What is the social/psychological function of nostalgia?
February 13, 2014 3:39 PM   Subscribe

I'm asking specifically for nostalgia for a time before you were born, i.e. the Blitz parties/40s tea dances that have big in the UK for the past decade, or the popularity of Speakeasy-themed bars in the US. I'm thinking of nights that require you to dress in theme specifically and celebrate that time.

I was discussing it with a friend today and I said it seems like it's a way to participate in something your grandparents did, that strengthens your bonds to your own family, but she (rightly) replied that her own grandma had never been to a dance, she'd been too poor. It seems to me like when we're at the tea dance or in the speak or whatever, we're doing something more than faithfully re-enacting the things our forebears did, but I'm not sure what that is or why. Are we celebrating the best bits and leaving the rest behind? Are we thoughtlessly celebrating a time of awful gender and racial inequality? Does anyone have any insight into this kind of nostalgia, the nostalgia for things you've never experienced yourself, and the act of participating in themed events, and what functions that has socially/psychologically?
posted by everydayanewday to Human Relations (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Most of the people I know who do this kind of thing (Ren Faire, Dickens Christmas stuff, flapper parties) don't have any emotional longing for those times; they just like the clothes, the music/dancing, and the make-believe aspect of it.
posted by rtha at 3:42 PM on February 13, 2014 [7 favorites]

It's not nostalgia. It's just fun to dress up and dance. I love costume dramas, but I am NOT longing for a time when people died of cholera.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:03 PM on February 13, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: It's a matter of people thinking that one time or another was better. Perhaps they identify with any period without remembering the social issues that were prevalent during that time. Most of the people I know who do reenactment enjoy the clothing. In the case of Elizabethan, it was the language as well, and the booze. So it depends on the person, I believe. My recent love of the 1940's has a lot to do with my grandmother, as she recently passed. I believe the sudden fascination for me personally is a matter of trying to retain a connection or strengthen the one I already had - whereas my love of the Baroque era is a wholly fashionable one, because when I think of peasants and inequality, I'm suddenly not so fond of it . So it really depends on who you ask and how specific the question becomes.
posted by Fayrose at 4:03 PM on February 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Lots of this is just driven by what's in your parents' or grandparents' closets, photo albums, attics, etc., and finding the artifacts of a different time to be interesting and worth repurposing. I remember reading an interview with Midge Ure (Ultravox/Visage), who said that a good deal of the impetus for the original New Romantics/Blitz Kids look in the early '80s was that they wanted to distinguish themselves from punk by wearing suits, but the only suits they could get for cheap (or for free) were ones from the '40s.
posted by scody at 4:06 PM on February 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For me there's an element of escapism that I really respond to. I also enjoy the aesthetic of many yesteryears and identify more with certain things from the 50s and 60s than I do with current versions of those things. It's not nostalgia though. It's something else I can't articulate.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 4:06 PM on February 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

If you haven't seen it, Midnight in Paris might make for a nice complement to this thread and your conversation with your friend.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 4:43 PM on February 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think we tend to glamorize "simpler times" from long ago and forget that anxiety, power battles, hatred and evil have always existed. I love the book "The Magicians" by Lev Grossman because the main character is obsessed with a Narnia-like series of books and then finds himself in the magical land himself. Grossman does a great job of showing that being transported to another world doesn't remove the characters' fundamental humanity, with all of its complications and hypocrisies. That transcends era and location.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 4:46 PM on February 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Great question. Here's my take.
No, as others have said, it's not nostalgia, which has an essential component of personal experience.
But still, it's more than a desire to dance or dress up, more than a longing for olden times or simpler times. It's an emotional attachment to a time and place that meant something to people you know.
My grandparents were nostalgic about GA in the 1920s. For me, having received that emotion down through the years, through them and my parents, GA in the 1920s evokes not nostalgia -- but it's not just history either.
posted by LonnieK at 5:32 PM on February 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: People's relationship with the past - and their imagination of the past - is a really complicated thing. I suspect if you interviewed 10 different people, you would get 10 answers, including the ones you speculate about here and the ones others are offering. It's a mix of romanticization of the past (the values or ideas or styles seem better), simple harmony of taste, peer interests, wanting to do something different, enjoying the creativity of it, enjoying the hunt for information and articles of clothing, being deeply interested in that time period enough to study it obsessively, just enjoying the fluidity of time and feeling good about taking part in something that has entertained people for ages, and yes, darker motivations like a sense of racial supremacy (why Hitler's folk dance groups were popular) or escapism from the present day.

