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Retroverdose (on Strangely Familiar Things)

An article on Stranger Things (SPOILER: it’s duffing long!)

Stranger Things – A Netflix Original [heh] Series

Retromania: from the 2000s onward, pop culture has lacked the creative, future-oriented, dynamic energy of the previous decades: rather than opening the future, it inaugurated the ‘Re’ era, i.e. dominated by the ‘re-’ prefix – such as in revivals, reissues, remakes, re-enactments – thus representing endless retrospection.
  The post-millennium ushered in an era of unoriginality that feeds on its own history, trades in references, and quickly begun to rework material from a past that is increasingly immediate—thus has pop culture turned into an endless act of regurgitation.

What does this have to do with Stranger Things? With the debut of this series in 2016, pop culture has seen a particular development of retromania: from the mania of retro, i.e. the cultural pervasiveness of it; to the intensification of retro, i.e. the artifactual over-dosage of it.

And hence: Retroverdose (on strangely familiar things)…

Contents

Part 1: DUSTINtroduction

  • Serial Fiction of Substance
    • Four Recent TV Series of Significance
  • The Case of Stranger Things
    • Early Evaluation of Stranger Things (Chapters One-Four)
  • Casual Analysis of Stranger Things (Seasons 1-3)
    • Stylistically Slick—Substantially Shallow
    • Referential Compulsive Disorder (RCD)
    • Supra-Homage Subversiveness

Part 2: MIKEontext

  • Terms o’ the Times
    • Enter the Blogosphere (the ‘Upside Down’?)
    • Retromania – Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past
    • Literary Devices
  • Summary of Context
    • Retro and Nostalgia
    • Missing the Mirkwood for the Trees
    • Dim Peaks
    • Retrostalgia (Definition of)

Part 3: WILLnalysis

  • Shallower Things
    • Flowers for Exposition(-on)
    • The Mythologizing and Glamorizing of the 80s
    • Conspiracies… (of Silence)
    • “You Gotta Be Fuckin’ Kidding”
    • Walkie-Takie (et al.)
    • The Reference Reloaded (or, Dufferences)
    • Easter Eggos
    • A Metaphor for ‘Meta’
    • Original—in the Original Sense
  • Strangely Subversive
    • ‘The Grass was Greener…’
    • ‘…and the Award Goes to… The 80s!’
    • Demogorgonish Nostalgia
    • Caught in the Web—or the Net (Either Way, it’s Bad)
    • Parallel Dimensions
  • Phenonmenal Following
    • Magnetic Mist-ery
    • The Fellowship of the Things
  • Politicized Nostalgia
    • Retrostalgic Reactionaryism
    • Geopolitical Undertones
  • Conclusion to Analysis

Part 4: LUCUSummary

  • Retroverdose… (The Remix; or, Attention Deficit Edition)

Reference List

  • Dawn of the Read
  • ‘I’ll Be Book

Part 1: DUSTINtroduction

Serial Fiction of Substance

As watching TV series’ is highly time-consuming, I don’t watch them often, being very selective when I do: I only begin a series if I have learned that it contains aspects I consider to be unusually significant. In other words, I watch series of fiction not for entertainment purposes, but for intellectual stimulation; and generally, with a mind to reading some good analysis afterwards, so as to create dialectic between my own casual observations and thoughts about the series.

Four Recent TV Series of Significance

In recent years, there have been four series that I found to be thoroughly worth watching in this sense—in order of significance, they are:

  1. Black Mirror (2011-): A series on its own level, above all others—both in form and content.
  2. Person of Interest (2011-2016): The best conventional series I’ve seen, due to its overarching theme and its scripting around it.
  3. Humans (2015-2018): Less directly significant than the other three series—but done extremely well.
  4. Years and Years (2019): In a way, the most significant series of the four—essentially being a quasi-official projection of the next decade of British society. However, I have placed it last because it seems to be a one-off series of only six episodes.

The Case of Stranger Things

As to Stranger Things, the little I had heard of it was that it was based on a Goonies-esque dynamic; that it featured deep reverence for the 80s; and that it was extremely popular as soon as it ‘dropped’. After reading the synopsis and watching the trailer, I didn’t think the series was worth watching in the way that other series I had recently seen were. However, since Stranger Things didn’t have many episodes (which it calls “Chapters”); and since the form and the content did contain aspects of interest, I decided to begin watching it…

Early Evaluation of Stranger Things (Chapters One-Four)

Halfway through watching the first season, it was clear to me that the series was not ‘essential’ to watch, as were the four I had previously mentioned, i.e. in terms of themes or structure. The cinematic quality and high production values displayed by Stranger Things were nice—but these features are not what I look for when selecting TV series (or movies). And after having watched the first four episodes, I couldn’t see what the point of the series was—other than to pastiche 80s movies. Added to this, the focus of the series (in terms of characters) was clearly the group of pre-teens—which although casted and acted very well, is quite unappealing to someone of my age (40). And as if to enhance the status of the children, the character played by Wynona Ryder was almost unbearable during these episodes, making the series that much more unappealing to me.

Proto-Analysis of Stranger Things: The Three Core Elements

Thus by the mid-point of the first season, my early evaluation of the series was comprised of three elements:

  1. The plot is weak, in that it is vaguely addressed.
  2. The incorporation (through various means) of 80s culture – particularly iconic movies; and to a lesser extent, television series – is an integral characteristic of this series.
  3. The form is cinematic; and with a high production value all around—giving it the distinct atmosphere of a top-notch-entertainment movie.

Casual Analysis of Stranger Things (Seasons 1-3)

At this point I decided to abandon the series, at least temporarily, preferring to watch other programmes instead. A few weeks later though, with little else of interest to watch, I decided to resume the series—at which point I watched all three seasons within the time frame of about three weeks.

Stylistically Slick—Substantially Shallow

Essentially, my evaluation of Stranger Things didn’t change after having completed the series in its entirety. Stylistically, it is quite pleasing to watch (even the intro is so damn seductive it’s practically impossible to skip—I dare you to try… I duffer dare you!)—but substantially, the premise for the series is one which makes the plot inherently shallow.

Referential Compulsive Disorder (RCD)*

As someone who is by no means a film buff, I nevertheless noticed (i.e. unavoidably) frequent ‘references’ to 80s movies; as well as more recent movies, television, and cultural products or events. During the first season, it had become clear that this referencing – which came in different forms, to be discussed later – was an integral part of the series.

*If this ever gets into the DSM, you saw it here first.

Supra-Homage Subversiveness

Strangely Goonielien

Taking the Mikey

The two movies referenced most prominently – by which I mean that the references were most striking to me, as well as being frequent – were The Goonies and the Alien franchise. The ‘child-group dangerous adventure’ dynamic of The Goonies movie is built-in to the narrative of Stranger Things—which is obviously by design, as every opportunity to consciously reference that movie in some way is deliberately taken.
  However, upon seeing Sean Astin appear at the start of Season 2 – famed for having played Mikey in The Goonies – it became that much more clear to me that Stranger Things is not merely paying homage to 80s movies and culture, but it is doing something more significant than that: a kind of subversiveness not quite seen before. And sure enough, the creators of the series – The Duffer Brothers – were to soon confirm it with emphasis: for as if this supra-homaging wasn’t clear enough with the mere presence of Astin, the map scene (Chapter Five: Dig Dug) during which he says “What’s at the X? Pirate treasure?” was – at this point in the ‘homage’-laden series – practically a declaration from the writers to the viewers.
  But exactly what does the show declare? Part of the aim of this article is to clarify and answer this question, within the overall aim of discussing the significance of this show in relation to contemporary society.

Mad About 2

Parallel to the The Goonies references were frequent Alien references—one of which was obviously Wynona Rider herself, who starred in the fourth movie of that series, Alien: Resurrection. As with Astin, the dovetailing of major movie references with these particular casting choices is not the least bit coincidental, but is intricately designed from the beginning. And in case there was any doubt (as to the extraordinary extent of this contrivance), the appearance of Paul Reiser in Season 2 – who played a memorable role in the movie Aliens – put it to rest. Amidst the backdrop of more Alienesque scene homages, Reiser is cast in a role analogous to that of his villainous character Burke in Aliens—or at least, it is made to seem that way at first: as later on, his character is inverted to reveal one basically the opposite of Burke.

The 80s… Dies Hard

In Season 3, the elemental hyper-referencing of Stranger Things seemed to have become decidedly even more pronounced, at least on casual observation. As the most striking example of this increased emphasis is a sequence of scenes, beginning at the end of Chapter Four and continuing at the start of Chapter Five. Near the end of The Sauna Test occurs a visual allusion (involving Dustin and Erica) to the iconic ‘air vent’ scene in the movie Die Hard, which – as is often the case with Stranger Things – is unavoidably recognisable: meaning that it is, by design, intended to announce its presence to the viewer—including its intended design.
  And yet the blatancy of this instance pales in comparison with its follow-up companion, which is placed mere minutes afterwards (at the start of the next chapter, The Flayed). As if to amplify the already loud-and-clearDie Hard everyone!” announcement preceding it, it is followed by blatant retro-enactment of the classic Die Hard line:

German Bad Guy [a gun pressed to the back of his head by John McClane]: You won’t hurt me. You’re a policeman. There are rules for policemen.

