The New New Topographics…..Nostalgia for the Suburban


Arcade Fire disagrees...







So, do we want to move back to the suburbs or not?  Because I’ve been getting mixed signals lately, and I’m trying to think through what might or might not be the opening salvo in a renaissance of suburban longing (if there has already been a full-blown renaissance in suburban longing, please someone fill me in).

Arcade Fire’s 2010 widely acclaimed album The Suburbs pines for an idyllic return to the simplicity of low expectations, wide lawns, and strip malls.  I cannot, for the life of me, figure out if they’re being serious or not.  But I thought it might be interesting to consider the album next to the 1975 photography exhibition “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape,” if only because it takes as its subject the very scenes of 1970’s suburban life that Arcade Fire sings so moonily about (incidentally, a new collection of essays to be published by the U of C Press in February reconsiders the show, so I’m trying to get my shots in here quickly)

The images in “New Topographics” portrayed trailer parks, decrepit factories in the exurbs, blank urban spaces, and parking lots.  Though it would eventually become one of the most influential bodies of landscape photography in history, the show flopped when it first appeared.  The images marked a major departure from previous modes of photography in their simple descriptions of scenes.  They did not seem to overtly judge, and yet there was an undeniable snarkiness to the pictures.  Audiences seemed not to “get it.”  It didn’t help that the Eastman House was featuring the work of university-trained photographers–a maligned crop of academic practitioners that allegedly lacked the natural talent thought to be necessary for authentic picture-making.My juxtaposition of “New Topographics” with Arcade Fire’s 2010 album The Suburbs is a bit tongue in cheek, though I still really can’t tell if the group is actually pining for the suburbs or not.  I can’t tell who is being sincere and who is being ironic.  Is Arcade Fire genuinely longing for the suburbs, or are they satirizing the desire for convertibles and freshly paved roads?  Are the photographers in “New Topographics” genuinely trying to do documentary work, or does their  rendering of empty “man-altered” landscapes nakedly satirize or criticize the spaces they depict?

I really don’t know.  I just wanted to type a few words about both, regardless…

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2 Responses to The New New Topographics…..Nostalgia for the Suburban

  1. Tyler says:

    I’ve been (indirectly) thinking about this a lot lately:

    1. I think it’s important to note that with 1980 more than 30 years past, we’re starting to see the transition from irony to nostalgia. There’s been a definite shift from laughing at the 80s to embracing them. I do think “The Suburbs” is meant as a love letter, but after making fun of something for so long, it’s hard not to be suspicious. Then again, maybe “love letter” is simplifying it too much because there sure is a lot of resignation, longing, and loss going on in that album.

    2. Over Christmas I was watching a movie with my dad called “Please Give.” The premise of the movie is unrelated to this discussion, but in the movie there’s a couple who happen to be raising their kids in NYC. While watching, my dad turns to me and asks: “do you ever wish you grew up in the city?” Initially, I found myself unable to separate my present self (who both loves and lives in the city) with my past self (who both loved and lived in the suburbs). Unable to come up with anything, I finally just said “I don’t know; I suppose I’ve never really thought about it.” And it’s true, I’d always assumed my childhood could not have been otherwise because I had never considered the number of decisions that went into determining when, where, and how I would grow up. After thinking about it and recalling that urban areas in the 80s were largely cesspools of crime, violence, and filth, it would be difficult for me to say growing up in the suburbs sucked. And it didn’t. Regardless of what I think now, child Tyler had a great time. So, re: should we move back, I think those sentiments are largely the result of a time and not of a place. In other words, “The Suburbs” is a longing not for the suburbs, but for childhood (which happened to be in the suburbs). Put simply: we can’t move back.

    3. Finally, I’ve been thinking about our current generational plight and I keep coming back to Althusser and his precious interpellation. What initially seemed so undesirable, now seems rather appealing. What post-grad wouldn’t kill to be hailed right now. Perhaps one of the things “The Suburbs” might be tapping into is that desire for interpellation. Pitchfork definitely hints at this: “Soul-sucking work was at least once a dependably secure and profitable enterprise. Now what do we do?” And I think the Village Voice makes an interesting case as well:

    What did our parents do to us?

