Nostalgia and Distortion of Tradition
Good times I remember
Filled with simple pleasures
Comic books and blue jeans
Baseball cards and birthdays
Take me back to a world gone away
Memories seem like yesterday
Good times to remember
Days I’ll always treasure
Full of love and laughter
Summer nights and streetcars
Take me back
To a world gone away
Seem like yesterday
(Chicago, Old days)
Thus starts ‘Old days’ by Chicago, a nostalgic song that shows some of the ways personal memories colour the recollection of times gone-by. This article is about the link between nostalgia and traditions. I will discuss what the resemblances and differences between these terms are. The text discusses concepts like rite de passage, the golden age of childhood, aesthetics of nostalgia, souvenirization, Arcadia and retroscape.
Traditions and memory distortion
Traditions are customs that are handed down from one generation to the next, e.g. rituals and festivities, but also the habits of everyday life: from the ways one dresses to the ways food is eaten. Traditions can be both very old or relatively recent. They should not be looked upon as for always fixed, but as dynamic phenomena, which can change over a period of time. Think about New Years Eve: begun as a simple toast on the New Year the festivities now include large fire work displays. In New York New Year is famously celebrated at Times Square. Also the honking of car horns or the watching of televised Championship football games can be mentioned.
Historian David Gross writes the following: ‘Tradition has been central to human life for millennia. Its main function has been to provide the values, beliefs and guidelines for conduct that help mold communities into organic wholes. It has also been the crucial force providing linkage from one generation to the next.’ Traditions are about human connections and about the personal location of individuals in society.
Traditions are both old and new. Yet in popular thought they are linked to an idealized past. Several scholars, from Foucault to Hobsbawm have contributed to the ‘desacralization’ of traditions. Hobsbawm introduced the term ‘invention of tradition.’ He noted that some age old traditions are in fact from a quite recent date, for instance some rituals involving European royalty.
Elaborating on the term of Howsbawm it is possible to speak of ‘distortion of tradition.’ These kinds of traditions are not totally made up or created anew, but they are neither totally authentic. Sociologist Michael Schudson writes that distortion of memories is inevitable: ‘memory is invariably and inevitably selective. A way of seeing is a way of not seeing, a way of forgetting too. If memory were only a kind of registration, a “true’’memory might be possible. But memory is a process of encoding, storing information, and strategically retrieving information, and there are social, psychological, and historical influences at each point.’ Schudson writes that ‘true distortion’ also might be possible. He further states that: ‘the simple passage of time reshapes memory, in at least two respects. First there is a loss of detail. Memory grows more vague. Second, there tends to be loss of emotional intensity.’ The nostalgic impulse of distortion of tradition can be seen as an attempt to counter this loss of emotional intensity in order to strengthen one’s identity. The past is emotionally coloured and made valuable. Cultural historian Michael Kammen remarks that distorted memories can be seen as something positive: ‘either because they have a democratizing outcome or else because they bring about a necessary readjustment of values and value systems that are out of synch - anomalous - in a particular time and place. If the adjustment helps to make the overall value system more coherent and functional, memory distortion may very well serve a benign purpose.’ Such inventive, identity forming, distorted nostalgia can be important for the personal feelings of happiness. Historical geographer B. Osborne writes: ‘The imaginative use of symbols and myths, and of monuments, commemorations and performances, has become the stuff of history, tradition and heritage, all directed at the nurturing of some form of identity.’
Both traditions and nostalgia are associated with conservatism, e.g. the looking back to the perceived golden period of the fifties during the American presidency of Ronald Reagan in the eighties. But both phenomena are not necessarily conservative. Thinkers that are otherwise being perceived as people with a leftist political orientation can have a traditional, nostalgic way of thinking. An example is the Green movement. Some members of this movement look back at the perceived unspoiled society of the pre-industrial age, in which pollution wasn’t that much of a concern.
Criticism of nostalgia
So nostalgia may not be reactionary phenomenon. According to philosopher Henri Bergson however, nostalgia was part of the thoughts of children, savages and dreamers and according to his student Maurice Halbwachs dreamy nostalgia is the opposite of social action.
