Monday, November 28, 2011

Land Values



They resemble aerial bombardments,

Rongotai

or hex grids in a boardgame,

Scoltand and Northern Ireland

or quarantined areas in an epidemic.

Auckland

But they’re just different ways of representing the outcome of elections, according to polling station results or electorate winners. The last picture in particular corresponds to a mode of representation that has come to signify the existence of two nations within one, a red one and a blue one, producing a split that cannot be recomposed – in the notable case of the United States – except in the uniting figure of the President.

I don’t recall these visualisations being at all popular in Italy when I was growing up. We did of course refer to certain areas or regions – notably Emilia and Tuscany – as being ‘red’, and conversely Veneto was ‘white’, which connoted it as much for its Catholic fervour as for its steadfast allegiance to the Christian Democratic party. But we had a fully proportional system with no winner-takes-all contests, and so while the relative strengths of different parties in different parts of the country was of course noted and discussed, it made no sense on election night to demarcate one region from the others nor indeed (more importantly) to colour any one of them in anything but a mixture of those primary colours, and there would have had to be as many different shades as regions, rendering the whole exercise pointless.

I polled my friends on Twitter – there is no great research behind this post, I’m afraid – and it seems that in New Zealand the practice has far deeper roots, no doubt as a result of the first-past-the-post system that was in place until 1996 and whose vestiges survive in the form of the 63 general and 7 Māori electorates of MMP. Cheryl Bernstein has noted that the local electoral maps of previous decades ‘resembled those maps of the world with all the pink bits belonging to the British Empire’ – an interesting lineage in and of itself.


Digging through Timeframes I’ve unearthed a map from the 1896 general election that predates this model. It is a very interesting document, not least for the thick patchwork of wonderful advertisements (‘There is something pleasing to an Englishman’s Eye about the Warwick Bicycle’) that surrounds the map proper. In each non colour-coded electorate we find mention of the winner and second placed candidate, along with their affiliation, according to the following legend: G = Government, O = Opposition, I = Independent, C = Continuation (of licenses), R = Reduction, P = Prohibition. The North Island looked like this:


Whereas as of last Saturday night, according to The New Zealand Herald, it looked like this:


One map needs to be pored over, examined in detail, and will surrender the overall election results only after one has laboriously collated the information. The other conveys at a glance – but for the need to zoom into Auckland separately – the dominant political orientation of the electorates that make up half the country.

The second map is a more powerful document, but it also lies. The Tories won a decisive victory on Saturday, but it wasn’t remotely as crushing as the electoral map suggests. They stopped short of reaching an absolute majority, both as a percentage of the vote and in terms of the number of seats apportioned under the voting system. Yet the visualisation that tells this story – which is arguably the only one that really matters in a proportional electoral system – is the one of the chamber, which is a further level of abstraction up, one that isn’t overlaid on the geography of the country and is therefore far less persuasive: it doesn’t move us nor shape our perception of how consensus is distributed across the territory.

So we look at the other map, the one that lies. The one that locks us into a first-past-the-post logic, eliding all parties but four, two of which account for the quasi-totality of the electorates, plus two minnows who made it into Parliament solely thanks to their ability to colour a tiny bit of the country each of yellow and purple.

The so-called regions are all blue, with the sole exception of the West coast of the South Island, and it is a uniform blue, regardless of the extent of the National candidate’s victory, and completely irrespective of actual party vote, which is not what is being measured (although Keith Ng on Scoop went as far as to produce a map of the party vote as if it was first past the post). This allows us to think of the less urbanised parts of the country as a homogenous and irredeemable centre-right block, or, depending on what fuels your sense of moral superiority, an indistinct ‘redneck country’, a place immune to progressive political strategies and that won’t see past race or colour or class in the confirmation of its narrow bias. There is no place on this map for an event like the election of a transsexual left-wing politician for two successive terms as the representative in Parliament of any one of these amorphous electorates, for the map has no shades.

However this year the map of Christchurch (which actually downplays National’s result) strikes me as the most scurrilous of all, for it erases the population that was displaced by the earthquake, as well as the earthquake itself. There is no asterisk that will show up in the annals, no way to weave the events of the last 14 months in its crude narrative. This is your city, struggling to stay red.


It is hard to resist the pull of the local. The quirks of the system force us to obsess on a couple of electoral contests, and on the destinies of two small parties that just won’t die. We all think we know how we’d vote if we lived there. We all have thoughts for the residents, but always in an atmosphere of respect for the sacrosanct exercise of their democratic rights.


