Stranger Things and The Condition of Postmodernity
Lately I’ve been reading and seething through David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity—I seethe because (and I think this is applicable to mostifnotall art movements) I generally prefer David Foster Wallace’s thoughts on postmodernism:
It’s a very useful catch-all term because you say it and we all nod soberly, as if we know what we’re talking about — and in fact we don’t. (transcript here)
If we’re talking about the postmodern “condition,” this quote applies double. Nevertheless, there are quite a few bits of Harvey’s analysis of postmodernism that I find fruitful and interesting, and which I find applicable to the lovely sensation that has been the Netflix series Stranger Things.
A small disclaimer: I loved Stranger Things. While it’s not perfect by any means (and though I don’t want to make its issues parenthetical, I also don’t want to dwell on them since they aren’t super relevant here, so: Barb is unfortunate for a million reasons; Eleven’s characterization that makes her obsessed with “prettiness”—a concept that doesn’t seem to make sense for her to be obsessed with considering she’s an unsocialized child who can barely speak English [which also doesn’t make sense]; there are some generally head-tilting politics throughout the show; etc.) I still really liked watching all of it in two days when I should have been doing something else. One of its criticisms that keep coming up, though, is relevant to Harvey: an over-reliance on 80’s horror tropes that borders on (or crosses the line, depending on who you’re asking) soulless nostalgic pandering.
If we consider the show’s use of those 80’s horror tropes as a decision towards meta-influence—and I think we should—it’s easy enough to think of the show as a postmodern marvel. It uses the various tropes in a synthesis the audience is extremely (sometimes painfully) aware of: we’ve got Carpenter synths and monster, Spielberg children and camera work, Cronenberg walking around doing something nefarious. Everything about the show is familiar in a way that’s joyous for some and tired for others. Harvey argues that this “jumbling together all manner of references to past styles is one of its [postmodernism’s] most pervasive characteristics” (85). Personally, I went back and forth, loving the Carpenter influence and hating every time Spielberg stuck his head, but Harvey has this critique of postmodernism’s use of history; he argues that “postmodernists simply make gestures towards historical legitimacy by extensive and often eclectic quotation of past styles” (85). Then goes on to say:
It has, unfortunately, proved impossible to separate postmodernism’s penchant for historical quotation and populism from the simple task of catering, if not pandering, to nostalgic impulses. (85)
He then quotes a fellow critic of postmodernism, Robert Hewison, who says that postmodernism’s historical quotation leads to a situation wherein
We have no understanding of history in depth, but instead are offered a contemporary creation, more costume drama and re-enactment than critical discourse (87).
There are a couple of problems, of course, juxtaposing these arguments with Stranger Things. For one, these authors are commenting specifically on postmodern architecture and the heritage industry; for two, I might argue that Harvey’s argument against postmodernism’s historical quotation is a kind of furrowed-brow reproach that takes things too far. In this contemporary moment, we can access any amount of history we want through the internet or the library (the dreaded archive): I would argue that eclectic and pervasive quotation is inevitable, and not necessarily bad. It’s better to know this history and use it than to stuff our ears to it, no? And who is to say that the juxtaposition of historical quotation isn’t critique in and of itself—collage artists, I imagine, would have something to say about this.
Stranger Things does border a little close to outright nostalgia, for sure, and uses a lot of those tropes without attempting any sort of subversion—the show did these things on purpose, right down to the casting of Winona Ryder. But it’s also fun to bring together your historical/artistic influences to see how they work with one another: half the work of creating art right now, I would argue, is curating the influences going into it, because it is both impossible and irresponsible to create art arrogant of the history behind that art and the history behind that history of art. Do I wish Stranger Things was a little more critically self-conscious? Yeah. Do I think that its use of 80’s tropes without palpable subversion of criticism of them makes it a bad show? Eh.