13 November 2011

On the Dangers of Nostalgia (and Apocalyptic Thinking)

Last night I attended my annual foray into reminiscing musicality and general old time-i-ness at the Badger Chordhawk's annual Barbershop Show in lovely Janesville, Wisconsin.  This year's theme was "remember the good old days" (which is it's theme every year), but this time, on the radio.  Live Radio - See it with your Ears! was a collection of classic Americana tunes interspersed with schlocky vignettes inspired by early radio programs.

This morning, reading Michael Chabon's Maps & Legends, it occurred to me that this mode of nostalgic thinking is the candy-colored cousin of the dystopian fiction of science fiction films, novels and graphic novels.  Chabon examines Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!, which is set in a post-apocalyptic, corporate-ruled world, where anyone who can afford to has relocated to the suburbs, as it were, on the new Mars colony.

His next chapter (about Cormac McCarthy's The Road) and two chapters after that (about Ben Katchor's Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer) further explicate Chabon's theories of dystopic and nostalgic thinking.  He never says so (and may not realize), but these two modes of thinking are the
Source: ComicsAlliance.com
same.  The nostalgia packed into the Chordhawk's erstwhility is an effort to ignore the present by idealizing the past.  The "good old songs" (some of which are great songs and others that are best forgotten) essentialize and simplify the era they come from just like songs today do.  The function of this nostalgic thinking is to focus attention on the non-existent past rather than the all-too-real present.

So too, post-apocalyptic stories (stories about how the future is so bleak and we are so doomed that we may as well just accept the present as is and distract ourselves while we wait for the inevitable collapse) are arguments for stasis, for inaction.  On the surface, dystopian stories (zombie narratives, say) might be read as warnings of what might come to pass if we do not take some course of action or do take another, but on further examination they are typically peopled with future nostalgialytes, pining for what's been lost.  In these narratives, characters re-enact the pre-apocalyptic traits and activities responsible for the blindness that causes the fall in the first place: empty bourgeois sentimentality (as in Terra Nova), rampant (also empty) consumerism (as in Dawn of the Dead), misplaced loyalty to institutions that lose their meaning once the world changes (as in The Postman or Jericho).

Nostalgia is a mode of remembering as we want to, with little attention paid to actualities.  There's a comfort in the past because it is untouchable.  The now (jetzt-Zeit) is hard, because of its potentiality and the future daunting because of its uncertainty and fluidity.  Then is easy because it can't come back and contradict you.  Apocalyptic thinking also negates the present by forsaking it, giving up on it.  If the future is certain (not necessarily defined, but certainly lost) then the now is drained of its revolutionary potential.  It is jetzt without jetzt-Zeit


patrick seth williams said...

I've always see nostalgia as more akin to traditional utopian thinking. The (e)utopian thinker will construct a normative, prescriptive alternative society somewhere(/somewhen) other than the thinkers own. The nostalgic does the same thing in reverse. The past becomes the place that is better, but it's not a true history, it's a normative, prescriptive alternative history based on a utopian wish for the present. --- Corporatism wouldn't have taken over if not for Reagan; gay marriage wouldn't have been an issue if the cultural values of the 50s would have held own; damn I love turkey legs and swords so obviously I would have loved the middle ages.

joel said...

Yes, I think we agree, but as you say, utopian (what's with the "e"?) thinking and nostalgic thinking as you are discussing it is defined by the era its imagining. I'm interested in how we see the present through nostalgic and post-apocalyptic thinking.

joel said...

I still really love this post 5+ years later and am still struggling with the same thinking…