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Old new in new packaging

Forfatter: Grafton Tanner
Forlag: Polity Redux, (USA)
MEMORIES / Nostalgia has been made into a commercial product that makes the past a constant and pressing presence. Do we really belong in a past tense? Memories are today produced, preserved and managed by commercial actors, by cultural products – which, to say it with Marx, are fetishized. Pop cultural products of the past are recycled, made into collectibles and picture books for the coffee table, sold as retro designs.


The young American philosopher Grafton Tanner has already managed to write three books about nostalgia, connected to consumer culture, digitized media and not least the reactionary political currents of our time. In his previous book, The Hours Have Lost their Clock (2021), Tanner's theory of nostalgia matured into a full affect-theoretical or psychopolitical investigation of nostalgia, which he bluntly calls "the dominant emotion of our time". The psychopolitical lies in the exploitation and shaping of our emotions, how these are suppressed and encouraged, channeled and intensified. Precisely because nostalgia is so diffuse, Tanner claims, it is also easy to manipulate and use politically, ideologically and not least commercially.

The premise of this small popular philosophical book is that nostalgia, which originally denoted homesickness, has developed into an unclear and omnipresent emotional complex with a significant cultural explosiveness. This book can be read in part as a short version of Tanner's earlier texts, but as the title Foreverism suggests, there is also something new here
- an emphasis on perpetuation as a countermeasure against nostalgia's yearning, longing and sense of loss.

Nostalgic products take advantage of the longing and make it sweet and salable – and do something with our experience of time itself, Tanner shows in a wide range of popular cultural examples.

An evergreen fashion

Nostalgia, Tanner points out, was initially a term for extreme, perhaps even pathological, homesickness – especially among soldiers at the front, distant outposts and long campaigns. The term was a neologism introduced in the 1600th century by the doctor Johannes Hofer, which Tanner has told about in other books. Unlike the soldiers who longed for home place, we modern people yearn for currently. Actually, it may not be so easy to distinguish between them, because longing for the place you come from is longing for the place where you have your memories, and those who share those memories and keep them alive. But do we really belong in the past?

Unlike the soldiers who longed for their homeland, we modern people long for the past.

The problem is perhaps, in extension of Tanner's argument that minner and the past, yes, the very fabric of tradition that forms the basis of culture, is no longer managed by our closest relatives or fellow human beings – by that Day Solstad a place lightly ironically referred to as the 'culture bearers'. Rather, memories are produced, preserved and managed by commercial actors, by cultural products – which, to use Marx's words, become fetishert and given a magical hate with which we identify. The decade of childhood, whether it's the 60s or the 80s, is made into a nostalgia package with a frouser profile, like the film adaptation of Solstad's (already nostalgic-ironic) novel High school teacher Pedersen (2006/1982) was sold to an audience of nostalgic 68ers and their ironic descendants. Here as elsewhere, the unresolved suffering that lies latent in nostalgia is mobilized against nostalgia itself. This must be overcome by bringing the past with you into the present and protecting it from being something lost and outdated by covering it, stylizing it and keeping it alive as an evergreen fashion.

A constant reproduction

Pop cultural products of the past are recycled, made into collectibles and picture books for the coffee table, sold as retro designs or refurbished.

Films are re-recorded, and all memories can be digitized and collected. They are eternalized, "foreverized", but in this way the real nostalgia is also paralyzed, claims Tanner. We cannot long for what is always there. How can we be nostalgiahappen to the experience of seeing Star Wars as a child when the film series for over forty years has refused to disappear by constantly copying itself? Super Mario Bros or Barbie-products no longer belong to childhood, but remain a fixture in culture, a constant presence surrounded by a shabby nostalgic aura that no one really feels anymore. Tanner's descriptions seem apt enough. The products themselves become carriers of culture, they preserve themselves through constant reproduction.

But what about the classics? What about cultural traditions and traditions? Is it not conceivable that perpetuation is perhaps the very essence of culture itself? And isn't the repetition always a repetition with variations, which always bring new ones differenceis, which always repeats in a new way, like Gilles Deleuze explored in his book Difference and repipetiton (1968)? Tanner barely mentions Deleuze, but not his philosophy of repetition. He often moves too quickly in this book to go into deeper analysis. But, like Deleuze, Tanner seems to distinguish between the 'good' repetition that unfolds the many facets of the classics, and the 'bad' empty, mechanical repetition. Recently, apropos of Tanner's arguments, we have seen ABBA as a digital-holographic super band in concert for an ecstatically reminiscing audience. The new astonishing technology serves an increasingly backward-looking and predictable culture.

Nationalist-authoritarian fantasy of purity

Our cultural form may have made us all touristare also collectors of souvenirs, looking for distractions and obsessed with memories that have been turned into salable objects. But there is more at stake here – one decadence which really implies a political decay. One of the most elegant observations in Tanner's book is a reference to a book by the critical journalist Jim Hougan from the 70s, Decadence: Radical Nostalgia, Narcissism and Decline in the Seventies. Here Hougan says that there is "no reason to expect that the American masses will experience a revolutionary nostalgia and march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC while shouting: […] GIVE US BACK THE GOOD OLD DAYS!" The idea is "ridiculous", writes Hougan, but yet, Tanner points out, this very thing happened in 2016, where the people marched in this very street and shouted "Make America Great Again".

It seems that Tanner sees a critical, perhaps even revolutionary potential in genuine nostalgia, in a mature recognition that certain things are indeed over and sailing out of sight in the current of time. Such genuine nostalgia involves the recognition that it is painful but necessary to let things go. There is something immature and infantile about wanting everything to be the way it was before. Trying to keep the past alive can be reactionary at worst. The psychopolitics of nostalgia can easily end up in a nationalist-authoritarian fantasy of purity.

The best of the past

Tanner's book gives us no answer as to what it measures perpetuationone will lead to, other than that the perpetuation technologies serve to create an ever-larger market for perpetuation in particular. Nostalgia for the old is pushed to the limit and squeezed to the maximum for its consumer potential, while new things are waved in front of our faces to lure us into the new, which is mostly old new in new packaging. The market for the new and the old has us in a double grip.

There is something immature and infantile about wanting everything to be the way it was before.

Perhaps the most radical thing we can do is not to miss childhood products, but childhood itself. Not your childhood sweetheart's hairstyle or the song you kissed to, but the feeling you had. The will to rethink the 60s counterculture, not the baggy trousers or the style – not even the products of thought. Perhaps the art of longing for and loving one place rather than an idealized one time is the real task: to love a landscape in a time where it is threatened by natural encroachment, to nurture old friendships not by reminiscing about the past, but by doing new things together, also politically. To unsentimentally try to realize what is still in the bud – not by wishing it back, but by continuing the best of the past in a new form.

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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