Nostalgia and the Eighties

Max Headroom, from 20 minutes into the future
Max Headroom, 20 minutes into the future

Miami Vice. BladeRunner. Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Goonies. Top Gun. We are all children of the eighties, due to an overpowering sense of nostalgia.

The word nostalgia comes from Greek roots: nostos, meaning “to return home,’ and algos, meaning pain. In the late 17th century, the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer recognized a malady plaguing the Swiss mercenaries who traded in foreign countries, and conceptualized it as a medical or neurological disease – a lethal kind of severe homesickness. By the 19th and the 20thcenturies, there was a shift from the spatial to the temporal. The emotion of nostalgia is the reaction to the sad realization that time is irreversible. This emotion has staying power because the eighties was the last monoculture to exist before the emergence of the Internet.

Nostalgia is a rather slippery concept that even the most astute and trenchant critics confess that it is a paradox. Nostalgia has been treated as a physical disorder, or a mental disorder, or just a feeling, or a symptom of the modern age. Basically, nostalgia is the backward glance through history, but it doesn’t require a place or even a time that’s real. Therefore, nostalgia isn’t necessarily historical, tho it’s been labeled as a “historical emotion.” Nostalgia fuels parochial and cosmopolitan, as well as radical and conservative, moral and political imaginations. Nostalgia belongs neither to the present, nor to the past, much less the future, but it is tied to all three temporal zones. The aesthetics of nostalgia may be less a matter of simple memory, than a complex projection; the invocation of a partial and idealized history merging with a dissatisfaction with the present.

The metaphysical structure of nostalgia is similar to the Fall, or the Expulsion from Paradise. Nostalgia is the incapacity to coincide with any moment of time, for it seeks consolation in a remote immemorial past, somehow superior to existence. Rather than a passing phenomenon, precipitated by a certain ideology, nostalgia is a structural reality that affects all perspectives – be it in the media or politics or art. Nostalgia has replaced nature as a referent in post-industrial culture, as the result of a massive realization of the concept of history throughout all areas of thought.

One of the reason critics disparage nostalgia is that it is basically an uncritical form of aesthetic judgment. We loved something unconditionally when we were young, that only means we were happy during our youth. It matters not if the 80s produced great or shitty films, it’s just that those films reminded us of a happier time, and we unconsciously mix that fond memory with the film, music, comic books, etcetera. Another reason is that nostalgia is a mask of a self-serving insecurity, in which we yearn for something from the past, we are asserting that those things are still important, which implies that our lives are just as important, because those things constitute our identity. Worse yet, nostalgia is a lazy type of sentiment that is intolerant of anything new.

The 80s are here again

Every decade has its rhythm, but the eighties stand alone because it turned into a genre, with its own tropes – a transcendental cocktail mix of synth music, neon lights, video games and cocaine. Nostalgia exists for many different things, for romanticism, for the fifties, for pop.

However, in the last decade or so, nostalgia has become commercialized in the mass media, a commercialization that might be understood as a true evasion of contemporary issues and problems. Commercial nostalgia teaches us to miss things we didn’t really lose. Nostalgia is essentially the byproduct of cultural modernity, along with its alienation and lamented loss of tradition and community. Nostalgia is made palatable today by invoking as well as undercutting the perspective that sees exactly what it is – a comment on the present as much as on the past.

So cheesy and so cool at the same time.
So cheesy and so cool at the same time.

Because history no longer has any direction, nostalgia is different when creators refer to the eighties. When Picasso quoted Cezanne, it was because Cezanne was a marker in a historical progression. Today, in the Digital Age, we have commentaries like Kung Fury on the last monoculture capable of producing a historical style.

Our contemporary culture is shot through with nostalgia, and certain parts of it – the self-aware postmodern part – is all too aware of the risks and lures of nostalgia and seeks to expose those through irony.
Lady Gaga as neo-80s icon

Nostalgia has replaced transgression, or more correctly, nostalgia stimulates transgression now. Where Madonna stimulated transgression with provocative clothing and suggestive lyrics, Lady Gaga accomplished the same by rehabilitating Madonna as a genre.

Nostalgia is the death exhalation of art “as we know it.” It is the writing on the wall of the art as an art history. We were an analog world dreaming of digital in the eighties. Today, digitized, we dream ourselves backwards.

It exists as simulated art through social media which is a double of traditional media, a media that exists only as a nostalgic reference to the idea of media and to the ideas of communication and social intercourse. These simulated media is a global phenomenon, but no longer fulfill the function of old media. They only serve to simulate the phenomenon of nostalgia. And within these simulations, this very heart is where the simulated art activity takes place. An activity itself nostalgic for the reality of activity in art.

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...a philosophisticator who utters heresies, thinks theothanatologically and draws like Kirby on steroids.

3 thoughts on “Nostalgia and the Eighties”

  1. Speaking of uncritical forms of judgement, Trump's election is a sort of nostalgia, too. Alain Badiou referred to "democratic fascism" as a false contradiction with global capitalism, the latter being a historical end, "the only real possibility." In a similar way, Boris Groys identified a terminus with the subsumption of art into reality, albeit a reality of "documentation" that emerged with technology, and this historical end leads to New Realism, a practice of discontent with "this positivist facticity of contemporary art that produces a nostalgia for realism." I read this, "Nostalgia and the Eighties" by Awet, a few months ago, before Badiou's address or Groys's article, and I didn't know what to make of it, but there seems to be a general trend, in politics, art, and aesthetics, where contemporary reality is unresolved.

      1. I think this does capture essential points of nostalgia as they're discussed elsewhere and was unaware that people were elaborating on the theme until this. I read Westworld in the same context: a singularity and reflex to fetishize the past to create the appearance of alternate modes. …I wonder what to make of the Mr. Robot episode shot like a 1980s sitcom… Regarding Trump, there is a similarity where you identify discourse emerging away from political correctness and Badiou sees an alternative to liberal orthodoxy, albeit a misleading alternative. Thanks for writing these articles!

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