Feminist authors Janice Doan and Devon Hodges see nostalgia as something reactionary, opposed to the modern thinking about the role of women in society. Also colonialism is sometimes connected to nostalgia. Certain ‘imperialist’ films (A passage to India, Out of Africa) are labelled nostalgic. Anthropologist Renato Rosaldo ‘coined the term ‘’Imperialist nostalgia’’ to point to the nostalgic lamentations of westerners for non-western traditions and customs without acknowledging, however, that the West played a crucial part in the alteration or destruction of these traditions and customs.’
Especially from Marxist authors there has been critique on the concept of nostalgia. Stephen Legg writes: ‘…nostalgia has been criticised as a fear of change and, in Marxist terms, as an opiate for the masses that induces false consciousness and blunts radical zeal. In sentimentalising it justifies the position of the elite…’ Marxist scholars have other problems with nostalgia. The concept is perceived as being reactionary, escapist, unauthentic, not reflexive and simplifying. Cultural scholar Stuart Tannock summarizes the critique as follows: ‘These critiques associate the phenomenon with dominant conservative forces in society, and when they are not dismissing nostalgia for its sentimental weaknesses they are usually attacking it for distortions and misrepresentations.’
Nostalgia, a definition
Nostalgia is the glowing distortion of the past, in which the positive aspects of this past are emphasized and the less happy memories are repressed. It is a concept that has a meaning in the lifes of most people. A life ‘purified of nostalgia might in some way be inhuman’ according to memory scholars Nadia Atia and Jeremy Davies. Literature scholar Sean Scanlan states: ‘nostalgia is no longer the programmatic equivalent of bad memory.’ It is a much more complicated phenomenon that invites reflection on the relationship between, among other things, traditions, history, memory and forgetting and is connected to ‘the sentimentalization of the past.’
The term nostalgia was coined by the Swiss scholar Johannes Hofer. This seventeenth-century physician saw in some Swiss mercenaries outside their country a pathological longing for the homeland. Later the meaning shifted from a longing for one’s home(land), to a longing for a rosy version of the past. The concept is from all cultures, from the Western societies to the African countries and China. There are many different versions of the phenomenon and one could speak of the plural nostalgias.
Tourism-expert Graham Dann discerns four types of nostalgia: the longing for paradise, the simple life, the past and childhood. These types overlap, and adolescence could be added to childhood. Primarily nostalgia is the longing for a past that someone has lived through, but people can also be nostalgic for periods before their birth. Post-modern scholar Linda Hutcheon calls this kind of nostalgia: ‘armchair nostalgia that exists without any lived experience of the yearned for time.’
According to literature scholar Nicholas Dames most scholars agree on the general traits of nostalgia. It is a: ‘Longing for the vanished past, a registration of loss that is nonetheless pleasurable, even an indulgence; a fundamental misrecognition, or reinvention, of the past that is longed for.’ Dames states that nostalgia has a therapeutic function. Social theorist Paul Gilroy sees nostalgia according to heritage expert Patrick Wright as a ‘compensatory mechanism that produces consoling simplicities in an age of complexity.’ Memory scholar Susannah Radstone writes that nostalgia ‘constitutes a transitional phenomenon’ that ‘muddles the borders between subject and object.’ She thinks that psychoanalysis ‘with its focus on desire, fantasy and loss, has turned nostalgia into a portal opening out into a field constituted from knowledge and belief, temporality, and cultural and sexual politics.’ Nostalgic people are recovering, among other things, traditions and ‘relationships and communities that could have been.’ The creative possibilities of the past seem, in this view, to be more important than historical accuracy. This lack of historical accuracy makes nostalgia problematic from a historiographic viewpoint. Historian Kees Ribbens remarks that nostalgic people don’t long for a specific historical period, but for the ‘good old days’ in general.
