The Ethics of Nostalgia

The way we represent history on screen and on blogs has very little to do with the way ‘it really was’, but with the way we want it, and need it, to be. A few months ago, a new television drama called Puberty Blues, set in a 1970s Australia, was shown on Australian television. It was extremely popular and very similar to the American Mad Men series in its exploration of the sexist culture of the past. For me, Puberty Blues had little to do with sentimentalising or aestheticising the past. Yet, like Mad Men, it was sold as a nostalgic trip into a ‘better’ and ‘simpler’ time, and was used as an avenue to regurgitate 1970s fashion and sell vintage wares to modern audiences. I don’t doubt there are many people who viewed the series as just that: an aesthetic nostalgia. But there were probably also viewers who saw it for what it was: an exploration of the cultural context of sexism that has little to do with buying vintage jeans from the 1970s, or reviving fondue parties.

It all depends on how you look at things. And I guess that’s the point that moves things beyond a purely postmodernist engagement with the past, into a metamodern one. Because as much as we may still love to superficially aestheticise history as a ‘style’ and a consumer ‘product’, we are also witnessing an engagement with nostalgia that is about ethics rather than simply style. Like postmodernism in the 1980s and 1990s, our current engagement with the past is consciously aware of what Fredric Jameson has termed its own “random cannibalization of all the styles of the past”, yet nevertheless seeks to say something beyond style in the process. [2] We will always return to the past, and perhaps less energy needs to be spent thinking about whether this is a ‘new’ phenomenon, and more on how we choose to see, represent and interpret the past as producers, consumers and viewers, moving towards a more balanced love of aesthetics coupled with an increasingly conscious understanding of history and the present.

From here.

I find myself thinking a lot about nostalgia from a pop culture point of view, and I have to shamefully admit that I’d never really considered it as an ethical (or unethical, really) exercise in flattening the past at all. This piece is food for thought that I’m going to be chewing over for awhile, I suspect.

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