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

Strangers to Ourselves

For reasons that I probably do not myself fully understand, I am endlessly intrigued by discussions of the ever elusive state of being we call authenticity. At least part of the intrigue lies in how a discussion of authenticity can ensnare within itself philosophical, sociological, technological, and even religious considerations. It makes for lively and stimulating discussion in other words. Authenticity talk is intriguing as well because it may be under its guise that the ancient debate about what constitutes a good life and the venerable quest to “know thyself” survive today.

Both of these considerations also suggest a serious difficulty presented by authenticity talk: the word authenticity, as it is commonly used, masks a complex and diverse set of concepts. This complexity and diversity threatens to introduce a slippery equivocation into what might otherwise be well-intended conversations and debates. At least this has been my experience. But then again, discussing what exactly authenticity is is part of what makes such discussions lively and interesting.

My own thinking about authenticity is sporadic and owes more to serendipity than to any conscientious scholarly endeavor. For example, most recently, from no particular quarter, the following question formulated itself in my mind: What is the problem to which authenticity is the answer?

There is nothing particularly insightful about this question, but it did get me thinking about the whole set of ideas from a different angle. The meandering mental path that subsequently unfolded led me to identify this problem as some sort of psychic rupture or dissonance. We don’t think  of authenticity at all unless we think of it as a problem, and it presents itself as a problem at the very time it enters our conscious awareness. It is a problem tied to our awareness of ourselves as selves.

There are many interesting paths that unfold from that point, but I want to offer this one subsequent stab at defining what we (sometimes) mean by authenticity: Authenticity is a seamless continuity between the self, time, and place. It is a sense of complete at-homeness in the world. For this reason, then, we might see nostalgia as another manifestation of the problem of authenticity. Nostalgia — first in its literal sense as longing for spatial home, and then its more contemporary form as longing for a home in time — is a symptom of the rupture in the continuity between self, time, and place that generates an awareness of the self as a problem to be solved, an awareness that constitutes the problem of authenticity.

Framing the discussion as matter of at-homeness (or a lack thereof) recalled to my mind the work of the medical doctor turned novelist cum philosopher, Walker Percy. Percy went from being a diagnostician of physical maladies to one of existential maladies. With his acute Pascalian eye, Percy made a literary career of diagnosing the modern self’s inability to understand itself. This was the theme of his send-off of the self-help genre, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.

Percy chose the following passage from Nietzsche as an epigraph for Lost in the Cosmos:

“We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves … Of necessity we remain strangers to ourselves, we understand ourselves not, in our selves we are bound to be mistaken, for each of us holds good to all eternity the motto, ‘Each is the farthest away from himself’—as far as ourselves are concerned we are not knowers.”

A little further on, in his inventory of possible “selfs” (or should that be “sevles”), Percy offered this description of the lost self:

“With the passing of the cosmological myths and the fading of Christianity as a guarantor of the identity of the self, the self becomes dislocated, … is both cut loose and imprisoned by its own freedom, yet imprisoned by a curious and paradoxical bondage like a Chinese handcuff, so that the very attempts to free itself, e.g., by ever more refined techniques for the pursuit of happiness, only tighten the bondage and distance the self ever farther from the very world it wishes to inhabit as its homeland …. Every advance in an objective understanding of the Cosmos and in its technological control further distances the self from the Cosmos precisely in the degree of the advance—so that in the end the self becomes a space-bound ghost which roams the very Cosmos it understands perfectly.”

Percy was writing in 1983. Centuries earlier, St. Augustine wrote, “I have been made a question to myself.” The problem of authenticity is much older than we sometimes realize. Perhaps we might say that it is a perpetually possible problem that is more or less actualized given certain historical or psychological conditions. Perhaps the problem of authenticity is not a problem at all, but as C.S. Lewis once wrote of nostalgia, the “truest index of our real situation.”

Displacement and Nostalgia

Another tumblr-style post with excerpts from Casey’s Getting Back Into Place:

“… each of us is caught in the toils of displacement. As moderns and postmoderns in the Eurocentric West, we too are displaced persons … and inescapably so.”

The symptoms of this displacement, Casey claims, are “disruptive and destructive”:

“Among these symptoms, nostalgia is one of the most revealing. At the moment, our own culture suffers from acute nostalgia. Proust, living on the edge between the modern and the postmodern periods, described the drama of an entire life delivered over to nostalgia. But we do not need to turn to literature for evidence of the pervasive presence of nostalgia; we witness its cinematic expression in certain of Woody Allen’s films and its commercial exploitation in Disney World.”