  2. I think the way to start addressing some of what you’re talking about here is actually to ask, “What did our parents’ parents do to *them*?” That is, I think taking the long view, and considering about how the suburbs have evolved as a site of longing for/hatred of the notion of the American dream is the way to start addressing what it is we’re actually nostalgic for. This is just one reading that I want to try out. I’m not really sure if it makes any sense or even if I believe it, but here it goes:

    When our parents rebelled against the middle-class expectations of their parents, the result was the 1960’s and the longest sustained moment of counterculture in US history. Yes, that counterculture eventually became mainstream. But not before setting the stage for our generation’s rejection of the notion that working in a factory/corporate office/paper company for one’s entire life could ever be enough. The notion of dignity accruing to certain kinds of mundane white collar labor (and blue collar jobs in general) by virtue of raising a family in the suburbs diminished, to the point where college-bound high schoolers of the last twenty years have come to expect something else.

    We may not have felt the weight of these expectations during our upbringing (and it occurs to me that I never really thought of the city/suburb divide either, especially since I commuted to school from Westchester, that ULTIMATE American suburb–for me the city and suburbs existed as conjoined, and yet separate worlds), but have certainly grown into them. The the once-dominant narrative of having a house and two kids in the suburbs is no longer the American dream. We have other expectations, specifically located around the how work should give meaning to our lives. We’re supposed to feel satisfied in our service-and-thought-and-cultural labor in a way that seems fundamentally different than the labor of our parents and our grandparents–labor that, incidentally, gets done in cities where we can’t afford rent.

    Our generation doesn’t rebel against these abstract expectations, so abstractly passed down from our *nice* parents, who read guidebooks about how to raise open-minded children who would be able to think abstractly. Instead, we lament. We lament the unfairness of not having been told what to do. We lament not being able to connect emotionally in a way that lives up to the expectations created by “Sesame Street.” We lament the necessity of keeping up with the hippest bands in order to stay culturally aware. We lament the inability of those bands to provide us with anything but easily-consumed, prepackaged, indie-fied tones. And for a long time we have lamented the fact that there is no counterculture. And instead of constructing a real one, we were ironic about the culture we *did* create for ourselves. And when irony got too poisonous we turned to sincerity. But a selfish sincerity–not a curious one that asks honestly “what’s next” or admits “I don’t know what love/hate/politics is”–rather the one raised in organic farms, vinyl stores, Instagram, 80’s music, and plaid. That is, a sincerity that looks backward, and valorizes those who have the best re-readings of previous forms of expression. Nostalgic sincerity. Not productive sincerity.

    Our parents taught us to respect each other’s feelings, and told us they were giving us lessons in inclusiveness. But they were really just scared we were going to treat them the same way they treated their parents. We never learned that it was right and good to tell our parents to go piss up a rope. Instead, we wanted to become their friends, thanking them for giving us such a nice upbringing, and trying to appreciate bands that sounded like new interpretations of their music—as well as bands that seem to make music that’s nostalgic for the childhoods that they made possible in the suburbs.

    “Our parents were nice!” we say. “They let us become our own people.” And so when you ask to whom is Arcade Fire’s love letter addressed, I think it’s partially to them. Irony was the closest we got to rebellion. We never graduated past the phase of sticking our tongue out. And now we are nostalgic for an abstract mood, fostered by the notion that life was perfect in the suburbs. The album is addressed to precisely that period when we didn’t think about the suburbs as a site fraught with crossed vectors of desire and expectation: to a moment before we learned we couldn’t ever feel as intensely as our parents claimed was possible, and instead were just learning about feelings in that idyllic-looking land of wide lawns and summer barbecues.

    When we look at the future, we wish we didn’t have to feel so conflicted about our desire to be those modern kids singing their rococo song (lyrics sometimes don’t make sense on this album…let’s just admit it)–living in the cities and making our noise. But at the same time, we can’t “forget these pretentious things and just punch the clock.” The best we can do is swoonily sing about the past where these concerns just weren’t on the table.

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