…strangely resurrected as:

Russian Bad Guy [a gun pressed to the back of his head by Jim Hopper]: You won’t do that. [Hopper: Why’s that?] Because you are a policeman—policemen have rules.

Duffers to Originality: ‘You’re Terminated, Fucker.’

Directly preceding this scene was another blatant allusion to another 80s action classic, in how the Russian bad guy Grigori – who had clearly been cast and costumed to closely resemble Schwarzenegger’s character in The Terminator – is used to create a Terminator-esque vibe leading up to the Die Hard retronactment. So immediately following his encounter with McClopper, they (i.e. The Duffer Brothers—and not surprisingly at this point) have their Retronator get his Arnie on big time (“T2 everyone!”). And this after having Grigori, in the previous episode, directly referenced as being Schwarzenegger, when mayor Kline says of him: “It’s Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
  Presumably the Duffers would have had their Russianator (as fans and critics have dubbed him) say a remix of the phrase “I’ll be back”—had Schwarzenegger actually left it in the 80s… instead of endlessly bringing it ‘back’. The Duffers are, however, dedicated to bringing everything else from the 80s back, it seems…

‘I Must Break Remake You’

Also worthy of note is another aspect regarding the design of this character Grigori: that being his noticeable likeness to Dolph Lungren’s character Ivan Drago, the Russian villain confronted by the hero Rocky Balboa in the movie Rocky IV. This reference not only fits in with the Cold War theme of Stranger Things, as that theme was also central to Rocky IV; but it also represents a Planet Hollywood tapestry of references, i.e. the weaving of flagrant references, to the most iconic characters of the biggest action-movie stars of the 80s (and probably of all time) – those being (needless to say) Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone* – within the space of about five-ten minutes.

*Equally needless to say is the referencing of Stallone’s other iconic 80s action-hero character, John Rambo—again involving Hopper; but this time with a benign Russian, who calls him a “Fat Rambo” in Chapter Six: E Pluribus Unum.

The Present in the Past—in the Present

An especially blatant and incomparably striking appropriation by Stranger Things is the black ‘void’ setting from Under the Skin, which is a (very strange) movie released in 2014, featuring unforgettably weird scenes of a black void space that was emblematic of the movie’s avant-garde (which in this case, is downright strangeness). During Stanger Things Season 1, Chapter Five: The Flea and the Acrobat, the audience is introduced to a replica of this black void setting, as representing an aspect of the ‘remote viewing’ powers of the character Eleven. And thus, it is a recurring setting in Stranger Things from then on, as Eleven and her abilities are central to the show.

Mise-en-Scène-This-Before(!)

The effect of seeing this setting for the first time was an alert to yet another dimension of the Duffers’ retrotainment strategy. Up until this point in the series, the tapestry of homage was grounded in the 80s, perhaps with some references to post-80s media—but nothing this recent. Whereas this mise-en-scène relates to a movie that was released only two years earlier. And what make this homage appropriation even more remarkable is both that it concerns the most creative and memorable aspect of that movie; and that it then incorporates it into the very fabric of its own series.
  In other words, to raid the 80s is one thing (and I would imagine that the artists concerned are all too happy for this resurrection); but to – dare I say it? (it’s been coming) – plagiarise* the critically acclaimed creativity of an artwork from about five minutes ago—well, that’s something entirely different (how the duff did they ever get away with it?)

*I sense it would be wise to point out, firstly, that my ‘criticism’ here is not in the spirit of disapproval, but in the spirit of critical observation; and secondly, that critique of the Duffers’ creation – and thus unavoidably, of themselves – will be placed within a context which encompasses them—meaning that it is ultimately a critique of the Sign o’ the Times… (which mess with your mind…) [80s Prince everyone!]

Wink-Eye Emoji (Uncredited—and Edited)

In terms of The Duffer Brothers’ design of their series, the elements I have discussed so far are not in the least bit improvised, let alone coincidental, but are systematically planned. This point is central to the theme of this article: that Stranger Things is not doing anything new, in the true sense of originality (Black Mirror being an excellent recent example of this); but it is doing something ‘new’ in the sense of taking a common artistic convention to a new level of intensity – stemming from a radical ethos – so as to produce a substantially different effect.
  The Planet Hollywood sequence of scenes I mentioned earlier was, for me, an Astin 2.0—meaning that it telegraphed an ‘upping of the ante’ in relation to the “pirate treasure” line the writers put into Astin’s mouth in Season 2. More specifically, it signalled an upgrade of the effect of that contrivance: which was to practically announce the ethos of Stranger Things directly to the audience—the wink-eye act of announcement itself being part of this ethos.
  The wink-eye style of fiction is, of course, well-established in contemporary society. The case could even be made for the wink-eye emoji as being the ‘the sign of the times’ (I sense him winking at this sentence now, in an approval blended with conceit). But I can’t think of any other series or movie that has done what I have witnessed throughout Stranger Things—which is to, in a manner of speaking, construct an entire work of fiction – i.e. from the ground up – largely out of retro-styled wink-eye emojis.
  And as I said before, the Duffers’ taking of this artistic convention to a new level of intensity has produced a substantially different effect, which can be felt in the way that these wink-eye references do not feel ‘wink-eye’ anymore. For in the totality of whatever it is that they are doing, the concepts of ‘wink-eye’, ‘reference’, and ‘homage’ – in relation to cinematic fiction – have effectively been terminated (‘…fuckers.’)

A Plot to Flay Your Mind

The article thus far has merely scratched the surface of the techniques used in Stranger Things, whilst indicating the ethos behind them. Following my casual observations in Part 1, Part 2 will provide the context for Part 3, which forms an analytical discussion based on the thoughts I developed whilst reading articles on the show.
  Before proceeding to the next parts, my casual observations were enough to indicate the clear presence of a true plot, indicated by a submeta-narrative that lurks beneath the ostensible plot. To first address the ostensible plot, I shall call it the superficial plot and encapsulate it as follows:

A ‘free-range’-child-group coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of a supernatural Cold War between the USA and the USSR.

The character development of the pre-teen children – i.e. as they are provoked to enter teenagehood with an unusually degree of maturity – acceptably takes precedence, with their individual and collective narrative arches designed and executed well enough to endear them to the viewer. However the backdrop narrative arch, I found to be vaguely addressed by the writers—and by “addressed” I mean that this vagueness is intended as part of the design.
  I had already sensed this aspect half-way through the first season, realizing that it was responsible for making the show feel shallow, despite the obvious appeal of its other strengths. And as I continued watching, this shallowness only confirmed itself as being, essentially, part of the ethos for Stranger Things—which at this point became apparent as an agenda. For the constructional details of the ‘supernatural Cold War’ backdrop – which seemingly serves to propel the adventures of our dear characters, thus justifying our emotional investment in them – is both established and developed in a disappointingly superficial manner. Given the meticulous design and lavish production clearly evident in all of its other aspects, the neglect of the all-important backdrop of the Stranger Things plot seems decidedly out of place.
  For any other series, I would have put this down either to laziness, or a strategic commitment to style over substance. Stranger Things, however, quickly displayed what I will call (for the moment) a self-reflexive meta-plot, which began on a level of prominence that was at the very least parallel to that of the superficial plot. To encapsulate this meta-plot:

Hey viewer, my name is Stranger Things and my whole purpose in life is to remind you of as many movies, TV shows, and other cultural aspects from the 80s as possible… because that was the most awesome decade ever! I will also remind you of other cool stuff from beyond the 80s—just because the present is so lame and depressing (am I right or what?!) And I don’t mean to brag, but I’m pretty sure no one else can do this as awesomely (or obsessively!) as me—not to mention my general coolness with all the regular stuff: lovable characters, horrific monsters, supernatural powers, wicked conspiracies… rate me B for bingeworthy!
  Now then, whilst I’m entertaining the heck out of you, let’s see how many of my slyly weaved in references you can catch… because you gotta catch ‘em all!

Definition: Self-reflexive is a term applied to literary works that openly reflect upon their own processes of artful composition (e.g. works of fiction that repeatedly refer to their own fictional status).

As I watched further, I found that this agenda of Stranger Things – i.e. the Duffers’ particular design of the series – does not represent a meta-plot, but a supra-plot—meaning that it is in fact the true plot of Stranger Things, evidenced by the fact that everything else is clearly designed to service it. So what we have here is a self-reflexive supra-plot: “supra” because on closer inspection, it plays the Master to the superficial plot, which plays its Slave; and “plot” not because it represents an actual plot (which it doesn’t) but because it is an artistic agenda which supplants the conventional plot, so as to make it a superficial one by design. And hence, it is closer to a ‘plot’ in the other sense of the word, i.e. a subversive plan… (the plot thickens… [blogwise, I now mean…])

Definition: Supra is a prefix meaning “above, over” or “beyond the limits of, outside of”.

