Media, Communication and Nostalgia
Finding a better tomorrow in the yesterday?
Today is grey skies, tomorrow is tears
you’ll have to wait till yesterday is here
In 2016, it appears, the promise of a good future was increasingly sought for in the past and by invoking the spirit of a faded prior exceptionality. In the Brexit campaign or the US elections, to name but a few of the most prominent examples for similar developments around the globe, nostalgia fuelled populism and nationalist identity politics. “Take back control” and “Make America great again” were as much the essence of a nostalgic narrative of a better past as they were a false promise for a better future. The glorious times such politics refer to in their campaigns are hard to trace and likely never existed in the imagined form. But they are offered as a projection surface for people´s hopes, dreams, and fears, harvesting the sentiments and affections of disgruntled parts of the population to capitalise them for political success. In the now so anxiously termed “post-truth” era – in itself a reference to a favourable yet allegedly bygone version of reality – nostalgia is used for orchestrating affects at the cost of facts and rational discourse. The success of such political strategies in Western democracies stunned liberals across the globe and the debate about its appeal will have to continue due to the persistent distrust in democracy, media, and politics we are contemporarily witnessing in Europe and elsewhere.
When we decided to do a special issue on nostalgia from a media and communication perspective, little did we know, that nostalgia would be prominently entering the stage of global politics and reveal itself once again in its most criticised form – as equally reactionary and restorative. Hence, many still consider nostalgia solely as dangerous even though there is a broad variety of nostalgic engagements that comes into play – many of which overshadowed by this dominant negative reading. Against this backdrop, the papers comprised in this issue are sensitising our understanding of what nostalgia actually means for people and what they do with it in vibrant media environments. They offer conceptualisations that help broaden our understanding of nostalgia in the context of media and communication instead of limiting it to its problematic features, yet, without neglecting them.
Research on Nostalgia
Besides its current prominence in political and public debate nostalgia was already a trending research topic in many academic fields investigating its various facets. Academics from sociology, political sciences, memory studies, social psychology, and advertising research – to name but a few – are interested in explaining the omnipresence of nostalgia and its appeal to so many people. But the recent hype about nostalgia is more than just a mere fascination for the past in a variety of cultural spheres and contexts.
And indeed, approaches aim at exploring the numerous other qualities that signify nostalgia as a creative and progressive resource, a tool for commodification, or an agent for identity and community building to articulate cultural or generational belonging. People recollect and embrace media formats and communication technologies of their childhood. We witness a revival of vinyl records and how media design adopts new products to the vintage appeal of old media technologies. TV dramas, music styles, advertisements and product design alike are flirting with the charms and lifestyles of the past. We decorate our apartments with vintage furniture and rediscover retro-drinks and retro-fashion. People share memories about past media practices, commodity brands and other everyday experiences from romanticized pasts to communicate and identify who they are today, and where and how they belong. Nostalgic memories are however not neutral but entangled with political orientations, social norms, and cultural values; they bear an inherently social dimension. This hints to more profound social and cultural developments that this special issue aims to shed light on.
This collection of articles presents insights from multiple fields to paint a holistic picture of nostalgia as a catalyst for understanding the complex entanglements of romanticised pasts, present needs and envisioned futures. Only then, we would argue, we are prepared for both the positive and negative impact nostalgia may have on our lifeworlds and societies today and in the future.
Media, Communication and Nostalgia
In the call for papers we tried to address this complexity by outlining the research perspectives that emerge when media, communication and nostalgia are genuinely considered in their interrelation in practices, products, and politics that qualify as constituent features of media saturated societies: What role does nostalgia play for the production, commodification, distribution, and exchange of narratives and mnemonic objects in domains of public and social communication, from mass communication to popular culture? How do media technologies serve as portals to a personal or historical past? Which features of nostalgia do we find in a digital memory culture? How does nostalgia for media or communication technologies contribute to community formation and establishing a sense of belonging in communities? How is nostalgia instrumentalized in political communication, for political goals or social activism? The reader will find what is lightly touched by these questions embraced and ambitiously advanced by the authors that contributed their work to this special issue.
About this Special Issue
Nostalgia is a booming and tenacious topic around the globe. The response to our CfP clearly supports this statement. We received a total of 27 abstract proposals from 19 countries in South America, Asia, Europe and the USA. The 9 papers that were finally accepted after a thorough two-step review process still reflect this diversity: The contributions included in the issue represent the work of authors currently affiliated in Hong Kong, Brazil, Poland, Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, and the USA, nationalities of authors still add some further countries to this list. This does not only allow for a variety of case studies from different cultural contexts but also adds to a fruitful de-westernization of theoretical and empirical approaches.
This special issue is special in another respect as well: To include all the convincing papers, the first time in its history medien&zeit presents a combined print and online edition. All 9 papers are as from now on available open access online at www.medienundzeit.at (Issue 31/2016 No. 4). Five papers and the abstracts of all articles are additionally published in the traditional familiar printed journal format of medien&zeit. QR-codes link the abstracts of the online-only papers with the digital version of the issue, allowing to immediately go online and benefit from the integrative nature of this transmedia venture in academic publishing. We would like to invite all readers to make use of the opportunity to do a transmedia reading and get the most out of this medien&zeit issue. Probably, in dealing with nostalgia, the format of this issue can help to find a valuable format for the future of medien&zeit.