Since neither John Banks nor Peter Dunne carried anybody with them else on the strength of their parties’ vote, the effects of their bargained victories on the makeup of Parliament was mathematically quite slight, although far from insignificant in a finely balanced house. But we also hoped that the minister of welfare might lose her seat even though she’d still make it through the party list in order to send a signal, or win a small moral victory, but also and perhaps more basically to restore pride in the community.


It is hard to rest the pull of the local, or wanting to know how fared the neighbourhood. And so on Sunday morning I checked the results of our local polling booth and then tweeted the following:


By which I guess I meant to brag, which would be misguided enough, except noting that the government enjoys as little as 20% support on this side of Berhampore will be very little consolation when we become the target of their welfare reforms – as we most assuredly will – or the very school in which the voting took place will end up in a league table, its wonderful work devalued by a wrong, punishing metric.

That is just what those maps do – they measure the wrong things: the votes, but not the reasons; the outcome, but not process. And they flatten the political into electoral politics, generating ideas about the country that conform to their crude schematism. Ideas than in turn produce scintillating pieces of analysis such as this one, from director Taika Waititi:


Or this complaint about non-voters from Richard Pamatatau (whom I ordinarily have a lot of time for):


What these pronouncements and those maps have in common is that they are uncomprehending; they say both more and less than what needs to be said, overdetemining political reality and at the same time wishing it to be simpler than it is. But there are things that we don’t have maps for. We don’t have maps showing the apathetic versus the disaffected, or who is selfish and who is stupid, or committed, or hopeful, and where they all live. And so we need to find other, more meaningful ways of engaging with all of these social subjects, instead of painting them one of two colours, or calling them fools for not wishing to take part in that particular exercise, in the illusion of being counted and having a say.

Māori media and Māori politics both offer an alternative conceptual model, based on different mappings of the same territory. Mappings that not only follow different physical lines of demarcation, covering larger swathes of the country, but respond to different demands from their constituents. It is of course not surprising that switching to the campaign coverage on Māori Television should be akin to the experience of watching Te Kāea after a regular diet of news from the commercial networks; that the same viewers who appear to take a far greater interest in social knowledge should be better informed about their political representatives, and more inclined to listen to lengthy debates on substantive issues. But the contrast is instructive nonetheless, and timely. While the Labour party goes through it cleansing exercise and proceeds to elect another pair of leaders based on their popularity amongst their peers, and not whether they have a plan to win the next election or even necessarily a good enough reason for wanting to, we should talk with some urgency about public media reform so that we can produce another public like the public of Māori Television, and set about remapping the political and social debate for those who are stuck on the general roll. We’re not lacking for an example to follow.









Monday, November 21, 2011

Posterous





Every three years the institution of the election poster gives us an object lesson in psychogeography, remaking the country into red zones, blue zones, contested zones. A sign erected on a private fence or put up at one’s window makes an uncomplicated political statement: this is a Tory household, a Labour household, a Green household; the sum of many such statements can mark an entire town or suburb, making class visible in a manifest way. As for the posters in public and commercial spaces, they too make concrete the geographical distribution of the parties’ efforts: who concentrates where, pushing which messages; just as importantly, who is absent, and must be assumed to be working to shore up their consensus elsewhere.

But posters aren’t just the equivalent of little coloured flags on a map. They also carry their own meanings, which seldom coincide entirely with the plea to vote for party X or candidate Y. For instance, the inclusion of John Key on most of National’s posters – including the ones in support of individual candidates on the list – makes the Prime Minister’s portrait from the shoulders up the common design feature of the party’s campaign, hence both the leit motif and palimpsest of its core messages. Conversely, the absence of Phil Goff’s from Labour’s posters marks a forced departure from the campaign style of Clark’s era. I think it’s fair to say that Labour scrambled in search of a new approach, going from the horribly wrong


to the horribly, horribly, oh dear god, really?, horribly wrong


before settling for a fairly punchy and consistent design for both the candidate and the party posters, the latter relying largely if not exclusively on propositional statements as opposed to imagery. One message in particular has come to characterise the campaign above all others:


But even looking at Labour’s full complement of posters what is striking is the almost complete absence of the party’s social justice platform, in spite of the fact this is arguably the strongest it has been for some time. Save for the $15 hour minimum wage initiative, even the policies aimed at the most disadvantaged are sold as lifestyle enhancers.


