Notes on Nostalgia
Published in New Observations, New York, No. 28, 1985.
Simulation is master, and nostalgia, the phantasmal parodic rehabilitation of all lost referentials, alone remains. - Baudrillard
- Nostalgia is not a passing phenomenon precipitated by the 'conservatism' of the '80's. Rather it is a structural 'reality': it affects all current utterances - in the media, in politics, and in art.
- Nostalgia has replaced nature as a referent in post-industrial culture. Nostalgia is the result of the massive realization of the concept of history that has occurred in all areas of thought; but, at the same time, it is also a result of the leveling of history that accompanies this surfeit of historical thought. The image of history is no longer the rough-hewn, well-defined road winding up the mountain's side. Its image has become instead the swamp, a morass criss-crossed by the myriad muddy paths that go nowhere, that disappear into the fogged-in horizon.
- Every aspect of the social is subject to the rule of this history severed from determinism. In the daily TV news, the present is transformed into the historical: "events" are selected to make each day conform to the system of history. On the radio news, history is written on-the-hour. But national revolutions, car accidents, and the comments of film stars are all treated the same by this leveled historicity.
- History becomes entertainment and entertainment become history. There are TV docu-dramas, and there are the Academy Awards. There is 60 Minutes, and there is the Baseball Hall of Fame. There is the traditional Christian calendar year 1984, and there is Super Bowl XVIII.
- In politics, nostalgia promises the return of a reality that was itself an abstract ideal. Politicians rap themselves in the mantle of this nostalgia. Gary Hart runs as Kennedy, John Glenn runs as Ike, and Mondale runs as Hubert Humphrey. But Reagan wins because he runs as John Wayne. Reagan holds out to us a return to the time when men rode horses, chopped wood and owned ranches (though in this case the ranch is in the heart of Southern California). The question is this: Can the simulation of this reality give rise to a real disaster? Or does the system of deterrence characteristic of the simulacrum continue to enclose these approximations of the real? (The epoch of reality and the epoch of total war were, of course the same.)
- In art, nostalgia is everywhere. There is nostalgia for the early twentieth century. There is nostalgia for Romanticism. There is nostalgia for the '50's, and nostalgia for Pop. Baudrillard tells us that everything is entitled to a second life as nostalgic referential. Artists today paint the '50's the way the Impressionists painted haystacks at sunset.
- Since history has lost its directionality, this nostalgia is no longer the same thing as when the modernist artist referred to a previous style. Picasso quoted Cezanne because Cezanne represented a marker in an historical progression. Today there is left only a commentary on the vast crisscrossing of historical styles. (Or was history already leveled when Picasso quoted Cezanne?).
- Nostalgia has also replaced transgression, or rather, nostalgia now simulates transgression. The Abstract Expressionists simulated transgression by their nostalgic adoption of the strategies of European modernism. The Neo Expressionists simulate transgression by their "parodic rehabilitation" of the early twentieth century; the post-modern architects accomplish the same thing by rehabilitating a pre-modernist vocabulary.
- This is the end of art 'as we know it.' It is the end of the art of art history. It is the end of urban art with its dialectical struggles. Today this simulated art takes place in cities that are also doubles of themselves, cities that only exist as nostalgic references to the idea of city and to the ideas of communication and social intercourse. These simulated cities are placed around the globe more or less exactly where the old cities were, but they no longer fulfill the function of the old cities. They are no longer centers; they only serve to simulate the phenomenon of the center. And within these simulated centers, usually exactly at their very heart, is where this simulated art activity takes place, an activity itself nostalgic for the reality of activity in art.