Stance | ‘Memberberry Syndrome: Escaping the Present through Nostalgia
Words by Kaylin Michelle Sullivan
Retro fashion, thrift shopping, throwback Thursdays and flashback Fridays, period-themed everything… the past has become a common theme in this cultural moment. Even the latest season of Black Mirror depicts utopia or “heaven” as a beach town in the 1980s and the success of the likes of film La La Land and TV series Stranger Things certainly represents a demand and desire for a throwback in storytelling. Could this obsession with nostalgia be an attempt to escape the chaos, cruelty and corruption of the present? Is it a symptom of laziness and regression as a society?
It’s obvious to anyone that advertising, pop culture and ludicrous politics are an integral part of society, constantly finding opportunities to throw up all over everything and infiltrate our consciousness. The moulding effect of this on our individual characters is inescapable and the prevalence of it often makes life feel like a dystopian science fiction story. While I’m not 100% cynical about humanity, for argument’s sake, if we look at things as a whole, even slightly squinting at them from afar, it’s easy to make out that society’s functioning is more often than not non-conducive to intellectualism, mental, physical and spiritual health. Rather, we are relentlessly oppressed, every day, by our own systems, imprisoning ourselves in jobs to maintain survival while neglecting actually living so that we can obtain and produce money — that cruel mistress who ruthlessly rules by squashing down and manipulating the everyman. The superpower of our world, I suppose, can be personified as an angry, greedy ranting fat guy. Death and destruction taint the globe every single day at the hands of religious and territorial conflict. Freedom of expression is teetering on a cliff’s edge thanks to self-censorship running rampant through social media surveillance. And although our technology, science, art and more is evolving rapidly, we seem to be regressing ideologically, or at least standing still. Perhaps society is in a state of post over-indulgence sluggishness; like an old man after Christmas lunch nodding off on the couch, pants unbuttoned, debilitated by consumption. Or perhaps the future looks so messy from here that we don’t even want to deal with it.
And so, typically, we tend towards escapism and this week’s flavour seems to be ‘memberberry. ‘Memberberries emerged on season 20 of the contentious animated series South Park. Taking the form of purple berries (looking much like grapes- perhaps an allusion to the similarities their effects bare to alcohol), they are a personification of nostalgia and throwback culture which put characters into a brainwashed daze by adorably reminiscing amongst themselves and harking back to “better times”. They say things like:
“ ’Member Chewbacca?”
“ ’Member Ghostbusters?”
“ ’Member the 80s?” (God damn people love the 80s)
The notion of ‘memberberries is a clever vehicle for depicting how nostalgia has become so prolific in not only pop culture, but politics as well. For example: both America and the Middle East displaying a desire for, and movement towards past ideology and practice. The ‘memberberries escalation from cute throwback moments to some really fucked up shit that they say not only cheekily teases throwback culture but also comments on the danger of regression.
Throughout the season they develop a villainous role as powerful brainwashing mechanisms and devices of grand mass distraction while uttering some very Trumpified and conservative slurs, such as:
“ ‘Member when there weren’t so many Mexicans?”
“ ‘Member when marriage was just between a man and a woman?”
“ ‘Member when you felt safe?”
South Park being a fictitious exaggeration of society, the murmurs of ‘memberberries of course resonate with the real world: Facebook reminds us every god damn day “you have memories with…”, Trump shouts out spray-tanned phrases like “make America great again” in a yearning for “the good ol’ days”, fashion magazines show us how 70s style clothing can be chic AF and Hollywood falls back on retelling and retelling and retelling old stories. And we swallow it all like a time-travel Stilpane because that’s much easier than facing the Aldous Huxley-esque future that could await us. And it’s as if this realisation makes us collectively exclaim, “oh Jesus, no! That’s awful, what the fuck! This can’t be possible!” So we’re inclined to turn around and run away from it. And thus, ‘memberberry syndrome takes hold: our escape and regression by means of nostalgia.
Ironically, we tend to cling to anything relating to nonexistence rather than dealing with our actual existence and the present. We literally base the meaning of living on the fact that at some point we will cease to live. And this obsession with nostalgia plays into that same characteristic: while the past shapes, influences, and impregnates the present, it is, in fact, nothing more than memory. While the present brachiates from moment to moment, this fact goes unnoticed as we grasp at memories and reminisce ad nauseam. For the most part I think it’ a harmless cultural fad but it’s important to be mindful of how harmless cultural fads mirror more serious philosophies and behaviour in powerful spaces.
Kaylin is a semi-employed English/Drama graduate trying to find her way as a South African millennial writer, still sometimes suffering the post-UCKAR afterglow set against the backdrop of the very real and often cruel Johannesburg. She is equally, and extremely, both cynical and hopeful about humanity. Her dream is to travel the world and write about it.
This piece was first published in Edition 13 of Ja. magazine.