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The past returns to life

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Paul Mason | 15:55 UK time, Wednesday, 25 February 2009

See if you can work out what is going on here, here and here. Rita Hayworth and the finale to Tristan and Isolde. Rita Hayworth and Softly Awakes My Heart from Samson and Delila. Rita Hayworth montaged with Chopin.

We are less than five years into the rise of social networking and self-publication and it's already giving rise to new forms of human behaviour. The fascinating thing is, though, how redolent of old, even ancient, forms of behaviour our online activity is.

I've reported before on Newsnight about death rituals inside multiplayer games; new forms of ancestor worship on genealogy sites and the re-emergence of "Cartesian dualism", where people begin to conceive of their online self as a separate entity, much as Descartes conceived the mind as a separate material entity from the body.

What I think is going on in these lovingly crafted schmaltzy "tribute" videos is also quasi-religious. It is a kind of beatification. And it's just part of the wider re-emergence of collective memory that the social media has opened up.

YouTube is fascinating in this regard. We are opening up whole layers of past experience that have been forgotten and buried. If you are, for example, a Rita Hayworth fan the base layer is ripped-off clips of the best bits of her movies.

Then you get fairly straightforward biographical pieces like this (although the YouTube movie makers can never seem to resist montaging Rita against 19th century opera).

And on top of that, clips from documentaries.

Switch from Rita to less palatable memories of the 1940s and there is a lot out there in YouTube land. The Nazi Horst Wessel Lied comes in just as many formats as Rita Hayworth tributes, and you can also watch Nazi wartime propaganda videos that are still banned in Germany.

Now, while I think these can be valuable source material for historians and students, my guess is that a lot of this stuff is not being watched for that reason, but for the general purpose of hate-nostalgia.

I will not post any links to them, but there are hundreds of Nazi-nostalgia videos on YouTube, including photos of modern housewives with swastika cake-icing decoration tips.

It is not all pernicious. As a result of the geeky obsessions of individuals, nostalgia has become a giant industry on YouTube. Remember the Singing Ringing Tree? Here it is (I had nightmares about that dwarf as a kid!).

Want to know what a cotton mill was like in the '30s, and what kind of cheesy movies will get produced if we enter a Depression again? Click here.

One of my own geeky obsessions is the 1930s dance band Orlando and his Orchestra, for the simple reason that my grandfather played clarinet with them. Until today I've managed to assemble MP3s of maybe five or six tracks by them. But while writing this blog I absent-mindedly typed in the name of a singer who worked for them and it came up with this.

The interesting thing here is that it's been uploaded by a German 78 record collector. And because of the way YouTube is indexed, you tend to find a lot more searching YouTube than you would if you simply searched Google.

What all this is about is, ultimately, the human memory and its interaction with emotions like loss, nostalgia, idealisation.

It fascinates me because almost everything produced by amateurs on YouTube has a clear subtext, whether it's "I'm really a Nazi" or "I would like women to go back to being like Rita Hayworth".

Whereas when people blog, and above all when they are social networking, the discourse is mainly "text" not subtext. Just look at all your friends who are under the age of 35 on Facebook and, generally, their profile photos say "How cool am I?".

The Facebook discourse is literal, straightforward. The YouTube montage is complex, subtextual and takes us into areas of psychology few people would normally want to expose themselves to in public. There's a whole other aspect of historical memory opening up right now on Google Earth, as well, which I'll explore in a future blogpost.

What does it mean? Where is it all leading?

I don't know. One of the most challenging things about this rapid emergence of new forms of communication is that there's almost no academic work going on about it, and what research is being done is fragmented across many different disciplines.

Many people still find it hard to accept that the online world is part of reality. Sarah Palin famously had a go at the US government for funding research into fruit flies in Paris, so I can't imagine public funding for research into online funeral rituals inside World of Warcraft getting rave reviews in some quarters.