The reason behind this choice may have to be sought in an utterly depressing poll released earlier this month that revealed to what extent centre-left voters support the vindictive Tory approach to beneficiaries, but the discomfiting fact that the New Zealand middle class still won’t forgive the poor for Rogernomics is also an index of the continuing abdication of moral leadership on Labour’s part. Having chosen not to raise the spectre of inequality, let alone address its root causes, Labour has forced itself to wage the election on its opposition to the sale of a minority shareholding in the public power companies that it ran for a decade under the state-owned-enterprise model, that is to say as de-facto private companies tasked with extracting maximum profits from their customer base. It then proceeded to affect great surprise that a public that remains opposed to privatisation won’t be more forcefully swayed by a policy difference that is technical at best.

The key to a different poster campaign, therefore to a different campaign more generally, could have come from Labour’s quite remarkable 20-minute opening television address, which promoted its current front bench and policies against the backdrop of the history of the party and its unwavering commitment – but for the notable exception of the Lange-Douglas years – to a coherent set of social democratic principles. I honestly thought at that point that the party might pick up the theme and go for a retro line of posters. We might have seen this again

(1957)
or this,

(1938)
or a variation on this,

(Messrs Savage, Fraser and Nash, 1954)

and it might have sparked a useful conversation on the history of the social contract in New Zealand, and what appealing to that pre-neoliberal past might actually mean and entail. Strong policy initiatives that build on that tradition and on those values – such as the introduction of a capital gains tax – could then have been promoted within an appropriate ideological framework, instead of being measured against the very narrow parameters of poll favourability, which naturally counselled against mentioning them at all, as any other new tax would.

National’s posters, but for the ubiquity of the drongo-in-chief, are roughly specular to Labour’s in terms of content, and peculiarly (perhaps even studiously) unimpressive and bland from a visual point of view. The most notable exception is a poster reminiscent of the infamous campaign orchestrated in 2005 by John Ansell.


Road-building is just about the only area these days in which the Tories allow themselves some swagger, and are unafraid to enthusiastically publicise how beholden they are to their backers. Even so, the poster is curiously ambiguous, allowing people who might be sceptical of the thaumaturgic effects of great roading projects to see virtue in the stance of the bloke who stands in for Labour. We’re quite a ways away the odious divisiveness of this.


By contrast with both major parties, the Greens aren’t the least bit shy when it comes to making claims that are not so much ideological as downright existential. This, remember, is the party that in 2008 tied its fortunes to those of the planet


and entrusted an Aryan-looking, Missoni-clad child to instruct us to vote for them, or else.


This year’s offering picks up in a slick, self-assured manner right where the previous campaign left off. In this instalment the child has been replaced with a friendlier model and the hope for the survival and continued employment of humankind has taken the concrete form of the coupling of green jobs and clean energy – the new economy made in Obama.



These are the dominant messages that vie for our attention and play against each other in our cities and on our rural roads. Juxtapositions can be hard to interpret: is this a clash of incompatible worldviews, or a glimpse of tomorrow’s coalition?


And what of the placing of ACT at ground level, literally at the feet of its life-giving coalition partner?


ACT’s posters are at a premium, at least in Wellington, the baffling aesthetic of the few that I’ve seen reflecting its state of utter confusion


whilst another party languishing in the low single digits yet flush with cash projects a clean, confident image as it tries to position itself as the viable right wing fringe of the Parliament of 2014.


New Zealand First produced the poster version of a non-sequitur

Image by edmuzik
which was later made slightly more intelligible by means of a piece of recession-era bricolage


whereas the party that I used to be proud to support with my membership got an old sign out of storage, in an apparent, stubborn refusal to gift any of its twelve remaining votes to Mana. (Really? Come on guys.)


And this, at least in the capital, is the unimpressive extent of it, in keeping with the level of the political conversation and a campaign that struggled to take off after the Rugby World Cup and thereafter to generate much interest, its conclusion largely seen as foregone and quite possibly not all that important. In fact, the claim in my opening paragraph notwithstanding, I’ve walked through suburbs in which the signs of the campaign are all but absent – disconcertingly so. To step into them from a more densely marked area is like stepping into a place of indifference, or into another time, barely a week from now, when these very forgettable posters will start to be forgotten.

