I Miss Nostalgia
How Nostalgia can Point the Way Back to the Future
We needed a break from our usual highly analytical work here at Revelatur and felt that maybe you needed one too. Today’s piece contains several early hypotheses of ours, which we usually hold back until more evidence accrues. And to be truthful, it’s also a bit of a rant. But it’s heartfelt and, we hope, useful. The piece is about the value of nostalgia in pointing towards something fuzzy yet nonetheless vital. Enjoy.
When I was a boy, we flew kites every spring. It was a transcendent, exhilarating, and liberating activity that is evidently now too quaint to be pursued -- considering the competition from screens and virtual worlds. “Children 8-18 spend on average 7.5 hours on screens for entertainment every day, including 4.5 watching TV programming.”
Young girls used to hold each other’s hands when I was young. They don’t do this much anymore, and the world is a poorer place as a result.
I remember walking after school with friends with our heads clustered around the one transistor radio with working batteries we had between us. And I remember thinking I enjoyed that more than listening by myself to the expensive stereo I bought when I finally got enough money together. The difference was not the sound, but the company.
On the weekends and during the summer we used to play outside all day when I was a kid, only coming home for meals and bedtime. We organized our own ballgames, hikes in the woods, games of “Ghost in the Graveyard,” and a host of other activities that adults played no part in. Kids don’t do much of this in the U.S. anymore. “The average child 6-17 spends only 7 minutes per day in unstructured outside activities, a 50% decline over the last 20 years.”
At the risk of being considered a crotchety old man lost in a “Wonder Years” reverie, I suggest these changes do not simply represent the inevitable passage of time and fading memories, but rather an incalculable cultural loss.
We’ve always held that such changes in America are inevitable and the price to be paid for progress. But where’s the progress in these instances? None of these losses have been compensated for by the results of change for young people.
Granted that it is exceptionally difficult to swim against the cultural tides by yourself, and that many modern child development practices are healthier than those they replaced. However, facts such as those pointed out at the beginning of the article, as well as these: entering college students are less prepared for the rigors of university life and experience more mental health issues than previous generations; 77% of American youth are ineligible for military service due to physical, cognitive or mental shortfalls; would indicate that the jury is still out on whether modern parents individually, and our society collectively, is raising as well-adjusted and healthy citizens as did previous American parents.
In response, I suggest there are elements of good parenting that have been lost and whose purposeful resurrection and combination with recent improvements would yield better outcomes than we are now getting, and I suggest that nostalgia can be an indicator of past best practices in parenting.
I heard the other day that Gen Z is notably nostalgic, which became the trigger for this piece that prior was just a jumble of random thoughts searching for a logical frame.
Sociologists and commentators never seem to know what to do with nostalgia. The balance of their judgments is negative -- the gist of it being that nostalgia is a type of combined denial and immaturity – a peer-protected, Peter Pan-type of indulgence the world would best do without.
Marketers, however, know immediately what to do with this information. As soon as the first findings came out about Gen Z’s nostalgic bent, the internet was filled with advice on how to exploit the particular focus of their nostalgia and capture its ‘market value’ through specific branding methods.
Talk about irony! But I don’t think most Americans see the irony in the moneyed interests seizing and steering a cultural phenomenon away from a potentially useful exercise in cultural renewal, and “monetizing” it, in the parlance of our times.
The monetizing of emotion leveraging the big data harvested from surveillance capitalism is the emerging American business trend. It’s bad enough that Google, Amazon, and others use our own data that they did not pay for to exploit our emotions for a neat “double gain.” MAGA is not the only group of Americans financing their own diminishment!
But the real problem is that political entities will increasingly be using this same data to blunt emotions such as nostalgia because, left unchecked, they bring unwanted attention to the ways our culture is being changed without our permission or participation.
Our models indicate that the American tendency to monetize nostalgia while simultaneously discounting its cultural value accelerates a vicious cycle of cultural degradation, itself accelerated by neoliberalism and late-stage capitalism. Thus, we propose illuminating this phenomenon and reversing the cycle. Towards that end, some thoughts follow:
I think nostalgia is a cultural intuition that should be acknowledged and examined, and its implications addressed. I think it identifies the things that should be protected and preserved. I think the intuitions generated by nostalgia form a dawning ‘knowing’ that should be cultivated.
I think nostalgia is what is known in science as a “strange attractor,” that enables useful change and growth of the culture while maintaining its essential role and shape. A Strange Attractor: “the state of a mathematically chaotic system toward which the system trends,” Merriam-Webster. And I think nostalgia is a qualitative yardstick whose purpose is to tell people that the culture is off track.
