For a long time, each generation rebelled from the previous and expressed that in their clothes, music and art. Not so much any more. The only thing that’s changed over those decades is how culture is delivered—over faster internet connections and on thinner and smaller screens.

Simon Reynolds talks about “retromania” and Mark Fisher calls it “hauntology” where contemporary culture is obsessed with rehashing the recent past. We’re unable to escape the aesthetics of the mid to late 20th century, haunted by old futures that never came to be. 

Hartmut Rosa describes what he calls “dynamic stasis” and Ivo Mensch calls it “frantic inertia,” at times making (supposed) progess in some spheres for some people (technology, social, economic) yet at large things feel stagnant and often regressive. 

People are having to work harder and harder and faster and faster in a futile attempt to just keep what little they have. It’s a paradox of constant activity, hurry, and frenetic, directionless motion without actual change, development or forward momentum. 

The progress for profit at all costs of the 20th century caused so many of the problems we’re facing today. But we need to make substantive and rapid forward progress on the multiple crises we’re facing: climate change, social injustice, economic inequality, health care, gun violence, mental health, drug addiction, homelessness, et. al., the list goes on.

Are we experiencing a crisis of the imagination? Have we given up on imagining alternative futures (or any future at all) outside of the unstoppable slide into the Apocalypse(TM). I’m reminded again and again of this well-worn Jameson quote, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” and Margaret Thatcher’s, “There is no alternative.”

I’ve been complaining about this for a while—this place we’re all stuck in together. I feel like, in some ways, we’ve forgotten how to dream. Our dreams have been downgraded to hopes. We don’t really dream of a better world, we just hope that we don’t burn down this one—we don’t dream of a better future for our kids, we just hope they don’t get gunned down at school—we don’t dream of economic equality, we just hope we can make next month’s mortgage.

But I keep wondering, what's driving this inertia, this stuckism?

  • Is it simply more profitable for art and culture at large to recycle old ideas than to invest in new, more risky ideas? Is culture and contemporary art just too enamored with and dependent on capitalism?
  • Have we delegated responsibility of our cultural and social progress to corporations and billionaires where collectively we’re much more comfortable being consumers than creators? 
  • Are we too overwhelmed with all the crises we’re facing (largely if not exclusively caused by 20th century “progress”) that we don’t have the psychological or collective bandwidth to think ahead, to imagine something different, something new, something improved?
  • Are we simply stuck in the merry-go-round of postmodernism where the future ceases to exist, where truth and reality are always subjective (hello, Q!), where we keep digging ourselves into deeper, individual holes? We question everything but we make no statements. 
  • Are we all too lazy or too exhausted to really rebel, to make anything new, to challenge ourselves or our own art? Or, more likely, has our power to rebel been taken from us, ever so slowly siphoned off that we didn't notice? 

Where is the work that thinks outside of the stasis of contemporary culture and reimagines how things could be? Where the answers are every bit as important as the questions—something that helps break us out of the zombie contemporary. 

A friend and I were talking recently and he referred to Hollywood in the 60s that was stuck in a state of frantic inertia, turning out heaps of repetitive, formulaic junk. Yet, that unintentionally also gave rise to an era of B-, indie and foreign movies—“here and there you would find new grass growing through the cracks in the pavement.” He said, “I guess [today] we just need to look for those cracks – and water them some.)”