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Category: Essay

It’s Gone, All Gone – Part 2: Remembering Everything

Nowadays I remembered things constantly; I panned, I grubbed, I fished, I lunged for recollections with a net; I plundered my own thoughts as recklessly as any oil baron ramming his way through pristine landscapes, convinced there would always be more. – Egan, Look at Me


It’s Gone, All Gone is a three part investigation of the many instances of critical abuses of nostalgia. Specifically, I’ll be looking at how critically engaging something as an object of nostalgia is itself a nostalgic mode of thinking. Today: Social Media and Nostalgia. Later: Part 3 on Simon Reynolds and Retromania. If you haven’t already, read the Introduction and Part 1: Instagram and the Faux-Vintage Photograph

Last spring, Tina Fey paid a visit to the Google complex in Mountain View, California as part of Google’s Authors series. Ostensibly there to promote her new book Bossy Pants, the conversation tended (unsurprisingly) to revolve around technology. The most interesting moment of the entire conversation was Fey’s aside about scrolling through her iPhone’s photo album:

I look back, if I go through my phone and there’s these weird chunks of time where it’s, like – because I have, like, 4,000 pictures on my phone. And it’ll be, like, pictures of us at SNL doing the Sarah Palin thing, and then taking her to her first day of preschool, and then going to the Emmy’s. And then there’s things on the table. And then coming back. The phone is a good way to see what…you’re really actually doing in your life.

It’s a simple point, but a good one. In effect, an iPhone photo album is a reverse-chronological, continually updating, personal timeline that she always has with her. Human beings are alright at remembering individual “chunks of time,” but they are tremendously bad at organizing multiple chunks into an intelligible narrative. For example, I have vivid memories of my sister’s graduation party and my brother’s birthday party, which happened around the same time, but I couldn’t tell you which happened first. As Fey says, “The phone is a good way to see what…you’re really actually doing in your life.” Read the rest of this entry »


It’s Gone, All Gone – Part 1: Instagram and the Faux-Vintage Photograph

Not only is the photograph never, in essence, a memory, but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes counter-memory – Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida


It’s Gone, All Gone is a three part investigation of the many instances of critical abuses of nostalgia. Specifically, I’ll be looking at how critically engaging something as an object of nostalgia is itself a nostalgic mode of thinking. Today: Instagram and the Faux-Vintage Photograph. Later: Part 2 will focus on social media and Part 3 on Simon Reynolds and Retromania. If you haven’t already, read the Introduction.

When I first wrote about Instagram six months ago, I concluded the following:

Instagram’s popularity is attributable to one primary factor: the ease of sharing one’s story. Instagram becomes a beautiful scrapbook of our daily lives, which we can instantly share with our friends. By choosing a filter for a photo, I am choosing how I would like to present myself to the world.

At that time I had been using Instagram for about four months and, while I was certainly aware of the retro-inspired origins of the filters, that retro-ness had very little to do with my interest in the app. In my mind, the primary function of the filters is and always has been to make photographs taken with subpar iPhone cameras look better.  Read the rest of this entry »

It’s Gone, All Gone – Introduction: The Various Uses For Nostalgia

At that very instant:
Oh, what I would not give for the joy
of being at your side in Iceland
inside the great unmoving daytime
and of sharing this now
the way one shares music
or the taste of fruit.
At that very instant
the man was at her side in Iceland.

I recently watched Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris. The film follows Gil Pender’s (Owen Wilson) struggle with nostalgia for 1920s Paris–a time he considers to be a golden age. In a key scene, Gil and his fiance’s “pedantic” friend Paul discuss Gil’s golden age and Paul tells him rather bluntly: “Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present.”

2011 had the usual amounts of oh-my-God-I’m-old moments (the return of Beavis of Butthead, Doug, All That, Salute Your Shirts; the 20th Anniversary Edition of NevermindPitchfork turned 15; and Is This It turned 10) and the requisite love letters to our past selves. For people of a certain age, those cultural artifacts elicit warm feelings of nostalgia by allowing us to leave our complicated contemporary selves for a few fleeting moments and return to simpler times. Indeed, as Psychology Today tells us, “the occasional detour down memory lane can give your spirits a significant lift.”