I will open it up to the collective wisdom of the Newsnight crowd. Is all this stuff evidence of mass psychological disturbance or are we using the internet to make ourselves psychologically healthier by searching out our fears, fantasies and lost memories?


  • Comment number 1.

    Congrats on being shortlisted on the Orwell prize..

  • Comment number 2.

    Very interesting stuff-and a refreshing break from economic analysis. I haven't had time yet to fully digest and cogitate on what you have written, but my gut reaction is one of displacement activity. You use the words 'searching out' as if it is some retrospective activity using very modern technological instruments. Looking to the past nostalgically. When things look bleak in the present, people will hark back to a so called 'golden era' instead of concentrating on how we can make the future better. Has Facebook or You tube really made our lives richer? Has the ability to post on various blogs made us feel empowered-I don't think so. We are so fragmented now and almost one step removed from the reality of our lives-I am talking about the so called 'developed world'. We can communicate in lots of 'instant ways' but is anyone really listening?

  • Comment number 3.

    This directly inspired my recent work of the last three years. Its so direct, pure and the diagonal
    movement has a mesmerizing quality, yet the camera is still.

    Watching clips, for me, allows a closer more detailed analysis of the technique and process, its like a camera format rectangle, it concentrates.

  • Comment number 4.

    I think it makes us more introverted and more distant from each other.

    We live much of our lives internally now and the net re-inforces that.

    We need to remember that on online cuddle with your son or daughter will never be the same as a real life one.

  • Comment number 5.

    Psychological issues are usually so deep that it seems unlikely, unless by happenstance, that they could be effected by the internet. It cannot be a step on the way to a healthier society, but then they aren't on the road to a sicker society either. What is happening, perhaps more clearly than ever, is we are being shown what is there. And what's there in a way that isn't circumvented by 'taste'.

    There are people who are Nazi-sympathisers, melancholy idealists and lovers of obscure footage.

    I agree with a previous poster. With this massive explosion - is any of it registering? We are being swamped with over-production? Does that matter?

  • Comment number 6.

    Neither can I resist the childhood memories from old adverts...

    'You 'um it son, I'll play it..'

  • Comment number 7.

    ...Many people still find it hard to accept that the online world is part of reality....

    do the old TV lags tea cups rattle when the web and blog and ytube is mentioned over the hob nobs?

    for some think all that is now 'normal' and see those that don't as fuddy and maybe duddy?

  • Comment number 8.


    The extreme forward edge of human ingenuity drives ever-faster and ever-farther away from the conditions in which we evolved. That we might be able to cope with such 'progress' is infinitely improbable.

    The 'primitive' sees a photograph and intuits some loss of self. Surveying the profusion of gizmos now impinging on us, one can only wonder if we are being completely hollowed out and zombified - while feeling nothing. . .

  • Comment number 9.

    Class post Paul, look forward to seeing what the crowd have to say.

    As you say, what really stands out about a lot of these new tools like Facebook, myspace, and twitter, is the opportunity they give people to construct and manage the image of themselves that they want to project to the world.

    But as a lot of the appeal of these sites still lies in interacting with people who have usually met previously offline, people can't really deviate too far from the image of themselves already familiar to the outside world. And attempts at stage management usually revolve around picking their most flattering/'zaney' photos and lying about where they've been travelling.

    Online games and worlds like secondlife take everything one step further, totally removing the need to anchor self image in reality and allowing fantasy to rule. Whether this is good or bad is an impossible question to answer I think.

    Your point about the differing levels of text and subtext are also food for thought. I'm not sure I agree with you entirely about the lack of subtext in blogs and on social networking sites. Although most people might be putting photos on that scream 'how cool am I', it's often fascinating to see how different the images are that people think project 'cool'.

    I also often find myself trying to discern a subtext in many of the posts by bloggers on these sites, and wondering whether regular posters feel any sense that their 'identity' is now partly defined by their contributions on blogs.

