Mediated Nostalgia, The Dispersed Past, and the Flat Buzz

16Dec11

When Facebook’s new Timeline look was announced a few months back a brilliantly funny video lampooned it by taking a clip from Mad Men where Don Draper is doing a presentation on Kodak’s new photograph slide show device. In the episode the Eastman-Kodak execs want to call the device the wheel harping on the fact that it’s an exciting and revolutionary new invention. Don counters by arguing that while newness is powerful, nostalgia can be just as effective although it is far more delicate. Here is the speech he gives:

“Well, technology is a glittering lure. But, uh, there’s the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash if they have a sentimental bond with the product. My first job, I was in house at a fur company with this old pro copywriter, Greek, named Teddy. And Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is ‘new’. Creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion. But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product, ‘nostalgia’. It’s delicate, but potent.  Teddy told me that in Greek nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.”

The video replaces the photographs of Don and his family with a Timeline version of his life – in effect the video makes fun of our desire for Timeline in the same way Don is trying to convince the execs to turn away from newness, or flash. So much of allure of new forms of media seem to be based on their newness, or difference from another version or another form. Constant changes to social media platforms generally cause spastic excitement on the one hand and groans of ‘if it isn’t broke don’t fix it’ on the other. It’s also ridiculous because facebook on a projector is out of place but not anymore out of place than Mad Men is on our television.

But indirectly the video says quite a bit about Timeline and ‘new media’ in general. It suggests, on the one hand, that nostalgia is part of Timeline and that as media and connectivity is disrupted in ‘the cloud’ (whatever that means exatcly’ we at the same time have developed a new (or re-found) form of digital homesickness. And, in an even more diagonal sort of way, it suggests (as much work in media archeology has done) that everything old is new again, that any so called new technology is one that simply didn’t catch on or was forgotten. As Siegfried Zielinski’s Deep Time of the Media shows, this not only reconfigures the thought of invention but also questions the meaning of media (particularly in a pre-electronic era). This is also to say nothing of the forgotten or overlooked inventor in the wake of corporatized manufacturing (Edison vs Tesla) or one need hardly mention the central drama of David Fincher’s Facebook focused The Social Network

If nostalgia is (most literally) the pain (or longing) of returning home, then Timeline is an advertisement of that pain (though one that can be edited accordingly) essentially dispersing the past as a photo album – the selective remembering of the past as formative of the mediated subject. It also opens the possibility of digital prehistory as the look leaves an inviting void between the time you joined facebook (which at its earliest could only be the early to mid 2000s) and your birth. The dispersed past becomes a far more forceful presence (not forgetting online museums of outmoded and forgotten technology and sites such as the way back machine) achieving a status similar to new media’s hyperbolic fertilization of vicarious trauma – the more memorable examples being the shootings at Virginia tech or the death of Steve Jobs.

The closing lines of Don’s speech are particularly important though in highlighting a difference between the open possibility of future trauma via connectivity (‘I can suffer with you because I see you are suffering or are suffering with some event far away etc etc’)- there is a kind of monism of affectivity which is at least as deep to the point of it being displayed (without knowing how much deeper, if at all, it goes).

There is a similar vicariousness of the past (‘oh I did that too when I was young’) but the choice of what past to leave open (to leave unedited) takes on a different sort of relation to connectivity – what of my past is worth knowing or should I not hide? In essence, it cracks upon a temporality most often engaged in love (whether filial, romantic, erotic, or otherwise). The letting out of the past (in more or less appropriate increments) in the pursuit of a love event (to follow Badiou) or the forgetting or bringing up of ‘old wounds’ in familial squabbles (cant you just forget the past, that was a long time ago, etc). Mediated Nostalgia puts us in the neighborhood of Joel Barrish, deciding how much of the emotional bedrock to let out, let live, or to obliterate. Do we allow the dispersion of what that song meant to us with this or that person, how much of the ground of affect to we let out which makes any transformation (our song become her song with him etc etc) suddenly seem disingenuous. There is the concern of being too antiquarian or too destructive with the past (the options of Nietzsche’s “On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life’) which are discussed here briefly.