For just as the Mind Flayer does to the residents of Hawkins, the supra-plot does to the audience of Stranger Things: beneath the cover of familiarity, it invisibly pulls the psychological strings of the collective that is its hosts. But to be clear, the subversiveness I am speaking of here is not well represented by my encapsulation of the supra-plot—there is a lot more to the intent and effects of its design. In other words: the reference-mania displayed throughout Stranger Things will be obvious to all—but if one examines its technique closely and places it in its proper context, the significance of this series becomes apparent…

Part 2: MIKEontext

Terms o’ the Times

In order to discuss various significant aspects of Stranger Things in a substantially analytical manner, I will first here, in this pivotal section, discuss several terms that will provide the necessary context for the analysis. Presented diagrammatically (behold my Retrostalgiagram!), these terms are:

NOSTALGIARETRO
(Hauntology)

Intertextuality

Homage ↔ Pastiche

(References / Allusions + Easter Eggs)

Metafiction

Enter the Blogosphere (the ‘Upside Down’?)

Soon after completing the series, I began identifying and collecting the top articles written about Stranger Things, seeking primarily analytical articles; but also including those offering relevant insights, or simply very good descriptions of the show’s aspects. The contextualization I shall make here represents my raison d’etre for this entire article: it represents the significance I perceived whilst watching the series… and whilst investigating the commentary on the series, I found it to be a significance that had essentially gone unmentioned.

Retromania – Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past

Thus, before I attempt to turn the ‘upside down’ the ‘right-side up’ regarding the analysis of Stranger Things – i.e. by discussing the discoveries I made from my trip to the blogosphere – I will begin establishing the over-arching context for that analysis by discussing the book Retromania – Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, by Simon Reynolds (2011). The theme of that book – which is clearly indicated by the subtitle – was one I was frequently reminded of whilst watching Stranger Things, as the show’s aspects and dynamics prompted my casual thoughts.

Based largely on Reynolds’ insightful discussion of them, what follows is a clarification of the two most prominent terms I shall use towards establishing the context for my Stranger Things analysis—those terms being ‘nostalgia’ and ‘retro’.

What – Exactly – is ‘Nostalgia’?

The Original Meaning of Nostalgia

The word ‘nostalgia’ originally meant ‘homesickness’: a debilitating craving to return to the native land, causing symptoms including melancholy, anorexia, and even suicide. Thus, its original meaning referred to a longing to return through space, rather than across time: it was the ache of displacement.

The Transformed Meaning of Nostalgia
From Geographical to Temporal

Gradually, the word ‘nostalgia’ was stripped of its geographical associations whilst being remade into a temporal condition. No longer representing an anguished yearning for a lost homeland, nostalgia came to mean a pining for a halcyon lost time in one’s life.

From Individual to Collective

As it was divested of its medical associations, nostalgia also began to be seen not just as an individual emotion, but as a collective longing for a happier, simpler, more innocent age.

From Plausible to Impossible

The original Nostalgia had been a plausible emotion, in the sense that there was a remedy, i.e. returning to one’s home: a world that was familiar. Nostalgia in the modern sense is an impossible emotion – or at least an incurable one – in that the only remedy would be time travel.

From Pathology to Universal Condition

By the middle of the twentieth century, Nostalgia was no longer considered a pathology but more of a universal emotion: it could apply to individuals, as in a morbid harking-back to the past; or to society at large, which has often taken the form of a reactionary longing for an old social order that was considered more stable (owing to its clearly defined class structure, where everybody ‘knew their place’).

Nostalgia as Escapism (From Alienation)

The essence of the feeling of nostalgia is a longing to escape to an absolute elsewhere – the non-place or utopia – of a desire that cannot be defined—because any realisation would always fall short of the ideal. Nostalgia can project the absent ideal into the past or the future; but mainly it is about not feeling at home in the here and now:  a sensation of alienation.

The Pop-Culturization of Nostalgia

In the second half of the twentieth century, Nostalgia became steadily more and more bound up with popular culture. The subversiveness of this movement is both that it expressed itself through the present pop culture, i.e. the nostalgic impulse made to seem as originating from contemporary art; and that it was also being triggered by the past pop culture of one’s youth, i.e. the nostalgic impulse made to seem as originating from artifacts of mass entertainment that resurfaced coincidentally.

The Superseding of Politics by Nostalgic Culture

The mass culture of previous eras increasingly came to superseded political events (such as wars and elections) as the fabric of generational memory. Thus, the markers and ‘nostalgia triggers’ for each generation are the different aspects of pop culture they experienced during the time they grew up.

The Commercialization of Nostalgia

Nostalgia is now thoroughly entwined with the consumer-entertainment complex, which induces pangs for the products of the past—particularly, the novelties and distractions that filled-up our youth.

And What – Precisely – is ‘Retro’?

A Definition of Retro

Retro can be defined as a self-conscious fetish for period stylisation, expressed creatively through pastiche and citation. And it can be critiqued as combining elements of the past and the future… to create something not quite as good as either (that’s straight outta Mighty Boosh, FYI).

The Distinctiveness of Retro

Distinct from the obsessions with antiquity displayed by previous eras, the contemporary obsession of Retro is one that involves the cultural artifacts of its own immediate past. Therefore, it is the fascination with fashions that have occurred within living memory that distinguishes Retro from antiquarianism or history.
  Another essential difference is that revivals were based around high culture and originated from the higher echelons of society (i.e. aristocratic aesthetes and antiquarians with a rarified taste for exquisite collectables)—whereas Retro involves the artifacts of popular culture (i.e. beginning at the flea market, charity shop, jumble sale and junk shop).

The Retro Sensibility

The Retro sensibility does not idealize or sentimentalise the past, but seeks to be amused and charmed by it. Thus, the motivation is not scholarly and purist but ironic and eclectic—i.e. retrochic makes a plaything of the past. The playfulness of Retro obscures its nature in being actually related more to the present than to the past it appears to revere and revive: it uses the past as an archive or materials from which to extract subcultural capital (i.e. hipness) through recycling and recombining—the bricolage of cultural bric-a-brac.

The Signification of Retro

Note that the prefix ‘retro-’ – as in words such as ‘retrograde’ and ‘retrogressive’ – adds a negative connotation to other concepts; as opposed to the prefix ‘pro-’, which adds a positive connotation, such as in the word ‘progress’. Thus, the word ‘retro’ – which appears to have originated by the appropriation of this negativizing prefix – is essentially a signifier of negative concepts.
  The appropriateness of the negative signification inherent in the word ‘retro’ is indicated by the fact that people who have a deep interest and love of bygone eras, nevertheless reject any association with Retro: for its characteristics of camp, irony, and trendiness signifies shallow, surface-oriented attunement to style; as opposed to a deep, passionate love of a particular style’s essence.

The Commercialization of Retro

Originally, Retro was the preserve of aesthetes, connoisseurs and collectors; and it was based on their extensive knowledge expressed through a sharp sense of irony. However, through the process of its commercialization, the word ‘retro’ has been made vague, in that it is used to describe anything that relates to the relatively recent past of pop culture—which has lead to a broad range of contemporary uses and abuses of the pop past.

Literary Devices

Towards an incisive analysis of the cultural significance of Stranger Things, it is worth touching upon its artistic technique by considering definitions of the most relevant literary devices:

Note: Definitions are taken from linked articles.

Homage

Homage is a show or demonstration of respect or dedication to someone or something, sometimes by simple declaration but often by some more oblique reference, artistic or poetic. The term is often used in the arts for where one author or artist shows respect to another by allusion or imitation.

Reference and Allusion

To reference is to refer to, to make reference to, to cite; whilst an allusion is an indirect reference; a hint; a reference to something supposed to be known, but not explicitly mentioned; a covert indication.

Note: I have the sense that what are commonly referred to as references – in the context of contemporary film and TV usage – are often more like allusions, i.e. that usually in fiction, the references are not explicit but are indirect—and yet those seem to be called references more often than allusions.

Pastiche

A pastiche is a work of visual art, literature, theatre, or music that imitates the style or character of the work of one or more other artists. Unlike parody, pastiche celebrates, rather than mocks, the work it imitates […] Allusion is not pastiche. A literary allusion may refer to another work, but it does not reiterate it. Moreover, allusion requires the audience to share in the author’s cultural knowledge. Both allusion and pastiche are mechanisms of intertextuality.

Intertextuality

Intertextuality is the point where two works of art overlap. In terms of film, it’s where a movie overlaps with another work of art, whether that be another film, a work of literature, or another art form. [In other words,] intertextuality is the way in which works of art purposely or accidentally connect and intersect. […]
  Deliberate intertextuality occurs when an artist intentionally includes and/or makes reference to other art forms. […] Allusion is common form of deliberate intertextuality where an artist references another work of art directly. Sometimes, allusions come in the form of brief references, like easter eggs that many directors leave in their movies for sharp-eyed fans. […] Deeper, less obvious allusions can be found in other films, and are not always references to other movies; many directors use classic literature as inspiration.
  Obligatory intertextuality is when the writer deliberately invokes a comparison or association between two (or more) texts. Without this pre-understanding or success to ‘grasp the link’, the reader’s understanding of the text is regarded as inadequate. Obligatory intertextuality relies on the reading or understanding of a prior hypotext [the work being referenced], before full comprehension of the hypertext [the work making the reference] can be achieved.
  Optional intertextuality has a less vital impact on the significance of the hypertext. It is a possible, but not essential, intertextual relationship that if recognized, the connection will slightly shift the understanding of the text. […] The intent of the writer when using optional intertextuality, is to pay homage to the ‘original’ writers, or to reward those who have read the hypotext. However, the reading of this hypotext is not necessary to the understanding of the hypertext.