The image that will stay will me the longest may well end up being one that I nearly failed to notice, up Vivian Street, of a series of grievances against the Tory government struck on little square medals and hung on a fence that is popular amongst the knitters of graffiti. Incongruously small, the medals dangle in the wind without making much noise, like niggling complaints in lieu of the outrage that nobody musters. No-one will bother to take them down before Saturday, when people go to the polls. They will still be there next week, and likely the week after, waiting for other grievances to be added on and to start dangling along.









(more election posters from earlier this year)

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Long Goodbye





I spent the night after Berlusconi won his first election working until the smallest hours to meet a deadline. I remember listening to Radio Popolare in my headphones while Justine slept, and hearing Northern League leader and ally Umberto Bossi trash Berlusconi in an interview at 3 am.

Neither of these details is casual, my working through the night or Bossi’s intemperance. I have been a freelance worker all my life. Freelance is an upbeat, empowering word, but it comes with little or no bargaining power, little or no legal protection, the more or less permanent worry about where the next job will come from, fretting about when you’re going to get paid, and occasionally not getting paid at all – which, back when I started, wasn’t at all infrequent. Justine and I had moved in together six months before that 1994 election, and money was tight. When I asked our local bank about the possibility of a personal loan, the manager said he couldn’t help me but kindly directed me towards a private firm. I discovered some time later that this was a loan shark outfit.

I’ve always been a freelance worker, even during the 18-month stint when I kept regular office hours in a regular office and I was expected to turn up every day, like a regular employee. I am unexceptional in this: Italians of my generation quickly learned not to expect from the private sector the offer of an open-ended employment contract, which most businesses regard as too costly and inflexible. When I moved to New Zealand, I found that there was very little difference between being a casual and a permanent employee, for here precarity had been enshrined in legislation by a decade of reforms, and the cost of labour had been brought into line with the realities of the global marketplace and the needs of business. A nice word for this is modernisation. Whereas while successive governments in Italy gave various names to the aleatory contracts under which I operated (the wonderfully onomatopoeic co.co.co. being the most popular one), a substantial separation was maintained between the country as it worked on paper and the erosion of workers’ rights in the real world.

The Liberation Day demonstration in Milan of 1994 photographed by Nanni Moretti for his film Aprile

Berlusconi seized power in 1994 promising a ‘new Italian miracle’. It was obvious even then that his miracle act was to stay out of jail, something that once his friends in politics had been routed by the corruption scandals uncovered in 1992 and 1993 he could only hope to achieve via Parliamentary immunity and writing his own laws. Accordingly, his was a regime based on illegality, or rather a-legality: a suspension of various laws, and a suspension of judgments more generally, including moral judgments concerning how various centres of power – the mafia, the Church, nodes of concentrated capital relying on quasi-feudal relations – operated in the country. This particular form of literal conservation (as opposed to the more commonly inflected political conservatism) was the singular objective of the nearly seventeen years he spent as a politician, eleven of which as Prime Minister. Only conservation could allow Berlusconi to reactivate the consensus machine of the old Christian Democrats and hold together a coalition of heterogeneous and in many respects antithetical forces; only conservation could allow him to keep painting the Left, grotesquely, as ‘communists’, at the same time as he legitimised the archaic, visceral attachment to the land of the Northern League and gave new respectability to Gianfranco Fini’s fascist party. None of this would be possible in a ‘modern’ Western country, which is what perplexed foreigners so greatly about Berlusconi’s Italy, alongside his failure to reform the country according to the prevailing free-market models.


This is the failure that The Economist will forever begrudge him. To be fair he made something of an attempt in 1994, only to provoke a massive popular backlash culminating in the million-strong march in Rome that helped bring about the early collapse of his first government. In his subsequent terms as Prime Minister, in spite of commanding large majorities, he opted instead to occupy power, cement his populism and surround himself with vassals hand-picked for their mediocrity who would depend on him entirely for their political survival, thus ensuring their loyalty.

As well as leveraging a near-total control over the nation’s media, his populism was predicated on a revisionist approach to history and a radical degradation of political discourse. The immediate and repeated attempts by Berlusconi and his allies to commemorate the veterans of Mussolini's Salò Republic alongside the victims of Nazism and Fascism, far from reflecting a pointless fixation, were instrumental to the weakening of our Republican institutions and to the systematic attacks against our public education system and the teachers, whom he accused of inflicting their anti-government propaganda upon the nation’s children; while the name of the party with which Berlusconi hastily entered politics – Forza Italia (Go Italy!) – was the perfect expression of the kind of language that was to dominate the second Republic inaugurated by his government. He had succeeded in reducing politics to a slogan, because politics had been emptied of historical and social articulation and was thus ripe for a takeover by marketing professionals.


