Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Saudade for the Pre-Tech World

Youtube has a lot of great twentieth century media, which let us know just how different things were only 15 years ago.  One Youtube channel called Retrontario plays snippets from television shows and advertisements played locally in the Canadian province of Ontario in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. For those familiar with the area and time, Retrontario particularly conjures up the way Toronto used to be, when it still deserved the nickname 'Toronto the Good' (see my related post here).

Retrontario also carries several examples of TVOntario's public television offerings. Founded in 1970, TVOntario was and is Ontario's answer to America's PBS. It flourished in the 1970s and 1980s, when public TV was at its height. For decades, TVO's Elwy Yost hosted popular highbrow chatter about cinema and movie-making on Magic Shadows (1974-mid-1980s; see the opening here) and Saturday Night at the Movies (Yost hosted SNAM from 1974-1999; the show will be cancelled at the end of the 2012-2013 season due to budget cuts).  The end of a show like this symbolizes the end of an era on public television, pioneered by the so-called Silent Generation.

The province of Ontario has sometimes epitomized a negative stereotype of the Canadian character: stodgy, stuffy, earnest, traditional. The mentality of Toronto's sober, cautious, polite and well-fed burghers prompted Jan Morris to call ending up in Toronto, "second prize in life" in her book, Among the Cities.

However, on the positive side, it was that same stolid propriety that saw TVOntario cultivate in Ontario's public TV audience a civic attitude and responsibility toward intellectual engagement with culture. In a way similar to some efforts in the United States at this time, on PBS, and notably by Bill Cosby on The Cosby Show, TVO saw television as a medium of education. The aim was to depict a desired, prosperous and cultivated society. Television programs which dealt with popular and mainstream culture were crafted toward this larger purpose of higher culture.

1983 SNAM promo: Yost promises next weekend's offering: The Last Angry Man (1959). Video Source: Youtube.

1983: Yost and Bruce Kirkland discuss Les Enfants du Paradis (1945). Spoilers: "the greatest ending in film history." Video Source: Youtube.

1988 SNAM intro focuses on alcoholism as a social problem. Video Source: Youtube.

Part of that vision was historical, a perspective deliberately fostered by the Silent Generation. Saturday Night at the Movies was meant to, and did, break down generational barriers, which are unfortunately so common today. The Globe and Mail commented:
In the era before Netflix, the Internet, Turner Classic Movies and even the VCR, Saturday Night at the Movies brought families together to watch a classic movie introduced by Mr. Yost or one of his several successors, and followed by interviews with directors, producers, stars, cinematographers, special-effects artists, screenwriters and critics. In the era before Entertainment Tonight, the interviews were scrupulously professional, always focusing on the craft of cinema rather than the private lives of stars.

For 38 seasons, the films gave older viewers a chance to relive their youth and introduced younger audiences to the classics, while both Mr. Yost’s irrepressible personality and the opportunity of viewing a movie on television uninterrupted by commercials proved a real draw. The program’s mandate, like that of the provincial network’s, was educational: It began in 1974, when Mr. Yost took Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly to various religious communities and filmed their discussion of the film about a schizophrenic woman who hears God speak to her.
This goal preserved an old-fashioned, civilized aesthetic right to the end of the 20th century. These intitiatives - and others like them in other countries - spanned the last era before the technological boom engulfed popular culture.

Around 1990 in Ontario, high-minded public television saw mounting competition from commercial networks whose producers chose gritty, violent and sexual programming to gain viewers. Part of that street touch was pursued when Toronto's privately-owned network, CITY TV, erected a video recording box outside its studio at the corner of Queen and John Streets. The network invited anyone to come and leave video messages at any time of the day or night (just the fact that it was accessible 24/7 was, at that time, slightly scandalous!). In a snotty colonial update of the London tradition, the video booth, and the show built around it, were called Speakers' Corner.

A friend of mine just saw this 1990 sample from Speakers' Corner, and remarked: "What's really bizarre is how people act in front of the camera at the [CITY TV] speakers' corner. Still very polite and fairly removed considering what was to come with YouTube. Do you remember when it first aired [in 1990] how there was criticism ... for it being vulgar?"