There's a lot of theoretical study about this - public history, performance studies, etc. In my own life, I've been involved in a few different scenes that had a period aspect. Swing dancing was one, part of a general fascination with the 40s that stems from the profound stresses and complicated pressures people were under, and also the gender disruptions of that time period, and also my grandmother's enduring sense of style, red hair, red lipstick, and great shoes. But when I spoke to other people in the scene, I heard everything from enjoying a sober way to meet people and go out at night, creativity that reminded them of the DIY punk scene, general enjoyment of partner dancing, enjoyment of the individual flair you can bring to it, being a jazz fan, liking the competition and opportunity to do contests for prizes, fitness, having lost a partner and wanting to remain social anyway, etc. There was no one motivation.

Reenacting in general is a fascinating phenomenon. I'd like to know more about it myself - I mean, at the most basic, it's an odd thing to do, adopt the styles of a different time period. But it's something that seems to pervade a lot of cultures, the re-creation of selective memories of the past. But I think it's pretty complex, that it's not a story you could tell in a simple answer.
posted by Miko at 6:57 PM on February 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Here's something that looks interesting

History's affective turn: Historical reenactment and its work in the present. from Rethinking History. On first scan, I like how this piece talks about "collapsing temporalities" which is something our voracious cataloguing and consumption of media makes possible, and also positions the whole phenomenon within this larger thing about prizing emotions and the personal above the factual recounting of history.
posted by Miko at 7:05 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Nostalgia is a form of kinship with one's past, even one's indirect (i.e. not personally experienced) past.

Its function has traditionally served to mark time. At first, a recognition that one is no longer young, a means of dealing with old age. One imagines a better version of the world in which things were better and things were simpler - all the more important because nostalgia is primarily a form of selective recall and revisionism.

In times of change, nostalgia has served to recreate a world people understand. The past 200 years have been incredibly disruptive in terms of the impact technology has had on people's lives and lifestyles. In effect, nostalgia freezes time but takes the best bits of 'progress' and discards the inconvenient, alien and disruptive parts. But like period dramas on film, the 'old' world incorporates parts of the new: we reject uncomfortable social complexities or certain elements of progress but nobody dies of polio or in childbirth and everyone has a full set of pearly white teeth.

Increasingly, however, we see a new form of nostalgia: the recreation of worlds people never lived in. Whether it is hipsterism or reenactment, this isn't necessarily about fondly remembering the past. It is, simply, a way of connecting with something. This is also why we have Facebook. The modern world is more mobile - we no longer live our lives where we we born among the people we grew up with. Family units are smaller. Many people want more roots and want to connect to a place and a past. This is also a (among many) reason why localism and farmer's markets are more of a thing.

Finally, specifically in terms of social media, new technologies and digital life: we can bring the past alive in all sorts of new ways more quickly and more cheaply - digitising and distributing old media, recreating whole new landscapes on film etc; our past is at once valuable in a new way but also more consumable but also more disposable and mashable.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:25 AM on February 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

People were doing medieval recreation in ... the 1830s.

The fun of it can be anything from crafting to amateur scholarship to loving the clothes to the chance to try on another social role or indeed another persona. This true for historical recreation and for various ahistorical fandoms.

It seems to me like when we're at the tea dance or in the speak or whatever, we're doing something more than faithfully re-enacting the things our forebears did, but I'm not sure what that is or why. Are we celebrating the best bits and leaving the rest behind? Are we thoughtlessly celebrating a time of awful gender and racial inequality?

As long as we're not dressing up like Boers, Nazis, or Klansmen, I really think we need to unclench a bit. The people who do this sort of historical recreation can include some sophisticated folk who have this shit down cold, have written their doctoral theses on this stuff, and know complicated words like intersectionality and patronize. When they're not teaching history in small or formal ways.

