Culture’s corpse

Fake Out

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When will we know that the best of our culture is behind us?

In high school, driving my dad’s pick-up, I remember being incredibly proud of my pathetic CD collection. I had an auxiliary cord, of course, which meant that most of the time I’d just listen to my iPhone. But whenever the feeling struck, I’d limit myself to my CDs.

In my immediate arsenal, I had a One Direction mixtape of Up All Night and “The X-Factor” performance bootlegs my friend burned for me, two of my mom’s Joni Mitchell CDs, a copy of Bjork’s Volta, a copy of Tricky’s Blowback that I’d bought visiting my grandma in central California and a CD I burned off my own iTunes of Modern Vampires of the City.

My relationship with my CDs is set in my head directly against my music streaming nowadays. I feel so much more deeply disconnected from my music when it’s streamed. When it comes to streaming, I’m a crotchety old man, shaking my leathery fist in blind anger feeling sentimentality for the past. I look back fondly on that little collection.

Except I didn’t grow up in an era of CDs. I wasn’t in high school in the late ‘90s, as I’ve sometimes tried to convince myself. (Only ‘90s kids, am I right?) I started driving in 2012; my nostalgia is for a CD culture that I didn’t actually grow into. I had to create it for myself, prohibit my music selection actively for my faked nostalgia of compact discs.

I grew up in southeast Louisiana, a larger community equally as obsessed with its own cultural history. The New Orleanian experience amounted to an eyeroll for my age group. There’s an obviously rich history there that I don’t think I need to go into: the Cajun-Creole, Spanish and French influences, the sagas of sin and debauchery.

Still, I was never entirely clear which parts of my local culture were genuinely of the present moment and which pieces of my culture were just kept on far past expiration through mutual agreement and active nostalgia. The only tangible signs of our uniqueness was in the architecture and our drive-thru daiquiri shops. The rest was just a set of anachronisms our community all reinforced together.

I know it shouldn’t have felt as disingenuous as it did. All cultures are some blending of memory and reinforcement. Moving to the East Bay, it was more of the same. But instead of Louisiana’s reinforcement out of an innocent love for its history, the whole Bay Area reeks of a more insidious, cultural affectation with a floundering all-but-dead progressive culture slimed on top of a gentrified techie reality, giving it that nice, savory relish I craved from far away before I moved here.

UC Berkeley has done a great job of creating a pamphlet-ready radical academic and social culture. Our superficial obsession with our own whitewashed history of protest and free speech is muddied by the largely elitist, conservative reality in my immediate field of vision. Our agreed-upon cultural lineage is a hoodwink. Progressivism on this campus is a culture we feel proud to inhabit, a history that levies itself to a gooey mouthfeel and a self-satisfaction in our course readers and discourse. Still, the loudest voices in my ear and in my classrooms continue to be conservative ones. With a pat on our shoulders, we pride ourselves on the slant of progressivism in our surface culture.

It’s the same cultural nostalgia I’ve felt living in the Berkeley Student Cooperatives. The lifestyle of cooperative housing is just another set of deceptions built into the architecture. The co-ops want desperately to be visible proof of progressive future lifestyles, to evoke long histories of house cultures while serving the mission of housing low-income students.

But it’s just as bourgeois as any other living in the Bay Area. The houses I’ve lived in and encountered are so up their own asses about propagating their own respective crusty house cultures, we fail to recognize the falseness of our own projected wish-fulfillments. Elitist white bohemianism performs most authentically when it doesn’t recognize itself as such.

I know out there somewhere there’s got to be genuine culture of the immediate moment. My fake CD nostalgia and the bullshit of co-op culture are still real even if they’re fake. And anyways, who do I think I am I to decide what’s authentic and what’s fake?

Culture is constantly in flux, and that transience can make people who are unprepared for change uncomfortable. A close friend of mine once mused jokingly that “we are here to wash and dress culture’s corpse.”

I’m not going to tell you I’m above what I’m describing. I’ve participated willingly in the washing and the dressing, because I’m just as self-satisfied and just as nostalgic.

As I write this, I’m listening to Joni’s Court and Spark on my computer, reminiscing on the experience of sticking it into the CD drive on a rainy drive home. It doesn’t really sound all that different. When I stop paying attention to my own wistfulness, the differences between CD and the MP3 are indistinguishable.

But for my own sentimentality, I guess I’ll just keep pretending there’s a difference.

Justin Knight writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on building identity by consuming culture. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @jknightlion.