Easter Eggs

Easter eggs [are] hidden references, inside jokes or clues placed in movies, television programmes and video games. Think of them like secret love letters written by the show’s creators to their eagle-eyed fans. The messages aren’t usually obvious and sometimes it can take a die-hard fan to spot them. It is believed the name derives from the idea of going on a traditional Easter egg hunt – the task of finding an object that has been concealed with the intention of it being found.

Metafiction

Metafiction is a form of literature that emphasizes its own constructedness in a way that continually reminds the reader to be aware that they are reading or viewing a fictional work. Metafiction is self-conscious about language, literary form, and storytelling; and works of metafiction directly or indirectly draw attention to their status as artifacts. Metafiction is frequently used as a form of parody or a tool to undermine literary conventions and explore the relationship between literature and reality, life, and art.

Hauntology

Hauntology […] refers to the situation of temporal and ontological disjunction in which presence is replaced by a deferred non-origin, represented by “the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive”. […] In the 2000s, the term was taken up by critics in reference to paradoxes found in late modernity, particularly contemporary culture’s persistent recycling of retro aesthetics and incapacity to escape old social forms. [They used the term] to describe art preoccupied with this temporal disjunction and defined by a “nostalgia for lost futures”.

Summary of Context

Retro and Nostalgia

As indicated by my diagram of terms (a.k.a. the Retrostalgiagram™), the two most essential of the selection are retro and nostalgia; and with nostalgia preceding retro. The reason for this precedence did not originate in my mind, which had associated the form of Stranger Things with the concept of ‘retromania’ I had read about years earlier (in Reynolds’ excellent book). However, once I had completed the series and began to seek the best analysis on it I could find, what I found was a universal association of Stranger Things with nostalgia; which included some association with retro; but basically zero association with retromania—and thus, excluding the true significance of retro.

Missing the Mirkwood for the Trees

As I continued to seek and read the best writings I could find on the series, I found that the insights as a collection proved to be adequate; but that the individual articles were inadequately contextualized—thus indicating a blind spot in the ‘collective consciousness’ with regards to commentary on Stranger Things. This discrepancy between the depth of analysis (excellent) and the focus of context (unclear) formed my motivation to continue investigating the subject, with a mind to writing a contextualizing article on my findings.

Dim Peaks

My intention of the Terms o’ the Times section is to indicate that the each of the terms ‘nostalgia’ and ‘retro’ has not only been culturally morphed into a different meaning than its original, but also that this new meaning has been made vague. This vagueness is due to writers’ using the words liberally, in a variety of seldom identified senses, the nuances between which are completely overlooked—and so without attempting to clarify the meaning(s) of words which are often essential to their discussion.
  Furthermore, the phenomena relating to these two terms are highly significant in the understanding of contemporary culture; and since they are essential in the analysis of Stranger Things within that context, the basic clarification of these terms (accompanied by the other ones) should provide a useful foundation for the analytical discussion in Part 3, during which I will elaborate on these phenomena further.

Retrostalgia (Definition of)

Towards a clearer and more appropriate definition of the particular kind of nostalgia being referred to in the post-millennium, I have combined the words ‘retro’ and ‘nostalgia’ to form ‘retrostalgia’: this word is meant to indicate that the nostalgia of the present is artificially produced by an industry of retro, which recycles the past not in response to a demand for it – i.e. (a relatively) genuine nostalgia – but to create the appearance of such a demand – i.e. manufactured ‘nostalgia’ – which it simultaneously supplies (the term ‘retro-baiting’ is also useful here [2]). To avoid overusing this unfamiliar word, I will continue to use variations of the word nostalgia, which from here on should be taken in the context of retrostalgia.

Part 3: WILLnalysis

Rather than a specific thesis, this section will range a variety of themes relating to the cultural significance of Stranger Things, taking the form of an analytical discussion towards that end.

The articles referenced are all recommended reading, which generally offer a substantially different context on Stranger Things than the ones I have placed their observations in, including many other good observations which I did not find relevant here.

References to Articles: Numbers in square brackets – e.g. [1] – will be used to indicate that the preceding passage contains one or more observations by the author of the corresponding article (see the Reference List at the end of this article).

Shallower Things

Flowers for Exposition(-on)

For such a well polished, meticulously crafted series, Stranger Things has consistently displayed an utter refusal to provide straight answers – i.e. by way of exposition – as to why anything is happening. A prime example is Dr. Brenner, who is the character best positioned to explain the story and establish the plot—and yet Brenner is given a mere handful of lines in a whole season, none of which are designed to clarifying the plot. [1]
  This storytelling ethos of Stranger Things precludes a causal reading of events, the meaning of which therefore must be deciphered metaphorically—limited to whatever extent there is genuine meaning to be found. On the whole, this design simply encourages indulgent speculation (—that ‘misses the Mirkwood for the trees’). [1]

The Mythologizing and Glamorizing of the 80s

Stranger Things obviously makes an idyll of the 80s era from the very beginning, from which it wastes no time at all in announcing this idyllism as part of an ethos. In Season 3, this idyllism progresses from presenting an idyll of the 80s, to promoting an idyll for the 80s—primarily in its glamorization of the mall; but also in its overt advocacy of 80s ideology… [1]

You Can’t Spell ‘America’ without ‘Capitalism’.—Or ‘Erica’.

An example of the Season 3 move to promote 80s ideology is a scene featuring the 10-year-old girl Erica—a character introduced in this season who proved to be a highly popular addition with fans, due to her “sassiness” and general no B.S.-taking. One of her most memorable lines is a striking monologue about the righteousness of the free market system, being what ‘she loves most about the country’:

Know what I love most about this country? Capitalism. Do you know what capitalism is? [Yeah.] It means this is a free market system. Which means people get paid for their services, depending on how valuable their contributions are. And it seems to me, my ability to fit into that little vent is very, very valuable to you all […]

Watching her in the scene, one can’t help imagine that she would probably make a good protégé for Gordon Gekko. And – not so ‘oddly true’, as Dustin claims – is the fact that (as Erica delights to point out to the gang, just before she Gekkos them):

You can’t spell “America” without “Erica”.

Hence: before they wrote Capitalism into Erica, they wrote America into “Erica”—thereby setting up her Gekkologue for a homerun hit.

Strike Three, Mystery’s Out

In ways such as this, Season 3 makes the move away from the nostalgic depiction of the meaningful aspects of life we have lost from that era, towards the crude promotion of the indulgencies associated with it—as if Season 3 ‘sold out’ in capitalistic fashion. Consequently, Season 3 loses much of the ‘mystery’ inherent to the first two seasons. And although that mystery was mostly artificial (in the sense that the plot vagueness was not intended to serve deep revelations, but to keep the spotlight on the supra-plot homage shenanigans), it at least created an atmosphere that helped compel one to follow the series. [1]

Conspiracies… (of Silence)

In Seasons 1 and 2, the theme of a US government conspiracy serves as a meagre ‘explanation’ of (and thus justification for) the collective events transpiring in Hawkins. This is a well-worn theme used in both fiction and non-fiction, which concerns a return to the past for the purpose of identifying major misdeeds that were (conveniently) suppressed at the time… and which are now (conveniently) revealed in the present. [1]

The Sociological Angle

Containing an element of hauntology – i.e. the ‘ghosts’ of the past returning to haunt us in the present – this sociological technique of citing the activities of people from past eras – i.e. those who once had agency or power, but no longer do – as having caused current problems, functions to absolve from responsibility both the present leadership and the citizens: The leadership might be unpopular, but they are not ‘the bad guys’—ergo the populace can comfortably continue to follow them, being conveniently ignorant of whatever current misdeeds are being suppressed (…which will serve to retroactively supply the ‘bad guys’ for their children’s generation… [‘It’s the circle of life‘—The Lion King]).

The Storytelling Angle

In Season 3, the inadequate development of the conspiratorial plot element is reduced to the total neglect of it. In this season, the conspiratorial antagonist switches from the US government to the Russians—who have somehow managed to infiltrate Hawkins by way of the Starcourt Mall, beneath which they run their secret base. How they managed to achieve this feat undetected is a left mystery [1] —but not, as I have been saying, for the sake of mystery. This blatant omission of plot development applies to the Russian plotline in general—which is more striking given the significance of its position in Season 3, combined with the incredible attention to detail embodied by the series generally. And so the Russian element represents a prime example of the superficial-plotting-by-design technique used in Stranger Things—which in Season 3 has made the move to abandon the development of its original plot, so as to exaggerate the prominence of its supra-plot gimmickries. [1]

“You Gotta Be Fuckin’ Kidding”

A dumbing down of the horror aspect of Stranger Things can be seen in Season 3, which makes the move away from horror grounded in character and dialogue, towards the more visceral types of horror that are prevalent in cinema and television, such as ‘body horror’. Exemplary of this move is the confirmed inspiration of the 80s horror classic The Thing, which was a landmark movie in respect to special effects for creating alien monstrosities. [1] [4]

Walkie-Takie (et al.)

