Looking Forward, Looking Back
A Critical Defense of Nostalgia
Is It Live or is It Memorex?
It’s easy to hate nostalgia. As a concept. As a mode. We’re inundated with it. Or something like it. A pseudo-nostalgia. A desperate clinging to the familiar, a popular response to the anxieties of a world in crisis, a corporate response to consolidated production and declining rates of profit, the symptom of a lifeless culture in decay. The “cultural logic of late capitalism.” All our fondest memories and beloved things are constantly revived and sent back to us, zombie corpses more decayed and degenerate and unrecognizable with each resuscitation. Like an old tape, re-re-recorded over, decayed into the unrecognizable. We can’t seem to escape the past, the brands and franchises, the monolith of 20th century culture has become both prison, temple and mausoleum.
But is this really even nostalgia? Or something else. The packaging and names are familiar, but what lies underneath is not really in any meaningful sense what came before. Disney’s modern output, for example, superficially evokes the names, symbols and forms of its past glories, but the substance underneath is cold 21st century modernity, slick and soulless, glossy and focus tested to death. Beneath the skin of our cherished memories and lost wonders a cold red-eyed terminator endoskeleton.
We could consider this a discrete phenomenon of nostalgia. Or perhaps a mere aspect of it. Within any thing is a collection of constituent elements, and contradictions, shaped and shaded by their context. So it is said, we dwell in our idealized past because we have lost a future, but our past too is lost. It’s remastered, retextured, repackaged, remade, stretching before us is only the endless wasteland of the perpetual-present-forever. The corpse of Theseus. The 300th season of The Simpsons. That which is not dead may eternal lie.
Ask Your Doctor if Nostalgia is Right for You
What is nostalgia? For contrivance and convenience I’ll define it here not as a mode or a form, but a feeling. A kind of comforting, analgesic warmth that comes from re-activating ancient and disused neural pathways. Not staring at a chunko pop, sequel or remake to a beloved film, but watching that film itself, and the flooding back of memories and feelings related to it, and that time in life.
It’s a nice feeling. One can see how it risks becoming addictive. How one could return again and again in Skinner’s box form to it. But like all pleasant things, in appropriate quantity it is no harm. I think perhaps, it is even essential. A mental vacation to simple joys, a reminder of ourselves. Humanizing. Bombarded at all times by injunctions to enjoy, by a culture of pastiche and reference trying to exploit this feeling to short-circuit our consumer impulses, by anhedonic self-indulgence, it can be too easy to knee jerk response in way that fetishizes constant intellectualization, cynicism and misery. To Fuck You Dad ourselves into merciless self flagellation. Not that a bit of intellectualized cynicism is a bad thing, quite the opposite, but to altogether reject simple joy is to reject a critical part of our humanity, a necessary element of the engine that keeps us going. It’s soul-killing. Like a bowl of ice cream and a joint, a nice trip back to a beloved film, or game, or book, or home movie or what-have-you, is in and of itself a perfectly worthwhile pleasure.
But if you want to intellectualize it anyway, we can. Works of art and entertainment, cultural objects, even technology and aspects of our material culture, can all evoke this comforting nostalgia, but they also serve as temporal landmarks. Milestones on the movement of our lives and the world around us. Recently I’ve been digitizing our VHS home movies, and the mere act of rewinding a tape, the grain and distortion in the audio and video, the warp of tracking errors and the blown out skies and purple tinged haze of aged tape and archaic camcorder technology evoked almost much as the mullets and CRT TVs and tender moments with deceased relatives depicted therein. The sense of all the ways, great and small, the world had changed, culturally, aesthetically, technologically, everything and everyone gained and lost, in all it’s ambivalence. There is more here than shallow, opioid self-soothing. It can be a meaningful experience.
It’s not necessary to intellectualize and justify this simple pleasure, but we can, so let us do so.
Reclaiming the Past
When we return to an old bit of art or entertainment or a recording, we contrast not only our time with that time, but our experience of it with our remembered experience, and this contrast invariably begets conflicts, from which new information and insight can emerge. Old media is a temporal landmark, a milestone, against we can compare both the world and ourselves, and note the changes.
