Don’t Give in to the Culture Industry’s Appeals to Nostalgia

The culture industry keeps churning out reboots and remakes, hoping to exploit a popular sense of nostalgia for gentler times. But tapping into nostalgia is a fundamentally conservative project, designed to arrest the future that we still desperately need to construct.

According to Grafton Tanner, nostalgic entertainment tends to emphasize “conservative ideas about our own history and often erases the more uncomfortable ones, all in the name of turning a profit.” (Marvel Studios / Disney)

In the midst of accelerating crises, the past can offer a comforting retreat. Over the last year, we’ve not only been living through a global pandemic unlike any we’ve seen in generations, but the effects of climate change have become even clearer, and the economy once again threw people into turmoil as industries were disrupted and housing costs continued to soar. Faced with the stress and anxiety of events far beyond our personal control, hope for the future can retreat, leaving nostalgia to fill the void.

Major media conglomerates like Disney and Netflix use the emotion to drive audiences for productions like the revived Star Wars franchise and ’80s-inspired Stranger Things. Meanwhile, political movements have also seized on nostalgia, most notably in Donald Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again,” but also in the UK’s Brexit campaign and nationalist movements across Europe. Even Joe Biden makes appeals to the pre-Trump era. We’re living in a golden age of nostalgia, but despite the crises that seem to be driving it, the emotion tends to be deployed to maintain the status quo.

In his new book The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: The Politics of Nostalgia, Grafton Tanner delves into the history of nostalgia and seeks to understand how it has come to serve its current role. We can be nostalgic for many things, from a place or a time to even just an aesthetic, and those feelings are not inherently reactionary or conservative. Rather, Tanner argues, “the attributes we commonly associate with nostalgia — kitsch, backwardness, gross sentimentality — are really just the products of its exploitation” by right-wing political figures and corporations that seek to commercialize it for profit. Nostalgia could potentially be deployed for other, more positive, ends — but at present, we are saddled with a conservative nostalgia that won’t be going away anytime soon.

Politics of the Reboot

Sequels and reboots are certainly not new, but our current era of capitalist culture is reliant on them in a way that is particularly toxic. Most shows or movies need to have a link to the past to capitalize on nostalgia in a bid to reach the widest possible market, not just in North America or Europe but around the world.

Our highly consolidated media ecosystem, paired with incredibly long copyright terms, creates the incentive to fall back on nostalgia instead of trying to produce original stories and concepts. This has a conservative effect. Tanner argues that “cultural ideas need to grow old” for the culture to advance, but the entertainment conglomerates have incentives to stall that process. He highlights the ways that companies like Disney “can forever crib from their own past works, dressing up decaying characters to look sparkling, bowdlerizing their content to meet present-day decorum, and fixing future histories.” That latter point is particularly important, because the media we consume does not simply give us a temporary escape, it also communicates ideas about the kind of society we should live in.

This nostalgic entertainment tends to emphasize “conservative ideas about our own history and often erases the more uncomfortable ones, all in the name of turning a profit.” While there may be exceptions, this is, for Tanner, the generalized condition of our contemporary culture, a phenomenon perhaps best embodied in Disney’s tentpole blockbusters: the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In a similar line of argument, Keith Spencer has looked at the ways that superhero films help to impart the myths of neoliberalism onto society. In the superhero universe, according to Spencer, “society is ruled over by benevolent philosopher-kings (plutocrats or superheroes or both) who watch over us and aid only when needed.” When they do intervene, they may save some lives while causing mass destruction of their own, but the underlying distribution of power or wealth doesn’t change. The movies tell stories of individual struggle instead of collective action, and they are based on the belief that “humans need authority figures — that we cannot survive without policing.” These are all ideas that reinforce the status quo rather than challenging it, and it doesn’t end there.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a long history of working with the US military. Many of its productions get access to military equipment in exchange for giving the Pentagon final approval of scripts, an example of what Tanner calls “militainment,” which naturally shapes how the military is portrayed in them. The collaboration began on the first Iron Man film back in 2008, but it has also included making Captain Marvel the centerpiece of a US Air Force recruitment campaign and likely even shaped the presentation of the FBI in its recent WandaVision series, which itself was steeped in nostalgia. As such, the films not only communicate the core ideas of neoliberalism, they serve as propaganda for the largest military in the world.

