IT’S HARDLY A new observation to say that everything old is new again. Nostalgia in the twenty-first century is not so much a feeling as a cultural force: TV shows and movies are now frequently set in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, offering exaggerated re-creations of the aesthetics that defined those eras (did my parents’ 1980s suburban living room look anywhere near as stylised as those that appear in Stranger Things or Physical?); Instagram accounts churn out memes and anecdotes that epitomise the decades in which their millennial audiences came of age; and, perhaps most confronting of all, my eighteen-year-old niece dresses exactly like the cool kids at my high school did a little more than twenty years ago.
These examples might sound trivial, but I suspect they’re just symptoms of a wider malaise. For New York Times critic Jason Farago, we’re living in ‘the least innovative, least transformative, least pioneering century for culture since the invention of the printing press’. He’s not saying we’re incapable of producing great art, or that creativity is flatlining – if anything, we’re generating more content now than ever before. And perhaps that’s the problem: when technology can deliver us whatever song or story or sartorial look we desire, time loses its meaning.
Funnily enough, Farago’s view isn’t new, either: ten years ago, the late, great cultural theorist Mark Fisher (who makes a couple of cameos in this edition) posited that our ‘montaging of earlier eras’ had reached such fever pitch that we no longer even noticed our submersion in a sea of bygones. And sitting alongside this purported cultural inertia are our increasingly divergent attitudes towards history – the far-right impulse to romanticise the past, the far-left desire to remedy its wrongs – and how they inflect our politics.
If we’re truly stuck – caught between competing strategies to achieve progress as we recycle and remix what’s come before – what does this mean for our future?
PAST PERFECT HOLDS this complex prism of the past up to the light. Its essays, fiction, conversations and poems refract myriad perspectives, contexts and approaches. In this collection, you’ll discover how technology mediates our memories; revisit the heady world of last century’s ad industry, with its questionable gender politics and wild parties; reconsider national narratives and the ways in which literature, particularly by First Nations writers, can challenge them; understand the complex relationship between our words and our worldview; take a tour through the decadent creations of leading Australian artist Michael Zavros, whose work resists moral interpretation; examine the joy of loving lowbrow culture; explore the evolving legacy of Scarlett O’Hara, a character who’s been revered and reviled for nearly a century; consider how nostalgia can be weaponised in pursuit of flawed political ideals; and much, much more.
I’d like to thank the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund for their ongoing support of our Emerging Voices competition – we’re very proud to publish work by the first of our four talented 2023 winners, Beau Windon, in these pages.
It’s probably fitting that this edition, with its double vision of past and future, is the first of the year – a year that will, no doubt, yield yet more technological innovation and political polarity alongside a fresh tranche of cultural and artistic reboots and callbacks. I hope this collection can offer you new ways of thinking through them all.
3 January 2024
More from this edition
Poetry After a photo by Annie Leibovitz of Johnny Cash with his grandson Joseph, Rosanne Cash and June Carter Cash, Hiltons, Virginia, 2001 It only takes...
Non-fictionCommon sense alone tells us that what we’re capable of thinking and what we’re capable of saying are not the same thing. When we struggle to find the right words, when a word lingers on the tip of our tongue, when words just won’t do something justice, we understand intuitively that thinking takes place independently of expression. It’s in this way that supposedly untranslatable words, for which our language has no exact or close synonym, are often so deeply pleasurable: not because those words reveal something about a worldview that’s unfamiliar or foreign to us but precisely the opposite.
In ConversationAll my work as a writer and activist over the last fifty years has comprised various attempts at what I call ‘escaping the frame of European colonisation, European story and European ways of telling story’. ... Latterly I have reframed myself as an international Indigenous writer, walking the talk as well as writing it, this year going to French Polynesia and Australia, and soon to Sweden, Finland and Germany. I will paddle my waka to Canada and the US to meet up with First Nations, Inuit and Coastal Salish artisans to share our stories as Indigenous peoples at risk in a world where we are politically, economically and culturally disempowered.