Embedded beneath the surface level of Stranger Things – i.e. the characters, conspiracies, and monstrosities – is its most obvious hauntological element: that being its lavish and meticulous representation of 80s-life iconography, with which it adorns its mise-en-scène. Far from being mere scenery, these images of the past – the commonplace technologies, furniture, fashion, and toys of the 80s – are given a presence almost on par with that of the characters; and collectively, they can be considered as being analogous to a character, by design. [2]

Hauntanaloged

An essential aspect of 80s technologies – in this retrostalgic context – is the contrasting modes of analog flows vs. digital bits, in terms of using information and energy forms. The analog world has been lost to the digital world, which has produced a distinctly different atmosphere and experience of everyday life; and Stranger Things exploits this difference in its artistic fixation on the former—particularly early in the series, where digital technology is entirely absent. [1]
  As a technique to enhance the fetishization of such dated fashions and technologies, the child-alien character Eleven initially serves as a surrogate for the audience, who are encouraged to empathise with her various new experiences of ordinary 80s life. And in so doing, we witness her awe and fascination at encountering the mundanities of her new domestic surroundings, and are thus affected to experience similar feelings vicariously in relation to these objects. [2]

The Reference Reloaded (or, Dufferences)

Up until recent years, the artistic conventions of ‘reference’ and ‘homage’ (note: I will generally use ‘reference’ as a catchall term) has taken the form of a quick show of admiration or respect to an influential work or artist; or an embedded ‘in-joke’ designed to be detected and appreciated by fans only. These types of ‘nod’ to other works are incorporated into the fiction in a manner which does not disrupt the flow of the narrative, but rather allows the viewer to quickly recognise and appreciate the reference whilst retaining immersion in the story. Some artists achieve this less effectively than others; and some consciously sacrifice some immersiveness to indulge in ‘cleverness’ of reference-making. [3]

What a Feeling (Mashdance)

In Stanger Things, we see a substantially different approach taken by The Duffer Brothers to the Reference and the Homage. Whereas previously, these devices were intended to merely elicit the recognition of past works, the Duffers have now designed them to reactivate the feelings experienced during the original viewing of the works ‘referenced’. [3]
  In other words, the show feasts on the sounds, images, and lines of classic cinema, so as to imbue itself with their now mythological qualities—in order to retrofy their aura. Furthermore, this new form of reference is not only more elaborate in of itself, but it is part of an overall strategy of such elaboration that is embodied by Stranger Things: its ‘recycling’ of the cinematic and cultural past is not used a storytelling device, but as a strategy of emotional seduction in the form of an artificially produced sense of nostalgia. [3] It doesn’t simply ‘refer’ to the 80s, or use it as a ‘setting’: it meticulously emulates the qualities and characteristic of the 80s – i.e. retroso as to fetishize them. [6]

The Movie Flayer

Hence the skeletal plot of Stranger Things is part of this strategy, and not due to artistic oversight or disregard: for it is the nostalgia-charged references and homages that are actually the ‘plot’ of the show, in that they are what the show is designed to be all about. Come to think of it, Stranger Things can be likened to a Movie Flayer, hell-bent on abducting the most valuable 80s moments until it possess them all, using them towards its own subversive ends (against us, that is). [3]

Pretty in Pastiche

Although the plot of the show is superficial, the execution of this strategy is not: The Duffer Brothers have done an impressive job of building this foundation of derivativeness into a slick and entertaining package. In other words, the emotional currency generated from the recycling of the classics is invested into a televisual production that is, on the whole, well thought-out and executed. The effect is to produce a show that can be enjoyed at face value, due to the cinematically professional and skilfull exploitation of classic tropes; and – as a kind of substitute for artistic or philosophical depth – a show that can also be enjoyed on a quasi-geek meta-level of easter egg spotting. [3]

Pulp Contradiction

Whilst the ‘material’ (re)used to create Stranger Things is evocative of the 80s, the style of weaving all of these parts together evokes associations with the 90s era onwards, during which time this method of cinematic pastiche became popular. This trend was established by the films of Quentin Tarantino – particularly the cultural phenomenon that was Pulp Fiction – which are effectively grounded in homage to an extent not seen before him. Thus the mode of – not merely use of – self-reflexive referencing is distinctly post-80s—and I would say that Stranger Things has taken this mode to a new level, effecting a cultural profundity not far off from (or maybe even on par with) that of Black Mirror, in the way it took the anthology series mode to a new level. In this way, Stranger Things evocates on two different dimensions: it strives to reproduce the feelings produced by the most affective film tropes during the 80s; whilst simultaneously it arranges these tropes in a manner evoking associations with the styles introduced in the 90s. [5]

Russian Resurrection

Along with 80s tropes and 90s styles, Stranger Things is built on contemporary themes—most obviously, in its revival of the ‘arch-enemy Soviets’ theme, involving their unrelenting conspiracy against the West. This theme of Russian subversive antagonism has been growing in prominence since the release of Stranger Things, both in entertainment and reality; and thus the show is able to resonate with the present whilst recycling the past, making it that much more affective. [5]

Different Dufferences

In making its references, Stranger Things not only employs both explicit mention and visual imitation, but it also does so to synergistic effect. Instances where a character mentions a line from or title of a movie, which is later followed by a homage scene relating to that mention, are prime examples: such as the Alien(s) reference to a monster as a ‘face-hugger’… followed by a scene in which the monster imitates the distinct assault method of one; or the Poltergeist reference between Joyce and Will… followed by an imitation (between them) of the iconic communication scene from that movie. [7]

Ya Better Recognize

Intertextually speaking, these references are considered ‘obligatory’, as in both cases the explicit mention is designed to foreshadow the homaged scene; which is thus endowed with the synergistic effect of both recognition and understanding. Should the viewer be unfamiliar with the movie referenced, the mention would not be recognized and the effect would be lost—along with the kind of understanding Stranger Things was made to achieve with its audience. [7]

I Reminisce, I Reminisce…

References for which viewers’ recognition is not essential (i.e. ‘optional’ intertextuality) is also heavily employed by the strategy of Stranger Things. Essentially, this technique is achieved by way of paralleling the most affective – and therefore the most memorable – elements of classic 80s movies, thereby creating reminiscence in a manner that need to be consciously perceived to be affective. By mimicking the structural elements of key themes or scenes whilst clothing the formula in fresh attire, such homage provides a subliminal dimension of nostalgia that supports the higher strata of more explicit referencing. This can be seen, for example, in the embedded parallels between the Mike-Eleven relationship and the Elliott-E.T. relationship from that movie—not all of which are striking enough to necessarily be recognized on a conscious level (i.e. for viewers who have seen the movie E.T.[—i.e. everyone]). [7]

Distextual Derivativeness

Originally, the subject of intertextuality concerned the elements of multiple texts that were related due either to artistic influence of varying degrees; or to references made out of respect (homage) or mockery (parody). Over the last decade, however, Hollywood has introduced a new form of emotional currency by way of establishing an institutionalized trend in derivativeness—represented by the conveyer belt-like production of remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels, and shared universes. In essence, these are movies that are being produced for the sake of referencing their own franchise history. [8] [9]

Anti-Marvelous

Thus, in this new generation of Hollywood production, the principles of intertextuality are perverted so as to effectively create a new format for movies and television series to adopt—the method of which has been dubbed: “Weaponized Intertextuality”.  The distextuality (as I prefer to call it) that characterizes this new format serves to facilitate the takeover of artistic creativity in narrative, by an artistically shallow strategy of derivativeness that engenders a correspondingly shallow emotionality of viewer experience. This strategy of referencing movie history as a replacement for quality drama is most prominently represented by the incestuous, orgiastic ‘shared universes’ of proliferate comic book franchises that have taken over the theatres. [8] [9]

Easter Eggos

As with the concepts of the reference and the homage, Stranger Things’ use of the easter egg is taken to an extreme that essentially invalidates these concepts as they were originally termed to mean: for this show has been designed around the use of these intertextual devices, to the extent that such use serves as the very basis for its being. Exemplary of contemporary trends in ‘meta’ – i.e. a work of fiction that constantly draws attention to its own artifice – Stranger Things could be described as an ‘Easter Egg of easter eggs’—in the sense that it has abused the easter egg as a device in making it part of the show’s raison d’etre.
  At the end of Season 2, Chapter Eight: The Upside Down, Hopper leaves a box of Eggos for Eleven. Is this an easter egg (of the ‘inside joke’ variety) referencing the show’s easter-egging ethos? The Duffers leave eggs for us… Hopper leaves Eggos for El—which symbolizes the Duffers leaving eggs for us: and is thus an easter egg in itself.

