Filtered Pasts: Nostalgia and Popular Culture
This digital scholarship project came out of the first-year seminar I taught at the University of Texas at Austin in the spring semester of 2018. Initially, the course carried the longer title of this website. But when it finally reached the course catalog, the course title was amputated to “Nostalgia and Popular Culture” for the sake of clarity and succinctness. I accepted this administrative solution, even as it sacrificed word play on the altar of pragmatism. The murky, emotional territory of nostalgia, however, cannot be captured by reason alone—so this introductory essay seems to be the right place to return to the poetic resonances of the original title: “Filtered Pasts.” Rooted in references to digital social media while simultaneously evoking selective remembering of the past, the phrase evokes a contemporary, even generational engagement with nostalgia and popular culture, the main themes of the seminar. The essays featured in the Exhibitions section of this website have all been written by first-year undergraduates. With the help of librarians at UT Austin and myself, the students had to formulate a research topic, find the relevant primary and secondary sources using the library catalog, and construct an argument that critically engages the existing scholarship on nostalgia. The result is a series of thought-provoking essays that explore nostalgia across different media (image, sound, fashion, advertising), social sites (nations, communities, games), and bodies of knowledge (psychology). I had the privilege and pleasure to observe students construct and think through their topics as they stepped outside of the confines of the course syllabus, guided by their own cultural, generational, social and political affinities. In this open spirit of critical inquiry, the essays featured here ferret out nostalgic rhetoric in political discourse, cinema, video games, social media, novels, popular music, and advertising—to name just a few topics—revealing contemporary uses of nostalgia for commercial, political, critical and artistic ends.
The topic of nostalgia naturally imposes such a generous and open framework. As an affect-laden modality of relating to the past, nostalgia has been frequently framed as an unreflective, escapist, and infantile emotion. The past that the nostalgic longs for, it has been argued, is a sanitized, filtered past that never really existed. In her seminal work, The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym challenges this simplistic view. Boym traces the origins of nostalgia to the 17th century, where it was first conceived as a pathology afflicting the Swiss soldiers fighting abroad. Subsequently, nostalgia underwent various transformations, from an individual disease into a collective and “historical emotion” (Boym 16) triggered by political revolutions and the rise of industrial modernity in the 19th century—“a longing for the slower rhythms of the past, for continuity, for social cohesion and tradition” (Boym 16). As a response to modernity and large-scale social and historical change, nostalgic is a complex, ambivalent and Janus-faced emotion.
In its most politically pigheaded and conservative form, nostalgia makes specious promises of return to a lost, imaginary wholeness, erecting firm walls around peoples and nations. Boym terms this politically and emotionally charged rhetoric restorative nostalgia, which “engage[s] in the antimodernist mtyh-making of history by means of return to national symbols and myths and, occasionally, through swapping conspiracy theories” (Boym 41). “Restorative nostalgia,” Boym writes, “puts emphasis on nostos [or homecoming] and proposes to rebuild a lost home and patch up the memory gaps” (41). We see this strain of nostalgic politics today in the slogans to “Make America Great Again,” as well as in the rising tide of right-wing nationalist movements across the globe that encode xenophobic and racist ideologies in the more neutral language of civilizational decline and nostalgic return to former greatness.
There is however another tradition of nostalgia that looks to the past with a mournful gaze to recuperate the losses of modernity and ravages of time, but in a way that accommodates the present and future in their fundamental openness and ambiguity. Boym terms this strain reflective nostalgia. In contrast to restorative nostalgia, reflective nostalgia “dwells in algia [or pain], in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance” (41). The reflective nostalgic recovers the past not in its totality, but as a partial object, a precious fragment, or a ruin and offers it up to the historical imagination and subjective reverie. A realm of poets and artists, reflective nostalgia frequently reworks the pain of loss and consciousness of mortality into the pleasure of poetic play, irony, reflection, and even humor (Boym 49). Stranded in the present, a reflective nostalgic acknowledges the impossibility of reversing time, laughs at her own excessive sentimentality, but still romantically yearns for the past as a form otherness that will break through the monotony of the present. Against the standardization of modern life, reflective nostalgia attaches itself to the eccentricity, colorfulness and authenticity of past cultural forms that we had somehow lost, abandoned or forgotten on the road to universal progress. As Nancy Martha West points out, nostalgia “does not necessarily mean retreat; it can equally function as retrieval, as a means of reclaiming the past and even of shaping the future” (11).
