If Nostalgia Is a Desire, What Does It Long For?

When we’re not using nostalgia as a term of derision, we use it to name a twinge in the gut that somehow blends melancholic longing with happy recollection. When this experience becomes acute it may best be described, pardon the unseemly melodrama, as an ache in the soul, but one that is not without its consolations.

But first, about that derisiveness. Nostalgia is a fighting word. For instance, one of the easiest ways to dismiss a claim is to label it nostalgic. This is why, in fact, I’m thinking of adding “knee-jerk recourse to nostalgia as a term of derision” to the list of Borg Complex symptoms. No doubt, much of what gets labeled nostalgic should be dismissed, although perhaps not simply by attaching a label to it. At best, then, we allow ourselves to indulge in the distractions of nostalgia–a little Mad Men, a little Downton–so long as we maintain the appropriate degree of ironic detachment.

I remain curious, though, about the feeling itself and what evokes it. It is one thing to critically analyze the commodification of nostalgia and its deployment as a marketing tool, for example, and it is another thing to contemplate that moment when we experience the feeling we label nostalgia, particularly in its more acute manifestations, and seek its sources.

Tintern Abbey, JMW Turner, 1794. Wikimedia Commons.
Tintern Abbey, JMW Turner, 1794. Wikimedia Commons.

Part of what puzzles me about such experiences is how difficult it is , for me at least, to define what exactly one is feeling. But before I go any further, it might be useful for you to recall for yourself a time when you experienced nostalgia. I don’t assume that everyone has had such an experience, but, if you have, try to hold that moment in mind and think with me about how we might understand it. Here are a few lightly structured thoughts toward that end.

The thing that arouses nostalgia is a synecdoche for the past and a signal of our dislocation; it is a reminder of our finitude, for we cannot horde time.

But is nostalgia for the past? We know that nostalgia was originally a word that described intense homesickness, but today we think of it more as a longing for a time rather than a place. So which is it? Is it really or always “pastness” that evokes the feeling we call nostalgia? I wonder, too, if these are not always present together. I think of Wordsworth’s “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” which begins with

“Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters!”

and continues by describing the place around the abbey. It would be hard to abstract, in more than a theoretical way, the aspects of time and place from Wordsworth’s nostalgic meditations.

Maybe it is really neither place nor time that is the essence of the experience of nostalgia. Maybe place and time have been proxies for some other object of desire whose presence radiates from  them and through our memory to us.

Nostalgia, then, is just another word for desire, or, perhaps better, it is one of the shapes desire takes. That’s what gives it its ache-in-the-soul quality. But what is it a longing for, if not for a time or for a place?

Wordsworth gives us a hint when he notes that he was

“changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills.”

I am scattered through time, as are you. One way of thinking about the divided, de-centered, shattered self is to see it as a temporal phenomenon, as a function of our time-stretched nature. I have been; I am; I will be. The self may feel most coherent in the present moment, on the leading edge of time, but it is scattered throughout the past.

We can imagine it as a boat and its wake. Seen from above, the wake is widest, and most diffuse, at its farthest from the boat. We are that boat making its way inexorably onward on the sea of time, but we are also the wake with the detritus of the self strewn upon it.

Nostalgia, from this perspective, is a desire for the self, for self-possession, for all of the selves we have been. The desire is kindled when our present self tunes in to traces of our past self. That tuning might be occasioned by an object, an image, a melody, a smell, and, yes, a place. But it is not any of those things which we desire, it is that part of our self that existed with them. The objects and experiences that evoke nostalgia are synecdoches not for a time but for the self.

Nostalgia then is ultimately a desire for wholeness. It is a desire to horde, not time, but rather the fullness of our self, scattered across time; a desire to lose nothing of our selves, to hold, at once, all that we have been. That, of course, is an impossible object of desire, which is why nostalgia vocalized is a sigh.

But Wordsworth once more:

“That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense.”


Further reading:

Consuming Traditions: Modernity, Modernism, and the Commodified Authentic 

The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics

A Hedgehog in a Fox’s World

I’m ordinarily reluctant to complain. This is partly a function of personality and partly a matter of conviction. I’m reticent by nature, and I tend to think that most complaining tends to be petty, self-serving, unhelpful, and tiresome.

That said, I’ve found myself complaining recently. I’m thinking of two separate incidents in the last week or so. In one exchange, I wrote to a friend that I was “Well enough, in that stretched-so-thin-people-can-probably-see-through-me kind of way.” In another conversation, I admitted that what annoyed me about my present situation, the situation that I’ve found myself in for the past few years, was that I was attempting to do so many things simultaneously I could do none of them well.

