The Ethics of Nostalgia

For the past few months, I’ve been reading articles about blogging. Specifically, about the way bloggers interact with the past through things such as vintage outfit posts, design pieces that draw inspiration from history, or a simple visual adoration of the styles of the past collected on their various social media platforms such as Pinterest and Tumblr. There has been a certain thread of analysis running through the various articles I’ve encountered on the subject, many of which are highly critical of the nostalgic ‘vintage’ trend amongst young bloggers. It is argued that history is being flattened out of meaning and significance as a simple aesthetic; as a ‘fashion’ one can wear, or a way one can decorate the home. That is, we no longer have a ‘real’ relationship with history and its narratives, but are stuck in an aesthetic vacuousness, superficially engaging with the past as a style for our consumption. And of course, this trend is held up as a summary of the natural progression of our postmodernist consumer culture, representing what Dianne F. Sadoff calls “a media-saturated culture’s gleeful repurposing of classic culture as content/software for advertising”, and little more. [1]

To a certain extent, I agree with this criticism. I’ve been disturbed, time and again, when I’ve encountered images of Holocaust memorials, people during war and images from the past being consumed as a pleasing visual aesthetic or consumer ‘product’ on many blogs. Yet, what I find interesting about the criticism levelled against this trend is the way it is often assumed that new media is creating this phenomenon, all on its own.

As someone who has spent the last seven years studying, teaching, researching and writing about historical films and costume dramas, I find it baffling to encounter arguments that suggest blogging and new social media alone are creating a postmodernist loss of historical knowledge and an aestheticisation of the past. It is as if the past few decades of film and television have not existed. Blogs and Pinterest have not invented our current form of consumption of history, but rather, they are simply extending it.

While there have always been costume and historical films, ever since those early Hollywood days, the phenomenon of turning history into a style, an aesthetic and a ‘brand’ that can be sold to mass audiences is something that we partly owe to a certain genre of cinema that developed in the early 1980s: Heritage Cinema. Amongst film critics, the word ‘Heritage’ refers to a whole set of cinematic conventions, a specific type of mise-en-scène, and a wider cultural and economic industry that includes not only the film industry itself, but also various tourism, fashion and design industries. Following in the footsteps of popular Merchant Ivory productions such as Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993), as well as countless Jane Austen adaptations, the film industry shaped a return to the past as a specific screen aesthetic and style that audiences are now extremely familiar with, and which has become a template for current television shows such as Downton Abbey.

Heritage style is encapsulated by a pleasing representation of the past, particularly an English or British past, selling audiences not only a beautiful aesthetic of grand country houses and costumes, but also an idea of what England represents. Many Heritage films have been compared to tourist postcard images, marketing both a return to the past and a return to England as a popular tourist destination. Throughout many years of delving into production notes and media releases for various costume and historical films of the 1980s and 1990s, I’ve been struck by the frequency with which producers, directors and filmmakers sought to appeal to a nostalgic vision of the past, couched in consumption. It wasn’t simply a film that was being promoted, but its location and paraphernalia; tourist guides for shooting locations, making-of booklets with details about vintage wares, and behind-the-scenes details about the various estates, old country homes, hairstyles and makeup used in such films were prolific. Certain film companies also created ‘movie maps’ alongside their promotional material, which were sent off to travel agencies to help promote tourism and a booming Heritage industry.

Just as significant was the visual power of the films themselves in creating a specific kind of representation of the past, often following a picturesque logic, borrowed from the pleasing visual harmony of traditional paintings. Never mind that the majority of the audiences who saw these films lived in cities with housing problems, or that modern England was being shaped more by a diverse multiculturalism, or that England wasn’t this aesthetically pleasing anyway. When I visited a shooting location myself, I remember listening to a tourist expressing her disappointment about the ‘ugly’ landscape, which was dotted with signs of its agricultural, working past, rather than presenting her with a harmonious picture of tranquil nature. Her reaction highlighted to me how Heritage films presented an England to local and international audiences that was overwhelmingly traditional, beautiful, middle- or upper-class, white and rural, sentimentalising such a limited vision of the past in the process. It also highlighted how postmodernist culture turned the past into a recognisable ‘brand’ of aesthetic beauty.

We’ve inherited this logic, and our current fascination with the past as a beautiful style or fashion is not something that emerged in a vacuum, or because blogs and Pinterest were invented. There will always be anxiety about new media, but to suggest that what we’re watching on blogs and on the internet now is something completely new is to close off a deeper discussion about how we have used and continue to use nostalgia in our everyday lives. And perhaps, how we can also move nostalgia into more productive and self-aware forms of engagement with the past.

When I look at a teenager’s blog filled with outfit posts from the 1940s or 1950s, exclaiming that it would be ‘cool’ to go back to the past, I don’t feel like I’m watching a new phenomenon. The same thing has been said many times by audiences who have watched Heritage films or period television dramas, dreaming of a ‘simpler’ and ‘better’ past. Of course, we all know the past was rarely ‘better’, and for the majority of the working population, for minorities and for women, it was downright hellish in many cases. So why do we continue to enjoy the delusion of a beautiful picturesque notion of history?

My answer would be that the representation of the past is often all about the present; it is one of the ways through which we discuss, debate and define our current beliefs, and engage with our contemporary problems. 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.


All images are screen captures from Howards End (1992).



[1] Dianne F. Sadoff, Victorian Vogue: British Novels on Screen (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2010), p. 95.
[2] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1991), p. 18.

There are 3 comments

  1. Warren Ellis » Bookmarks for 2012-11-26

    […] The Ethics of Nostalgia | Notes on Metamodernism." 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."(tags:theory philosophy history ) […]

Comments are closed.