Nostalgia is a necessary thing, I believe, and a way for all of us to find peace in that which we have ccomplished, or even failed to accomplish. At the same time, if nostalgia precipitates actions to return to that fabled, rosy-painted time, particularly in one who believes his life to be a failure, then it is an empty thing, doomed to produce nothing but frustration and an even greater sense of failure."  (R. A. Salvatore, Stream of Silver)

 

Nostalgia is one of the words that Steampunk feeds off. Anachronism is another one. Zeitgeist can be one, too. But today, let's talk about nostalgia. The term 'nostalgia' was coined in 1688 by Johannes Ofer by combining the Greek words 'nostos' (home) and 'algos' (pain) to refer to what was considered to be a medical disorder, a disabling longing for home. Over the years it has escaped its medical origin and into the realms of cultural practice personal pleasures and comfort, and the rhetoric of politics. And still the use of nostalgia is disparaged by critics, observes bonnett Alistair in Radicalism and the politics of Time, because nostalgia in the public is rebuked but personal nostalgia is indulged (5-7). In my essay I prefer to use the most basic definition of nostalgia, which is the longing and yearning for home and a gaze that looks back to the past to remember and reminisce. I also want to propose that with the proliferation of Neo-Victorian and steampunk novels, nostalgia is increasingly becoming a commodity for mass consumption.

Our desire to revisit the past is not simply to create and access storehouse of dead and obsolete forms of historical past as a source of inspiration, but also to counter what Benjamin condemns as the disease of the modern age--forgetfulness.emphasises on the intrinsic significance of forgetfulness in his theories becauss it is a beneficial exercise that leads to receptive openness of the future, transforming the present into the epoch that lives for and in the future. Eyal Chowers notes that in recent years there seems to be a resurgence of writings of history that attempt to counter this, which means we end up being no longer propelled into the future by a teleological force and find ourselves "floating aimlessly in a set of temporal fragments and random moments" (Rita Felski qtd in Radstone 10). Due to this sense of exile and homelessness, new possibilities have opened up for social theorists and Sci-Fi writers to find home in another time and space. If forgetfulness is really as dangerous as Benjamin makes it out to be, then the only way to resolve this is by finding home in our past. That is not to imply that we settle in the past and never advance. Instead the vision should reveal multiple homes in different times and spaces. If there is one thing that modern transportation has taught us, it is that the idea of home and comfort is no longer contingent on traditional notions of housing and spatiality. The para-modern man may feel exiled from the present and have the mentality to settle in the past or the future but continues to live in the present.

When nostalgia becomes more than a yearning for a home in our past and cultural heritage, that is when it transforms into what Jurgenson calls the augmented reality created by faux physicality, which is more coherently articulated in Elizabeth Outka's "Consuming Traditions" as commodified authenticity. It can be found and manufactured practically anywhere, from pre-distressed furniture and clothing to mass-produced faux-vintage jukebox that plays songs from your ipods, from Disney World that transmits an idyllic, imaginary past to its audience to Dickens World that realises the imagined worlds of novels from the past. Commodified authenticity is, in short, nostalgic forms of authentic goods that bring the past into contact with the present so that "instead of choosing between the past and the present, between an alluring sense of endurance and the chance to reinvent and possess, consumers might unite all these desires in one attractive package" (6). This commodified nostalgia, "conflating time and space in ways that allowed the past to live on, revitalized, in the present" (70), is exactly what steampunk offers--the past made readily accessible to be consumed, a gesture that is ambivalently both normative and transgressive (22). It is transgressive because it delivers nostalgia, which used to be exclusive to the academia, to the mass, and normative because it establishes expressions of authenticity and permanence.

 

Now, since I love getting replies, I'm going to throw a few questions out there:

  • Anyone care to argue otherwise and say steampunk is NOT commodifying history and nostalgia and transforming them into a consumerable product for the public and in the public?
  • How can we feel nostalgia for a past we never experienced personally? And although this has been answered already countless times by critics and bloggers, WHY the Victorians and not, say, the Ancient Egyptians who had respect and passion for history as well as progress?

Views: 78

Comment by Ray Dean on August 3, 2011 at 1:37am

Nostalgia.. longing for a time period that I didn't experience... I think it stems from some emotional connection to values or attitudes that I 'see' within that time...

Now, I'm not saying that the Victorian era is the shining example of virtue or industry or genteel society, and a budding class revolution... but like any 'real' memory of our own lives we tend to gloss over or burnish the details and make it into our own 'idealized' version of the truth/reality. (or, in the coverse - making it worse than it was)

probably the same reason why a number of folks delve into the living history of certain wars... war is never a pretty thing, but here we are reliving it over and over and over.. is it to die on a pretend battlefield? or is it the idea of dying for something you believe in... stepping into a pair of brograns and open that connection to what we see as a 'simpler/nobler' time.

 

maybe it's the answer the 'what if'... we know what happened in history... maybe we all suffer from that idea of 'if only they'd done this or that things would be so much more....'

 

okay, clear as mud, huh? yep... past my bedtime... night y'all!

 

Comment by Ray Dean on August 5, 2011 at 2:33am
sorry, Lexi... looked like I killed it... :(
Comment by dave bartram on August 5, 2011 at 4:06am

Third time lucky... right, here we go...

Can we be nostalgic for times we did not experience ourselves? No. Can we be nostalgic for something that never even existed, such as Steampunk times? No. But that doesn't invalidate the feelings ,or mean that you can't acknowledge those feelings. What it means is that Steampunk doesn't really commodify the past because it isn't the past. repackaging the past is what Hollywood does when it takes a film like U571 and changes history in order to sell the movie to an Amercian audience. Its also known as 'lying'.

Steampunk isn't lying because, outside of the necessary suspension of disbelief, it doesn't pretend to be true.

If you subscribe to the 'bundle' theory of consciousness this all makes a lot more sense, as the current 'bundle' is made up of imagined and selected things as much as experiences and memories. 

If any of that makes sense.

Comment by Stephen Swartz on September 9, 2011 at 6:08pm

Greetings, fellow steambloggers!

Please allow me to be a fourth in your list of luck, for I wish you add to the discussion: It is my believe that, much as clothing fashion, music style, and other cultural elements come and go and return once more to the forefront of our concern, Steampunk itself need not be born of any deception or trivial verisimilitude. In other words, any aspect of any time and any place may be suitable fodder for our adornment and our fascination. I don't believe there are limits placed on what does or does not constitute a true representation of an era, location, or mechanical device--an especially curious assertion given that much of Steampunk is drawn not from actual things (scientific, historical, proven existence) but from an idealized rendering of those things (or its opposite).
Said another way, whatever I may dream may in any particular case be more real to me than the reality with which I am expected to interact daily and routinely by certain psychiatrists, politicians, and airship captains. It need not be provable or fit with any other person's dream. The lack of similarity does not invalidate my dream, nor does it give credence to another's dream. The fact that we both have had dreams is enough to join us in that fraternity of dreamers. Steampunk is a kind of dream, I submit.
Having stated the above, allow me to further suggest that what I see as a chief reason for the turning to an older time in an age where circumstances may be more frustrating, confusing, debilitating, dehumanizing, and/or debasing than one would wish were the case is a dream-like longing for that which could become or should have been the idealized ideal. It is utopian thought at its most naked. The exception would be those whose fascination delves into the dark side of Steampunk birth-pangs (see a separate discussion elsewhere on this communicative message board).
In short, truth does not matter here so much as the truth of the illusion. For it is the illusion with which we ultimately play, true truth be damned! 

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