Postcards from a PhD
Nostalgia, so the saying goes, ain’t what it used to be. Cute line, I thought, I’ll use that to start my blog-post on Yearning for Yesterday, Fred Davis’ 1979 book subtitled ‘a sociology of nostalgia’. What a suckerpunch then to get to the concluding paragraph to find him use this very phrase. Pipped to the post by 37 years.
Anyone that’s dipped their toe into nostalgia studies will know that there’s a surprising dearth of literature on the subject. As one of the few substantial sources, Yearning for Yesterday is drawn on heavily, therefore without having read the book I was already broadly familiar with Davis’ arguments from a variety of more recent publications. Apace with memory studies, which has developed substantially over recent years, interest in nostalgia as a field of academic exploration is on the ascent, yet still overly reliant on a somewhat limited pool of resources. A fellow scholar of nostalgia recalled to me his PhD examiner’s report which referred with disdain to his inclusion of “pop-psychologist, the woeful Fred Davies”. But hey, you have to use what’s available.
I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call him a pop-psychologist, but I was certainly surprised to discover Fred Davis was a real sociologist (I assumed the phrase ‘a sociology of nostalgia’ was a publishers gimmick to make the book sound more authoritative). While I’m grateful that Yearning for Yesterday exists as a foundation for the investigation of the phenomena of nostalgia, it’s no great sociological work. Davis isn’t one for defining terms, frequently chucking around concepts such as ‘self’ and ‘society’ without contextualising their use and, surprisingly for a sociologist writing in the late ’70s, is seemingly unable to differentiate between sex and gender. As an aside, Davis was teaching at UC San Diego during this period and I do enjoy the pleasing irony of him writing and researching his book on nostalgia in what is now known as the Geisel Library, one of my favourite buildings in the world, and one which architecturally must have felt breathtakingly futuristic at the time.
The influence of Davis on the study and understanding of nostalgia is most evident from the first chapter. His concise overview of the history of the concept has been paraphrased frequently by others in later years, so much so that I needn’t repeat it here. Similarly his departure from the association between nostalgia and homesickness towards an idea of nostalgia as a benign, bittersweet state of mind – “neither elated or in blank despair” – that both celebrates and mourns the past forms the basis of the definition of nostalgia we recognise today. There’s also a nice distinction made between a ‘true’ nostalgia, the first-person feeling of loss/desire to return, and a more self aware, questioning form of nostalgia that goes beyond blind sentimentalising. He uses a Greek chorus as a pleasing analogy for this, in ‘second order’ nostalgia excessive romanticism is curtailed, he suggests, and here we can see the seeds of more recent theories of nostalgia that incorporate irony.
Davis raises two main points which I find very persuasive in regards to the function and triggers for nostalgia. He suggests that the evocation of nostalgia is related to present fears, discontents, anxieties and uncertainties and goes on to assert that these emotions threaten identity and signpost a sense of discontinuity. Nostalgia though, he argues, functions as a force for continuity; by forging a link between the present and the past it essentially alleviates the anxiety of change. He also makes some interesting suggestions about nostalgia acting as a filter, to eliminate or mute unpleasant memories, and suggests nostalgia can be seen as memory with the pain removed.
Interestingly a number of recent studies have come to similar conclusions to Davis. Social psychologist Clay Routledge notes in a Scientific American article summarising studies within the Psychology department at North Dakota State University, “it is a psychological resource that people employ to counter negative emotions and feelings of vulnerability. Nostalgia allows people to use experiences from the past to help cope with challenges in the present”. No fair, we might cry, Fred Davis said this all this years ago, but as Routledge points out not only is there a “revived interest in this old emotion” but “a more scientific approach to studying it”. And there’s the rub. Davis may make some interesting points, but there’s scant evidence to back these up, with his source material heavily reliant on a small number of qualitative interviews with his students – who he has the disconcerting habit of referring to as his ‘informants’ – and the unpublished 20 year old PhD thesis of a chap called Charles Zwingman.
Yearning for Yesterday is itself a nostalgia piece, a very 1970s preoccupied book and Davis, perhaps, a man more comfortable with an age even earlier than this. He’s certainly not a man at ease with discussing popular culture. The book is littered with references to living through an age of unprecedented nostalgia – which Davies, not un-impartially, calls ‘the nostalgia orgy of the nineteen seventies’ – without any substantive attempt to explain how this is manifested. We learn that there are some films out in the late 1970s that are not set in the present, that people are still listening to rock and roll, and that girls are bobbing their hair like it’s the 1920s. It hardly sounds like an orgy of nostalgic indulgence. It’s at this point in the book that Davis goes a bit Alvin Toffler and starts contradicting his original assertion that a person can only be nostalgic for a period they have experienced, as he turns his attention on ‘the media’ and their relentless preoccupation with ‘nostalgic exploitation potential’ which has reached a stage where it has used up all original material and must now devour itself.
So, returning to where we started, with that cute line about nostalgia not being what it used to be, with which Davis concludes Yearning for Yesterday. Well, he was right of course, perhaps more than he realised. One gets the impression from Yearning for Yesterday that when Davis asserts nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, because experience isn’t what it used to be, he was writing from a position where he himself felt his continuity of identity was at threat. I mentioned Alvin Toffler before, and there is more than a hint of Futureshock in Yearning for Yesterday, a sense of a writer who has got to a point where change is occurring so quickly he feels that it must be impossible for it to maintain such momentum. The irony is, of course, that Fred Davis is clearly a man alienated by 1970s popular culture, so writes a book on nostalgia largely using material from 25 years previously, ignoring his own conviction that it is important to “distinguish nostalgic from antiquarian feeling, a condition with which it is sometimes confused”. Quite.