This Is Why Nostalgia Needs to Die
We live in an unarguably digital world: our communication, our music, our art, our relationships, our entire generation lives in the netscape. Despite this–and our constant movement to digitize, digitize, digitize–our culture is paradoxically experiencing an increase in nostalgia. Although we can find almost any song online, vinyl sales continue to increase; although we can snap a picture with a smartphone, instant cameras are sold in every Urban Outfitters; although we’re sure there’s a multitude of stories to be told in the present, the box office loves a good period piece. Our society, as a whole, loves looking backwards.
Within this act of looking backwards, there’s two main trends: nostalgia for physical objects, and nostalgia for cultural objects from a specific period. In general, we aren’t nostalgic for much before the ’40s–probably due to two all-encapsulating wars, the Great Depression, and slavery existing legally. Oh, and just the general quality of life being somewhere between “I’m very rich but will die from a horrible disease at 40,” and “I’m an indentured servant.”
In 2008, Polaroid–the company behind instant cameras–filed for bankruptcy and stopped the production of instant film. To preserve the world of Polaroid, Florian Kaps and André Bosman bought the last factory producing Polaroid instant film. This was the beginning of The Impossible Project. Kaps explains the growth of The Impossible Project–a 75% increase in the 18-25 demographic, doubling the volume of film sold, refurbishing more than 30,00 classic Polaroid cameras–as a movement less towards nostalgia and more towards tangibility. “Because you are part of the process of the photo becoming an image,” Kaps says. “The whole thing becomes more valuable…digital actually created a demand for the physical.”
The Impossible Project, and similar movements in other mediums, encapsulates our nostalgic attitudes to objects that are now defunct in the digital age. At its core, nostalgia for objects is, in many ways, romantic. Think of it in these terms: would you prefer a text message or a letter? We want the tangibility of something you can hold, something you can destroy. And the imperfection of analogue is intensely human, it’s something we can empathize with.
On the other hand, we have the exaltation of the past; not just the objects, but the actual time frame. The series finale of Mad Men–a preeminent example of a TV show delving into the culture of the past–had over 4.6 million viewers. And when The Beatles came to streaming services, they garnered over 50 million listens in the first 48 hours on Spotify. There’s something about the culture of the past that immediately draws people in.
Let’s be honest, John Lennon, who openly discussed abusing women, and every dude on Mad Men, is low-key a dick. The cultures we constantly discuss, constantly engage with, constantly prop up as the “classics” were only cool and fun if you happened to be a straight, white, cisgender man. While listening to the Beatles might not mean that you identify with everything in the ’60s, it does mean that you identify with something in the ’60s. Or perhaps it means that you’re ignoring something inherent to the time frame: we’ve progressed since then.
When you’re empathizing with the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, oftentimes you’re connecting with a past that never really existed. “Within the psychiatric framework, nostalgia may be considered a yearning to return home to the past,” writes Alan R. Hirsch in his psychiatric explanation of nostalgia in the paper Nostalgia: a Neuropsychiatric Understanding. “More than this, it is a yearning for an idealized past–a longing for a sanitized impression of the past, what in psychoanalysis is referred to as a screen memory–not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, and in the process all negative emotions filtered out.”
Ironically, while the two types of nostalgia are undoubtedly interlocked, they lead our society to different places. This nostalgia for letter writing, vinyl, Polaroid cameras and the like is less about the past and more about a movement based in humanism. “You see ladies and gentleman, we live in the Golden Age of Dead Media,” science fiction writer Bruce Sterling explained in his speech at the Sixth International Symposium on Electronic Art. “What we brightly call ‘multimedia’ provides a whole galaxy of mutant recombinant media, most of them with the working lifespan of a pack of Twinkies. Mastering a typical CD-ROM is like mastering an entire new medium by using a frozen watch-cursor. And then the machine dies. And then the operating system dies. And then the computer language supporting that operating system because as dead as the Hittite language. And in the meantime, our entire culture has been sucked into the black hole of computation, an utterly frenetic process of virtual planned obsolescence.”
Subverting the digital medium is rooted in trying to make sure the human– whether the literal human body or the humanness we ascribe to analog technology–doesn’t become obsolete.
Ironically, the culture of nostalgia, surrounding the literal time frame and culture of the past, instead erases the human. Because guess what? Humans are, and have been for the vast majority of history, pretty terrible. We can’t erase or idolize these things to make them go away–it literally happened. There’s nothing wrong with consuming the cultural objects from different time periods, but we have to do it with the knowledge that on the whole, the world was pretty fucked up–the ’50s weren’t as squeaky clean as we sometimes like to pretend. Idealization is the first step to repetition.
Nostalgia is often a way to reflect on our society as a whole, but within this reflection, we often lose what life was actually like. Looking into our past isn’t bad–it can be a learning experience–but when we pretend there was nothing wrong with it, we lose our own history. And this is where we toe the line with nostalgia; does nostalgia celebrate what we had, or destroy the progress we’ve made since that moment? If we approach the past with the hindsight we have from the present, we can celebrate what the past has actually done for us: move us into the present, then the future.
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