When the legend becomes fact… print the legend.
I’ve been working my way through Michael Benton’s When Life Nearly Died, thanks to a recommendation from Matt Maxwell. The book is ostensibly about the Permian extinction event which wiped out ninety percent of life on earth a quarter billion years ago, but the author also devotes a good deal of space to the political and ideological struggles which shaped paleontology over the past two-and-half centuries. While I’m strictly an amateur historian who deals in popcult artifacts instead of fossils, I’ve found much to ponder in those passages about the shaping of consensual narratives and the absence of a single comprehensive timetable.
You’d think that establishing definitive dates and chains of causality would be easier for someone dealing with human detritus generated within (more or less) the realm of living memory. The archives are amply stocked and don’t involve picking through ancient sedimentary beds for a tantalizing fragment of some primordial bivalve. Sure, biases need to be factored in and filtered out, but there’s no question about the release date of All-Star Squadron #33 or the chart placement of a given Beatles single.
Temporal proximity is a double edged sword, however. Yet, while verifiable facts are easy enough to come by, organizing them into a narrative framework can be an ordeal. That “nearness” means that there are a wide array of parties with a vested interest in shaping the narrative for reasons both personal and political. It can be as insidiously overarching at the erasure of a marginalized group’s accomplishments or as intimately personal as the self-mythologizing nostalgia of an aging hipster. In any case, it means swimming against a current of stakeholders with an active interest in shaping the historical narrative.
It also doesn’t help that the post-industrial will toward “retro” chic has further muddied the waters by imposing a market-driven version of nostalgia based on the vetted pantheon of consensual touchstones. Be it the pomade-and-poodle-skirt version of the “Fifties” peddled by Grease or the 8-bit synthwave depiction of the Eighties, they pander to those old enough to want to selectively remember while presenting a Disney-fied version of history to those too young to have been there.
Even when rare oddities and artifacts come to light, they are places with the context of these narratives. Instead of being taken as part of a wider contextual tapestry, they are held up as singular pinnacles of accomplishment. It’s always “the forgotten band that *really* invented thrash metal” or the “TV show that completely transformed everything” or some other form of marketable spin to promote the flood of documentaries, podcasts, or thinkpieces which follow in the wake of these discoveries. Rarely, if ever, is consideration given to the cultural ecosystems from which the subject arose. And when it is, it also tends to be framed within the prevailing mythic narrative.
I’m hardly immune to nostalgia’s retrograde allure. The archives of this site fairly reek with it, but I try to be conscientious about drawing a line between “what was” and “how I want to remember it.” It’s an absolutely crucial distinction to make for anyone who wants to tread in this swamp and maintain their precarious footing. Mythologized narratives make for enticing reading, but they can be dangerous distractions when associated issues are still being hotly debated.
That urge to untangle an honest semblance of the truth from entrenched legends is what keeps bringing me back to the anti-comics “panic” of the 1950s, the “death” of disco, and the videogame industry crash of the early 1980s. All three events have been rolled up into mythic narratives so entrenched that even “experts” have premised their studies of them around received wisdom that could be easily refuted with a couple of hours to browse the source materials.
It’s not that they’re wrong, per se, but that they present an incomplete picture which just happens to play toward pre-existing biases. Only an idiot would deny that the “disco sucks” movement had its roots in a growing current racist and homophobic sentiments, but fad-driven over-saturation and other industry side issues loomed far larger than Steve Dahl’s nonsense ever did in determining disco’s demise. Clarifying and contextualizing these distinct but interconnected trends doesn’t diminish the former, but rather opens it up for a wider exploration of the issues involved.
And while a lot of these musings end up here in some form or another, I’m not motivated by pageviews or accolades. Armagideon Time is just a slop bowl for what I tend to overthink on my own private time.