Gary Cross on the 5 Characteristics of Consumed Nostalgia

Gary Cross, Consumed Nostalgia

In the following excerpt from his introduction to Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism, Gary Cross defines five elements that make today’s “consumed nostalgia” so distinct and contradictory.

1. Today nostalgia binds together not community or families but scattered individuals around seemingly ephemeral things that are meaningful to them personally. How many of our holiday rituals today are really about religious or national ideas? Few of us cele­brate ancestors, even our departed parents. Much contemporary nostalgia is built on briefly popular consumer goods that unify, however loosely, narrow age groups. Instead of places or events shaping these brief “generations,” goods link otherwise separated our nostalgic novelty culture individuals. Nostalgia today is increasingly about microidentities. In fact, consumed nostalgia lets us “put on” multiplicities of iden­tities across the movement through life. It has been fashionable for a long time to call this postmodern, but what I am describing goes beyond plural identities and denial of universal “narratives” and national identity. These “postmodern” nostalgias are even more fragmented and ephemeral, constructed as they are around things, often very silly ones, and the memories and sensualities that these things evoke. They create personal meanings, but they also isolate and divide us.

2. Today’s nostalgia is less about preserving an “unchanging golden era” than it is about capturing the fleeting and the particular in its “authenticity.” In everything from our snapshots to our strange attempts to reenact the Civil War experience, we try to make the “there and then” into the “here and now” in pristine specificity and accuracy. We preserve that unguarded “cute” moment of our former toddlers in snapshots, not iconic family-portrait photo­graphs shot by professionals. Reenactors wear wool uniforms in July encampments at Gettysburg, and some insist on not wear­ing underwear to capture the authentic experience. These activi­ties have replaced the rituals of building monuments, attending ceremonies, and hearing inspired speeches as the reenactors’ predecessors did a hundred years ago. We have substituted the “authentic” for the symbolic. Even more germane here: we no longer seek heirlooms (literally “a device for interweaving genera­tions”) as a gesture of family or group continuity. Because of weak­ened family bonds and the transience of things, fewer of us hand down household treasures to children. And these remembrances are far less standardized—gone are the stylized family photo­graphic portraits, Victorian china cabinets, and ancestors’ needle­work. Something new has happened. Instead of symbols that link us across generations, we seek exact and personal remembrances of our own pasts or at least “authentic” representations of our families—informal snapshots and children’s artwork, for exam­ple. This quest for the authentic is how we moderns cope with the fleeting—not by denying change and death in dreams of a timeless age but by capturing “our moment” in our snapshots, songs, dolls, and cars. All this satisfies our longings for the personal connec­tion, but it often is an authenticity impossible to share with others or to pass down to our children. And, I suspect, for many it is a poor substitute for the “eternal.”

3. All nostalgias consist of organizers and participants, but today the organizers increasingly are marketers (not officials), and participants are consumers (not members of organizations). Our nostalgiacs bow not to the state, educators, museum curators, or National Park officials. Today, the nostalgic enthusiast more often responds to appeals of Disney, TV Land, and the thousands of pitches made by eBay merchants; publishers of those hundreds of collector’s guides to Barbie Dolls, G.I. Joes, antique cars, and 1950s kitsch; and the DJs of oldie radio stations. This makes nos­talgia less “political” and less confrontational than “heritage.” At the same time, Hollywood does not offer a contemplative or “reflective” nostalgia (as advocated by Boym) that draws us to think about the ambiguities of change; instead, it presents us with a tangible, engaging, and even sensuous possession or expe­rience. The success of nostalgia marketing varies a lot, and all this can tell us much about the workings of consumed nostalgia. Some obsessions with the past survive for decades (Disney is an obvi­ous example). Others fade (circuses and many “heritage” muse­ums). And marketers of memory are very sensitive to and even encourage fashion in nostalgia. All this makes consumed nostal­gia both relatively benign (in part because it is so superficial) and dynamic, always changing. But it may only point to rather than fulfill our longings for memory.

4. Today’s nostalgia seems to help us cope with the extraordinary speed-up of time by letting us return to our childhoods. We no longer seem to need recurring rituals as did our ancestors in their rich traditions of harvest and other seasonal/religious festivals to fend off the terrors of time and the unshakeable truth that we all die alone, often unexpectedly. Instead of worshipping ancestors (or even seeking spiritual communion with the departed), we search for the “wonder years” of our own childhoods. We seem to find solace from the ephemerality of time in the nonephemerality of things, an experience that seems to hide the deeper reality so well understood by our ancestors—the brevity of life. We cope with the ever-accelerating pace of change that continually robs us of our identities by creating a flow of selves over the years. We are continually drawn to root these selves in our personal pasts, in what seems to us as “timeless” but, in fact, is ephemeral, that is, our childhoods.

Experienced time is not like a walk along a road. While the pres­ent is often routine (especially after we have passed through child­hood and adolescence), the future comes at us from behind (often unexpectedly) as the past recedes in front of us. When this pro­cess is sped up as it is today, stress is added to the ennui of daily life. Nostalgia offers both an excitement missing in the everyday and provides a refuge from the fleeting in personal packets of childhood memory. Thus we lovingly recall getting our first electric train set, Barbie doll, or used car. In a world where many of the old glues of meaning and security have dissolved (family, work, and village/neighborhood, to name the obvious), these packed memo­ries provide more than the symbolic and abstract representations of those lost relationships and experiences. They offer us the sen­suous and material worlds of our particular childhoods, promis­ing us personal meaning and emotional engagement, even if they isolate us from others.

5. Today’s nostalgia is rooted in special emotions linked to recover­ing memories distinctive to the objects of modern childhood and con­sumerism. This suggests more than a regression into the superficial and puerile but instead a quest for an experience lost to today’s adults. Emotions and sensuous feelings from the past are natu­rally evoked by encounters with “things.” In a different age these may have been religions icons, ceremonial clothing or music, or monuments. Today they are mostly consumer goods from our youth; these give us a huge variety of hooks to hang our personal emotional hats on. As the anthropologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi succinctly puts it, “Our addiction to materialism is in large part due to a paradoxical need to transform the precariousness of con­sciousness into the solidity of things.” Without stuff, there is little to talk about, respond to, or recall, at least for most of us who aren’t mystics or uncommonly introspective.

Today this stuff is mostly consumer goods and experience (like music and TV shows), and our nostalgia for them is asso­ciated with two stages of childhood—the emerging autonomy (and persistent memory) of primary-school-age childhood and the increasing consumer freedom and emotionally charged peer-group experience of adolescence. Broadly speaking, this is because over the past century our culture has favored youth over age, often making these years times of fond memory. That we might favor “first stuff,” the things of our early years, may come from the simple fact that these things were new then and that with age and more things we become jaded. More particularly, many Americans experience pure delight (what I call “wondrous inno­cence”) as six- or seven-year-olds in toys, dolls, and other fantasy goods given to them mostly by indulgent parents. The particular bond many have with the things (including cars, music, fashions, etc.) of their teens relates to the new choices and opportunities for self-expression through consumer goods that precedes adult responsibility. All this adds up to far more than regression into the childish. Nostalgia for childhood things invites us to return to our years of wondrous innocence, but, in doing so, we may be merely “putting on” rather than “turning into” the child. Con­sumed nostalgia does not necessarily consume us. Such goods often help us define ourselves. We can play at being the boy or girl from the often whimsical vantage of the adult. But for all of the sensuous delight and personal meaning that these recol­lected consumer moments may provide, they do not take us very far into recovering or understanding past relationships or even the world of childhood wonder or of teenage self-discovery and emerging autonomy.

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