“The 20th century began with utopia and ended up with nostalgia.”
Stefano Mirti, September 24, 2019
Nineteen years into the 21st century, I wonder if we’ve yet to escape nostalgia. Or more properly the ersatz nostalgia for things and experiences most of us never lived through. Fashion thrives on it, reviving cigarette pants when almost no one smokes anymore, recycling midis, minis, and maxis, not as a barometer of the stock market’s ups and downs, but as a kind of generational cannibalism.
This impulse to relive our own or someone else’s past is hardly limited to clothing trends, nor is it especially recent, as Mirti’s maxim points out. Steam punk has been around since the 1980s. New Urbanist town planning with its faux Victorian and Tudor homes started in 1993. Meanwhile, tv shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel are art directed to within an inch of their cinematic lives.
Putting aside all evidence to the contrary, nostalgia is less about retro looks and more about a feeling of lost power. It is profoundly political. I’ll wager that most of the energy that is fueling far right movements here in the US and ‘over there’ in old Europe flows from seeing the glass (or pint or stein) half full and the local (pub, supermarket, you fill in the blank) increasingly crowded with unfamiliar faces. It’s much easier to romanticize speakeasies (they recently made a come back, too), beer halls, and blond braids than the breadlines of the Great Depression or the foreclosures of the Great Recession, both triggered by wealthy white gamblers in the stock market.
So far, so obvious. What isn’t obvious is how to manage expectations and at the same time kindle a motivation to move ahead instead of looking back. One of the most poignant motivators for many of us is embodied in the image of Greta Thunberg sitting by herself with a handmade sign in front of the Swedish Parliament. (No doubt her success is a little frustrating for those who’ve been working on alternative approaches to energy for decades.)
Consider that by playing ostrich we indulged in a perverse nostalgia, trying to convince ourselves that the world would continue to be as it was before ‘no vacancy’ signs appeared at landfills. It’s time to take the blinkers off, even if the prospect isn’t pretty.