A Metaphor for ‘Meta’

Stranger Things not only takes the form of meta, by way of its self-aware level of referencing; but it also promotes meta directly, via the characters and dialogue. This can be seen in the way the characters – particularly the children – themselves make references to characters and events from fiction, which they use to rename things in their environment or to draw parallels in a discussion. This is done not for any practical reasons, but simply for the sake of making references to trivialities which they share knowledge of in common. [14]

Geek Speak Chic

The children’s proclivity for making such references to fiction is intended to serve as a metaphor for (and promotion of) this style of communication being conventional in today’s generation. In other words, it’s a metaphor for the geekification of culture: the transformation of the geek from ‘uncool’ to ‘cool’—The Big Bang Theory being the prime inaugurator of this transformation, and is hence emblematic of it. [14]
  Thus, the “Easter Egg of easter eggs” that is Stranger Things does not make references manically, it makes references methodically: cloaked beneath the slick cinematics and supernatural adventures, this show is actually about metafictional referencing. [14]

Original—in the Original Sense

I find it almost disturbing how Netflix has dubbed its own brand of content as “Originals, without any sense of irony being intended, or seeming to be commonly perceived. The word ‘original’ in the branding “Netflix Originals” is slyly employed to express that the production was originated by Netflix, whilst inherently associating itself with the concept of ‘originality’. For the brand name to be clearer and more accurate, something like ‘Netflix Productions’ would be more appropriate—for it is clearly apparent that the Netflix strategy in the television programming market is blatantly one of unoriginality, being primarily based on reviving old franchises in one way or another.

The New ‘New’

With Stranger Things, Netflix has indeed created something new—in the negative sense that it is not a(nother) revival of an existing franchise. However the form of this ‘originality’ is a scope and degree of derivativeness not yet seen before in a TV series—or perhaps on any other format. In fact, not only has the irony of this show being dubbed ‘Original’ gone largely unmentioned, but the commentary on this issue I have encountered in the blogosphere (during quite an extensive trip) has only been in direct praise of this very kind of ‘originality’, which essentially amounts to: ‘Yes, Stranger Things is derivative nostalgia-bait… but it sure is brilliantly creative in recycling the past into the present…’

Brothers Duffer than Wacho Sisters(—Who Used to be Brothers)

One Netflix Originals series I have recently seen is deserving of being legitimately called ‘original’: Sense8 (2015-2018), created by The Wachowski Brothers Sisters Siblings (in anticipation of gender neuterlization…) The plot of this show revolves around a group of gifted people – strangers from all around the world – who are able to experience each other’s sensory experiences—such people being called ‘sensates’. At first, they do not understand their possession of this ability, or the nature of it; but gradually, they begin to discover and use it effectively (in particular, against the secret organization that uses other sensates to hunt them down).

Sensational…

The ‘sensate’ mechanics of Sense8 – despite making sense2 little – are used effectively in creating novel and interesting scenarios and imagery, in terms of the interaction between the ‘cluster’ of sensates (the use of location is in itself incredibly innovative and very affective). And on the whole the show is done very well, above all because the character development is very good; but also because the visual representation of them interacting psychically (in various ways…)—which together makes it quite pleasing to watch them grow into a kind of family. Added to this, I could also describe Sense8 as a globalist, sexualized LGBT-fest with a built-in ‘orgy mode’—can’t call that unoriginal.

…But Too Original

Netflix to Wachowskis: ‘When we said “Originals”, we didn’t mean it literally
p.s. You’re terminated, fuckers.’

Hence, Netlfix cancelled the show after only two seasons, claiming that the viewership didn’t justify the budget. And so in a way, Sense8 affirms the Netflix Disoriginals strategy even more emphatically than Stranger Things does—because the bottom line is that they had a genuinely original and quality show, with an apparently substantial and loyal viewership (Netflix doesn’t disclose its viewing figures, for some this reason), and yet which they nevertheless cancelled.

Duffinitions

Interestingly, the slang meaning of the word ‘duff’ is “to give a deliberately deceptive appearance to; misrepresent; fake”—not far off being a direct fit to the Duffers’ ethos of Stranger Things: for the show is founded upon an apparent replication of the 80s that is largely misrepresentative of it.
  By contrast, the slang word ‘wacko’ means “a person whose behaviour is strange and different from that of most people”—which in Sense8, is precisely what the sensates each encounter: firstly in themselves, leading some of them to initially question their own sanity; but also in others’ perception of them, who understandably consider their behaviour strange.

Strangely Subversive

In 2016 – the year that Stranger Things debuted – society is seemingly in a state of budding chaos, characterised by confusion (Confused.com?), division (Diversity!), and a state of surveillance that wipes the floor with Bentham’s Panopticon (SeeSeeTV, All-Seeing i-Phones, etc.). [2] As Simon Reynolds detailed in his book Retromania, the post-millennial world has seen a cultural ramping up of nostalgism, in the form of retro… ism (still making up words as I go…) In such a social climate, the strategy of Entertainment has been to abduct Nostalgia… reform her into a harlot… then pimp her out as a starlet(!)

‘The Grass was Greener…’

By its firm grounding in the elements of prestige television, Stranger Things achieves a formulaicly produced popularity. With this popularity, it channels the consequent influence into the implication that the cultural setting it depicts is a reflection of the societal wish to live in it. [2]
  Fictional elements aside, the exciting and nostalgic presentation of the genuine elements of that era stimulate a heightened sense of dissatisfaction with the explicitly chaotic present. The more traditional values of average people; the more relative tranquillity of the neighbourhoods and social life; the freedom to go places without ubiquitous monitoring of everyone’s every move (be it by the authorities, corporations, or people themselves—who have collectively obliterated ‘anonymity’); and where there is space for exploring unknowns, in both the intellectual and geographical sense. [2]

Cell/Phone

It was a time when access to information was relatively limited, but also meaningfully limited: its form, quantity, and accessibility still served the possibility of acquiring knowledge towards the development of understanding, in the sense of ‘truth’ (which has effectively been declared impossible by the ‘Post Truth’ age of today). Hence, in an environment of increasingly meaningless ‘data’, most information is trivialized not only as entertainment, but as retrotainment—and thus when we see the cellphone-less cellphone-free children biking around their neighbourhood, the idealization of the past resonates emotionally due to the sense of lost freedoms. [2]

‘…and the Award Goes to… The 80s!’

In Stranger Things, the minutiae of history are objectified towards personifying the 80s as a simpler and freer era, stripping Nostalgia of its true significance for the purpose of commodifying it. [2] This simplified and part-mythologized characterization of the 80s –by which I mean that the 80s has practically been made into a character of the show (if not the star of the show) – is not designed to appeal to a legitimate sense of nostalgia present in society, but to create an artificial sense of nostalgia, in that we are encouraged to embrace this mythological past as being better than the present.

“…it’s Time to Start RUNNING!!”

Stranger Things is essentially designed to be a subversive form of escapism, in that it structurally implies the ongoing decline of society; the failure of Progress; and the death of the Future—whilst making the sentiment of this theme a ‘hip’ one (by way of its slick presentation and elaborate allusions to cultural classics). In other words, the intent of the show is not merely to provide a fun distraction from the dismalness of the present, but to make an oblique indictment of it, so as to foster a deep dissatisfaction with it.

Strange Mirroring

This is not to say that the present state of society is far from a dismal one; or that the aforementioned decline, failure, and death are unfounded claims. On the contrary, I think they are, regrettably, on point (which is why I said them—Stranger Things did not; although I think it implies them). However, assuming these indictments are accurate and deserved, the effect of the show is not to provoke any kind of contemplation on such circumstances, i.e. with a mind to constructive thought on them; but to craftily exacerbate the resentment of the present, whilst pacifying this discontent through an awesomely childish Spielbergification (nicked that one off someone else—nice one mate [14]) of the past.

Thing and Yang

The best example of entertainment that makes a substantial attempt to critique society is Black Mirror—a show which goes about as far as possible towards provoking contemplation on not only the present, but of its implications for the future. By contrast, the agenda of Stranger Things is in some ways the mirror image this: if Black Mirror makes the digital world seem cold and threatening, Stranger Things makes the analog world seem warm and mystical—thus undermining the present (in this example, the trends of technology) via the opposite route. To put it another way, Black Mirror’s critique of the present creates emotional disturbance, whilst provoking intellectual dissonance—whereas Stranger Things’ fetishization of the past creates emotional joy, along with a simplistic and subliminal indictment of the present.