Oh. And the German yahoos who non-ironically like dressing up like Cowboys and Indians, as per previous and websearchable metafilter posts.

Are we celebrating the best bits and leaving the rest behind?
As they were at the original Blitz parties?

These people are making their own fun and self-actualizing. And sometimes remembering our histories. They're not going to drag out ghosts at the banquet, but many know of them. And learned this stuff from reading books they wouldn't have read if it weren't for going to the dress-up ball.

Dinging the character of people who do this reminds me a bit of when people are discussing a writer at a cocktail party, where they haven't read the writer's books but they do remember some bit of scandal about them or character flaw. You're manifesting a tiny but actual bit of contempt for some woman who's just getting into the fiber arts or blacksmithing, because of historical recreation, on the grounds that she's ignorant or not politically correct. When you have not yet evaluated her personal character, and don't know that she's reading (or writing) some book about the class politics of that age.

But you did just fall into the cognitive trap of considering yourself superior to another person because of a moral failing on their part.

Or you've got some teaching institution or one-off recreation that helps unpick what life was like for folk back then. And exposes how much grunt work low-status people had do to in order to keep the society or the kitchen running.

And you've got the German Cowboys and Indians. Or the folk in the States that collect Nazi regalia.

So, land of contrasts, etc. etc.

It's situational, checkered, relative, and so forth. You have to analyze each instance separately.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:52 AM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would recommend reading The Fedora Lounge forum for more on this. That site - dedicated to those who love 'the golden age' of 1930-1960- has a lot of discussions about this, and especially about how it pertains to working class women, or people of colour. Nobody wants to bring back segregation or ideas about the role of women in society - people want to enjoy the fashion and style, and feel nostalgic for the history, without necessarily deciding that the modern world has nothing going for it.

I totally get why you asked this question, though - I once read a book about how people were happier in medieval times, and found it maddening, as were I living then, I'd already have died in childbirth after having my eigth child. During the immediate post war period in the UK, rationing was in force, many working class families had little to eat and/or lived in slum housing, women could still be sent to homes or asylums when pregnant out of wedlock or forced into marriage, and great swathes of the country had been flattened by bombs. The bohemians of the 1920s were overwhelmingly middle or upper middle class; most had servants. A lot of periods in history were pretty miserable unless you were rich, or white, or male, and I wonder if part of re-enactment allows those of us who wouldn't have been to enjoy the trappings of various eras.
posted by mippy at 6:34 AM on February 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Everything has the virtues of its qualities, no? There are many eras of the past I would never want to live in, because then I would have to take them for all in all --- the virtues and the defects. No Petrarch composing a sonnet for me without also the chance of dying of plague.

But does that mean I wouldn't want the sonnet? Hell naw. There are beautiful things that once were that are now lost to us; it's fun to imagine experiencing them for a night. It's like...I wouldn't wear fur, because it's cruel. But that changes nothing about the feel of it on your skin, the warmth, the sumptuousness.

There's also a wish in it, too, a wish to share in the joy and the excitement felt by those who experienced these things when they were bran-new. We have all our characters, the traits we love in people, and wish for in ourselves. Eras have a character, too, and that can draw us to them. If I love joy and wit and recklessness, how could I not love the thought of dashing up the east side in roadster, sneaking into the Cotton Club, swilling gin and dancing to the Duke till dawn? O brave new world, that had such people in it!

It's a test, too --- who would I have been, if I had been then? Would I have had the strength to cope with the challenges they faced? The perceptiveness to be in the avant garde, to recognize the great changes that were coming and push them forward, as my heroes did? We like to imagine the best of ourselves, of course -- same reason everyone who believes in past lives thinks they were a queen and not a scullery maid. But all the dress up and play-acting gives us a chance to try and feel that, too, a little keyhole on the past.

I'm all for progress, on the whole. But progress doesn't mean we lose nothing. Nostalgia is for what we lost.
posted by Diablevert at 9:07 AM on February 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Maybe something useful here -- apparently C.S.Lewis liked the German word sehnsucht for this. There's also the Portuguese word saudade.
posted by Rash at 10:41 AM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

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