Film has always helped reinforce dominant political systems and ideologies, but in the past, there was a greater diversity of production that could make more space for alternative ideas. As the industry has consolidated around high-budget productions, however, challenging narratives have been pushed further out in favor of nostalgia-bait that pulls in large audiences. Yet nostalgia does not just infect our culture, it also powers political movements based on an imagined past divorced of the actual problems of those periods.

Amplifying an Imagined Future

As the world increasingly feels beyond our control and it gets harder for many people just to get by, the lack of a credible alternative has left some nostalgic for a past that feels more secure, even if that ideal past never truly existed. Right-wing politicians have seized on those feelings with a backward-looking politics that claims to solve the problems of the present even while it further works for the benefit of the existing elite.

Take the phenomenon of Brexit, for example, which was fueled by many factors — among them, according to Tanner, “a jingoistic strain of nostalgia” for the days of the British empire. Similarly, Donald Trump’s populist messaging oriented around a conservative nostalgia resonated with “those who yearned for the days when industry was mighty, gender was fixed, and whites could say and do whatever they wanted.” While the pandemic fractured his coalition, it did not vanquish nostalgia. Joe Biden wielded his own nostalgic message oriented around a return to the Barack Obama years: “those halcyon days when so many neoliberals believed life in the US was less stressful and things were better because Trump wasn’t in the White House.”

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, but its power is amplified by platforms that require us to constantly cycle through content that has little context and thrives on memes and posts that can elicit an emotional response. Once the algorithm identifies that a user is interested in nostalgic content, it will keep feeding them more of the same.

It may be an obvious point, but Tanner writes that “viral pasts recommended by algorithms aren’t always the ones that speak truth to power.” Rather, the histories that tend to be remixed for social media virality are those that have been shaped over many decades by powerful figures to uphold the status quo and downplay the movements and figures that challenged it. Tanner provides the example of recent actions to remove Confederate statues in the US South.

The statues are not the product of the Confederacy but rather were erected years later as part of a concerted effort to create a “Lost Cause” nostalgia that “portrayed the southern United States as a region that was much better off before the Civil War.” Tanner argues that those cultural artifacts spread “a sick current of nostalgia that taught whites to ‘look away’ to Dixie.” Some of the people who oppose their removal today are duped by the false sense of reactionary nostalgia they created, and those ideas continue to be spread and recycled in viral posts circulated by some of the most popular right-wing influencers.

This kind of reactionary nostalgia does not inspire a better future. Instead, it redirects people’s anger from those who are actually making their lives more difficult to figures with little power in society. But if nostalgia can be used to maintain the status quo, can it also be used to challenge it?

A Different Kind of Nostalgia

Nostalgia is in part a response to a pervasive sense of loss, a feeling that only stands to intensify as our living standards continue to decline and as the climate crisis accelerates. The Hours Have Lost Their Clock makes the case that people seeking out the warm embrace of nostalgia in the face of those challenges do not require a reality check but “a livable world, one that supports real people when crises happen and that doesn’t exacerbate them through selfishness, greed, and the thirst for power.” Nostalgia, Tanner argues, can be put to more positive use in the effort to build that world.

A case in point from recent years is the campaign for a Green New Deal, which draws on the memory of the New Deal of the 1930s to address the political issues of our day. Certainly, the New Deal had its own problems, but in its capacity to execute large-scale programs to provide mass employment while building necessary infrastructure, it’s a useful reference point for today’s activists and campaigners looking to address our current ills. Since establishing itself in recent years, the campaign for a Green New Deal has been an important counterpoint to the appeals to “Make America Great Again,” making use of a kind of nostalgia for positive political ends rather than reactionary ones.

Tanner argues that we don’t have to discard nostalgia entirely. Rather, he asserts, “one can buoy hope with nostalgia . . . even when we know the cards are stacked against us.” In our era, nostalgia is associated with attempts to profit and maintain the status quo because those are the goals of the most powerful people in society. But its uses needn’t be limited to that. There are moments from our past that reveal an alternative vision of society — and nostalgia might be one tool among others to help us gain access to it.