The Simpsons, Hauntology, and Nostalgia


Jonathan Kelley, writer

A show called The Simpsons airs on Fox every day of the week in the evening. On May 12, 2019, this show completed airing its 30th season, beginning its original run on Dec. 17, 1989. But there is something off with this show. Many have taken to calling this season of the show, along with the last 18 seasons, “Zombie Simpsons,” with the five before that known as “The Decline,” and the first seven seasons as “The Golden Age.” Season 30 of the show is noteworthy as the least-reviewed season in its history, yet Fox has renewed the show for another 2 seasons. It seems they are content to pump it dry and inject the most iconic family of the nineties into the trending topics of today. Yes, the Simpsons has changed, pulled past its rightful place in time, and with its curious decay, a greater truth concerning the modern condition and culture, may be extrapolated.

A concept must be introduced: hauntology. This concept arose from Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher who concerned himself with ontology: the study of being, what it is to consciously exist. Derrida posed the idea that being, by its nature, is ghostly–that one can never truly be in the present. Instead, an individual might perceive the present only through juxtaposition with the past and anticipation of the future. Think about a melody: isolate one note of that melody. That note has no musical quality alone; no, the music comes when one remembers those notes that preceded it and anticipates notes for the future. In a sense, the state of being is haunted–haunted by abstractions of the past and conceptualizations of the future.

Now: nostalgia. Nostalgia behaves uniquely in that it is one of the only feelings humans can experience more intensely through media than reality. A long-time return to a TV show, and all the memories associated with it, can affect one far more deeply than a long-time return to a familiar place or person. 80s nostalgia is popular right now, with shows, like Stranger Things, and movies, like It, being highly successful–a most recent incarnation of a long-running trend of using new technology to relive the past, and thereby return to past hopes or dreams that perhaps dissolved in the present.

How does this all relate to the Simpsons in its zombified modern state? It is indicative of a larger phenomenon: the nightmarish idea that this culture is stuck in a loop–that this present is haunted by the past of the future and the futures of the past. That, having lost the ability to dream new realities or new futures or aesthetics, society retreats into the warm-dark of the already-established and finds cold comfort there, and will continue to find it from now on. Rather than dreaming up a new family, with or without yellow skin, to act as the archetype for this present, a disillusioned culture, aware of its lack of identity, drags the most famous family of the nineties away from that era and puppets it, in order to tell its trending tales and, in so doing, squanders the meaning of that original piece of art in its rightful environment.

One can see it in modern-day music as well. Between the 1960s and 90s, differences in the culture of music are striking. Look at the 90s to the present, a similar stretch of time, and that disparity becomes muddied, if not nonexistent. A genre, born on the internet, known as “Vaporwave,” which takes samples of old 80s and 90s tunes and distorts them, laments in celebration of this phenomenon, this great loneliness–like clinging to a past one never experienced and never will, clinging to its hopeful visions of the future, with its neon beaches and crystal space-scrapers, the now-present in year alone, which will never arrive. It seems that, as technology progresses at an ever-accelerating rate, creative and imaginative uses for that tech dwindle. Yes, it seems to be that a future lost is a past that refuses to obscure.