Sunday, March 01, 2009

Nostalgia for Industry

There was a great moment on Battlestar Galactica this past week. Starbuck is briefing the pilots of the fleet on their duties. Among them, searching for any habitable planet the fleet might call home. The reward for any pilot that makes such a stupendous find? A tube of toothpaste. "The last tube of Felgercarb Toothpaste existing in the known Universe," she announces in a worn deadpan, presenting the unique treasure.

I thought this was a well drawn moment, showing the larger loss in a telling detail. Even more, the detail chosen suggests what the fallout of losing an industrial civilization might look like. Once common commodities, mass-produced objects like bars of soap, cans of soup, tubes of toothpaste, become precious and unique objects. Treasures of a lost world. Like Walter Benjamin's "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" running in reverse.

The world has never really lost a whole industrial civilization before. The collapse of the Soviet sphere might be the closest analogue. I wonder if Russians my age ever have nostalgia for the state-produced products (however poorly made they might have been) that were the common artifacts of their youth. I suspect they do. I read a study somewhere once, that said they found people who grew up in the mid-twentieth century or later associated strong childhood memories with the smells and flavors of manufactured objects - the chemical smell of playdough, the impossible sweetness of kool-aid. I, for one, am reminded of my Grandmother by the flavor of plain Colgate, a staple at her house growing up. The scent of a particular laundry detergent calls forth the memory of a young woman I was once in love with, makes me remember both her and how I once felt about her with a terrible urgency. If this detergent is on sale, I will pass it by, to avoid walking around in a cloud of lonesome memory for weeks.

All this is made more pertinent by the fact that an awful lot of very smart people seem to be concerned that the world may be, in fact, right now in the process of losing an industrial civilization. Namely ours. Bruce Sterling has an interesting post along those lines here. I had the chance to spend some time with another prominent media scholar this weekend. He was less dire than Bruce, but did argue that the surplus we have enjoyed as Americans for the last fifty years was a historical aberration, and was likely in the process of going away.

Of course he also made the point that said surplus had been managed and spent poorly. I would agree. I would add that it was often gained unjustly. My point is not to glorify industrial culture. I deeply hope we can build something better out of its ruins. My point is simply relate to you, my friends, the ways in which I have been anticipating my coming nostalgia. For the luxuries we take for granted. Oranges in Northwest Ohio. Blueberries in Winter. For bottles of oily blue washing detergent that smells like teen angst.

To think this way, makes you see the world as it is, strange and unprecedented. I walked into Kroger supermarket in my fugue of anticipatory nostalgia and found a magical and impossible place. Brightly lit, smelling of fresh bread, coffee stacked in rows, long aisles of our unlikely surplus. The likes of which will never be seen again, at least, not in the everyday lives of poor students and workers. Perhaps the ultra rich will keep a few as preserves. Trade the last can of Chock Full o' Nuts coffee amongst themselves, commenting on its cheerful yellow exterior, the uniformity of the machine-ground beans within.

And maybe, just maybe, a haggard President Obama, nearing the close of his second term, will address a nation huddled in extended families around a handful of still operational television sets. "My fellow Americans," he will announce in a worn deadpan, "we are still looking for any sustainable method of political economy. For the citizen who finds it, I offer this reward: the last tube of regular flavor Colgate toothpaste existing in the Universe."


Gavin said...

There's plenty of Soviet nostalgia in the FSU... One of the hippest night clubs in Yerevan was called "CCCP" with a giant hammer and sickle out front. Also of note: every market has a plethora of old Soviet artifacts, particularly military ones -- medals, uniforms, even some weapons -- so much so that there are lots of fakes in there too. Flasks with modish plastic logos of the CCCP of an obvious recent vintage. Such is the power of late capitalist nostalgia, where markets demand communist goods! No doubt that in BSG some budding entrepreneur would manufacture a simulacrum of the old favorite toothpaste -- but would she spend more time on the label or the product inside?

Andy said...

Ironically Gavin, you can buy the prop toothpaste from BSG:

As bad as the economy is, BSG will almost certainly complete its last three episodes before things go catastrophically sideways. So some BSG fan will have a simulated souvenir of their simulacra of a lost country they can use as a hedge against hyperinflation or a barter object or whatever.