This was, of course, before Midnight in Paris.

In Casey’s view, our displacement is in part a function of a faulty conceptualization. The triumph of abstraction over the particular:

“… the placeless is the thoughtless; and if we fail to honor and remember places, this is a direct reflection of our unthinking and increasingly ill condition. Another telling sign is the fact that ‘for the modern self, all places are essentially the same: in the uniform, homogeneous space of a Euclidean-Newtonian grid, all places are essentially interchangeable. Our places, even our places for homes, are defined by objective measures.'”

“The uniformity of space and the equability of time have replaced, or more exactly displaced, the priority of place. If nostalgia is a characteristically modern malaise, this may be due to its covert recognition that a time once existed when place was ‘the first of all things,’ when time and space in their modern (dis)guises were not yet fatally at work. For in the pathos of nostalgia, ‘space and time [are] not yet separable concepts, [they are] scarcely concepts at all.’ But in the modern era we have accepted and incorporated space and time in their objectivity and (in)difference … We calculate, and move at rapid speeds, in time and space. But we do not live in these abstract parameters; instead, we displaced in them and by them.”

For related musings see Fatal Nostalgia and Generalized Anxiety.

Nostalgia for Community: Nisbet to Hunter via Reiff

In his 1953 The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet anticipated themes more commonly associated with Philip Rieff’s 1966 The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud:

“Is not the most appealing popular religious literature of the day that which presents religion, not in its timeless role of sharpening man’s awareness of the omnipresence of evil and the difficulties of salvation, but as a means of relief from anxiety and frustration? It enjoins not virtue but adjustment. Are not the popular areas of psychology and ethics those involving either the theoretical principles or the therapeutic techniques of status and adjustment for the disinherited and insecure? ‘In what other period of human existence,’ asks Isaiah Berlin, ‘has so much effort been devoted not to the painfully difficult task of looking for light, but to the protection … of individuals from the intellectual burden of facing problems that may be too deep or complex?’ Every age has its literature of regeneration. Our own, however, is directed not to the ancient desire of man of higher virtue but to the obsessive craving of men for tranquility and belonging.”

He goes on to link this craving for tranquility and belonging to the then current popular wave of nostalgia:

“Nostalgia has become almost a central state of mind. In mass advertising, the magazine story, and in popular music we cannot fail to see the commercial appeal that seems to lie in cultural themes drawn from the near past. It is plainly a nostalgia, not for the greater adventurousness of earlier times but for the assertedly greater community and moral certainty of the generations preceding ours. If the distinguishing mark of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was transgression, that of the mid-twentieth century would appear to be the search for the road back.”

Knowing what lay ahead, remember Nisbet is writing in the early 1950s, it would seem that transgression had not yet exhausted itself as a cultural force and the road back would not be traveled for very long. In any case, Nisbet already recognized that the terms on which the journey was being undertaken would undermine its objective:

“Increasingly, individuals seek escape from the freedom of impersonality, secularism, and individualism. They look for community in marriage, thus putting, often, an intolerable strain upon a tie already grown institutionally fragile. They look for it in easy religion, which leads frequently to a vulgarization of Christianity the like of which the world has not seen before. They look for it in the psychiatrist’s office, in the cult, in functionless ritualizations of the past, and in all the other avocations of relief from nervous exhaustion.”

This recalls the following observations from James D. Hunter, a contemporary sociologist influenced by Rieff, in The Death of Character:

“We say we want the renewal of character in our day but we do not really know what to ask for. To have a renewal of character is to have a renewal of a creedal order that constrains, limits, binds, obligates, and compels. This price is too high for us to pay. We want character without conviction; we want strong morality but without the emotional burden of guilt or shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist upon it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom. In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.”

Nostalgia: The Third Wave

“If the idea of progress has the curious effect of weakening the inclination to make intelligent provision for the future, nostalgia, its ideological twin, undermines the ability to make intelligent use of the past.” — Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven

Memory and nostalgia have been twin recurring themes running through various posts this past year. Both of these words name ways of being with the past. Memory generally names what we take to be a healthy ordering of our relationship to the past, while nostalgia names whatever is generally taken to be a disordered form of relating to the past. I’ve long sensed, however, without necessarily having thought much about it, that some of what is casually and dismissively labeled nostalgia may in fact belong under the category of healthy remembering or, alternatively, that the nostalgic longings in question at the very least signaled a deeper disorder of which nostalgia is but a symptom.

