Grafton Tanner

University of Georgia communications professor Grafton Tanner’s second book “The Circle of the Snake: Nostalgia and Utopia in the Age of Big Tech” explores the nostalgia phenomenon and its relationship with technology. 

Over the last few years, nostalgia has cemented its place within pop culture. Miley Cyrus’ cover of Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass,” scrunchies making a comeback and countless reboots of 1980s and 1990s film and television franchises are just some examples of nostalgia impacting pop culture in the United States.

University of Georgia communications professor Grafton Tanner’s second book “The Circle of the Snake: Nostalgia and Utopia in the Age of Big Tech” explores the nostalgia phenomenon and its relationship with technology.

The book serves as a follow-up to Tanner’s first book, “Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts,” and was released on Dec. 11 through Zer0 Books.

The Red & Black spoke with Tanner about the new book and about the relationship between nostalgia and technology.

The Red & Black: Could you talk a bit about your first book, “Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts”? What did the process of writing that book look like?

Grafton Tanner: That book came out in 2016 probably four or five months before Donald Trump got elected. A lot of what I was writing in that book was critical of what I saw as this enormous nostalgia wave swept through the West but especially in the United States. [The wave] started out kind of harmless, and then suddenly it transformed into “Make America Great Again” which was this nostalgic rallying cry that a lot of people really liked and that resulted in Trump’s election. I was trying to pay attention to what was going on with this emotion and how it was being weaponized politically but also how it was being used in modern media. I took that and coupled it with a general fascination with this music genre called vaporwave. [Vaporwave] comes out of the late 2000s early internet scenes where these producers would get together online and make this really strange music where they would slow down old pop samples and apply all these different effects to make them sound warped. I wanted to analyze vaporwave and position it within a broader trend that I was noticing with nostalgia at the time, so that was sort of where that book came from.

R&B: When you were working on the first book, did you know you wanted to do the follow-up book or did that idea come about later?

GT: No, but I knew that I wanted to keep interrogating nostalgia because it didn't really ever seem to go away. I mean you've seen the various series and movies that come out like the “Saved by the Bell” reboot. It shows that nostalgia is an emotion that has a lot of currency today; it hasn't really gone away. I wanted to kind of keep digging into [nostalgia], but I also wanted to find out what it had to do with digital technology, particularly with the tech companies that are increasingly becoming more monopolistic every year. I've wanted to kind of tie those together, and in fact, I'm still not done. I'm actually currently writing a book about the recent history of nostalgia that will be out sometime toward the end of next year. So, I can't seem to stop writing about this.

R&B: The book focuses on nostalgia and technology— why do you think these topics deserve the limelight, especially right now with what’s happening in politics and the pandemic?

GT: Well, you mentioned the pandemic, and that’s been a major engine for nostalgia. People are nostalgic for January and rightfully so because things have changed so drastically and quickly, which is a natural breeding ground for nostalgia. It’s pretty easy to [access feelings of nostalgia] today. We can easily queue up any old movie or old television series or a new series that looks like it’s set in another decade. If someone has an internet connection and a Netflix account, that's all you really need to kind of indulge. I talk to people all the time who tell me, “Oh, as soon as the pandemic hit and we had lockdown for two weeks, all I did was just catch up on a bunch of old movies that I’d never seen before.” So, I think the reason why [nostalgia and technology] deserve attention is because we use technology to return to old experiences. So therefore media tends to be almost like a catalyst for greater and more intense nostalgic feedback loops.

R&B: What are you looking forward to in the coming weeks and months as people read the book?

GT: Well, I've had sort of a consistent conversation with people over the years after “Babbling Corpse” came out — people who not only want to talk about vaporwave but also talk about nostalgia, media and society in general. I really enjoy that. I look forward just to speaking with people from all over the place about issues with technology in our lives and how big tech can facilitate certain bad things and problems. It's been a fun process to write about and get to speak to other people about [these topics].

The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.