Posted by: coloradokiwi | May 15, 2008

Getting nostalgic for real nostalgia

In keeping with the theme of the last post, I’d like to expand a bit on memory and the way memory (and to some extent identity) becomes mediated via pop culture.   To the extent that we’ve lived our lives in relation to media and mediated events, and that for the most part all these things that we remember and therefore become nostalgic about are actually (usually) corporate property, our nostalgia in essence becomes a commodity.  In other words, memory (or rather, nostalgia) has become incredibly popular and profitable, and the things of yesteryear (or perhaps even yester-month) are now almost constantly recycled in order to capitalize on this.  For some social critics, this is a potentially dangerous thing, in part because this gives the distinct impression that our culture is not really doing much other than running on the treadmill.  But for me there are at least two kinds of nostalgia:  that which is cognitive and negotiated (more like reminiscing), and that which is unconscious and serendipitous (the joy of remembering something you’ve forgotten).  The former is something that we articulate, and that is easily repackaged for us, and the latter is something that sort of happens to us, and — this is the crucial part — is capable of capturing not merely the zeitgeist, but what it felt like to be alive back then.  Allow me to riff just a bit on the latter for a moment:  

There was a time in my life where myself and a handful of friends would head off for camping trips and do bong hits by the campfire, and I recall that with regularity at a certain point one of the side effects of my high was that synapses would be reawakened such that I could occupy the exact mindset of different stages of my life:  the deep-run thoughts that course through the brain daily, including crushes on girls, the song that was stuck in my head, and so on.  Of course at the same time I had my current state of mind as well, so that the effect was as if I had quantum leaped into myself when I was, say, eight  years old. 

Recently I  had very much the same sensation, when I stumbled across an array of pop culture ephemera on Youtube (if you can call it that), consisting mostly of old commercials and network television bumpers. These are things I saw all the time, and stuff I’d utterly forgotten about, to such an extent that the sensation was very much like taking one of those bong hits, but this time of course it was not drug induced.  Try it, it’s freaky. 

This is all a long way of saying:  that kind of cultural referencing, of nostalgia, strikes me as an utterly harmless and in some ways incredibly gratifying thing.   It’s not about “celebrating” those things (after all, is it really very entertaining to watch bumpers and old McDonald’s commercials?), it’s about being mentally transported.  I would liken it to visiting your childhood home:  sure you can remember the layout and the color of the carpet, but it’s only when you smell it, when you see an old stain or cigarette burn, and see that the crack in the foundation is still there, that level of detail — that is when things flood back.   

Anyway, the article I linked to above points out/alludes to two trends, which usually (but not necessarily) utilize the first kind of nostalgia, that may be even worse than the lack of a strong cultural dynamism and the snowball effect, the collapsing of time, of what can be meta-meta-meta-referenced for nostalgic purposes (hey, remember “dramatic prairie dog“?):   

1.  Prosthetic memory.  It’s becoming trendy to “remember the [insert decade]” (thanks, VH1!), such that we “remember” things we “all” shared, which may not in fact be things we remember, or things that accurately reflect the ethos, the “structure of feeling” of living back whenever.  When I watch an 80’s overhaul, I realize there were whole areas of pop culture to which I was never privy, and yet somehow I feel a sort of nostalgia for that, get caught up in the spirit of it — despite that these are not things I actually remember.  What happens?  Am I nostalgic for the time period they reference, coupled with reminiscing about reminiscing about the ’80’s?   Further, while it’s hardly surprising that the focus is on pop culture inanity, there were lots of pop culture things that bring up less “fun” but certainly quite important things:  Ayatollah Assaholah tees, Reagan masks, etc.  Hey kids, remember Iran Contra?  Holy wowza, wasn’t the invasion of Panama a hoot?  Remember Live Aid, Farm Aid, “We Are The World”?  Well, you remember the songs at least, but let’s just sort of leave behind what they were about:  bo-ring! 

2.  The celebration of not merely pop culture, but any and all consumer goods.  They are, after all, what defines who we are/were, right?  How long’s it gonna be before Tide brings back their old packaging to try to evoke nostalgia?  I mean, Coca Cola brought back their “classic” bottles some time ago, I can’t see why this won’t be an industry wide trend.  And hey, you can now buy Count Chocula, Frankenberry and Boo Berry.  And this is not because they are quality cereals.  Have a look at the toys in the toy store right now:  Care Bears, My Little Pony, Star Wars, G.I. Joe…who are these toys really for, the kids or their parents? 

Certainly we can point to all of these insidious things, but I think there’s also something else at work:  we’re nostalgic for a time of mass movement/culture.   Things are becoming more and more diffuse.  About the only thing I can think of that “everybody” is into are internet memes, and even then this is niche by age, class, and taste (raise your hand if you’ve seen “Two Girls 1 Cup”).  We became so used to belonging to a mass culture and its mass products that we don’t know how to operate in a world in which the classic “water cooler talk” is mostly sharing things that only you saw, and relating it in the lamest fashion to your coworkers.  As television advertising goes through its latest crisis, the future will be in on demand, subscription-only, straight to download shows for niche markets of hardcore fans — with high variance in quality and budget.   

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  Are we experiencing the horrors of atomization and micro-casted capitalist exploitation, or the dawn of a new era of consumer freedom from the top-down model of the culture industry, where we get what we like without being hoodwinked by advertisers?  And what will be nostalgic for in such a future?

Watch this space!  (and remember…)


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