If we step back and look at some of our behaviors and certain trends that animate popular culture, we might conclude that we are in the thralls of some sort of madness with regards to time and the past. We obsessively document ourselves, visually and textually, creating massive archives stuffed with memory, virtual theaters of memory for our own lives. Facebook’s evolving architecture reflects this obsession as it now aims to make it easier to chronologically and (geo)spatially order (a database gesture toward narrative) and access our stored memories. Simultaneously, vintage and retro remain the stylistic order of the day. Hyperrealistic period dramas populate our entertainment options. T-shirt design embraces the logos and artifacts of the pre-digital past. Social critics suggest that we are aesthetically stuck, like a vinyl record (which are incidentally quite hip again) skipping incessantly.

What do we make of it? How do we understand all of these gestures, some of them feverish, toward remembering and the past? How can we discern where memory ends and nostalgia begins? For that matter, how do we even define nostalgia?

Christopher Lasch, who raised many of these same sorts of questions throughout his career, particularly in The True and Only Heaven, provides some helpful insights and categories to help us along the path to understanding. But before considering Lasch’s perspective, let me take just one more pass at clarifying the main issues that interest me here.

Approaching nostalgia we need to distinguish between the semantic and the ontological dimensions of the issue. The semantic questions revolve around the use of the word nostalgia; the ontological questions revolve around the status of the sensibilities to which the word is applied as well as their sources and roots. It would seem that the semantic question has been more or less resolved so that the connotations of the word are uniformly negative (more on this later). Nostalgia, in other words, is typically a word of opprobrium. This being the case, then, the question becomes whether or not the word is justly applied and such judgments require us to define what constitutes healthy and unhealthy, ordered and disordered modes of relating to the past. Coming back to Lasch, we can see what help he offers in thinking through these questions.

First, for Lasch, nostalgia carries entirely negative connotations. He employs the term to name disordered relationships to the past. So, in his view, nostalgia prevents us from making intelligent use of the past because it is an ahistorical phenomenon.

“Strictly speaking, nostalgia, does not entail the exercise of memory at all, since the past it idealizes stands outside time, frozen in unchaining perfection. Memory too may idealize the past, but not in order to condemn the present. It draws hope and comfort from the past in order to enrich the present and to face what comes with good cheer. It sees past, present, and future as continuous. It is less concerned with loss than with our continuing indebtedness to a past the formative influence of which lives on in our patterns of speech, our gestures, our standards of honor, our expectations, our basic disposition toward the world around us.”

In this paragraph, by contrasting it with memory, Lasch lays out the contours of nostalgia as he understands it:

a. Nostalgia is primarily interested in condemning the present.

b. It fails to offer hope or otherwise enrich the present.

c. It sunders the continuity of past, present, and future.

d. It is focused on loss.

e. It fails to recognize the ongoing significance of the past in the present.

Boucher, An Autumn Pastoral, 1749

Lasch goes on to offer a genealogy of the various sources of contemporary nostalgia beginning with the historicizing of the pastoral sensibility and proceeding through the Romantic idealization of childhood, America’s romanticization of the West and later the small town, and finally nostalgia’s coming into self-awareness as such in the 1920s.

The recurring theme in these earlier iterations of the nostalgic sensibility is the manner in which, with the exception of childhood, an initially spatial displacement — of the countryside for example — becomes temporalized. So, for instance, the long standing contrast between town and country that animated pastoral poetry since the classical age became, in the eighteenth and nineteenth century with the advent of industrialization, a matter not of here and there, but then and now. The First World War had a similar effect on the trope of childhood’s lost innocence by marking off the whole of history before the war as a time of relative innocence compared with the generalized loss of innocence that characterized the time after the war.

The First World War, in Lasch’s telling of nostalgia’s history, also gave a specific form to a tendency that first appears in the early nineteenth century: “In an ‘age of change,’ as John Stuart Mill called it in his 1831 essay ‘The Spirit of the Age,’ the ‘idea of comparing one’s own age with former ages’ had for the first time become an inescapable mental habit; Mill referred to it as the ‘dominant idea’ of the nineteenth century.”

It would seem to me that this tendency is not entirely novel in Mill’s day, after all Renaissance culture made much of its contrast with the so-called Dark Ages and its recovery of classical civilization. But it seems safe to credit Mill’s estimation that in his day it becomes for the first time “an inescapable mental habit.” This would seem to correspond roughly with the emergence of historical consciousness and the discipline of history in its modern form — which is to say as a “science” of the past rather than as a branch of moral philosophy.

