Postcards from a PhD
I had my first supervision meeting on Wednesday and it seemed to go quite well, in the sense that I managed to get to the right place (eventually) and I got lots of helpful suggestions on reading that potentially might be relevant. One of these suggestions was ‘The Modalities of Nostalgia’ by Michael Pickering and Emily Keightley which appeared in the November 2006 issue of Current Sociology, so that has been my reading for today.
I’m certainly onboard with the initial premise of the article, that nostalgia has multiple manifestations and therefore cannot be reduced to a single definition. Similarly, I’m very willing to engage with the idea that nostalgia can be progressive. Pickering and Keightley discuss the negative associations of nostalgia and how these relate to linear time and progression towards the future. If we take the idea that progression is synonymous with improvement, nostalgia’s negative associations can be accounted for by its positioning as the antithesis of progress.
Pickering and Keightley are keen to move away from the ‘othering’ of nostalgia, that is the way in which it can be located as a binary opposite to progress. This draws on the idea of nostalgia as defeatist, always seeking to satisfy the unsatisfiable. They suggest that the emphasis on progress within modernity leaves no space for dealing with loss. Therefore it is desirable to differentiate between nostalgia as desire to return to an idealised past and nostalgia as a way of recognising aspects of the past that can be useful for the future . This seems to draw heavily on Svetlana Boym’s definitions of restorative and reflective nostalgia from her 2001 book The Future of Nostalgia, and I’m surprised and a little disappointed to not see her credited for this.
At this point I become a little disenchanted with the overall argument, starting to feel important points are not being joined together or are generally overlooked. Pickering and Keightley argue that historical acceleration has created a new sense of time, closely tied in with the creation of events by the mass media. They also bring in the idea of a relationship between nostalgia and the fear of social amnesia, and argue that “modernity is the experience of life lived in fragments”. To me this seems like a missed opportunity to go back to the notion of linear time and to develop the idea of nostalgia as reflective space, a means to revisit ideas and objects that were lost in the frenetic pace of modernity which they hint at earlier.
Still pondering this, I come across the statement “one of the preconditions of nostalgia is dissatisfaction with the present”. Unable to find the point in the article at which this definititon had been established, I am not sure if I agree. I would suggest that nostalgia doesn’t always spring from dissatisfaction, but instead from uncertainty, by virtue of not knowing what the future holds. The reason we are able to look at particular aspects of the past nostalgically is we already know how we got from that point to the present. To extend this idea, I would suggest we use nostalgia as a way of tempering our experience of modernity, as a metaphorical braking system as we hurtle through change. We return to this briefly later when the authors concur with Fred Davis’ idea that nostalgia can be useful with helping culture deal with rapid change. However, this line of argument felt underdeveloped particularly given that it largely draws on Davis’ book Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia, which was written in 1979 and therefore predates a considerable amount of discussion on historicity following the collapse of soviet communism.
Again, I felt than an opportunity was lost when discussing the work of Lynn Spigel and the idea of how “commercial motivation and practices… have profound effects on the narratives of the past available to people in the present and therefore on their historically situated understanding of their own situation.” In a paper open to a multiplicity of modalities of nostalgia I felt it was an omission not to consider how nostalgia functions differently when looking back to a time we remember and when looking back to periods that predate personal memory, i.e., a personal versus a broader cultural form of nostalgia, and how this contributes to what Pickering and Keightley call our “historical imagination”.
For me, the really useful part of the paper was the introduction it provided to the work of Paul Grainge who I had not heard of before but whose work I am now very keen to seek out based on his differentiation between nostalgic mood and nostalgic mode. This separation of nostalgia as feeling/experience and nostalgia as commodified style or practice seemed to be introduced to the argument at a surprisingly late stage, which I found confusing. I also felt lost within the discussion by not having the sense of how the authors defined the difference between nostalgia and memory. Pickering and Keightley use the example of how an old photograph of a “dead parent or lost lover” may trigger nostalgia, but I would personally not define all instances of being emotionally touched by the memory of a past event as nostalgia, not least because it is often involuntary. This seems very tied to the traditional definition of nostalgia as a form of malaise, while modern definitions focus more on nostalgic engagement as a complicit act; symptomatic of an article that for my purposes gave me a few things to think about, but fell short in terms of engagement with contemporary sources.