Everything here is comfortingly familiar and entirely unoriginal. The intro and title screen are from David Cronenberg; the characters are from John Hughes and Steven Spielberg; the plot is an amalgamation of E.T. and Super 8, held together by various other tropes of 1980s popular culture; and the soundtrack is the sound of the 1980s heard through the ears of today, in this way following Donnie Darko. In the event that the nauseating nostalgia of these elements isn’t enough to reshape viewer consciousness to its childhood form, it casts Winona Ryder in a prominent role; her face alone will take the audience back through time to the safety of youth.
The entire aesthetic of Stranger Things is an affirmation of the products of the 1980s Culture Industry, celebrated both by and for the generation whom in its youth was entirely enamored and indoctrinated by it. The nostalgia of wholly self-deceived producers responds to the nostalgia of wholly self-deceived consumers in a constant reproduction of the same thing: a culture shorn of its critical capacities. The imagination behind this production is a testament to the colonization and reprogramming of consciousness by that great propaganda machine of Neoliberal Society – Hollywood.
Yet, the backward-looking stance of Stranger Things presents us with significant insights into the psychological tensions in society today: deep uncertainty and anxiety, alleviated by mechanisms of escape.
The nostalgic aesthetic is a safe house for an audience seeking comfort in its memory and feeling of childhood. In this picture life was simpler technologically. The pace of Silicon-Valley-led technological change in the intervening years has been unmatched historically. This change seems to run ahead of our intellectual, moral, and emotional capacities for evaluating its ultimate purpose, immanent effects, and long-term trajectory.
Also in this picture, life was optimistic economically. Whereas the global financial economy was just taking off in the 1980s, promising a bright future under Reaganomics (for the winners), today it has completely run aground, taking a vast plethora of life-opportunities with it. Eight years after the biggest crisis in capitalism’s history there is still no end in sight, barring The End of planetary life itself by our own hands.
This vague future uncertainty finds expression in the generalised anxiety so pervasive today. As a defence mechanism the ego may find refuge in regressive infantilism. From here it can seek parental-type authority figures that are capable (they proclaim) of addressing the arduous task of decision-making in an altogether uncertain world. This infantilism channels support towards authoritarian personalities promising greatness from their unique leadership abilities.
But there is no crystal ball; there is only uncertainty. Retreats into childhood leave the decision of how we ought to live to someone else, and it is usually demagogues, despots, or empty-vessels that respond.
(Originally posted October, 2016)