Following the First World War, this comparative impulse took on a specific form focused on the generation as the preferred unit of analysis. First, Lasch writes, “For those who lived through the cataclysm of the First World War, disillusionment was a collective experience — not just a function of the passage from youth to adulthood but of historical events that made the prewar world appear innocent and remote.” He then notes that it was no surprise that “the concept of the generation first began to influence historical and sociological consciousness in the same decade, the twenties, in which people began to speak so widely of nostalgia.”

It was in the 1920s, according to Lasch that nostalgia became aware of itself. In other words, it was not until the 1920s that the semantic problem we noted earlier appears since it was not until then that the term nostalgia gets applied widely to the varieties of responses to loss that had long been expressed in literature and the visual arts. Prior to the 1920s, nostalgia was mostly a medical term linked to the psychosomatic symptoms associated with severe, literal homesickness.

According to Lasch, by the mid-twentieth century, “History had come to be seen as a succession of decades and also as a succession of generations, each replacing the last at approximately ten year intervals. This way of thinking about the past had the effect of reducing history to fluctuations in public taste, to a progression of cultural fashions in which the daring advances achieved by one generation become the accepted norms of the next, only to be discarded in their turn by a new set of styles.”

This seems just about right. You can test it on yourself. First, consider our habit of talking about generations: baby-boomers, Y, X, millennials. Then, think back through the twentieth century. How is your memory of the period organized. I’m willing to bet that yours, as mine, is neatly divided up into decades even when the decades are little more than arbitrary with regards to historical development. And, further reinforcing Lasch’s point, what is the first decade for which you have a ready label and set of associations? I’m again willing to bet it is the 1920s, the “Roaring Twenties” of flappers, jazz, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the stock market crash. Thirties: depression. Forties: World War II. Fifties: Ike and Beaver. Sixties: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Seventies: Nixon and disco. Eighties: big hair and yuppies. And so on.

(Interestingly, my sense is that after the 1990s we seem to have a harder time with the decade scheme, perhaps because we are still so very fresh. I wonder, though, if we will have as neat a caricature of the first and subsequent decades of the twenty-first century as we do for their immediate predecessors.)

But this manner of thinking evidences the chief problem Lasch identifies with nostalgia. It has the effect of hermetically sealing off the past from the present. It represents the past as a series of discreet eras that, once superseded inevitably and on schedule by the next, cease to effect the present. Moreover, “Once nostalgia became conscious of itself, the term rapidly entered the vocabulary of political abuse.” For a society still officially allied to a progressivist ideology (as in Progress, not necessarily progressive politics), the charge of nostalgia “had attained the status of a political offense of the first order.” And here again is the semantic problem. When a word becomes a lazy term of abuse, then it is in danger of swallowing up all sorts of realities that for whatever reason do not sit well with the person doing the labeling.

So as Lasch begins to draw his social history of nostalgia to a close with the 1960s, “denunciations of nostalgia had become a ritual, performed, like all rituals, with a minimum of critical reflection.” In his 1965 The Paranoid Style in American Politics, for example, Richard Hofstadter “referred repeatedly to the ‘nostalgia’ of the American right and the of the populist tradition from which it supposedly derived.” And yet, the “nostalgia wave of the seventies” was still ahead:

“Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report, Saturday Review, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal, and the New Yorker all published reports on the ‘great nostalgia kick.’ ‘How much nostalgia can America take?’ asked Time in 1971. The British journalist Michael Wood, citing the revival of the popular music of the fifties, the commercial appeal of movies about World War II, and the saturation of the airwaves with historical dramas — ‘Upstairs, Downstairs,’ ‘The Pallisers,’ ‘The Forsyte Saga’ — declared, ‘The disease, if it is a disease, has suddenly become universal.'”

Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

Note for just a moment how easy it would be to update the British journalist’s comments to fit contemporary circumstances. Just add Hipster Revivalism and replace the television dramas with Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abby, and Pan Am. (See also Chuck Klosterman and Kurt Anderson.)  More on this in just a moment, but first back to Lasch.

Lasch concludes his analysis of memory and nostalgia by elaborating on the idea that “Nostalgia evokes the past only to bury it alive.” From this perspective, nostalgia and the ideology of Progress have a great deal in common. They both evince “an eagerness to proclaim the death of the past and to deny history’s hold over the present … Both find it difficult to believe that history still haunts our enlightened, disillusioned maturity.”

He goes on to add that the “nostalgic attitude” and belief in progress also share “a tendency to represent the past as static and unchaining, in contrast to the dynamism of modern life … Notwithstanding its insistence on unending change, the idea of progress makes rapid social change appear to be uniquely a feature of modern life. (The resulting dislocations are then cited as an explanation of modern nostalgia.)”

