Issue #5, March/April 1993
Visitors from the future just made an embarrassing discovery. Our past. Don't pretend you can't remember.
— from the promotional poster for the 1991 movie The Spirit of '76
Let's do the Time Warp again!
— sung by convention-goers in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The 1970s are haunting America. As the 1990s come together as a coherent cultural idea, it is becoming increasingly obvious that somehow the 1970s are crucial to how the 1990s will express itself as a decade. Or, to put it differently, the 70s appear to be the temporal map Americans are using to plot their course through the 90s. Most importantly, Americans who occupy the highest positions of political power, the Presidential "team", are self-consciously promoting themselves as an administration influenced by 70s cultural ideals. The Clinton campaign theme song, Fleetwood Mac's Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, is a seminal 70s rock tune. Stories about how the new administration is running the White House focus on the 70s-style communal and progressive atmosphere fostered by President Clinton and his wife/colleague Hillary Rodham Clinton. Furthermore, President Clinton is one of the few powerful political figures in recent history who would admit to being disappointed that he was unable to get high off that marijuana he "didn't inhale". Remember the last time it was deemed publicly acceptable to hang around in big, relaxed groups and do drugs? I think the 90s wants to remember. While Americans elected President Clinton to distance this country from recent history, Clinton's Administration is also consciously participating in the 70s revival, a collective national desire to repeat history. This contradictory impulse in American culture is nothing new; here I'd like to demonstrate what Americans might learn from their urge to remember history by consuming 70s retro culture.
One finds the 70s everywhere. 90s films like Rush, Wayne's World, My Girl, and the recent Fire in the Sky all vividly recollect and attempt to recreate the mood and culture of the 70s. Popular musical styles from Hip Hop "house music" to Grunge have their roots in 70s dance, drug and musical culture; especially in Hip Hop culture, 70s retro clothing and the disco ethic have become ubiquitous. Even mainstream fashion reflects 70s notions of beauty and glamour. Bellbottoms, long hair, choker necklaces, platform shoes, garish colors and sheer, sparkly or shiny fabrics are features of nearly every new spring and summer line. Madonna herself, one of American culture's most influential fashion icons, recently released a new music video (Deeper and Deeper) dedicated to the 70s disco revival. Starring several of Andy Warhol's "superstars", actors from his famous 70s cult films, the video takes place partly in a disco and partly in a back room where Madonna and her friends participate in what looks like a heroin or LSD trip. Madonna, known for her 80s-style industrial "robot cone breasts", here sports a frizzy blonde "Afro", generous amounts of sparkle makeup, and pink satin hip-huggers. Even drugs, that recreation rejected during the Reagan-Bush Era, play an important role in 90s ideas of what constitutes "fun".
To understand what actually underlies this sudden interest in 70s culture requires that we remember the 70s as a total historical period. I would argue that part of the reason the 90s are trying so hard to remember the style of the 70s is to distract themselves from and forget the political and socio-economic realities which lie right beneath the surface of that style. It was during the 70s that Americans accustomed to post-war prosperity first experienced the kind of scarcity economy people of the 90s have confronted anew. Gas and other energy shortages coupled with "stagflation" brought home the feeling that America was in an economic crisis. During the 70s, the idea of global ecological deterioration, a result of two centuries of industrialized production, hit the mainstream as well. The mid-70s were punctuated by the political disaster known as Watergate, which left many Americans confused, paranoid and suspicious about national structures of power and authority. Thereafter, much of the hopefulness brought about by 60s revolutionary and liberal activism began to seem misplaced; it was during the 70s that the New Right replaced the New Left as the ideology of choice in the cultural vanguard. Increased poverty in the inner cities and among oppressed minority groups coupled with the Iran Hostage Crisis indicated to Americans that they would have to deal with issues second and third world countries had known for decades. These problems and social upheavals are ones that Americans living in the post-Gulf War 90s may find hit rather too close to home. At present, Americans are once again experiencing a coming-to-consciousness regarding the widespread and rapid ecological degradation of the planet. The LA riots called national attention to critical problems faced by impoverished residents of an expanding ghetto, and the recent terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center has left people feeling more vulnerable than ever to the effects of international (especially third world) military relations. Add to these events the economic impact of America's struggle in the "trade war" with Japan, and you can see why Americans today want to remember the 70s for its clothing and interior design; to remember the 70s in its totality might invite uncomfortable comparisons with the politics and economics of the 90s as an emerging historical period.
The 70s were a time even the 70s wanted to forget, and this is clearly one of the reasons for its thriving and hysterical leisure cultures. Many Americans took to "sex, drugs and rock 'n roll" as a form of escape from the increasingly grim reality found on the streets and in the news. Whereas the 60s appeared to offer people the prospect of personal satisfaction in the form of political work and social commitment, the 70s were a time in which personal satisfaction and political reality appeared to be nearly irreconcilable. Hence the dividing line between what constituted a "social life" and what constituted "work" became highly visible; to participate in a pleasurable social activity generally meant that one would not simultaneously participate in a work-related activity. One could not, in other words, hold a disco dance or pass around a doobie while doing one's job at Lockheed or Floor. Work, long associated in the American cultural imaginary with "reality", was in the 70s the opposite of fun and fulfillment. Popular disco songs and movies like Thank God It's Friday and Saturday Night Fever exemplify this sensibility; the pleasurable part of the week is rigidly demarcated from the (here deliberately forgotten) work week.
