Monday, November 14, 2005

The Shock Of The Old: Rethinking Nostalgia

Jessica Helfand

Nostalgia has always been a bad word for designers. Like “retro” and “vintage” it smacks of a sort of been-there-done-that ennui — looking backward instead of forward, nostalgia presents as the very antithesis of the new. Even hard-core historians resist its emotional lure, which can, in an instant, dramatize the truth and distance it from fact. Nostalgia skews by privileging episodic time over chronological time: in this context, “memory” is cast as a curious, dangerous and rather unreliable lens. Or is it?
In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, nostalgia was seen as a disease, an ailment to be cured. (One doctor described it as “hypochondria of the heart.”) Over time, it came to typify the porous romanticism of bygone eras — Victorianism, for example — conjuring visions both sentimental and ornamental. The streamlined reserve of the International Style obliterated such decorative excess, inaugurating an age of uncompromised neutrality: later, we called it modernism and applauded its appeal to functionality and its celebration of formal rigor.
But the notion of longing never really went away because at the end of the day, it remains an essential human condition. Equally human is our need to mark time: so we keep calendars and agendas and diaries and albums, all of them gestures of physicality and permanence, tangible, graphic reminders of our own evolution, participation and engagement with the world around us. (My current research has revealed, among other things, evidence of an astonishing range of visual imagination from civillian diarists proving, rather conclusively I think, that DIY began a long time ago.)
It is easy to classify such efforts as lacking in authority since they are, by their very nature, autobiographical: if they’re the micro, then the macro — the big world vision — would seem to require more public forms of expression. As designers, we tend to orient our thinking to the broader demographics, visualizing messages that are read and recorded by multiples. But multiples are made up of singulars: in other words, in order to truly understand how to reach people visually, why wouldn’t we start smaller? Why aren’t our efforts more centralized, more specific to one person at a time? And in the spirit of such inquiry, why wouldn’t we consider, as the grass-roots cultural anthropologists that we really are, what makes people feel and notice and care and think — and remember?
The short answer is that in principle, memory is a fairly unreliable search engine. And while it has received substantial mileage in televised courtroom dramas, where witnesses are asked, under oath, to recall events “to the best of their ability,” it is generally thought to be deeply personal and highly flawed. Yet it’s those personal flaws — the ones that our logic tells us should be overlooked — that sit right up there with nostalgia as qualities we typically resist, loosely on the assumption that our work needs to read to a wider audience rather than resonate with a smaller one.
Nostalgia is fuzzy and utopian, privileging an imagined past over a real one. And indeed, nostalgia can be kitsch — playing on the collective recollections of a generation and teasing the psyche through the occasional retro replay — but why can’t it be more than this? Big branding conceits — Old Navy bringing back '60s hip-huggers, for instance — is one way to mobilize nostalgia as a catalyst for sales, but it's a collective memory and besides, we’re all sort of “in” on the irony. Can’t the use of personal memory in the public realm be more transcendant, more emotionally raw than this?
A potentially controversial new report released this week claims that sleep, often maligned due to its its obvious link to idleness, might be another opportunity for understanding the role of memory: more sleep may actually bring about more clarity — not less. ‘In different stages of sleep,” writes Kate Ravilious in this morning’s Guardian,“our brains piece together thoughts and experiences, then file them in a structured way, giving us clearer memories and ultimately, better judgment.” File and structure might not be the first words to come to mind in this discussion, but to the degree that point-of-view remains a key ingredient in so much of what we produce visually, why would we disparage the role of memory in our work? Human memory is more than merely fallible — it’s intangible, difficult to pinpoint, virtually impossible to quantify. And yet, bearing witness lies at the core of a very particular kind of history: it is a history that, more often than not, depends on the collective stronghold of a series of highly individualized stories. (Consider the tradition of oral and visual histories — The Shoah Project, for example.)
I’ve had a growing concern over the past few years that designers in general — and design students in particular — seem predisposed toward a kind of virulent antihistoricism. It’s as if a bow to history precludes innovation, that looking back prevents you from looking forward. Such analytical disparity is perhaps deserving of its own post — but for now, I’d like to suggest that the tension between nostalgia (old) and novelty (new) is one of authenticity (personal) versus authority (public). The designer, as maverick, maker and visual missionary, is perhaps culturally predisposed toward The Next Big Thing. But it’s the last little thing — and maybe the thing before that — that really interests me. And which, for that matter, makes me rather nostalgic. Posted by Jessica Helfand on October 27, 2005 08:25 AM Jump to Most Recent Comment

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