Regarding that last parenthetical statement, I plead guilty as charged. I’m not sure, however, that this is entirely off the mark, particularly when we distinguish between semantic (we might even say rhetorical) matters and the underlying phenomenon. Lasch himself points to the connections between industrialization, urbanization, and the First World War and the history of the nostalgic sensibility. The psychic consequences of these phenomena were not illusory. What Lasch is concerned about, however, is the manner in which these psychic consequences were ultimately interpreted and filtered through the language of nostalgia.

The danger, in his view, is that we fail to reckon with the persistence of history. By way of contrast, Lasch offers us Anthony Brandt’s comments on historical memory and nostalgia. Lasch summarizes Brandt’s reflections on Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, colonial Williamsburg, and Disney’s “Main Street” this way: “the passion for ‘historical authenticity’ seeks to recapture everything except the one thing that matters, the influence of the past on the present.” Real knowledge of the past, in Brandt’s view, “requires something more than knowing how people used to make candles or what kind of bed they slept in. It requires a sense of the persistence of the past: the manifold ways in which it penetrates our lives.”

Disney’s Main Street

This is Lasch’s chief concern and he is certainly right about it. If we define nostalgia as a dehistoricizing impulse that undermines our ability to think about the past and its enduring consequences, then it is certainly to be resisted. Lasch is advocating a way of being with the past that takes it seriously by refusing to romanticize it and by recognizing its continuing influence on the present. In this sense, he is advancing a posture similar to that which I attempted stake out in a review of Woody Allen’s meditation on nostalgia, Midnight in Paris: we are not to live in the past, but we are to live with it. It is a position that is neatly summed up by Faulkner’s line, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

But how does Lasch’s analysis help us understand the contemporary burst of nostalgia? For one thing, it reminds us that such bursts have a history. Ours is not necessarily novel. However, recognizing that a variety of sensibilities and responses are grouped, sometimes indiscriminately, under the heading of nostalgia, it is worth asking how our present fixations depart from their antecedents.

I’m going to venture this schema in response. There appear to be two prior large scale waves of sensibilities that have subsequently been identified as nostalgic, the first running throughout the middle part of the nineteenth century and another materializing subsequent to the First World War. These waves, at the expense of mixing metaphors, also yielded subsequent ripples of nostalgia that shared their essential orientation. The former wave and its ripples appears to have been generated by spatial or physical displacements related to industrialization and urbanization. The latter appears to have been generated by a temporal dislocation occasioned by the First World War that created a psychic chronological rupture. The semantic history of the nostalgia tracks with this two step generalization. Places were idealized, and then times.

So what are we idealizing today? I’m suggesting that it is neither a place nor a time (even though it is necessarily related to the chronological past). Contemporary nostalgia is fixated on the materiality of the past. Take Mad Men, for example, it’s not for the time period that we are nostalgic, the series after all gives us a rather bleak view of the era. No, it is for the stuff of the era that we are nostalgic — the fedoras, the martini glasses, the furniture, the typewriters, the ordinary accouterments of daily life. Consider all of those lingering close-ups on the objects of the past that are characteristic of the early seasons. Remember too how often such shows are praised for their “attention to detail” which is to say for the way they capture the material conditions of the era.

The same holds true for the hipster revivalism linked above. It is focused on the equipment of the past, not its values or its places. This is why Pottery Barn offers a faux rotary phone. It’s why vinyl records are now on sale again at big box retailers like Best Buy and Target. Our nostalgia is neither spatial nor temporal, it is tactile. And it is a response — conscious or not, ill-advised as it may be — to digital/virtual culture.

Taking one last cue from Lasch, nostalgia for the material risks missing the ways in which the material persists in its significance in much the same way that nostalgia for the past misses the way the past persists into the present. The danger is that we begin to think about life in terms of immaterial abstractions like “the cloud” and “Information” or false dichotomies such as  the “online/offline” distinction while ignoring the underlying, persistently material realities. It also threatens to distract us from the persistence (and significance) of technologies that do not fit neatly in the digital category. This same material nostalgia which is blind to the materiality of the present is what leads us to myopically and misleadingly focus analysis of contemporary events on abstractions such as the “Twitter  Revolution” or “social media campaigns.” It is not that these are insignificant, it is rather that the rhetoric obscures the ongoing significance of the material realities. It fashions a false dichotomy between the virtual present and the material past. And our thinking will be all the worse for it.

To rephrase Lasch, tactile nostalgia undermines our ability to make intelligent use of the material.


Update:  Another instance of tactile nostalgia — The Book Club.

Update: One more — Toxic Nostalgia.