Revisiting an old record from your middle school days and realizing that, yes, it sucks terribly, can bring a realization of how much you’ve changed as a person. Changes in taste reflecting changes in outlook, accumulated experiences, maturation, growth - and constant growth is something we should aspire too. Dwelling forever in the past is stagnation, but an occasional visit can serve the opposite. It marks our growth, and in reflection on it, stimulates it further.
But more than introspection is served here. Our past is repackaged and resold to us so much, it becomes reshaped, misshaped, bowdlerized. I think often of this post from Matt Christman:
Sony Pictures UK 🎬 @SonyPicturesUKEverything happens for a reason. Watch the new trailer for #Ghostbusters: Afterlife At Cinemas next summer. https://t.co/inl1upfpHK
This new-sequel-soft-reboot-of-a-hard-reboot advertises itself as a children’s adventure film, aimed at children with fond but distorted memories of the original film which was, in every respect, primarily an adult comedy. Our collective social memories of things even naturally has a habit of distorting. Consider, famously, that no one in the original Star Trek ever said: “Beam me up Scotty.” In this age of the constant re-manufacturing of media. Of cloud-hosted streaming services, where any work can be quietly modified without the audience’s awareness, this tendency can become more pronounced and more pernicious. In the constant re-marketing of our memories and cultural legacy back to us, exists a constant revision and distortion.
The term ‘timeless’ is often deployed as a compliment to a work of art or entertainment, and ‘dated’ as a criticism. In some senses, there’s merit here. Good art is timeless in a sense it speaks to human experiences, feelings, senses that transcend some specific cultural moment. And some things can date themselves in an overdependence on of-the-moment fleeing signifiers. In general though, I think this pursuit of timelessness as perpetual-modernity are deeply misguided. The sense that every beloved bit of media needs to be ‘updated for a new generation’. Edited, modified, CGI added in over practical effects, socially unacceptable language or ideas removed, or altogether ‘updated for a new generation’ with remakes and sequels. Not an artistic dialogue with a past work, or exploration of new elements within a theme or idea, but the obsolescence and replacement logic of a consumer electronic. The old thing is out of date, the new thing is Better.
Timelessness and timeliness, I argue, are not mutually exclusive but inextricably entwined. Great works endure not because they exist out of time, but deeply enmeshed in it. The familiar becomes alien, the alien familiar, and the two contrast in ways that shift with the flow of time, as the passage of the sun through the sky casts natural landscapes in ever shifting tones and shades. Whether Shakespeare or Star Wars, the Iliad or the prehistoric paintings of Chauvet Cave, art, entertainment, objects, memories and dreams reach across from decades, centuries and millennia. Their place in time is what makes them timeless. Windows into the past and mirrors of the present. In it’s form and language, it’s themes and ideas, the materials and technology and mode of its craft, these objects can and should reflect the time and context in which they where made. It is part of their value and beauty, which doesn’t diminish, but grows with the passage of years.
Real nostalgia then, or at least real revisitation, can allow us to see, whether you consider it good or ill, lost or rightfully discarded, in all flaw and virtue, the breadth and depth of history, which is obscured by the distorting fogged lens of the forever-present, the anti-human driving force of homogeneity and smoothness and algorithmic monstrous perfection. To reclaim our past, and with it, ourselves, our humanity, and then perhaps in turn our future too.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
Whether we consider this an extension of nostalgia as a concept, or a corollary function that nostalgia motivates us towards, to look backwards to the past is only myopic and stagnant if we allow it to be so, if we look uncritically and with gaze fixed through distorting lenses. Our windows into the past offer not only the simple warmth of the golden light of happy memories, which is sufficient enough, but a means, if we are wise enough to realize it, of gauging accurately and critically the shape of the past and the present. We can draw our gaze across history, plot points on the graph, the ballistic arc of time, the roads never taken, the evolutionary branches unexplored, the novel combinations and unmet potentials of abandoned or stunted forms. In reclaiming our past, and seeing it clearly, we can begin to reclaim and discern our future. This is, if you need it, the critical value of nostalgia.