This entry was prompted by an entry in the journal of the esteemed blog meridian, to which I replied here. My reply was a little wide of the mark, since it was a rather superficial and summary engagement with the author's post, a way of airing my own views rather than responding to the views of someone else. I must admit that this is a bad habit of mine when it comes to web communications and I feel I still haven't mastered the 'netiquette' that governs these things. Far too often I hold forth about my own little bugbears and idées fixes, bolstering my own ego instead of engaging with the subject under discussion. This attitude is of course better suited to the squalid environment of the personal weblog. I call it squalid because the oft-used metaphor of 'intellectual masturbation' seems especially apt here: bloggers are individuals who spurn both the conjugal bed that is the domain of the letter writer, and the exhibitionist/BDSM clubs that are the haunt of the published author; they don't even have the decency to indulge their perversion in the privacy of their own bedroom, feverishly scribbling in their diary under the bedsheets; instead they engage in their auto-erotic keyboard-play, fantasizing that the other people that will come into contact with their wordjizz really exist. This is an activity that purports to be about exhibitionism, but is in fact about as exhibitionist as the 'closet extrovert' who films himself jerking off in front of a mirror.
Hmm, maybe I've been reading a bit too much Ballard lately. Forget I wrote that.
Anyway, on the subject of nostalgia. In the post linked to above, I seem to be suggesting that nostalgia was once a desirable condition, a kind of phatic communion, a certain register of language making possible interpersonal connections, with something called 'public memory' as the shared term in the transaction. Now I'm not so sure that this was ever the case. How old is the concept of nostalgia, as we know it today? Fifty years? Twenty? For Odysseus, nostalgia was something to be resisted, not indulged in: after all, he was engaged in the very important business of the nostos (the return to his homeland, Ithaca) and could hardly be expected to waste time chatting with his shipmates about how things were much better when the Titans were in power and Zeus done nothing but raise taxes and anyway music was better back then we had Orpheus in them days these days it's all Homer this and Homer that don't make me laugh at least Orpheus had real tunes you could sing along to...
Joking apart, the whole concept of the Golden Age is, admittedly, at least as old as literature itself. But there is a difference between the function of the aetas Saturni in classical literature and nostalgia in popular culture today: the Golden Age will return; the object of nostalgia must not return.
No, the whole point of nostalgia is that it is a lure, it has its basis in something that can never be: we can never return to our childhood, and even if we could, it wouldn't resemble the idealized picture we have of our childhood. But nostalgia is more than just a longing for the pre-oedipal pleasures of infancy (although that is obviously its basis); it is, more often than not, focused on objects, cultural products, tangible artefacts of the bygone age. Whence the nostalgia industry, that grotesque monster that snatches away personal memories, reapproprates them and vomits them out as marketable products.
It goes deeper than this, I think. What else is nostalgia but inaction? When you're fixated on the past, you are distracted from present ills. Behind the whole nostalgia industry is a conviction that personal, unique memories are dangerous things: dangerous to the psychological health of the individual (the gap between ‘true’ experience and recollection, the return of the repressed, etc.), and dangerous to the body politic itself and the ideal of the consumer society (introspection is deviation from the produce-consume dynamic). The function of nostalgia is to distract the individual from self-examination, self-knowledge; to recuperate deviant discourses (personal memories); to displace the self or the way the self experiences itself as self. The subject is disciplined by nostalgia. No need to question your actions, your motivations, your consumer choices in an environment that neatly structures whatever it is that lies behind them.