Throughout all this, Dorian Gray-like, Berlusconi never aged. Time for him truly seemed to pass differently. While his lawyer, Cesare Previti, was jailed for corrupting judges to favour the sale to Berlusconi of the country’s largest publishing house, he himself was acquitted from instigating the crime because the terms of his prosecution had lapsed. Endless deferral tactics allowed him to stave off many more trials. But keeping time still so fiercely for so long eventually took its toll on the leader, and towards the end of his regime political power, cosmetic surgery and pharmacology no longer sufficed to ensure his longevity. He turned to young blood instead. Having been divorced by his second wife, he housed a large contingent of young prostitutes at an apartment complex in Milano 2, the suburb named like a sequel that he had built in the Seventies, and whence his business empire had sprung forth. It was an all too literal return to youth that would play a significant role in his unravelling. Yet those excesses also signified, alongside a troubled and troubling conception of the female body that continues to mark Italian culture very profoundly, the full depth of national anxieties concerning historical transitions and the passing of time itself.

The schedule of repayments of our sovereign debt is one inexorable external measure of this passing, made starker by the inability of our economy – at least the legal economy that sits atop the vast area known as “il sommerso”, that is to say its underground, literally “submerged” counterpart – to keep pace with it. That is the timeline that is catching up with Italy now, demanding a reckoning with the economic pact known as Europe, a pact that we signed up for in the hope that it would force modernity upon us. Now it demands of us that we modernise the country according not to a system of shared values, but to the needs of the bond markets.

This is what makes these days of celebrations hollow: the knowledge that Berlusconi’s fall is not a victory of democracy, quite the contrary. He will be replaced for a time – precisely how long, we don’t know – by Mario Monti, former European Commissioner, former chancellor of Università Bocconi – call it the Milan School of Economics if you like – current president of the Trilateral Commission, advisor to the likes of Goldman Sachs and Coca-Cola, and whom nobody elected. This technocrat is now being asked to form a cabinet of other technocrats and make from outside of politics some of the most political decisions that the country has had to make for decades, and to effectively restart our history. You may be surprised to hear that I don’t greatly begrudge him this role, and that I don’t think that economic shock therapy along the lines of Greece’s proposed reforms or the Portuguese re-entry plan is the inevitable outcome of his tenure (although of course it’s far from unlikely); but above all I am genuinely saddened that it has come to this, and that our exhausted institutions couldn’t produce a democratic response to the nation’s protracted economic and political crisis other than an almost heroic deferral of the demand for change and reform.


The body of the leader will serve as one of the enduring symbols of these two lost decades. Carefully and surgically preserved, mythologised for its virile strength (he reckoned he could go for hours, although the recorded conversations amongst his protégés suggest otherwise), airbrushed, the face frozen in a permanent smirk: this was our transubstantiated political body, the vessel in which we projected one last time the belief that our post-war economic miracle was for real, and lived on. But no more. As of today we wake up in a different body, which may not even be male, with a different skin, which may not even be white, and we’ll have to learn again what it means to look after it.






Monday, November 7, 2011

How to Be a Retronaut




When Forrest Gump was first released, what focussed the attention of the public wasn’t its appalling caricature of the counterculture of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, nor its reactionary hollowing out of history. It was the digital effects. This may seem quaint now, especially if one considers that so much ground had already been broken – and in more spectacular fashion – by the likes of Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. But maybe it was just that fact: that Gump’s digital effects weren’t overtly spectacular, nor used to depict the extraordinary, but fit in rather within a more classic kind of storytelling in the tradition of great American cinema. Think It’s a Wonderful Life with the benefit of modern post-production: so not a radically changed film, but one that made full use of the available technology of our time – as Frank Capra did in his – in order to achieve maximum photographic realism.

A lot was made in the marketing of the picture about the feather carried by the wind in the opening and closing sequences: a feather that was tracked with uncanny precision and grace by Robert Zemeckis’ aerial shot, except of course it didn’t magically land at Forrest’s feet simply because it wasn’t there when the camera was rolling: it was inserted later by Ken Ralston’s team of digital artists. Somehow, that filmmakers could conjure that feather into existence seemed just as momentous as the coming to life on the screen of Spielberg’s T-Rex the year before. It was a new kind of magic.