Nostalgia, sentiment and tradition
The term nostalgia has existed for more than 300 years. In these three centuries the concept has evolved from a psychological disease to an emotion, that by many is looked upon in a positive way. This emotion is supposed to be connected to such terms as pleasure, happiness, goodness and love. Social geographer Alastair Bonnett states the following: ‘While nostalgia is sentimental, its connection to experience means that it may be less purely wishful than other forms of emotional transference.’ The connection between emotion, history and personal memories makes nostalgia a unique phenomenon.
Columnist Herb Caen wrote in 1975 that nostalgia is memory from which the pain is removed. Nostalgia is thought to contribute to the formation of a personal identity and a positive self-image. It is supposed to contribute to giving meaning to life and to the feeling of connectedness to social groups, but also has been called ‘a social dissease’. According to psychologists Sedikides, Wildschut and Baden it is a therapeutic phenomenon: ‘In instances of felt loneliness, separateness, and alienation, resorting to nostalgic engagement can be therapeutic. Nostalgia alleviates the existential fears by reinforcing the value of cultural traditions and rituals of which one was once a part. This can be achieved by revelling in past Thanksgiving dinners, school fairs, parades, and disco nights or by collecting old baseball cards and movie or war memorabilia. Through such practices a person increases his or her sense of cultural belongingness, while restoring direction and the believe that one is living a purposeful life in a meaningful cultural context.’ The connectedness to cultural traditions and rituals is very important. Nostalgia can be seen as a phenomenon that stimulates the positive remembrance of traditions and rituals from the past.
Emotional memory functions a bit like imagination or has taken over its role. But nostalgia has also been described as a ‘pervasive failure of the imagination.’ According to some scholars nostalgia is a flexible and creative phenomenon. Others see nostalgia however as ‘ a social ailment that leads to an obsession with kitsch.’ Many artistic creations are nostalgic: from the song Penny Lane from the Beatles to the poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge and A la recherche du temps perdu of Marcel Proust. The following lines are from a song by Mark Wills. He sings about his memories of the 1970s and 1980s:
It was 1970-somethin’
In the world that I grew up in
Farah Fawcett hairdo days
Bell bottoms and eight track tapes
Lookin’ back now I can see me
Oh man did I look cheesy
I wouldn’t trade those days for nothin’
And it was 1970-somethin’
It was the dawning of a new decade
We got our first microwave
Dad broke down and finally shaved those sideburns off
I took the stickers of my Rubik’s cube
Watched MTV all afternoon
My first love was Daisy Duke
In them cut-off jeans
(Mark Wills, 19somethin’)
In this song personal memories are linked to the collective memories of an entire generation. Nostalgia is an important phenomenon in popular culture. Not only songs, also movies are often nostalgic. One can think of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Cabaret (1972), The sting (1973), Chinatown (1974), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and Forrest Gump (1994) among many others. A famous comics nostalgia series is Palookaville by Canadian Seth (pseudonym of George Gallant).
Rites de passage and memories
Nostalgia is more likely to occur on certain specific moments, like birthdays and school reunions, but also when loved ones pass away. At moments of discontinuity people can feel nostalgic.
In periods of transition like graduating, marrying, having children people muse about the past, the present and the future. This recollecting and reflecting is seen by some scholars as the democratic version of history. In nostalgic thought there is more space for oral traditions, folklore, material culture than in official history, which more often than not is the story of the victors of the past.
Moments of transition or rites de passage (a term of French anthropologist A. van Gennep) are especially connected to traditions. With rituals like baptism, the signing of a degree certificate, or the handing over of wedding rings, special moments are accentuated and turned into a special sort of memory.
The golden days of childhood
Childhood is often remembered as a golden time in which life was playful and not complex. Illustrative is a nineteenth-century song by Samuel Woodward, of which these are the first lines:
How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood When fond recollection presents them to view The orchard, the meadow, the deep tangled wildwood, And ev'ry loved spot which my infancy knew The wide spreading pond, and the mill that stood by it, The bridge and the rock where the cataract fell; The cot of my father, the dairy house nigh it, And e'en the rude bucket that hung in the well. The old oaken bucket, the iron bound bucket, The moss covered bucket that hung in the well.
