Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Media Nostalgia

Recently I posted an entry on malstalgia, a longing for bad experiences. Reflecting on that note I thought I’d explore the term's relationship to another phenomenon in which "nostalgia" does not evoke a locale -- a place imbued with time and character -- but merely a stylized evocation of the past manifested in some cultural production such as a television show or book: media nostalgia. As the idealization and performance of simulacra, this kind of nostalgia may be placed among a range of desires to relive things observed but not experienced. An episode of The Simpsons provides vivid illustration, when Homer anticipates seeing his high school friends at a reunion:
Homer: It'll be great to see the old gang again. Potsie, Ralph Malph, the Fonz.
Marge: That wasn't you. That was Happy Days!
Homer: No, they weren't all happy days. Like the time Pinky Tuscadero crashed her motorcycle, or the night I lost all my money to those card sharks and my dad, Tom Bosley, had to get it back.
The episode gently mocks our tendency to recall our lives and our personal histories through the lenses of popular culture, blurring any distinction between mediation and reality. Media nostalgia, what William Gibson terms the search for "semiotic ghosts," has been used to explain the odd fetishization of old television shows or even the ironic usage of "dead media" such as the use of an old telephone bell as a mobile phone ringtone.

As such, media nostalgia shares important resemblances with the related term, kitsch. Loaded with a class-based distinction between high and low culture, kitsch is generally identified with tastelessness. To illustrate, again borrowing from a Simpsons episode, the original painting of The Last Supper represents (to some) high culture, but a "Last Supper" TV dinner tray is kitschy low culture, a cheap and artless imitation. Certainly, scholars of postmodernity have well articulated the collapse of the high/low culture dichotomy, and an industry of artists has arisen to generate an eclectic collection of kitschy productions whose acquisition and performance signify a brand of cool. And yet I cannot help but wonder if media nostalgia emerges from a still larger phenomenon in which we abandon altogether the search for any meaning in our own "real" lives.

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