I teach in a couple of different settings, I’m trying to make my way through a graduate program, I’ve got a writing project that’s taken me much too long to complete, and I’d like to be a half-way decent husband. I could list other demands, but you get the idea. And, of course, those of you with children are reading this and saying, “Just you wait.” And that’s the thing: most people “feel my pain.” What I’m describing seems to be what it feels like to be alive for most people I know.

I was reminded of Isaiah Berlin’s famous discussion of the fox and the hedgehog. Expounding on an ancient Greek saying — “the fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing” — Berlin went on to characterize thinkers as either foxes or hedgehogs. Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche, for example, were hedgehogs; they had one big idea by which they interpreted the whole of experience. Aristotle, Montaigne, and Goethe were foxes; they were more attuned to the multifarious particularities of experience.

Berlin had intellectual styles in mind, but, if I may re-apply the proverb to the realm of action in everyday life, I find myself wanting to be a hedgehog. I want to do one thing and do it well. Instead, I find myself having to be a fox.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that this was, in fact, a pretty good way of thinking about the character of contemporary life and competing responses to the dynamics of digital culture.

Clearly, there are forces at play that predate the advent of digital technologies. In fact, part of the unsettled, constantly shifting quality of life I’m getting at is what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has called “liquid modernity.” The solid structures of pre-modern, and even early modern society, have in our late-modern (postmodern, if you prefer) times given way to flux, uncertainty, and instability. (If you survey the titles of Bauman’s books over the last decade or so, you’ll quickly notice that Bauman has something of the hedgehog in him.)

The pace, structure, and dynamism of digital communication technologies have augmented these trends and brought their demands to bear on an ever larger portion of lived experience. In other words, multi-tasking, continuous partial attention, our skimming way of thinking, the horcrux-y character of our digital devices, the distraction/attention debates — all of this can be summed up by saying that we are living in a time where foxes are more likely to flourish than hedgehogs. Or, put more temperately, we are living in a time where foxes are more likely to feel at home than hedgehogs. This is great for foxes, of course, and may they prosper.

But what if you’re a hedgehog?

You cope and make due, of course. I don’t, after all, mean to complain.

11 Things I’m Trying To Do In Order To Achieve a Sane, Healthy, and Marginally Productive Relationship With the Internet

It’s fair to say that when I write about the Internet or digital devices, my tone tends toward the cautionary, and that’s probably understating the case. But, as my wife would be quick to confirm, I don’t always practice what I preach.

I wanted to do something about this, so I created a list of digital disciplines that I’ll be trying to stick to in a serious, but not quite puritanical fashion.

Of course, I don’t think these digital disciplines will be universally applicable. You may find them entirely implausible given your own circumstances, or you may find them altogether unnecessary. All I’m claiming for them is this: given my priorities and my circumstances, I’ve found it helpful to articulate and implement these disciplines in order to achieve what I would characterize as a healthy relationship to Internet culture.

[Aside: I’m using the awkward expression “Internet culture” as shorthand for the whole range of diverse artifacts and practices that accumulate around the Internet and the devices we use to access it. I realize that the very idea of “the Internet” is contested¹, but trying to delineate it here in a rigorous academic manner would be even more tedious than this aside.]

Before getting to the digital disciplines, though, let me first lay out some basic underlying assumptions. You’ll probably find some of these debatable, but at least you’ll know where I’m coming from.

  • Time is a limited resource, and I would rather treat it as a gift than as an enemy.
  • While I have no interest in denying the authenticity, much less the reality, of online experience, I do privilege face-to-face experience (or “fully embodied experience,” which is not to say that online experience is disembodied), all things being equal.
  • Relatedly, we are not less than our bodies; so how our bodies, not just our minds, interact with the Internet and Internet-enabled devices matters.
  • While it may be difficult to articulate a precise theoretical distinction between online and offline experience, the terms attempt to get at real distinctions with practical consequences.
  • Trying to “keep up” online is a joyless, Sisyphean undertaking that is best abandoned in principle.
  • “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” (Blaise Pascal)
  • I don’t go in for the whole trans-/post-human/cyborg thing. As Douglas Rushkoff recently put it, “I’m on team human here. Call that egotistical, but it’s the only team I know.”
  • “A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow.  While it retains visibility, it loses the quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense.” (Hannah Arendt)

Make of those what you will. Here, finally, is the list. Remember, I am the primary audience for this advice.

1. Don’t wake up with the Internet. Have breakfast, walk the dog, read a book, whatever … do something before getting online. Think of it as a way of preparing – physically, mentally, emotional, morally, etc. – for all that follows.

2. Don’t remain ambiently connected to your email account. Close the email tab/app. Check in two or three times a day for a fixed period of time. The same holds for FB, Twitter, etc.

3. Sit on a link for a few hours or even a day before sharing. If it’s not worth sharing then, it probably wasn’t worth sharing in the first place. Don’t add to the noise.