That this magic in Forrest Gump served also the very peculiar and far from innocent purpose of rewriting post-War American history from a disconsolately conservative perspective later became the subject of extensive critical attention. However this concerns me today only in passing. I want to show how some of the sequences implicated in this manipulation of the shared historical record were also precursors to a seemingly less politically charged but also far more prevalent relationship with our mediated past. It’s a relationship that has virtually come to define internet culture, and culture more generally.


Tom Hanks next to JFK. But also, Tom Hanks next to John Lennon. Tom Hanks next to Richard Nixon. Tom Hanks who picks up the notebook dropped by a black student at the newly desegregated University of Alabama. And so forth. It is in these scenes that Gump’s use of digital effects is at its most self-conscious, inviting the spectator to marvel at the technology that allows the film to literally write its lead character into the country’s history. This leads to an ontological paradox whereby the seamlessness of the insertion from the point of view of its photographic realism should be – but isn’t – negated by the fact that spectator is fully aware of the deception. Or, to put it another way: we admire how real those images look precisely because we know that they have been forged, and the manner in which they have been forged.

Photographic manipulation of course is as old as the medium, but I think there is merit in the argument that with digital technologies there has been a step change, and we have entered a post-photographic era in which the existence of the objective referent that used to be a defining feature of the medium (for instance according to Barthes) can no longer be assumed under practically any circumstance. Gump’s historical mashups have been used to illustrate just this point. However an aspect that is less often remarked upon is how silly and full of bathos these sequences are. Forrest tells JFK that he needs to pee, bares his buttocks in front of Lyndon Johnson, discusses hotel arrangements with Nixon (he’s staying at the Watergate, of course), inspires Lennon to come up with the lyrics of 'Imagine'. In every instance, while it is ostensibly Hanks’ character that provides the comedy, who gets ridiculed are his historical counterparts, and what gets trivialised – for the sake of jokes that are every bit as laboured and unfunny as the technical execution of the sequences is sophisticated – is capital-aitch History.

If there is satirical intent in any of this, it’s hard to see the point of it. It seems to me rather that the object of these sequences is the very act of toying with the past, the demonstration that we can do it, we can alter the record at will. As I say, once the initial wave of critical acclaim for the film subsided, the focus shifted onto its rewriting of four decades of American political and social history. While most of this work is done in more complex and extended sequences, and often quite literally written on the body of the character played by Robin Wright, the manipulation of the archival footage speaks to a disenchanted attitude towards the past that is just as central to its making meaning. 'There is nothing sacred about history' is one of Gump’s core messages, and while it wasn’t a novel one at the time, the newly available digital compositing tools allowed the filmmakers to make it with unprecedented forcefulness.

The author, ca. 1908
Nearly two decades later, that kind of manipulation has become not just routine – it’s everywhere. Every other photo that is put up on Facebook or Flickr has some sort of retro-filter a-la Hipstamatic applied to it. There is no era in poster-art that won’t get cleverly reinvented as alternative past or present. There is no worldwide current event that won’t make Hitler angry, or that cannot be represented as a series of status updates on Facebook. Endless film prequels, the current vogue for period television drama, vintage tastes in fashion and the retromania in pop music described by Simon Reynolds are all manifestations of the folding of the past into the present that defines late postmodernity through the mediation of digital technology.

A digital artefact has no physical characteristics, therefore cannot be dated independently of its claims as to the time when it was created or posted. What follows – along the lines of what Paolo Cherchi-Usai has written about the moving image, and of one of the main corollaries of the contention that we live in a ‘post-photographic era’ – is that a digital artefact cannot be regarded as a historical document. More than that: we cannot keep time digitally. Not without a commitment to establishing and maintaining common timelines. Not when I can turn around in a day or a year’s time and change the content of this post without leaving a discernible trace.