That said, nostalgia’s reputation has been tarnished by its association with White Nationalism. The right has essentially co-opted nostalgia, identified it with conservatism, and re-defined it as a regressive socio-politically phenomenon that leaves no space in the culture for its positive change possibilities.
Thus, we must fight proactively to re-establish the broader and positive meanings and utility of nostalgia, while continuously illuminating MAGA’s reactionary intent.
My first nostalgic feelings sprang from seeing George Lucas’ 1973 masterpiece “American Graffiti” when I was fourteen. It made me feel that something essential to America was irretrievably lost, that I had missed a special time in history, and that where we were heading was a diminished future.
The movie was melancholic, I became wistful, and these feelings are probably exactly why most analysts conclude that nostalgia has a net negative effect as it so often leads to pessimism. But it doesn’t have to – that it does I argue is a uniquely American reaction to nostalgia.
If you remember or know this period of American history, you probably also remember the immediate exploitation of the movie, and the trivialization of its resulting nostalgia, with the TV shows Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. Ron Howard as Steve Bolander was iconic; as Ritchie Cunningham, slightly embarrassing.
I’ve been fortunate to travel, and absolutely love Europe. And what I love is that which has been preserved and protected, cities, buildings, the visual arts, and ways of life. I think we are attracted precisely to that which has been protected and preserved because it represents something bigger than ourselves. We are drawn to that which points to transcendent value.
The French term “je ne sais quoi” points to an ineffable essence in the same way I believe nostalgia does – and it interesting that the French have and use the term whereas we don’t have one comparable.
Where I’m going with this is that America will be a better place when we honor nostalgia. And when we acknowledge those righteous nostalgic intuitions that, if pursued, would provide continuity on the very best aspects of our culture.
And we get to choose this path ourselves rather than choking down the “progress at all costs” meal they keep feeding us. We’ve been beguiled in the U.S. by the siren song of wealth, the supposed universal attainability of the American Dream, the myth of unending progress, and the eternal promise of technology. And we’ve been deliberately confused by the boosterism and outright lies fed us by the neoliberal propaganda machine. But we willingly consume these empty calories ourselves, nobody’s holding a gun to our heads.
As we pointed out in this recent piece, we “get to” want what we want and to struggle for it. So, rather than push back on nostalgic feelings, we ought to systemically cultivate them, individually and collectively – albeit carefully.
We get that a discussion of nostalgia may seem out of place and untimely, what with the looming specter of another Trump Presidency being punctuated by the imminent possibility of Republican Governors forming a new Confederacy.
Our concerns here appear trivial in comparison. But I believe these things are two sides of a coin. Because although the fires fueling the feelings are different, MAGA is also motivated and manipulated in part by the same sense of loss as that which we term nostalgia when discussing Gen Z. The solution is the same for both MAGA and nostalgic progressives – meaningful, legally protected, and societally encouraged participation in the process to preserve common cultural aspects for which we have consensus.
To re-integrate the country on a positive going forward basis, we will have to earn each other’s trust and establish a collegial approach to our common problems. This will be tough, because although MAGA is totally wrong-headed, liberals and progressives also have baggage. The left has its own special brand of hypocrisy we won’t admit to -- but is easily discernable from the outside. And we also cripple ourselves with our cynicism, hubris, sense of superiority, and endless pursuit of cool — which I believe has simply exhausted and depleted us.
What I suggest is that we’re NOT going to meet in the middle politically, first. If we’re going to piece the Republic back together we require an expansive movement focused on the culture, using Participative Democracy mechanisms to ensure inclusivity. This will in turn require regression to intense discussions about values – but it is only in the doing so that we can establish a common basis for discussion of culture, and, ultimately, policy consistent with it.
It is just such discussions that we have been discouraged from having by the moneyed interests and their political puppets, who self-servingly suggest we endeavor to resolve our political differences first. Our models indicate that a politics-first approach will simply exacerbate our vicious cycles and accelerate our race to the bottom; our own feelings and hypotheses indicate that nostalgia can play a useful role in finding common cultural ground.
It’s going to be a long slog – an inter-generational effort for sure, so let’s get started today. How? Acknowledge your nostalgia and sense of loss, push back on the relentless American optimism machine, and start connecting to others where this process leads you. And take a lesson from Gen Z by engaging in pre-digital era activities. I don’t know if kite flying will come back, but let’s us decide, and not the “market” or fashion.”