Demogorgonish Nostalgia

Retro culture’s nostalgification of the population can be seen in the way it appropriates the commonly shared history and memory of society to replace it with an illusory reflection of it, which it then promotes the desire for. Therefore, this culture promotes the inherently impossible wish to escape the present and return to a fictional past—a past that never existed. This is the insidiousness of nostalgia. [11]
  In Stranger Things, the Demogorgon is a monster that, under the control of the Mind Flayer, abducts residents of Hawkins and spirits them away to the underworld that is the Upside Down. This can be seen as analogous to (indulge me, if you Will) the mind-flaying Retro Culture unleashing its demogorgonish Nostalgia to abduct citizens, dragging them down into the underworld to essentially capture their minds and souls. [11]

Regressive Progressivism

An instinctive affection for something(s) about the past, or a genuine interest in history, would not be channelled towards a manufactured yearning to ‘return’ to a past—be it a real past, or a fictionalization of it: it would be utilized by – or at least contained within – the inclination for intellectual, spiritual, and social advancement that would be common to most in a healthy society—especially a self-proclaimed ‘progressive’ one. [11]

Artifictions

The ominous reality, however, is that Nostalgia – as it has been transformed to be – amounts to a simple-minded wish to escape the Present—and the Future: the Past is simply used as a mirage to nullify the Present and pre-empt the Future (I’m sure there’s a Terminator parallel somewhere in there—but I can’t be bothered at this point). And the artificiality of this nostalgia is literally manufactured by the hyper-consumerized state of Western civilization: for it is by the proliferation of artifacts which represent the past that the nostalgia industry can exist at all. [11]

Caught in the Web—or the Net (Either Way, it’s Bad)

When a fly gets caught in a spider’s web; or a fish gets caught in a fisherman’s net—in both cases the immediate result is the same: the creature can no longer move. Thus the Internet (a.k.a. the World Wide Web) is quite aptly named in this sense – twice, funnily enough – because for all its potential benefits, it is has ultimately been constructed to facilitate the negation of the present and the obsession with the past. This can be seen in how its design and content – supposedly manifesting in arbitrary, ‘free market’ style – fundamentally makes it cumbersome to find information and media of substance; and to experience such substance in a cultivated, refined manner.

Retro’s Hype(r) Man

Thus, making use of the Internet towards ends that represent what the word ‘civilized’ is supposed to mean, is effectively precluded. Instead, disappointingly, the Internet merely harmfully engenders triviality, confusion, distraction (actually lauded as ‘multi-tasking’), division, disappointment; and ultimately, infantilism. The Internet is not the only aspect of the present era that cultivates regression under the banner of Progress—but by its infinite malleability; its incomparable reach; and its sheer speed; its ability to generate and disperse nostalgic content makes it the engine of retro culture and the nostalgia it sells. [11]

Parallel Dimensions

Commenting on the main theme of Black Mirror, but in an essentially inverted manner, the plot of Stranger Things symbolically contains the theme of ‘the perils of communications technology’. It should first be noted that the development of today’s modern technologies occurred during – i.e. because of – the Cold War era, by which new fears concerning espionage and surveillance threats were introduced into the collective consciousness. [13]

‘Communications’ and ‘Communism’ Have ‘Communi-’ in Common

Under the guise of the supernatural, these themes are obliquely expressed in Stranger Things, in the way that the Upside Down nether realm is ‘connected’ (punintended [heh]) to electrical appliances as a form of communication with the visible world. Thus via the Cold War theme; together with its subtheme: the threat of Communist infiltration via the newly developing communications technologies—Stranger Things speaks to the Internet Age fears of computer hacking and cyberwarfare; and in a way that engenders the subliminal wish to return to the still-analog, pre-digital era it depicts in its setting. In this sense, the Upside Down ultimately represents a Frankensteinian warning of the birth of the communications network, by symbolizing the new ‘demons’ that this world has unleashed to play—i.e. in our world… [13]

Phenonmenal Following

Magnetic Mist-ery

In explaining the broad and profound popularity of Stranger Things, it should first be said that the escapist needs inherently serviced by fictional television series are delivered very well by this show; and thus, they are an essential component of its popularity. Furthermore, the use of an 80s setting in today’s culture automatically lends to the plotting of mystery, in that it recreates an era that knew not of the internet revolution of information overload that was to be its successor. Added to which are the supernatural elements; together with a calculatedly vagueness of detail—which together capitalize (pun intended—see Gekkologue) on this dimension of mystery that is central to Stranger Things. This considerable dosage of mystery – and importantly, combined with cinematically slick presentation – creates a fertile cultural ground with which to cultivate widespread speculation and discussion, as to the possible meanings of things and events within the show.

The Social Media Effect

Mystery and slick presentation are not, however, the elements that are ultimately responsible for such cultural phenomenon: cued by widespread and mostly reverential media commentary, Stranger Things inevitably generates a large and ongoing topic for discussion in society that spans all ages. Essentially, this represents the social media age equivalent of the ‘water cooler effect’ from the previous era—exemplified by series such as Twin Peaks (the original one, that is—The Return seemed steeped in a meta-weirdness intended to merely symbolise current weirdness).
  The rarely-mentioned significance of this effect is that it creates an indirect pressure on people to watch the show—purely for the ability to discuss it; for one who has not seen it will effectively become excluded from discussions of it—be it at work, social gatherings, online, or on social media chats. This inevitably produces the unpleasant feeling of not being ‘in the know’, which manifests itself in a kind of conversational impotence. [10]

Approval from Peeple

Conversely, therefore, being ‘in the know’ endows one with the capacity to participate in such discussions, thereby ensuring one’s social inclusivity in this respect: By merely following a ‘water cooler’ show – regardless of its actual degree of quality, or of one’s genuine interest in it – one effectively receives a socially valuable return for his or her investment of time: the avoidance of feeling excluded by the opportunity to contribute to such group discussions, thereby achieving a fundamental level of social approval. [10]

The Fellowship of the Things

It can thus be seen that the media-generated following of TV show phenomena like Stranger Things, creates a sense of fellowship amongst followers who – as intended – participate in the ongoing discussions of the show. [10] Although this is nothing more than a standard example of the principle of social conformity – i.e. which applies to many things in society – it is noteworthy in the case of Stranger Things in that the show is literally built from derivativeness—and yet it has nevertheless achieved phenomenal status by emblazoning its spirit of derivativeness proudly on its recycled attire.

Deep Reflections

To contrast again with Black Mirror: that show was also a cultural phenomenon that received universal media commentary, producing a mass-following based on widespread and ongoing social discussion. Different to Stranger Things, however, is that Black Mirror had things to say: significant things; relevant things—some of which have already proved to be prophetic… and others that will no doubt prove to have been prescient. Furthermore, Black Mirror pushed the envelope in the TV Series format in a manner conducive to intelligent viewing.
  For example, the running time of each episode was fit to serve the story—as opposed to the conventional format of writing the story to fit TV scheduling conventions, including the mini-‘cliff-hangers’ to serve the ad breaks. Another example is the revolutionary juxtaposition of exaggerated scenarios played with jarring degree of straightness—this being an essential component of Black Mirror’s ethos, which is to provoke awareness of the social significance of its themes, by way of original artistry, within the framework of quality entertainment.
  Black Mirror being an exceptional example of these qualities, the comparison to Stranger Things is thus not to merely say that the latter is inferior to the former; but that its ethos is the polar opposite—and yet, as I mentioned, Stranger Things has been able to achieve phenomenal cultural status as Black Mirror had done. This is a comparison worth considering in the context of society’s cultural orientation, in that it highlights the retrostalgic trend that is steadily becoming more pervasive.

Politicized Nostalgia

Via an emerging industry of Retro, History has been culturally reduced, simplified, and revised through a manufactured lens of recycled media from the recent past. And the artificial nostalgia it produces in the popular consciousness is utilized (and reinforced) by political parties of seemingly opposing creeds, each branding a nostalgic rhetoric to bolster their arguments. [2]
  Politics has thus been reduced to a circus of distractions, offset by – and actually complimented by – retrostalgic entertainments such as Stranger Things, which are designed to satisfy the very apolitical generation this culture has created. In this way, such entertainments amount to a sleight-of-hand act: beneath an appealing veneer of progressive ethics, the past is watered down so as to maintain the neo-liberal status quo. [2]

Retrostalgic Reactionaryism

In contemporary culture, nostalgia has been utilized as a device for reactionary thought; and thus it serves as a basis for reactionary politics. [1] More specifically, this new breed of nostalgic mentality works to indict The Future so as to commodify The Past, via cliché-ridden sentimentality that promotes the notion of its resurrection. [2]
  Stranger Things exemplifies the indirect form of reactionaryism, i.e. that by way of fictional entertainment; and, unlike Black Mirror, the disingenuousness of its embedded ‘political stance’ is evident in its criteria for portraying life in the 80s, which is essentially superficial. The (intended) result is a retro version of the 80s, which offers no food for thought whatsoever: only the emotional pangs of artificial nostalgia, which serve to further the growing dissatisfaction with the present—and thus fostering the acceptability of the reactionary creeds that will inevitably rise to political prominence. [2]

Geopolitical Undertones

Anxious Times Call For Retro Measures

Whilst the retro aspect of Stranger Things’ ethos is primarily concerned with the pop culture of the past, it is also involved with the politics of the past. This aspect of the show is most obviously represented by the theme of Russian Cold War conspiracies that was prominent in the 80s; and is present in the plot of Stranger Things from the start. In Season 3, however, this theme becomes centralized within the episodes; and it is exploited to a more substantial degree than in the previous two seasons combined. Aside from the many explicit elements of the enemy Russians in this season, the Mind Flayer element central to the plot of Stranger Things is a well-worn metaphor for the Communist infiltration of the West—the most popular illustrations of which were the movies Invasion of the Body Snatcher and The Thing. [12]
  In this way, the retro ethos of Stranger Things also contributes to the fostering of past anxieties—not directly, as this kind of entertainment show is not able to, or concerned with, creating anxiety; but in that it lends credibility to the Russian conspiracy themes that are actually present in today’s geopolitics (sometimes referred to as the ‘New Cold War’). [12]