There is not an overwhelming amount of theorizing on nostalgia (setting aside Svetlana Boym‘s The Future of Nostalgia) – nostalgia being that which brings up the distribution of the human in the posthuman but not between presence and absence or (in Hayles transformation) between pattern and information but between the intensity at which temporalities are acknowledged – it is a problem wedged between Bergson/Deleuze and Burroughs/Dick. We are junked up with congealed images as Burroughs puts it in Nova Express.

The Bergsonian concern is what happens to the memory-image in dispersed nostalgia? Of course, again to return to Don’s speech, Mad Men is already nostalgia (two more shows set in the 60s will soon air) – the spoof is nostalgia tripled at least: the 60s, our own past lives, maybe the old version of technologies lost in change. Several essays and other online pieces have tried to address what exactly the nostalgic appeal is of Mad Men or whether it is nostalgia at all.

There is a point that William Connolly makes in the prelude to A World of Becoming that seems pertinent here:

“Suppose an older girl had let you kiss her two seconds longer than expected, spurring surges of anticipation about a date that, doubtless because she had other interests, went nowhere. Do such little surges of warmth and anticipation – even when unfulfilled then and not recollected later as events – flow somehow into future feelings and actions, infusing and inflecting a sense of humor, a style of regret, a mode of empathetic identification, a sense of anxiety, even a political sensibility? Do fugitive possibilities not acted upon in the past accumulate below recollection to make a difference to thought and action in the future?”

The issue then is the what is recorded of one’s emotional tectonic, what weight of that is actually being recorded, what of that is to be shared, can be, should be, etc etc. What does it mean to have a mediated (in multiples sense of the term) gemstone mine – a pile of stills and bulletins, of Crystal-images, and blurry memory-images that are more ‘out there’ than before if not different in kind from stacks of Polaroids and albums. Everything old is new again to make new of what is old. Everything has already been invented but forgotten. Perhaps some of these themes will arise in further explorations of media archeology.

One last point about music. In addition to love’s media geology (when is it not weird to show pictures of my childhood, or to see who I ‘used’ to be, who I used to know, or still know and so on) music is the other affective/remembering image digging machine. Against genre crossing and endless remixing leading to a kind of cultural meaninglessness (as a Luddite like Lovecraft or Heidegger would express), the geotraumatic churning allows for a non-conservative or non-reactionary sense of nostalgia – an anti-sentimental nostalgia as present in Refn’s Drive.

The film ‘fails’ to be what it promises to be – to be a (uncritically) nostalgic rehash of 80s action movies or late 70s car chase films. It stylizes the ‘wrong’ moments (the kiss in the elevator, the walk home down the hall with the kid over his shoulder etc.) where the car chases seem to happen almost too quickly and the violence is painfully ‘too slow’. The incredible soundtrack is faux-80s in a similar sense  invoking the 80s without having the proper being. The excess of affection-shots (or face shots – the romance of glances and awkward smiles) points to the depthlessness of the Driver’s character, but a flatness that seems to be perpetually generating some interest, some sound, some unexpected act, some glow or song. The whole film is a flat buzz punctuated by crunchy gore.

Driving a car listening to music is the closest to Don Draper’s disavowed time machine out in the world, from the eternal return of the carousel to strange outward spinning loops of strange attractors (Bergson’s circuits or circles of memory, never returning to the object). The 29th sonnet of Lovecraft’s Fungi from Yuggoth points to this as nostalgia is imagined as birds moving over the sea singing for a place that doesn’t exist but, as an odd addition, the place inorganically misses the song.The purported origin of nostalgia began in Swiss songs.

In Drive nostalgia moves from being homesickness to farsickness, where the home is found out there. But the past has been dispersed and broadcast ahead. The personal past is becoming more and more vicarious, a mind virus from inner space.

Benjamin Bratton has also written on Timeline here.

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One Response to “Mediated Nostalgia, The Dispersed Past, and the Flat Buzz”


  1. 1 360MC Research & Development – Analysis CW1 (FOR ASSESSMENT) « Janet Awomuti Yr3 Media Production

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