Yes. The changes in communications media and shifts in values go hand-in-hand. It's incredible to imagine it now, but not so long ago, a 24/7 video booth was considered 'vulgar.'  That norm is now unthinkable.  I don't think a single pixel would come to a standstill today if anyone worried that the Web was 'too vulgar.'

Retrontario's offerings thus starkly depict the enormous contrast between the way things were and the way they are now.

For anyone born roughly 1990 or after, that is, the latter half of Generation Y and Gen Z, this pre-tech world, preserved by the Silent Generation, would be largely unknown in terms of personal experience. That fact is tremendously sad, not only because younger generations don't know what they missed, or how life used to be. But also because they will only perceive earlier values and media through the filter of high tech media.

For example, one of the younger commenters on Youtube saw some skipping from the VCR playback on a Retrontario upload and thought it was a cool effect.  The Youtuber didn't understand that the video had been lifted off a videotape with tracking problems. An older commenter wrote: "Do you really think that is the way it played on TV? That glitchiness is obviously an effect of the videotape that the poster recorded it on."

Evidently, there is a generational gulf between popular consciousness as shaped up to around 1995, and popular consciousness as shaped post-1995, when the Internet began to grow.

I tried to find a word to describe the sadness at losing this pre-tech, pre-1995 world. 'Nostalgia' (derived from the Greek: νοσταλγία (nostalgia)) is not powerful enough. There are several candidates, not exactly translatable into English: another Greek word λαχτάρα (lakhtara); the German word Sehnsucht ; the Finnish kaiho; the Romanian word dor; the Bosnian sevdah (derived from Turkish and Arabic roots); the Turkish words hasret or hüzün; the Catalan idea of enyorança; and the Spanish term, añoranza; the Welsh hiraeth; Albanian mall; the Armenian կարոտ (karot); the Korean 그리움 (keurium); and the Hebrew ערגה (ergah). Each word has a slightly different nuance, drawn from its respective language and culture.

Perhaps the best word is the Portuguese term, saudade. Saudade is defined at Wiki:
  • The word saudade was used in the Cancioneiro da Ajuda (13th-century), in the Cancioneiro da Vaticana and by poets of the time of King Denis of Portugal (reigned 1279-1325). Some specialists say the word may have originated during the Great Portuguese Discoveries, giving meaning to the sadness felt about those who departed on journeys to unknown seas and disappeared in shipwrecks, died in battle, or simply never returned. Those who stayed behind—mostly women and children—suffered deeply in their absence.
  • [A] constant feeling of absence, the sadness of something that's missing, wishful longing for completeness or wholeness and the yearning for the return of that now gone, a desire for presence as opposed to absence—as it is said in Portuguese, a strong desire to matar as saudades (lit. to kill the saudades).
  • The "Dicionário Houaiss da língua portuguesa" defines saudade (or saudades) as "A somewhat melancholic feeling of incompleteness. It is related to thinking back on situations of privation due to the absence of someone or something, to move away from a place or thing, or to the absence of a set of particular and desirable experiences and pleasures once lived."
Now that feeling of melancholy and incompleteness pops up everywhere on the restless, compulsive tides of the Internet. Few people recognize it consciously or pinpoint its origin. I think it comes from saudade, painful nostalgia for a world we lost during the last pre-Millennial decade, without fully noticing what had happened.

Cesária Évora - Saudade. Video Source: Youtube.


  1. yes, 'saudade' is the appropriate word.
    i share your sentiments for a time that passed,
    as we were pulled too quickly into the future.

  2. I've just found out about your blog, and just can't believe the amount of information you have here, it's amazing! You cover a great deal of the events that correspond to the angsts and hopes of our age. A history of things to come indeed!
    'Saudade' is my favorite word in mother tongue, it describes well this feeling that things are changing faster than we can realize and understand, leaving us with that constant sensation of 'saudade' for the things that have passed.

    1. Dear Paulo,

      Thanks very much for your kind words. I hope you continue to follow and find the posts of interest. I'll follow you in google plus, and if you follow back, you will get regular updates.

      Again, thank you for reading. It means a lot to me if my work reaches someone and makes sense of the way things are now.

  3. Great blog post! Glad that you are enjoying my YouTube uploads. Best regards, Retrontario