Of course, while nostalgia is a “denial of the painful present,” it’s important to remember that nostalgia is also a denial of a painful past. After all, the flip side of the warm feelings brought on by wistful remembrance is the knowledge that you can never truly go back. The crucial thing to remember, however, is that those wistful feelings are not based on any sort historical facticity–those feelings are based on an idealized version of the past. We know this because of Proust: “It is a labor in vain to attempt to recapture memory.” We also know this because of science. Jonah Lehrer explains in his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, that immediately after an event happens, “we begin warping the memory…to fit our own personal narrative,” and, Lehrer continues, “the past is never past. As long as we are alive, our memories remain wonderfully volatile. In their mercurial mirror, we see ourselves.” Nostalgia, then, is one of the many techniques one has for making not only the past intelligible, but the present as well. When Proust eats his madeleine in In Search of Lost Time, we see his past through the rose-colored eyes of the present.

However, it is crucial to understand that the glasses are not only rose-colored, but are also uni-directional. The price of a rose-colored past is a disappointing present. In Midnight In Paris, Gil Pender left his painful present each night by literally transporting back to Golden Twenties era Paris. It wasn’t until Gil realized that the inhabitants of 1920s Paris looked back on La Belle Époque with the same fervor as he looked back upon the the Golden Twenties that he decided to fix his painful present by leaving his vapid fiancee and quitting his job as a screenwriter. By turning his rose-colored glasses from the past to the present, Gil Pender was able to find a present worth living for.

It’s a beautiful cliche, but the present is what you make of it.

Over the next few posts I intend to take a closer look at instances of critical abuses of nostalgia. In particular, I’ll be examining articles and arguments that criticize nostalgia while simultaneously using nostalgia as their primary mode of engagement.

Objects of Inquiry

  • Part 1: Instagram and The Faux-Vintage Photo
  • Part 2: Social Media and the Difference Between Nostalgia and Scrapbooks
  • Part 3: The Case of Simon Reynolds

Nostalgia, like most things, is best in moderation.

The Adventures of Augie March: great or Great American Novel

One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life: that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is is half the time greedily seeking, and half the time pulling away from them. – Willa Cather

One of my favorite barroom topics is the Great American Novel. This usually results in me and whoever is around listing their five or so favorite American novels. What starts as a simple project, ends in a cacophony of “what about X?” followed by: “he’s not American” (Lolita – Nabokov); “that’s not a novel (Leaves of Grass – Whitman); or “it’s good, but is it great?” (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey).  By the end of the night we can hardly agree on a list of top five contenders let alone a single, definitive novel.

So what might the Great American Novel look like? At the most basic level, the Great American Novel must satisfy three requirements: 1. it must be written by an American; 2. it must be aware of its place in the American canon; and 3. it must, in some way, aim to give greater definition or shape to what it means to be an American.

Please allow me to put forward Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March as a candidate for the Great American Novel. Read the rest of this entry »

The Increasing Visibility of Occupy Wall Street

“Nobody wants to think about it, everybody just wants their normal life” – Franzen, Freedom

America is a country where a $6 Netflix fee increase causes more of an uproar than a $5 debit card fee for Bank of America customers. Over 1 million Netflix subscribers closed their accounts in response to the increase. Here was a company, beloved by its subscribers for the near-infinite entertainment it provided, losing customers over a mere $6. The outrage was steeped, it seemed, in disbelief–how could they do this?

On the other hand the outrage surrounding the $5 BoA debit card fee has been muted by the public’s cynicism towards banks–a cynicism banks wear as a badge of honor. Indeed, when asked about the new fee, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan simply responded that the bank has a “right to make a profit.”

I’d like to think that people would be more likely to drop Bank of America over $5 than Netflix.  However, this doesn’t seem to the be case. The reason is simple: the public will put up with a certain level of institutional discomfort–the sort of grin-and-bear-it fees, taxes, and tolls Americans have always accepted–but the one thing they won’t put up with is a disruption of the things that make day-to-day life bearable: food prices, housing, alcohol, and entertainment.