    And I spend as much time exploring my own motivations for my infrequent posting. And, indeed, my use of the word 'infrequent' in the last sentence. What do I want people to think when they read what I've written? Perhaps I'm trying to project an image of myself that I find comforting and hoping for positive feedback to reinforce that image. Not that I ever get any positive feedback.

    I think in a way this desire for positive reinforcement of our 'ideal' image is what drives a lot of the 'user-generated content' on the web to a greater or lesser degree. For the most part this needn't be a problem, but things always start to get slightly blurred at the edges.

  • Comment number 10.

    Paul, is the subtext of your post that since your last post, way back on the 12th of Feb, all you've been doing is playing world of warcraft with occasional breaks to swoon over cinema icons?

  • Comment number 11.


    The online world is PART of reality, it is not reality itself and it is getting disproportionate attension when compared to its value at the moment.

    It never satiosfies, it only leaves you wanting more.

    Sound familiar?


  • Comment number 12.

    Hmmmn ?

    I doubt a serious discussion between the Aristotlian subject-object notion of truth and say the phenomenology of Heidegger is going to get things very far ?

    Maybe best just to accept that it's all out there on the net and we can make whatever meaning we can from it.

    The blogosphere gives instant community consensus in so many areas, and I think this could be a powerful force for the future.

    Serendipity rules !

  • Comment number 13.

    Dear Paul
    As you have only received a few postings on this particular blog, and may therefore actually read them, could you tell me what is going on with Robert Peston's blog reference 'strongholdbarricades' being able to post without being moderated? Please.

  • Comment number 14.

    Sing as We Go cheesy? What kind of Lancastrian are you, anyway?

    Seriously, though, great post, and a much-needed corrective to the headline-hunting psychologists who have been haunting our screens in the past few days (though I'm glad to say Paxo was pretty openly contemptuous of one of them the other night).

    Unlike them, what you do here is show some respect for people and their creativity, instead of looking down your nose at them and telling them what they ought to be doing instead. I found the Rita Heyworth stuff genuinely moving, because of what it said about the people who put it together. Good on you.

  • Comment number 15.

    It strikes me that there are two different things going on here. Social networking sites are about precisely that - people communicating with each other. Whether it is mindless trivia, high level intellectual discourse or even - in some cases - ruthless dissemination of propaganda is almost irrelevant. What matters is that this is material which is spontaneous in that it is generated in real time to generate a more or less immediate response. In that sense, it is really no more or less than the telephone with whistles and bells.

    That is a world away from the fantasy worlds that are available for browsing - and that is in essence what You Tube is. On one level, it is an invaluable resource for research and entertainment but, at worst it is no different from or better than having the TV on 'just for company'. As with any technology, it depends what you use it for and it is a bit of a cop out to question the technology when what really counts is the motivation of the user.

    Interactive gaming would, I guess, lie somewhere in between (I am not a gamer) but it is certainly a social activity though you might be forgiven for thinking that it is quite easy to socialise with someone if you never actually have to look them in the eye for real.

    What I like about the medium is that nobody can invade your space uninvited. I know who is contacting me before I respond and generally I know why. I also have a record of what has been said. This is stark contrast to the phone when you never know whether the next call will be life changing or some idiot trying to flog you double glasing.

  • Comment number 16.

    Good essay, Paul.

    This needs to be savoured and enjoyed.

  • Comment number 17.

    The future has a life too.

    Wealthy individuals can arrange for themselves to be cryogenically frozen at the point of death, in the hope that they can be thawed out and bought back to life at some point in the future.

    But in what we might describe as the democratisation of death, ordinary individuals can shine on as avatars via site such as Second Life.

    Usually on such sites, individuals create fantasy avatars but it would be possible to attempt to create an individual that is as close to you as you can construct it.

    I visualise my avatar of me becoming quite sophisticated over the next few decades.

    Indeed, it will certainly should not grow old as I grow old but I suppose just like in what we think of as 'real-life', my avatar could suffer a premature demise in the virtual world.

    That's (second) life.

  • Comment number 18.