If you’ve ever played with the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive, you’ll have a fairly precise sense of the difficulties that the web has in keeping its own records and historicizing itself. When you’re even lucky enough to be able to access a snapshot of the particular website you’re looking for at a time that is close enough to the one of your choosing, many of the elements of the page won’t load and most of the links won’t work (due to an aggravated version of what goes by the wonderful moniker of ‘link rot’). Yet while the self-styled archive facility works poorly, in many respects the web is nothing if not its own archive, a vast repository of digital artefacts that are always present to the reader – both in that they are in a very meaningful sense produced on the user’s browser at the time they are accessed, and in that their temporal coordinates are often uncertain or missing altogether, so that not only you sometimes find it hard to tell where you are, but also when you are. (In the noteworthy case of Google Streetview images, you know exactly where but not when.)

The internet is always-now and, like cinema, like Forrest Gump, it aspires to subsume history, to represent it and contain it whole, except to an even greater extent than cinema its primary mode of access to the past is not narrative, but aesthetic, and consists in capturing and reproducing the key stylistic features of an epoch. The Hipstamatic app does just that: by changing the look of a picture it writes its subjects into the past; in similar fashion, by giving your current browser the look of the classic Netscape Navigator you can surf the web as if it were 1999 (an experience that can be heightened by giving the visited sites the Geocities treatment).

As for the mode of reception, the past thus conceived is primarily a commodity, albeit one that – as is so often the case on the web – is exchanged and consumed without any money changing hands. The site that this post is named after (motto: ‘The past is a foreign country. This is your passport.’) is exemplary in this respect, being a digest or collection of content created elsewhere, updated frequently and largely without comment, in a format that is ready to be liked and tweeted and linked on Facebook so that your friends too can exclaim or more likely mutter ‘oh - cool!’. The whole thing is like a perpetual hit-generating machine, and each stylistic intervention, each gimmicky idea is not given the time and space to develop into a fully-articulated project and become remotely useful or even – as in the case of steampunk – interestingly loathsome.

Like the faux-archival scenes in Gump ­– which, as Thomas Byers has noted, ‘by being overtly comic […] allow for a kind of "end of ideology" defense of the film, in which critics of the film's politics can be seen as humorless ideologues’ – How to Be a Retronaut pre-empts critique by being light-hearted, clever, technically accomplished. To say bad things about it would be to commit the cardinal sin of taking oneself too seriously, which fact alone makes the site a perfect haunt for the well-adjusted. And in a sense that is fair enough: who would bother and why to take issue with any of the material linked above, instead of pausing to enjoy it for the often genuinely clever thing that it is? Nor am I suggesting that the appreciative chuckle is acceptable so long as it belongs to a critical theorist. The issue is rather what happens when the retronaut becomes the model subject, the index of how to access and understand the past, and thus a figure to work against in order to recover the ‘genuine historicity’ whose loss, as Byers also reminds us, was lamented by Fredric Jameson ten years before Gump hit the screens, when the manifestations of that cultural logic were tame in comparison.


There is little that is comic about the treatment of history writ large in Gump. If it is true that the civil rights movement, feminism and the counterculture dealt a series of blows to the white patriarchal America of Forrest’s birth, in seeking to remove that trauma and undo its effects on society the film puts forward a peculiar idea of memory as disease that comes together in the wretched figure of Jenny: she who will die – after having apologised to Forrest for her past – of ‘some sort of virus’ that the doctors can’t cure, a virus that we are meant to literally associate with AIDS but is also, metaphorically, the morbid manifestation of a lifetime of wrong choices, wrong desires, wrong aspirations. When Jenny finally expires, and Forrest is left to raise alone the couple’s child, he does one last thing for her: he purchases and bulldozes her childhood home, the place where she had been abused by her father: a gesture whose crude intent and brute physicality contrasts with the subtle manipulation of the digitised historical record but reflects the same attitude, the same will to own the past and dispose of it as virtue dictates. It is at that point, having restored the figure of the patriarch and its attendant social and family values, that Forrest can cease to dwell on the past – for he now dwells in it. He has become the Retronaut.






Some useful essays on Forrest Gump (the Byers one in particular is excellent). Regrettably they're all behind steep academic walls at present:

Thomas B. Byers. ‘History Re-Membered: Forrest Gump, Postfeminist Masculinity, and the Burial of the Counterculture.’ Modern Fiction Studies Volume 42, Number 2, Summer 1996

Jennifer Hyland Wang. ‘“A Struggle of Contending Stories": Race, Gender, and Political Memory in "Forrest Gump”’. Cinema Journal

Stephen Prince. ‘True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory.’ Film Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 3. (Spring, 1996), pp. 27-37.





ShareThis