Which brings us to Occupy Wall Street. Read the rest of this entry »

The iPhone is Pretty Cool

In one of the last episodes of Six Feet Under, Claire Fisher and her love interest, Ted Fairwell, get into an argument regarding her future. Eventually, Ted finally says to Claire something along the lines of: “when are you going to stop worrying about being cool?” That moment has always stuck with me because Claire, for most all of her life, had been the cool, depressed, art girl whose impenetrability made her irresistible. Ted’s simple question was a revelation for Claire because it once and for all revealed the carefully crafted veneer Claire had created to protect herself from the pain of her father’s death. This veneer prevented further pain, but it also prevented her from intimacy with both herself and others. It’s a good reminder that eventually no one cares how cool you are.

Read the rest of this entry »

Why Instagram Matters

What characterizes the so-called advanced societies is that they consume images and no longer, like those of the past, beliefs – Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

Last week TechCrunch reported that Instagram has surpassed 4.25 million users in just seven short months. To put this into perspective, as Gizmodo points out, it took Twitter over two years to reach one million users. Perhaps the most impressive number revealed, however, is that the photo service receives an average of ten user photos per second. What this indicates is that people are not only signing up for the service, but they are also using it.

Ultimately, I believe Instagram’s (for the uninitiated click here) popularity is attributable to one primary factor: the ease of sharing one’s story. Instagram becomes a beautiful scrapbook of our daily lives, which we can instantly share with our friends. By choosing a filter for a photo, I am choosing how I would like to present myself to the world.

On the right is a recent screenshot of my photofeed after a trip to my sister’s graduation. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, which get bogged down with distracting updates and other text, Instagram presents a clean, noiseless, easily accessible account of my trip.

But that’s only half of the story. The true potential of Instagram becomes revealed during newsworthy events such as the tornado that tore through Joplin, MO or the reporting of the death of Bin Laden. A simple search of the hashtag “#joplin” or “#binladen” yields hundreds of photos taken by ordinary people that provide a visual account of an event as it unfolds. Where words fail, images pick up the slack and the results are incredibly affecting:

Photos from Joplin, MO

Photos from night of Bin Laden’s death

The photos from the night of Bin Laden’s death perfectly illustrate our yearning to participate in a major event as it unfolds because they are all of one thing: our televisions. So while we all tweeted: “Bin Laden is dead,” on Instagram we uploaded photos of our living rooms–each one unique. And it is precisely there that we see the power of Instagram: where Twitter gives us facts, Instagram gives us a story.

Obama in 2012: Politics as Usual

We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries–we’re actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nations’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie. We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie. So who makes the pie?” – Pale King, David Foster Wallace

Early last week, President Obama released a video on his website announcing his bid for reelection in 2012. If you haven’t yet, take a moment to watch the video below.

Almost immediately, I began to wonder: 1. Why does this feel so weird? and 2. What, if anything, did Obama do differently in 2008?

The short answer is Obama’s political rhetoric has shifted from instilling an ethic through hard work to glorifying the pose of the everyday ideal American. Put simply: Obama has shifted from substance to symbolism.

Click on for the long answer.
Read the rest of this entry »

New Americana: A Love Letter to America

We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, [and] old tires
, Nabokov

New Americana is a blog about America and why we can’t help loving it. Here you will find a digital travelogue of trinkets and souvenirs that  add up to a country that is lovely, trustful, dreamy, and enormous. The objects that will appear on this blog are special because they reflect both a personal and a collective nostalgia. To use Nabokov’s example from the quote above: a dog-eared map is an item of personal nostalgia for Humbert Humbert, but it also an item of collective nostalgia for the rest of us because it represents that quintessential American experience, the road-trip. To be an American is to participate in that collective nostalgia.

At this point you might be wondering why I decided to title this blog “New Americana.” My sense is that a “new Americana” is necessary because many of the traditional objects of Americana (apple pie, the statue of liberty, baseball, etc) have been flattened into objects of patriotism. The crucial difference being that patriotism requires no participation: you’re either patriotic or you’re not. Somewhere along the way Americana became synonymous with this sort of flag-waving. If you’re looking for flag-waving, look elsewhere.

Through a combination of long-form essays, photos, videos, and other varieties of media, I hope to reestablish the distinction between patriotism and Americana and show that the key difference is participation. Put simply: Why go to Tea Party rallies when you can eat cheeseburgers and chop wood?

With luck, this will be fun.