What to Expect
The opener of the issue is an essay by Ekaterina Kalinina on the history of nostalgia research in which she unravels the confusion about what nostalgia actually is by dissecting the various conceptualizations we find in different fields. She thoroughly traces back the dominant connotations that underlie our debates on nostalgia and additionally argues for a stronger consideration of media as an essential platform for nostalgic productions in modern societies. Hence, this essay does not only provide an insightful and critical overview of the literature on nostalgia but also calls on researchers to be aware of nostalgia’s versatility in media and communication contexts.
The second paper moves from the conceptual to experimental grounds. The unexpected revival of listening to vinyl records is one of the typical examples that come to mind when speaking of media related nostalgia. Nostalgia for vintage, and retro-style media technologies are however only one part of the story, as Steffen Lepa and Vlasis Tritakis show in their contribution. Based on an experimental study they illustrate that not every use of and appreciation for old technologies can be considered a nostalgic practice. There are motives beyond nostalgia. They propose the notion of symbolic aura attribution an important resource for how and why people are willingly embracing older and thus rarer and uncommon technologies.
The call for more research on the meaning of nostalgia in people´s lifeworlds is perfectly captured in the paper authored by Lynne Hibberd and Zoë Tew-Thompson. They take us to an English village named Holmfirth that was the actual setting of the famous UK sitcom “Last of the Summer Wine” for over 30 years. The authors sharply analyse in their non-media-centric approach how the village and the sitcom are entangled in several nostalgic ways and people relate to the fictional that became part of their lifeworld reality adding to the cultural heritage of the village. The dimensions of this sitcom´s influence are manifold and range from memories about the sitcom shared by the citizens to changes in the architecture of the village.
In “Because it’s classic” Jakob Hörtnagl addresses nostalgia in a very different setting. In his study he discusses the case of the retro-gaming community Project 1999 and their efforts to reconstruct the lost world of an online role-playing game as accurate and as authentic as possible. The classic experience becomes a template, justification and benchmark for decisions in the now. Thus, aiming for the perfect reconstruction of a past experience the gamers and builders of the gaming environment and surrounding communication structures provide an important case for understanding the interrelations of past media memories, old and new media technologies and current media practices for shaping communities and identities today.
An innovative and at first sight maybe counter-intuitive conceptualization of nostalgia as “nowstalgia” is introduced by Ezequiel Korin. In his essay he defines “nowstalgia” as the practice of recording experiences with a GoPro camcorder or taking selfies in anticipation of a possible nostalgic use in the future. He not only describes these increasingly popular practices as “past-in-the-making” but also delicately analyses the cultural and historical framework in which they are embedded. Korin examines the temporality of mnemonic content in an exceptional and thought-provoking approach. Hence, one is challenged to give up the idea of nostalgia being fettered to the past and instead be open for the possibility of “nowstalgia” for future pasts.
Evoking nostalgia is a common goal and strategy in advertising and marketing concepts, especially when it comes to sweets and how they are related to memories of a cosy and sheltered childhood. Mario Keller’s study looks at the uses of nostalgia in the advertising campaigns of Austrian sweets manufacturer “Manner”. Keller is interested in how motives from the imperial past, of Austrian national and of Viennese local identity are triggered alongside hints to viewers’ personal memories regarding their past with the fabled hazelnut wafers. Using the concepts of an experienced mode and a commodified mode of nostalgia, he highlights shifts in how audiences were addressed in a variety of ads throughout the last decades and how motives addressing Austrian audience members’ collective memories were subtly replaced by more translocally and globally open versions.
Similar to Hörtnagl’s case, but with a very different media setting, the struggle of users to preserve appreciated media experiences from the past is also the case provided in the article by Talitha Ferraz. Ferraz builds her argument on what she calls “activating nostalgia” on the case of two Brazilian efforts to protect historical cinemas in the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. She analyses how the activism of audiences across online social media and public events have proven to be pivotal for the maintenance respectively reopening of the cinemas and became a crucial axis for the formation of belonging and identity ties among cinephiles in Brazil.
The next contribution takes us from cinephile nostalgia in cities to nostalgic memories about the city itself. How people build communities in social media is what Francesca Olivotti and Gabriele de Seta are explaining with the example of Hong Kong nostalgia. They investigate the everyday online activities of users evolving around a common interest in the post-colonial past of the city. In their ethnographic approach, they examine photographs, narratives and objects of the past material culture as part of media practices that allow the members of the community to collectively share and discuss their “local memories”. Thereby, they give the reader an inner view of the possibilities digital communication offers for nostalgic negotiations of the past; in this case of a city`s heritage.
Marek Jeziński and Łukasz Wojtkowski conclude the issue with their article about the commodification of post-communist nostalgia in Poland, especially for the PLR, the People’s Republic of Poland. They build their argument on their analysis of three different online platforms and how they market products reflecting the historical past and lifestyles in different ways. The commodification of nostalgia for the past, their findings highlight, works perfectly in new media environments as the online distribution of goods smoothly latches on sharing practices on social media platforms. The past as a cultural resource for folklore and a vintage hipster appeal is, we can learn from their article, depoliticized but probably through this also highly political.
Media can serve as vessels, addressees and also lenses through which individuals and societies look at fond memories; they can amplify as well as deafen nostalgia and memory. The articles in this issue allow for a glimpse on the multifaceted ways in which media, communication and nostalgia are related as they highlight cases of nostalgia, through, by and towards media. In various communicative contexts they ask for the potential of nostalgia as a seismograph for cultural and political sentiment. The debates addressed in this issue will continue afterwards and elsewhere, we hope that the articles will help to inform them.