These delusions were echoed in the disciplines of Media and Cultural Studies. When I first began to teach Media Studies in 2000, it seemed to me that much of the most influential critical writing about contemporary media had a distinctly celebratory tone. In the 1990s, popular culture had often served as a site onto which critics projected liberal fantasies of cultural progress. In the writings of cultural critics such as John Fiske, popular media texts, by virtue of their supposed resistive qualities, were regarded less as ideological mystifications than as conduits of transgression that challenge and overturn established codes and conventions. There was something similarly Panglossian about much of the discourse surrounding the potential of the Internet in its first decade. The World Wide Web, many believed, would somehow dissolve fixed identities and abolish gender categories. Yet such techno-utopian hype belied the reality that the 1990s were, if anything, rather duller in world-historical terms than the decades that sandwiched them. This was, remember, the age of John Major and Pete Sampras.
It is unsurprising that a great deal of the media criticism of the 1990s was more inclined to celebrate the proliferation of textual pleasures than to consider material realities - a tendency I like to summarise with the phrase ‘nice superstructure, shame about the base’. After all, the 90s constituted a distinct low point in class struggle politics. I'm not claiming any moral high ground here - because I spent most of the 1990s playing Nintendo 64 games and listening to Pavement - but this was a period of deep capitalist restoration and working class retreat. And for all the celebration of the liberating power of popular culture, the 1990s saw the beginnings of a banalization of mainstream culture. As Mark Fisher argues in the talk below, a certain cultural conservatism set in after the 1990s, with the erosion of what Fisher calls 'popular Modernism' and the increasing tendency for technological upgrades to substitute for genuine cultural innovation and progression. It seems that we have yet to find a way of breaking out of this condition of 'atemporality', in which, as Fisher puts it, 'everything changes and nothing happens' (as one of the great rock bands of the 1990s, the Super Furry Animals, had it: 'this is the present, but it's no surprise').