    Einstein and Godel suspected and tried to prove that time can not actually exist.

    So in effect we are all already dead.

    Where does that leave all of this?

    All I iknow is that I have unexpectadly become a Rita Heyworth fan.

    Thanks for that Paul.


  • Comment number 19.

    Many years ago, 1970 to be precise, I wrote a dissertation on cultural change. The initial phase was that everyone bought into the spirit of the times. The second phase was when it became apparent that the spirit of the times was out of step with the reality. The third phase was the collapse of the structures that embodied that spirit. The next stage was chaos and the final stage was the creation of a new reality.

    It was a rather crude and, dare I say it now, juvenile analysis. However, it retains some validity.

    My feeling is that we have for the last few years become progressively unhappy with the spirit of the times as best expressed in the greed, aggression and waste that was all around. This induced many to look inwards as they struggle to rationalise their own dichotomy of living in a mad-house whilst trying to remain sane. In previous generations this may have meant a drawing into religion and similar beliefs. Nowadays we have the internet and a rather obsessive culture of the self so the emotion goes elswhere.

    People are now looking away from the future. It is fearful and uncertain. The past we know and we can revel in past glories and think about what might have been. It is all very comforting.

    Yet this is a sign of people running away from the future. I always like to come back to the old slogans from Nanterre in 1968: `art is dead, storm the reality studios' and `run forward, the past is behind you'.

    The future is ugly but if we engage with it we can make it less so and even create some beauty.

    As for `cool'; we discussed this at work the other day. We agreed that it is most `uncool' to be obsessed with being `cool'. `Cool' people have their own style.

    So back to Nanterre but now to 1969: `the struggle continues'!. It has and it will. I am quite looking forward to the next round: it will be quite exciting!

  • Comment number 20.


    "Now, while I think these can be valuable source material for historians and students, my guess is that a lot of this stuff is not being watched for that reason, but for the general purpose of hate-nostalgia.

    I will not post any links to them, but there are hundreds of Nazi-nostalgia videos on YouTube, including photos of modern housewives with swastika cake-icing decoration tips.

    There's a very thin line here. Material designed to incite violence and hatred is one thing, and we rightly have laws to deter/deal with that, but discouraging a class of politics through association by guilt through implied messages is quite another, and as propaganda may have contributed to the inertia/anarchism which brought about our current economic crisis. This requires some careful thought I suggest.

    The source of this new piece is not a social networking site, but when they put their original video up in early 2007, very few paid attention. In fact, in a BBC Newsnight piece unrelated to the release, Stephanie Flanders went and interviewed the 'wrong' people on intelligence.

    Sadly, that's how the negative propaganda tends to work. At great cost to most of us it would seem.

    PS. Germany was very concerned about its birth rate in the 30s. Plus ca change.

  • Comment number 21.

    We're now being shown anniversary footage of the Miner's Strikes - 1984 of all years, when Thatcher and crew decided to free the UK from intrusive government, the state, and public control of all means of production paid for by decades of other peoples' hard work and taxes. After thirty years of Orwellian Trot spin, an economy built on asset stripping, lies, wars against imagined terrorists, and finally, classic usury/deceit at the expense of the naive, still people believe all that nonsense about 'freedom'.

  • Comment number 22.

    Yeah ...postmodern...yeah... yeah...

    This echoes the 'postmodernist' excuse for real poltics that has been manipulated into central position for the last 20 years, while ignoring what is really going on.

    Why are people harking back to Nazi?

    Why do some excellent old people who fought against Nazis in WW2, or sustained themselves through years of bombing, AND then achieved the welfare system, now believe that they were on the wrong side?

    You cant smear them with shit.

    Look for the reasons - in the reality of the politics. And how those on the make have used the good intentions of people for their own benefit.

    The scramble of public opinion is a result of poor media, itself steeped in class. The mixed messages it produces have produced a confused public, who of course look to any source of comfort.

    How to destroy and disempower society - give it rubbish, self interested, elitist media.


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