Fatal Nostalgia and Generalized Anxiety: Signs of the Times

“At the end of the eighteenth century people began to be fearful of extended sojourns away from home because they had become conscious of the threat posed by nostalgia. People even died of nostalgia after having read in books that nostalgia is a disease which is frequently mortal.”  — Jean Starobinski, “The Idea of Nostalgia”

No need to read that again, you read it correctly the first time.

Whatever else we may say, this is clearly something very different than what you felt when you recently learned that MTV turned 30 (and didn’t tell anybody) or when you watch Mad Men. It is also different than the nostalgia which infuses the Pottery Barn catalogue, drives popular segments of “contemporary” music, and inspires playful design concepts. It is also quite different from nostalgia animating the handle-bar mustached mixologists populating trendy urban bars. In fact, it is very different from most of what we tend to label nostalgic. And as you may have noted yourself, there is quite a bit that we might label nostalgic all about us. This is not exactly a sudden development, the “vintage” turn has been around for a decade or two at least, but it certainly does seem to be permeating experience to ever greater degrees lately.

And yet the burgeoning nostalgia industry is only distantly related to the reportedly fatal nostalgia described in the opening lines and which Richard Terdiman, in his study of the nineteenth century memory crisis, labeled, with a dash of hyperbole perhaps, a “dangerous epidemic.” This earlier, acute nostalgia occasioned by  prolonged journeys away from one’s home was, owing to its physiological symptoms, treated as a medical condition. This may at first seem quaint and evoke the image of Victorian fainting couches, but let’s not rush to judgment without asking some questions. Why an outbreak of nostalgia, and why then? Why the severity? And how is it that “nostalgia” was subsequently domesticated and even commodified?

As per usual, I’m thinking out loud here, and raising questions to offer what are at best only suggestive responses. It would seem that any response to the first and second questions would take into consideration the ongoing and multiple disruptions of settled agrarian life which characterized the long nineteenth century. What is interesting about nostalgia, then, is that it appears as a symptom of sociological change. It registers the psychic consequences of the onset of modernity and the subsequent disorder introduced into the human experience of time and place. Eventually, what is initially experienced as an acute disorder becomes generalized and to some extent domesticated. That it is later commodified should be of little surprise; there is nothing the market can’t and won’t price. So the “vintage” turn in contemporary society might be understood as a distant ripple  of an original, profound disturbance in the experience of time and place occasioned by rapid social, economic, technological, and political transformations.

I suggested earlier that we not too quickly dismiss the epidemic of nostalgia. Here’s why. Nostalgia was then a psychological condition with physiological consequences brought about by the rapid disintegration of the social order. This led me to wonder if we might find anything analogous in our own experience. With all of the provisionality a blog post entails, perhaps we need look no further than the epidemic of anxiety. Anxiety too is a psychological condition with physiological consequences and, it could be argued, is also generated by sudden social shifts and disruptions. Anxiety is to the late twentieth and early twenty-first century what nostalgia was to the long nineteenth century — a symptom of social change.

My sense is that anxiety is well on the way to generalization and commodification. But will it ever be chic?

One thought on “Fatal Nostalgia and Generalized Anxiety: Signs of the Times

  1. This does make perfect sense that we are very resistant and afraid of change. It is about our “comfort zones” and we as humans get into these zones and panic at the slightest changes sometimes. Advances in anxiety treatment should include CBT on how to deal with changes in life. This would greatly help to reduce anxiety.

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