Mind-Flayed Patriotism

As is the traditional Hollywood convention, the emotionally troubling – and sometimes psychologically troubling – effects produced within the viewer by the ‘bad guys’ of the story, must be counterbalanced by the pleasing effects of triumphant ‘good guys’. Hence in Stranger Things Season 3, the recall back to Cold War fears of malevolently subversive Russians is offset by references to victorious American nationalism, which historically ‘won’ this war. Via a celebratory theme of capitalism running through this season, the show points to the increasingly emerging fact that, ultimately, nothing was ‘won’ by the West regarding the Cold War (indicated by the substantial Wikipage on the “Second Cold War”, a.k.a.* the “New Cold War” or “Cold War II”?) [12]

*Or how about this: the “post-Cold War era Cold War”; or, the “Cold War Order”; or, the “Warm War” [heh]; or, the “Globally Warming War” [hmm…]

The Recline of the West (or, Fall of Rome – The Remake)

If anything, this trivial backward-lookingness – be it for affection, anxiety, or celebration – testifies to the retrogressive movement that Western culture has made since its Cold War ‘victory’: whatever social, cultural, and national rewards that that victory was claimed to have stood for have not manifested as such; but on the contrary, they have substantially contributed to a clear deficit in general progression. [12]

Conclusion to Analysis

Basically, it doesn’t portend well for the future of society. But on the bright side

…hmm, seem to have writer’s block on this one…

…so let’s go back and review the article!*

*i.e. the dark side… (Star Wars everyone!)

Part 4: LUCUSummary

Retroverdose… (The Remix; or, Attention Deficit Edition)

All black screen, red text glows, synths begin…
(the most unskipabble intro sequence there may have ever been)
Thus in the year 2016 was the TV world blessed
with Things far Stranger than all the celebrity deaths:
a Goonies-esque gang, rural town, ‘83,
(Eggo: 8 and 3 is 11… and Eleven is E.T.)
In a cinematic style reminiscent of 80s movies,
getting a Reiser out of Aliens and taking the Mikey out of Goonies,
A(lien) Resurrection of Rider in hysterical Wynona,
plus “I’ll be back”, a ‘treasure map’… TV has never known a
level of homage like this, where ‘referencing’ supplants the plot
which is therefore shallow… but how many ‘nods’ can you spot(?!)
amidst the background of a supernatural Cold War,
a Planet Hollywood tapestry of ‘mise-en-scène-this-before’,
within a black void room of derivativeness supreme,
déjà vu gets Under the Skin as you remote view the stream,
with enough 80s references to fill a Starcourt Mall:
it’s time to start RUNNING ‘cause you gotta catch ‘em all,
from a self-reflexive supra-plot designed to flay your mind:
so many wink-eye emojis trying to wink you all blind,
forming a collaged mirage of an era mythologized,
as commodified nostalgia has now been weaponized
through a culture of retro focused on immediate past:
what’s just gone ‘out of fashion’ is recycled real fast,
instilling superficial sensibility and cultural retrogression:
for an impossible nostalgia is the road to mass depression;
hence is Stranger Things ‘retrostalgia’ epitomized—
Rated B for ‘binge-worthy’ being prestige-legitimized,
with Amblin amounts of Spiel, and a lot of E.T.;
the return of the King, and resurrection of J.C.
i.e. the Carpenter: The Thing in The Fog’s Big Trouble
plus Terminators and Aliens makes the J.C. double-double;
with a geekistry of homage—getting it twisted doesn’t fly,
like: “Friends don’t die” and “Goonies never say lie”…
As a demodog horde of in-jokes interrupts the immersion,
for an emotional seduction nostalgified to perversion
by the duffing Movie Flayer of every classic 80s scene;
whilst iconic stuff and fashion star the show and fill the screen,
in flowing analog life, fetishized, thus you’re haunted
yet contemporary pastiche, i.e. self-referencing is flaunted,
including the background theme of Cold War(—or Rocky IV)
in time with the real reboot sneaking in the back door…
and hence the use of foreshadow: the Joyce flashback recall
of Will’s tickets to Poltergeist… then talking to him through the wall
Subliminal parallels induce nostalgia without the sting
(‘EL phone home’ just doesn’t have the same ring…)
Intertextuality abused towards a strategy so blunt
as to declare itself openly in an Easter Eggo hunt;
unprecedented meta—even the characters partake:
as they rename and compare using fiction for the sake
of coded remakestrangers can’t read between the lines;
geekification of the culture’s just a Sign o’ the Times
that mess with your mind—like what’s ‘original’ nowadays?
when Netflix Disoriginals is collectively praised;
welcome to the new ‘new’: ‘creative’ recycling reigns—
Wachoness dying out ‘till only Dufferness remains
to glamorize the era preceding the advent of the Dell,
before Post-Truth and before the Phone Cell,
in an idyll of 80s life—for escapism from today’s,
which enhances discontent in fun and simplistic ways,
thus an inverted Black Mirror: you can close your mind’s eye
and turn your Back to the Future as did Marty McFly,
letting Demogorgonostalgia takeover the whole town,
captivating souls and turning culture Upside Down
in a regressive-‘progressive’ sea of retro merchandize,
through its hype(r)-man Internet, threatening to capsize
the ship of fools—portal’s opened for cyberwar,
and communist infiltration of communications (like before);
hence ‘stranger things’ in the story actually symbolize
origins of Wireless life as planting the seeds of demise;
with a mistily vague plot set in a pre-digital age,
Mystery’s used a lot, prodding viewers to engage
in off and online discussions, i.e. going with the flow—
the Social Media Effect: don’t dare to not be ‘in the know’,
for that’s a miss on mass approval—and the comfort that it brings,
hence compulsion to log-on to the ‘Fellowship of the Things’;
in a cultural phenomenon of harmless fun, but disguised
as a poster boy for retro—and nostalgia politicized
by creating nostalgic currency which all parties utilize,
with reactionary rhetoric aiming to radicalize;
thus do anxious times (apparently) call for retro measures:
hence the Cold War revival… buried in Goonies pirate treasures,
spawning a mind-flayed patriotism (i.e. ‘Coming to An Erica’):
‘Consumerism saves the day!’—brought to you buy, America;
a remake in the works: The Fall of Rome’s ‘drop’ is close
for retromania was strangeStranger Things is retroverdose

Reference* List

*Heh.

Dawn of the Read*

*As in ‘Red’(—double ref!)

[1] Why Are We Haunted by the 1980s? Stranger Things and the Nostalgia Trap, by Cameron Summers, July 17th 2019, Broken Hands Media, 4pgs

[2] Stranger Things and the Nostalgia Industry [Retromania], by hongkongrb, Nov 23rd 2016, HKRBooks.com, 3pgs

[3] Stranger Things doesn’t just reference ’80s movies. It captures how it feels to watch them, by Emily Todd VanDerWerff, Aug 2nd 2016, Vox, 2pgs

[4] ‘You’ve Got To Be Fucking Kidding!’ Knowledge, Belief and Judgement in Science Fiction, by Steve Neal (from the Book: Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, 1990)

[5] Stranger Things Isn’t ’80s Nostalgia — It’s ’90s Nostalgia (and it’s all about 2016), by Aram Sinnreich, July 19th, Medium, 2pgs

[6] Memory Tapes; The Strange Pervasiveness of Nostalgia in the 21st Century [Stranger Things, Retromania], by Andrew Linnane, Headstuff.org, 3pgs

[7] Stranger Things: Intertextuality, May 22nd 2017 By Livveale (Blog), 4pgs + Ref.

[8] Intertextuality: Netflix’s Stranger Things, by Grant Snaith, October 2nd 2017 (Blog), 2pgs

[9] Intertextuality: Hollywood’s New Currency, by The Nerd Writer, 25th May 2016 (YouTube Video) 6mins

[10] Stranger Things Series: An Audience Analysis, by Jordan Cicchelli, Nov 6th 2017 (Blog), 8pgs

[11] Zeitgeist and Poltergeist: Trainspotters in The Uncanny Valley of Stranger Things, by Lawrence Pearce, 08.13.16, The Brvtalist, 14pgs

[12] In season 3, Stranger Things’ celebration of ’80s pop culture becomes a political ideology, by Noah Berlatsky  July 8, 2019, The Verge, 2pgs

[13] We’re all living in the “Upside Down”: “Stranger Things” is a show about the internet’s dark sides, by Michael Morelli, Sept 2nd 2016, Salon, 3pgs

[14] ‘Stranger Things’ Tests Limits of Netflix’s Nostalgia Strategy, by Oriana Schwindt, July 25th 2016, Variety, 2pgs

‘I’ll Be Book

Retromania – Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, by Simon Reynolds (2011)

Author: Simon Kanzen

Born in London, England, 1979. My main personal interest is to seek and read the most substantial literature available, for the purpose of intellectual stimulation towards the expansion of awareness and development of understanding. Stepping Stones serves as an extension of this interest by expressing my understandings and sharing references to relevant media for readers to make use of. For work, I freelance as a ghostwriter for various forms of publication.

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