Nostalgia economy

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Tuesday, February 4, 2014


WHO says you can’t learn anything from TV?

Apart from being the source of the newest fodder for barbershop talk that we enjoy so much as a people, the so-called idiot box can also function as a gauge for existing conditions in a given society.

There is such a thing as cable TV and one of its benefits is that you can take a peek into the cultural currents of American society without having it filtered by way of local network giants.

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What I find curious nowadays is the rash of programs on cable television that pertain to a common theme. You have Pickers, Storage Wars, and Pawn Stars both enjoying considerable viewership with the first, spawning its own Australian version and Pawn Stars even having its own Southeast Asian tour. It’s either the pickers scrounge through relics in the dusty outhouses of the aging generation where they salvage pieces of long lost Americana or these are brought before them by their patrons as in the case of the show Pawn Stars. Storage Wars is by far the strangest among the three. Prospecting businessmen engage in a bidding war over abandoned private storage facilities hoping that a modern treasure can be salvaged from the discarded loot.

If shows of the past had car chases and gunfights ala Miami Vice, the closest thing to action in these shows are the haggling exchanges between buyer and seller. The repartee are then expertly edited and spliced in such a way that they are depicted as the dramatic arch of every segment with matching music and action shots. Anyone who has ever pawned anything knows that the process of appraisal is scintillating but I never thought it could be made into television.

But alas, if we go by the plot of these shows, it has come to pass that in this day and age, the all-steel miniature pedal car of one’s youth can go for hundreds of dollars if kept in mint condition. Now I wished my elder brother and his friends did not trash my miniature land cruiser when they careened down the sloping streets of our neighborhood decades ago.

Top dollar earners in these shows are classic representations of Americana such as gas signs and product marketing knick-knacks. There is a similar show whose plot revolves around two guys armed with metal detectors and they scour known battle sites of the civil war era for old coins, war materiel, and other artifacts of the glorious American narrative. A common theme among these shows is an obvious fixation and glorification of the past.

What are actually being traded here are not the things-of-themselves and their value. That pedal car and the cast-iron sheet that makes for its major component is not what gives it worth, nor the silver in the pre-civil war era coin dug up through metal detectors, but what these objects represent instead. These things, achieve greater value through the work of history, like your time deposits, for they bring the American viewer back to the past.

What gives these objects value is that they are all representations of a bygone era when America still had a working class who built all these commodities. Unfortunately, the logic of capital moved all of these operations where cheap labor is located predicating the economic bubble of contemporary American society. For example, instead of the labor-intensive process of stamping iron sheets in order to make those bright and shiny steel pedal cars of the past, we now have brittle plastic toy cars imported from China.

On the other hand, the fixation with artifacts surrounding the birth of modern American democracy could be the muted search for legitimacy in the face of serious questions about the credibility of the world’s only superpower in the last six decades or so.

Is this a case of fictional capital where products of human labor of the past, which have outgrown their use-value and discarded in dusty attics, are now resuscitated like zombies to generate profit anew for their owner? This could be so on one level of analysis. But I think this economy for nostalgia points to the current state of American society as well which is currently undergoing a cyclical and extended economic recession.

The vapid cultural turn as embodied in these TV programs show an America without a future that is why they are currently obsessed with the past. Apparently, just like sex, which has long been marketed in American mass media, nostalgia also sells. If sex pertains to the gratification in the here and now, the purchase of nostalgia brings Americans back to a happier and abundant past. Both impulses eschew a view of the future – something that the current neoliberal global economy that America lords over cannot offer, even to themselves.

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on February 04, 2014.

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