(The old oaken bucket, Samuel Woodward)
The remembering in this song is related to geography and material culture. Objects can have a powerful impact on the process of recollection. Recollections can be stimulated by leafing through old picture books (like the little golden books), old school pictures or family photo books. The evoked image may not be according to the historical truth, but it can play an important role in the reconciliation with one’s past. Sociologist Janelle Wilson has remarked that the questions why and how things are remembered are for her more important than the historical truth of these recollections. Not only childhood but also adolescence and early adulthood are periods at which people look back to with some rosy melancholy later in life. This melancholy is part of their identity.
Migration and dislocation
Immigrants are continually actively forming, reforming and distorting their identities. Migration scholar Andreea Deciu Ritivoi states: ‘Adult immigrants are not born anew and they do not begin a totally new life, not even when they must learn the basics of a new language or pick a new trade, start a new family, and so on. We leave a lot of things behind, but we all bring along a sense of who we are. Adjustments can begin when the immigrants realize what is at stake - their self - and realize what is at stake when nostalgia focuses attention on their life stories and themselves as the protagonists of their stories.’ It can hardly be expected of immigrants not to be nostalgic.
Apart from the connection between nostalgia, traditions and identity there is also a connection between nostalgia and aesthetics. Historian Karin Aldinger states that ‘aesthetization’ means the making of something that originally is not aesthetic into something aesthetic. It is placed in a different context which makes it into something worthwhile.
Another historian, Nancy Martha West, writes in her book Kodak and the lens of nostalgia that every photo, every snapshot, becomes aesthetic just because it is a selective shot. According to West the firm Kodak contributed immensely to the formation of American nostalgia. At the end of the nineteenth century, for the first time in history people were capable of arranging their life with the help of photos, leaving the unwanted memories out of the picture. Nowadays the memories of childhood and other moments of the past are possibly less arranged around family photo books. More important seem to be the icons of popular culture. Retro-scholar P. Wolf states: ‘When we think of our childhoods, we think of popular music, television shows, or movies as much as - or more than - specific people and places.’ Nostalgia expert Svetlana Boym thinks that nostalgia is about the relation of individual biography and group biography. The memories someone has are often linked to the memories of the group to which one belongs.
According to theoretician Frederic Jameson nostalgic memories are drawn from a inexhaustible reservoir of images. Aesthetics scholar Paul Grainge writes about Jameson: ‘as Jameson suggests, the past has become a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum.’
The above cited retro-expert Wolf states the following about the nostalgic recollection in connection to objects: ‘Just as most of us remember Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch, we also remember the products of our youth – toys, furniture, appliances, cars, and so forth. And, just as we all saw the same Leave it to Beaver and Brady Bunch episodes, we all had (or knew of ) the same products. Think Etch-A-Sketch and Frisbee (or for those who grew up in the late 1970s, Atari and Rubik’s Cube.’
Svetlana Boym calls this the ‘souvenirization’ of the past. To all sorts of objects, from baseball cards to LP covers and model cars, a certain value is ascribed. Such memorabilia make nostalgia tangible.
Arcadia and imagined communities
In the nostalgic song of Samuel Woodward we saw a link between objects and geography. Geography plays an important role in nostalgia. The phenomenon is often associated with the longing for an unspoilt rural life, an Arcadia. Especially since the Industrial Revolution, there exists the fiction of the peaceful living in the country, where there is no room for mass communication and the seductions of the city. Nature has been described as an ‘Eden from which humanity has tragically fallen’ The rural life was shown by a number of painters from Koekkoek tot Constable. Nations have created rural pictures of themselves. E.g. the picture of the Netherlands is one of a flat green meadow with cows.