The boundaries between reflective and restorative nostalgia, as Boym herself acknowledges, are porous. The individual romance with the past can quickly turn into a collective call to restore the old regime, whether historical or imaginary. Yet nostalgia, from the very beginning, had a collective dimension. Dubravka Ugrešić, a writer deeply attuned to the ambivalences and contradictions of nostalgia, points out how communal life is organized around cultural objects, shared references, and textures of everyday life that constitute a kind of collective, interior, emotionally charged space: “That unknown space in us is something like a shared ‘childhood,’ the warm territory of communality of a group of people, a space reserved for future nostalgia” (28). But just as nostalgia binds individuals into a group, it also necessarily excludes: “in the end,” Ugrešić writes, “there is always a bit of space that cannot be shared, a bit of life that cannot be translated, an experience which marked the shared life in a particular country, in a particular system, at a particular historical moment” (28). Many of the essays featured on this website foreground this communal and frequently political dimension of nostalgia. This is also what makes nostalgia a fascinating object of study. In order to understand a particular nostalgia—generational, historical, communal, or national etc.—one has to crack not only the cultural but also emotional codes of a given group. In other words, one has to emphatically and carefully venture into the interior life of a community. Many of the student essays are teeming with objects, details, and sensual experiences of popular culture that have lodged themselves into this inner, nostalgic space of different generations: the loopy, frenetic synth of the 1980s arcade games; the steam rising from a filled pastry in Hot Pocket commercials; a bright red Jordan jersey in 1990s rap videos or on the basketball court.
Other essays ask the important question of what happens with nostalgia when the past of a given community is marked by oppression, marginalization, and violence. Is nostalgia still possible or desirable in those cases? One essay, for example, argues that nostalgic indulgence in old Hollywood cinema should be subjected to a thorough critique, since the film industry of the 1940s and 50s frequently perpetuated racist and stereotypical representations of Black Americans, catering solely to the white gaze. Here nostalgia is a marker of escapism and exclusion and needs to be critically tempered with a broader historical perspective. An essay on queer nostalgia, on the other hand, shows how the past can also be nostalgically reworked, despite a largely traumatic legacy. Here nostalgia attaches itself to cultural objects and creative forms of communal life that have persisted—defiantly, impossibly—in the face of violence, stigma and subjugation.
The spectacular rise of technologies in the new millennium has also changed the ways we experience nostalgia. The past is no longer so distant as it once seemed to be. The Internet, in particular, constitutes a vast, mindboggling archive of the recorded past that—exempting proprietary restrictions—is available for easy retrieval. Researchers are still trying to think through the effects of these technological developments and how they affect our relation to the past. Some of the essay topics—video games, for example, Instagram, or the Internet itself as contemporary vehicles for nostalgia—gesture towards this realm and show how we are increasingly accessing, navigating and feeling the past through digital screens. I hope that the essays featured here are a testament to this open spirit of critical inquiry into the new and uncharted territories of the present past.
Finally, this project wouldn't be possible without the invaluable help of librarians at the University of Texas at Austin, in particular: Ian Goodale, European Studies Librarian and Elise Nacca, Head of Information and Literacy Services.
Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. Basic Books, 2001.
West, Martha Nancy. Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia. University of Virginia Press, 2000.
Ugrešić, Dubravka. “The Confiscation of Memory.” The New Left Review, 218, 1996, p. 26-39.