What the 70s lost by producing an elaborate and compelling leisure culture at odds with reality was a sense of faith in the possibility for a coherent link between the wish-fulfillment provided by social leisure and work in social reality. A cultural sensibility permeated by disgust for the idea of such faith is a crucial shared feature of culture in the 90s and culture in the 70s. To set my formula here into motion, the faith both decades have lost must be sought in two eras generally understood to be diametrically opposed: the 60s and the 80s. Both decades are characterized by rapid ideological and material change, and both decades were times of fervent belief in Americans' ability to affect the real world by believing the world could be different. As I mentioned earlier, the 60s were a time in which many Americans, including presidential administrations, felt strongly that economic, social and political injustices could be eliminated or set right by working through and liberalizing traditional structures of power. The 60s saw a revolutionary expansion in federal systems of economic support for public institutions like universities and in social spending for the poor. It was a time in which it seemed the government wanted to listen and respond to the needs of its citizens. Populism was lauded; grassroots organizing techniques developed by political groups during the 60s later came to form the foundations for grassroots organizing done by Reagan's supporters in the early 80s. Moreover, and perhaps most memorably, the 60s fostered in Americans a sense of optimism about how they might have a degree of control over their collective future through participating in broad-based social movements like the Civil Rights Movement, the Free Speech Movement, the Women's and Gay Rights Movement or even to a certain degree the "counterculture". In other words, the 60s was a time in which Americans believed it was possible to make liberal ideology into a liberal social reality by combining work and group social activities.
It is by now a truism to point out that part of what enabled the liberal atmosphere of the 60s was an unprecedented economic boom. Americans who lost faith in the liberal idealism of the 60s were almost certainly influenced by a loss in their standards of living as well, and this accounts for the rising numbers of faithful New Rightists during the late 70s. Like the liberal New Left of the 60s, the New Right also propounded a populist ideology; they too believed in altering traditional forms of power to help mainstream Americans recover from economic and social injustices. Reagan's election in 1980 was followed by nearly instantaneous changes in government policy. Welfare, Affirmative Action, AFDC and other programs for social spending were dramatically reduced and government regulations on business were relaxed in order to stimulate America's economy. The New Right in the 80s gave birth to its own kind of social movement: conservative, even reactionary movements like the Right to Life Movement, the Christian Fundamentalist Movement(s) and the so- called War on Drugs. Like movements of the 60s, these were broad-based and community oriented, calling upon private citizens to spend their leisure time working toward changing social morality and with it the material reality of everyday life in America. I think even the much-maligned idea of electing a movie star president is symptomatic of strong right-wing faith that its ideology could be made real in the 80s: it was a choice which cemented the bond between the national imagination and reality. Certainly the 60s and the 80s had different notions of what constitutes good and bad, but they nevertheless resembled each other in their disciplined dedication to making belief in a particular form of "goodness" integral to the smooth functioning of state-regulated public life.
Like the 70s, the 90s is going through withdrawal from a decade characterized by a powerful ideological tendency in one direction. The 90s is a decade unsure of what might be good for Americans and their country; I think this confusion translates into a generalized cultural uneasiness with ideologies suggesting that one might distinguish between good and bad ideas or cause social reality to model itself after a specific idea of goodness. I suggested earlier that the 70s were a decade in which it was easy to distinguish between work and leisure. Faith in this distinction, I believe, was ultimately a substitute for faith in the distinction between social right and social wrong to be found in cultures of the 60s and 80s. To attempt to find out the difference between right and wrong in the 70s always appeared to result in repulsiveness and failure; one might say the ambiguous outcome of the Watergate hearings was a culmination of this cultural tendency. Social activities associated with gratification in the 70s were likewise reflective of a sense that good and bad were indistinguishable. A common slang term for good was "bad". Forms of transgression connected with the potential for bodily harm were all the rage in the 70s; in other words, what might appear good for you as a living being did not have to coincide with how you acted and what you enjoyed in social reality. Americans enjoyed watching Evel Kinieval perform weird and deadly stunts on his motorcycle. Highly addictive and physically debilitating drugs like heroin and cocaine gained popularity with young people. The Punk movement of the late 70s celebrated nihilism and anarchy by turning the rejection of social or political organization into a social activity. Punks, like the 70s in its entirety, rejected 60s faith in the goodness of liberalism by rejecting faith in a discernible notion of goodness itself.
