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Issue 3.3, August 1988


Essay Excerpt

This article attempts to objectify a cultural polemic between forms of nostalgia in the culture of "late capitalism" (Mandel 1978) or "the end of organized capitalism"(Lash and Urry 1987). Hegemonic and resistant nostalgias,"middle- class" and "working-class" nostalgias, the nostalgia of a "mass culture" and the nostalgia of and for local, nameable places are a three-ring circus of simultaneous images in the arenas of lifestyle, spectacle, and loss. The angst-ridden modern city is replaced by the delirious surround of consumer capitalism (Jameson 1983). Nostalgia, like the economy it runs with, is everywhere. But it is a cultural practice, not a given content; its forms, meanings, and effects shift with the context-it depends on where the speaker stands in the landscape of the present.

On one "level" there is no longer any place for anyone to stand and nostalgia takes on the generalized function to provide some kind (any kind) of cultural form. In positing a "once was" in relation to a "now" it creates a frame for meaning, a means of dramatizing aspects of an increasingly fluid and unnamed social life. Nostalgia is an essential, narrative, function of language that orders events temporally and dramatizes them (Stewart 1984) in the mode of "things that happened," that "could happen," that "threaten to erupt at any moment." By resurrecting time and place, and a subject in time and place, it shatters the surface of anatemporalorderanda prefab cultural landscape. To narrate is to place oneself in an event and a scene-to make an interpretive space-and to relate something to someone: to make an interpretive space that is relational and in which meanings have direct social referents.

Nostalgia rises to importance as a cultural practice as culture becomes more and more diffuse, more and more a "structure of feeling" (Williams n.d.), as culture takes on the power of "distance" that comes of displacing speakers-the power to flatten distinctions, to blurgenres, to unname the practices of the social world so that they look like nature (Barthes 1957). Culture is more and more unspoken and unnamed. Painted onto the surface of things, it passes us by as a blur of images and we "read" it instantaneously as if it is a photographic image already "written" and framed. As Jameson (1983) has argued, the cultural decentering and fragmentation of our present is experienced as a breakdown in our sense of time. As a result, the present rises before us in the ultra vivid mode of fascination- a fascination that is experienced as a loss, an unreality (or what Baudrillard [1981] calls "hyperreality"). In a world of loss and unreality, nostalgia rises to importance as "the phantasmal, parodic rehabilitation of all lost frames of reference" (Foster 1985:90).  

But it depends on where you stand: from one place in the cultural landscape nostalgia is a schizophrenic exhilaration (Jameson 1983) of a pure present that reads images for their own sake; from another place it is a pained, watchful desire to frame the cultural present in relation to an "other" world-to make of the present a cultural object that can be seen, appropriated, refused, disrupted or "made something of." Culture is "seductive" only from the "point of view" of a "self" whose (polemical) cultural practice it is to construct codes of distinction and good taste-a pure aesthetic that is rooted in an ethos of elective distance from the contingency of the natural and social world (see Bourdieu 1984). Here the desire is to purify, reify, and miniaturize the social world and so to make a giant of the individual self (Stewart 1984). Here, individual life narratives dramatize acts of separation-freedom, choice, creativity, imagination, the power to model and plan and act on life. From here there is the danger of being drawn in by images that are "larger than life" or have "a life of their own."  (Stewart, 227-228)

Stewart, Kathleen. "Nostalgia--A Polemic." Cultural Anthropology 3, no. 3 (1988): 227-351.