Landscape scholar S. Daniels writes: ‘National identities are coordinated, often largely defined by legends and landscapes, by stories and golden ages, enduring traditions, heroic deeds and dramatic destinies located in ancient or promised home-lands with hallowed sites and scenery. The symbolic activation of time and space…gives shape to the imagined community.’ The concept ‘Imagined Community’ was described by the Marxist Benedict Anderson. He thinks that the feeling of connectedness between people (e.g. nations) is artificially created by modern communication forms. In a review of Anderson’s classic Imagined communities Berel Lang writes ‘…the rapid loss of traditions, the skewed economies, the improbabilities of mass education – all this might well evoke nostalgia for what appears in memory as tidier and more settled past, in which love of country was an important factor and symbolic of the whole.’ Nostalgia and nationalism can sometimes indeed be linked, but the ‘rapid loss of traditions’ which Lang mentions is probably inaccurate, because new traditions are created constantly to replace ‘dated’ traditions.
Another concept is ‘Retroscape.’ This term was created by marketing scholar Stephen Brown. He uses retroscape to ‘describe commercialized environments that either explicitly recreate an historical setting (such as historical theme parks) or merely contain some version of the past (e.g. theme restaurants or Las Vegas casinos). Marketers employ images, lifestyles and discourses from the past to sell contemporary products and services, using nostalgia to associate them with idealized representations of history.’
A commercial ‘retroscape’ is very different from a rural ‘authentic’ Arcadia. The kindred term ‘retromarketing’ is described as follows: ‘the revival or relaunch of a product or service brand from a prior historical period, which is usually but not always updated to contemporary standards of performance, functioning or taste.’
The term ‘retro’ merits some extra attention, because it is close in meaning to nostalgia, but it is something different. Retro is a modern way of selectively looking back to the past. According to art historian Elizabeth Guffey retro is a development that dates from after the second world war. According to her it is an interest in earlier but also modern periods. She describes the phenomenon as follows: ‘Half ironic, half longing, ‘retro’ considers the recent past with an unsentimental nostalgia. It is unconcerned with the sanctity of tradition or reinforcing social values: indeed it often insinuates a form of subversion while sidestepping historical accuracy’ Guffey mentions the possibility of a unsentimental, ironic kind of nostalgia. This insight can be questioned: can nostalgia be unsentimental? I see nostalgia as a sincere (but distorted) sentiment. But the retro-modernism Guffey discusses is evidence of a longing to a simpler time, a longing that is also important in many types of nostalgia.
There are many links between the terms nostalgia and tradition. Both phenomena are often associated with conservatism, but can also be seen in the views on society of leftist thinkers. Traditions are about the handing over of customs from one generation to the next. Thus traditions become part of the recollection of childhood or adolescence of many people. Nostalgia and traditions have to do with someone’s identity or group identity. Pictures (like photos), sounds (like pop music) objects (like wedding rings) and landscapes (like an imitation of Arcadia) are important for the creation of this identity. The longing for an Arcadian version of the past has to do with both nostalgia and tradition. In the fictitious Arcadia people supposedly lived a simple, unhurried life, in which age-old traditions were very important, both traditionalists and many nostalgic people think.
Svetlana Boym writes the following about nostalgia: ‘At first glance nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time - the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues human condition.’
Boym describes nostalgia as anti-modern, which also is true for a lot of traditions. Still, traditions are not necessarily anti-modern. They can be dynamic and can be adapted to the needs of changing historical periods. It has been remarked that nostalgia ‘is a way of shaping and directing historical consciousness.’75 Thinking about the backgrounds of traditions contributes to this historical consciousness as well. Both nostalgia and tradition are not necessarily unreflexive phenomena.
There are some clear differences between nostalgia and traditions. For instance, the aesthetical and commercial aspects of nostalgia important in traditions. Nostalgia has to do with emotion, which is also true for many traditions. But the passing on of traditions is also an intellectual process. Nostalgia is always about distortion of the past, which is not necessarily the case for traditions. The concepts of nostalgia and tradition are closely related however. Both nostalgic traditions (e.g. distortion of tradition) and traditional nostalgia (e.g. Arcadic scenes) are possible and the longing for both is part of culture in modern society in the West and elsewhere.
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