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  • James Lowell Brunton

Nostalgia in Motion

“…nostalgia. It's delicate... but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, 'nostalgia' literally means, 'the pain from an old wound.' It's a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship. It's a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the Wheel. It's called a Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, and back home again... to a place where we know we are loved.”

—Don Draper, pitching an ad for a slide projector to Kodak, on Mad Men, Season 1, Episode 13: “The Wheel”

Don Draper may have gotten the literal definition of nostalgia wrong (in its original use, it means “homesickness,” and the term is a joining of nostos, “return home” with algos, “longing”), but as far as connotation goes, he is spot on. The various uses of nostalgia in our present culture, I would argue, draw on the multidirectional concept of time and place this fictional adman describes. Desire for a time and place where we know (or imagine we know) we felt something meaningful—on the individual or the cultural level—drives us to recreate the conditions of that place in the present. And so we produce photos, movies, poems, advertisements, political movements, television shows, clothing lines accompanying television shows. As Don Draper’s use of nostalgia makes clear, nostalgia is a convincing rhetorical tool in the service of capitalism (Kodak buys the pitch, in case you were wondering). It is also in this instance a powerful mode of complex engagement with the past, indicating the degree to which longing for another time and place is rarely untroubled or seamless: for Don, the show tells us, such a time and place never really existed, and yet he still feels its pull (and certainly understands its appeal).

For nostalgia to be all-consuming, memories must be taken up in isolation from their context. Such a practice of selective memory is easier for some of us than for others, and depends in large part on one’s individual circumstances, which in turn depend heavily on one’s social position. The use of nostalgia as both a rhetorical strategy and an aesthetic mode has been rightly (to some degree) criticized by theorists of postmodernity for the way it can isolate certain images of the past, which then come to stand in for a time period. In its appeal to isolated, often reified images, nostalgic texts can ignore history and obfuscate material conditions shaped by social inequalities. Even a text like Mad Men, with its occasional nods to the Civil Rights Movement, heterosexism, and the experiences of women in the workplace, participates in a nostalgic isolation and commodification of the historical image (even while the content of the show itself comments on this practice). But nostalgia is not always (or not only) an ideological device. In addition to its capacity to obscure historical conditions, its use can also draw our attention to the past in productive ways—as when the nostalgic text, whether purposely or not, fails to absorb its audience, or when closer attention to the desires inherent in nostalgic images helps us locate feelings of lack in our present culture. This capacity of nostalgia as a tool, both for progressive aesthetic production and for critical analysis of the present, is largely ignored in the seminal theorizations of postmodernity.

Nostalgia has been figured as the symptom par excellence of the postmodern condition. Frederic Jameson, in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, argues that the nostalgic text is one that fails to historicize, reducing the spirit of an age to its most superficial stylistic elements (as when, for example, the Sixties in the US “means” in the cultural imagination the clean lines of the suits worn on the first few seasons of Mad Men). In Jean Baudrillard’s formulation of the of the simulacrum, nostalgia is the unfortunate go-to emotion in an age when images no longer bear any relationship to a ‘real’ world. And where nostalgia has waned (as Jean-François Lyotard insists when he writes that we have “lost the nostalgia for the lost narrative”) it is bid good riddance. While Lyotard here is criticizing metanarratives that would posit a totalizing view of reality, he goes on to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In his pejorative characterization of nostalgia, he forecloses the possibility of desire that would set in motion any kind of production beyond the most abstract “allusions” to a new kind of lived experience. Describing (and praising) the postmodern in The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard writes:

The postmodern would be that which… puts forward the unpresentable in the presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.… Finally, it must be clear that it is our business not to supply reality but to invent allusions to the conceivable which cannot be represented (81).

Lyotard sets a discursive trap in which desire for the “unattainable” (perhaps understood as reality, although he is vague on this point) is cast as nostalgic and linked, rather inappropriately, to “solace”—a term that connotes inaction, resignation to the way things are, and stasis.

Nostalgia, however, connotes movement—the movement in one’s mind from the place one inhabits to the place one longs for. Often, this place has temporal overtones as well—one longs not simply for home, but for a time in the past when she or he occupied that home. Moreover, the desire to travel back to a particular place and time can have profound implications for how a person—or, for that matter, a culture—imagines the present. Specifically, in the nostalgic text, the present is figured as a place and time lacking the comforts of home. And whether those comforts are ‘real’ or imagined is somewhat beside the point. What matters is that they are felt as lack, and the desire to fulfill that lack drives a push for material changes, in the present moment and going forward. Nostalgia, in short, sets an agenda. As Sandra Boym eloquently writes, “The fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future.”

In my next several posts, I will look more in depth at the interplay between fantasies (as well as “phantasies” in the Freudian sense) and the desires of the present, specifically the desire to construct a home.

#postmodernism #jameslowellbrunton

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