In the 90s, 70s fixations on dangerous, extensive leisure and alienation from work we no longer care about suddenly seem relevant again. One of the first genuine "problem" films of the 90s, Joel Shumacher's Falling Down, focuses on a man whose job training in 80s defense industry engineering leaves him no longer "economically viable"; unemployed and mentally unstable, he finally finds pleasure in violently confronting or shooting people and attempting to murder his family. I think this movie is notable for the way it enlists the American audience's sympathy for its main character, who is neither a good guy nor a bad guy. Those he fights against are morally mixed-up in the same way. In the 80s, a movie like Falling Down would not have been made for a mainstream audience. The 80s offered clear-cut definitions of good guys and bad guys: Rambo was good because he was a patriotic, masculine American, and the Vietnamese were bad because they were communists affiliated with the U.S.S.R. (which Reagan referred to without irony as the Evil Empire).
One could say in general that American economic crises of the 70s and 90s precipitated ideological crises, or crises in faith. Ultimately, the 90s has lost faith in what the New Right could do to make American life good because trickle-down or supply-side economics resulted in a severe economic crisis now known as The Recession. The early 70s likewise saw the breakdown of unified government liberalism in the face of an economic downturn. This structural congruity is no accident or lucky coincidence. Theorists of capitalism on both the left and the right generally agree that a capitalist economic system will be characterized by periods of crisis in which the economy basically collapses and rebuilds itself again. Such crises are necessary to ensure a "healthy" capitalist economy. Whether liberal or conservative, American government generally conceives of capitalism as a natural or given condition of life and attempts to make its chosen ideology sway to the beat of capitalism. This practice has led to a connection in the American imagination between the goodness of a particular ideology and economic prosperity. A moral system appears valuable as long as it produces profit. Therefore, when the economy goes bust as usual, most people tend to blame the mainstream morality rather than the mainstream economy. If capitalist economic crisis keeps on discrediting ideology after ideology it is no wonder Americans lose their faith so often and with such bitterness.
Having lost the moral certainty provided by culture and politics of the 80s, the 90s is looking back to the 70s for directions on where to go and what to do when faith in a particular moral system doesn't pay off anymore. Like Americans in the 70s, Americans in the 90s are loathe to deem any political position or action good. In fact, politics in the 90s focus more on distinguishing between what constitutes work and what constitutes leisure, or how the two categories might be said to overlap. Unsure of how to remedy widespread economic injustices, high unemployment rates and urban or environmental deterioration, Americans pay rapt attention to problems of sexual harassment in the workplace or homosexuality in the military. Both issues are examples of how the politics of right and wrong are being mapped onto distinctions between work and social leisure. Aggressively sexualized behavior, long deemed appropriate (if consensual) in social situations at the disco or in a bar, is now punishable by law if acted out in a work environment. Who a person chooses to have sex with in their leisure time is, in the military, a public and political issue subject to regulation. Homosexuals and the anti-homophobic are attempting to challenge the military ban on homosexuals by pointing out that a rigid distinction exists between what people do with their personal lives and what they dofor work. Americans have no sense of collective faith in righteousness of any type; instead the 90s offers individuals a variety of micro-faiths to choose from. One can belong to any of a number of small-scale collectivities dedicated to different kinds of social morality. Faiths in the goodnesses of one's gender, race, sexual preference, ethnicity or geographical location have generally replaced widespread 80s faith in the goodness of everybody's "American democracy" or "family values" for everybody.
We are remembering the 70s in the 90s because we want to forget exactly what the 70s wanted to forget: an overwhelming ideological confusion and directionlessness at all levels of the American economic and political power structure. We have work (or leisure) without morality. In other words, we have no coherent sense of justice. I said earlier that the routine crises of a capitalist economic system have acted as catalysts for the ideological vacillations of the past few decades. While capitalism could be understood to discredit various forms of faith, it would be just as accurate to say the faith of the 80s or 60s discredits capitalism. For what made right-wing and left-wing faith so popular with Americans of the 80s and 60s was that it brought about changes in the way capitalism structured their daily lives. Whether capitalist modes of production were expanded or limited, they were nevertheless changed for what Americans hoped was the better. If various forms of national faith have been invented to control capitalism, then it would appear obvious that capitalism is the problem: no matter how you believe political leaders should try to care for it, it continues to fall apart and destroy the lives of many Americans on a regular basis.
So perhaps the 70s revival should be responded to as a warning signal, for it was during the 70s that America invented a new faith and thereby reinvented capitalism as we know it. Now that America has lived through the devastating implications of 80s capitalism, it is time to reconsider our position, to reorganize and refocus our collective national faith. To the extent that the 90s is a decade in search of faith it is a decade seeking to escape the effects of capitalism. Let us then pay attention to the lessons the 70s taught us about the problem of making capitalism determine the nature of human faith. We have learned through faith in goodness that capitalism must be controlled, not that it should control us. And the best way to control capitalism is to turn it into something else, some other economic system which does not need to die and make everything else die with it every few years. In the 90s we will need to watch out for the new faith. Be careful what you hope for. If we continue to believe in the inevitability of capitalism, every faith will have its price.
Annalee Newitz is a graduate student in English at UC-Berkeley, and is Co-Editor of Bad Subjects.