The Power of the Past in the Land of iPhone

I was listening to the NPR report on the auction of Twentieth-Century Fox memorabilia this morning, and it was another reminder of the dominating power of celebrity in our culture. Owning a sliver of their lives has almost talsmanic power. In a world where, increasingly, we connect on MySpace and in SecondLife within a virtual grammer that lacks touch or feel, there is an potent power in the tangible.

It also made me think again of what a truly bi-polar consumer culture we’re in. Americans may not be political extremists, but we certainly are emotional extremists. On one hand, we fetishize the past, whether it be Humphrey Bogart’s first studio contract (one of the items in the auction) or vintage sneakers or half of the kitschy omnium-gatherum that is eBay. On the other, we are this-just-in creatures of the new, always looking forward, never Lot’s wife

How do we reconcile this retro-obsession with our worship of the next Steve Jobsian revolution? Americans are fundamentally a move-on people, for sure. (That’s why Bush’s spinmeisters are calling his new Iraq plan “The Way Forward.”) We don’t agonize over the past, we move past it. Yet part of us obviously clings to, and wants to own, the artifacts of a simpler, less troubled and tortured time. Deep in our ironic age, nostalgia becomes both a meta-commentary and a shot of Paxil. We bid for the past as we push on to the future.