4. Don’t take meals with the Internet. Log off, leave devices behind, and enjoy your meal as an opportunity recoup, physically and mentally. If you’re inside all day, take your lunch outside. Enjoy the company of others, or take the chance to sit in silence for a few minutes.

5. Breathe. Seriously.

6. Do one thing – one whole, complete thing – at a time whenever it’s reasonable to do so. If writing an email, write it all at once. If reading an article, read it straight through. If a task can’t be completed in one sitting, at least work on it for a reasonable amount of time without interruption. Resist, in other words, the allure of the multitasking myth. It’s the siren song of our age, and it will shipwreck your mind.

7. Clear the RSS feed at the end of each day. If it didn’t get read, life will go on. This is a hard one for me; I want to read it all, stay on top of things, etc. If I don’t clear the feed, though, I end up with a pile of information that eventually snowballs to unmanageable proportions anyway. What’s more, deleting potentially interesting, unread items each day functions as a happy, cathartic gesture of liberation.

8. Turn off all notifications that threaten to interrupt or distract. Mentally, we tend to respond to these with Pavlovian alacrity. Emotionally, they are not unlike our own little versions of Gatsby’s green light. In either case, it’s a ruinous habit.²

9. Turn devices off when spending time with others. Also, shut the laptop when speaking to another person. This may seem quaint or reactionary or nostalgic or antiquated or judgmental or curmudgeonly. I see it as a way of remaining minimally civil and decent, whether or not I’m accorded the same civility and decency in return. If you must attend to a call or text, politely indicate as much and do so. Better that than surreptitiously attending to your device while still attempting to give off the impression of attentiveness. That’s a meaningless charade, and everyone involved knows it.

10. Log-off of social media sites after visiting them. The extra step to log-in makes it slightly less tempting to click over when a craving for distraction strikes. Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of these little digital speed-bumps.

11. Don’t go to bed with the Internet. Here’s why.

A few years ago, Umberto Eco said, “We like lists because we don’t want to die.” Perhaps that’s a bit too melodramatic for this particular list. Certainly, I’ve attached no death-defying hopes to it. But I do think following through on these digital disciplines will help me make better use of this life and take more pleasure in it.

If you’ve got your own similar list of digital disciplines, share them in the comments below. If they’re useful to you, chances are others would find them useful too.


¹See the comment thread on this post on Nick Carr’s blog.
²Self-plagiarism alert. I’ve used this language before, here and here.

Don’t Be a Relay in the Network

Back when the Machine was the dominant technological symbol, a metaphor arose to articulate the fear that individual significance was being sacrificed to large-scale, impersonal social forces: it was the fear of becoming “a cog in the machine.”

The metaphor is in need of an update.

This train of thought (speaking of archaic metaphors) began when I read the following paragraph from Leon Wieseltier’s recent commencement address at Brandeis University:

In the digital universe, knowledge is reduced to the status of information. Who will any longer remember that knowledge is to information as art is to kitsch-–that information is the most inferior kind of knowledge, because it is the most external? A great Jewish thinker of the early Middle Ages wondered why God, if He wanted us to know the truth about everything, did not simply tell us the truth about everything. His wise answer was that if we were merely told what we need to know, we would not, strictly speaking, know it. Knowledge can be acquired only over time and only by method.

It was that last phrase that stayed with me: knowledge can only be acquired by time and method. I was already in fundamental agreement with Wieseltier’s distinction between information and knowledge, and his prescription of time and method as the path toward knowledge also seemed just about right.

It also seemed quite different than what ordinarily characterized my daily encounter with digital information. For the most part, I’m doing well if I keep on top of all that comes my way each day through a variety of digital channels and then pass along – via this blog, Twitter, FB, or now Tumblr – items that I think are, or ought to be of interest to the respective audiences on each of those platforms. Blog, reblog. Like, share. Tweet, retweet. Etc., etc., etc.

Read, then discard or pass along. Repeat. That’s my default method. It’s not, I suspect, what Wieseltier had in mind. There is, given the sheer volume of information one takes in, a veneer of learnedness to these habits. But there is, in fact, very little thought involved, or judgment. Time under these circumstances is not experienced as the pre-condition of knowledge, it is rather the enemy of relevance. The meme-cycle, like the news-cycle is unforgivingly brief. And method – understood as the deliberate, sustained, and, yes, methodical pursuit of deep understanding of a given topic – is likewise out of step with the rhythms of digital information.

Of course, there is nothing about digital technology that demands or necessitate’s this kind of relationship to information or knowledge. But while it is not demanded or necessitated, it is facilitated and encouraged. It is always easier to attune oneself to the dominant rhythms than it is to serve as the counterpoint. And what the dominant rhythm of digital culture encourages is not that we be cogs in the machine, but rather relays in the network.

We are relays in a massive network of digital information. Information comes to me and I send it out to you and you pass it along to someone else, and so on, day in and day out, moment by moment. In certain circles it might even be put this way: we are neurons within a global mind. But, of course, there is no global mind in any meaningful sense that we should care about. It is a clever, fictive metaphor bandied about by pseudo-mystical techno-utopians.

The minds that matter are yours and mine, and their health requires that we resist the imperatives of digital culture and re-inject time and method into our encounters with information. It begins, I think, with a simple “No” to the impulse to quickly skim-read and either share or discard. May be even prior to this, we must also renounce the tacit pressure to keep up with it all (as if that were possible anyway) and the fear of missing out. And this should be followed by a willingness to invest deep attentiveness, further research, and even contemplation over time to those matters that call for it. Needless to say, not all information justifies this sort of cognitive investment. But all of us should be able to transition from the nearly passive reception and transmission of information to genuine knowledge when it is warranted.

At their best, digital technologies offer tremendous resources to the life of the mind, but only if we cultivate the discipline to use these technologies against their own grain.

Et in Facebook ego

In Nicolas Poussin’s mid-seventeenth century painting, Et in Arcadia ego, shepherds have stumbled upon an ancient tomb on which the titular words are inscribed. Understood to be the voice of death, the Latin phrase may be roughly translated, “Even in Arcadia there am I.” Because Arcadia had come to symbolize a mythic pastoral paradise, the painting suggested the ubiquity of death. To the shepherds, the tomb was a momento mori: a reminder of the inescapability of death.

Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego, 1637-38
Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego, 1637-38

Poussin was not alone among artists of the period in addressing the certainty of death. During the seventeenth and eighteenth century, vanitas art flourished. The designation stems from the Latin phrase vanitas vanitatum omni vanitas, a recurring refrain throughout the biblical book of Ecclesiastes:  “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Paintings in the genre were still lifes depicting an assortment of objects which represented all of that we might pursue in this life. In their midst, however, one would also find a skull and an hour glass:  symbols of death and the brevity of life. The idea, of course, was to encourage people to make the most of their living years.

Edwart Collier, 1690
Edwart Collier, 1690

For the most part, we don’t go in for this sort of thing anymore. Few people, if any, operate under the delusion that we might escape death (excepting the Singularity folks I guess), but we do a pretty good job of forgetting what we know about death. We keep death out of sight and, hence, out of mind. We’re certainly not going out of our way to remind ourselves of death’s inevitability. And, who knows, maybe that’s for the better. Maybe all of those skulls and hourglasses were morbidly unhealthy. I honestly don’t know.

But while vanitas art has gone out of fashion, a new class of memento mori has emerged: the social media profile.

I’m one of those on again, off again Facebook users. Lately, I’ve been on again, and recently I noticed one of those birthday reminders Facebook places in the left hand column where it puts all of the things Facebook would like you to do and click on. It was for a high school friend whom I had not spoken to in over eight years. It was in that respect a very typical Facebook friendship:  the sort that probably wouldn’t exist at all any longer were it not for Facebook. And that’s not necessarily a knock on the platform. I appreciate being able to maintain at least a minimal connection with people I’d once been quite close to. In this case, though, it demonstrated just how weak those ties can be.

Upon clicking over to their profile, I read a few odd birthday notes, and very quickly it became obvious that my high school friend had died over a year ago. It was a shock, of course. It had happened while I was off of Facebook and news had not reached me by any other channel. But there it was. Out of nowhere and without warning my browser was haunted by the very real presence of death. Momento mori.

Just a few days prior I logged on to Facebook and was greeted by the tragic news that a former student had unexpectedly passed away. Because we had several mutual connections, photographs of the young man found their way into my news feed for several days. It was odd and disconcerting and terribly sad all at once. I don’t know what I think of social media mourning. It makes me uneasy, but I won’t criticize what might bring others solace. In any case, it is, like death itself, an unavoidable reality of our social media experience. Death is no digital dualist.

Facebook sometimes feels like a modern-day Arcadia. It is a carefully cultivated space in which life appears Edenic. The pictures are beautiful, the events exciting, the face are always smiling, the children always amusing, the couples always adoring. Certain studies even suggest that comparing our own experience to these immaculately curated slices of life leads to envy, discontent, and unhappiness. Naturally … if we assume that these slices of life are comprehensive representations of the lives people lead. Of course, they are not.

But there, alongside the pets and witty status updates and wedding pictures and birth announcements, we will increasingly find our social media platforms haunted by the digital, disembodied presence of the dead.

In that dreary opening chapter of The Scarlett Letter, Hawthorne wrote, “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”

And so it is with our digital utopias, our virtual Arcadias.

Et in Facebook ego.