Rick Prelinger on nostalgia

Some excerpts from a 1997 interview with archivist Rick Prelinger on nostalgia:

Rick Prelinger: Many people will retreat from the anxieties of the present into the contemplation of history. 

Steven Heller: Is there anything fundamentally wrong with this kind of escapism?

RP: Not inherently. People should be able to contemplate history as and when they desire. But a problem arises when historically conscious people shrink from intervention in present-day affairs and leave pressing issues of the day to those who have learned little from the past.


RP: I believe in historical intervention. To me, this means digging into the historical record and reinjecting historical images, ideas, text, and artifacts into contemporary culture. Strategies of historical intervention may differ, but the goal is to help bring about social change. Such intervention can sometimes resemble culture jamming, where results aren’t always predictable, but I feel strongly that the presence of historical consciousness makes radical innovation much more likely to thrive.

So, looking back to history for specific lessons or examples is part of the picture, but the major part is infusing the present and the future with content and ideas from the past. And it’s the activity itself – the intervention and reinjection – that makes the familiar present a little less predictable.

SH: How do you separate nostalgia from the historical importance of the artifacts?

RP: You cannot. Nostalgia is deeply entwined with history. Of course, nostalgia has been seized upon by commercial interests who seek to market a vision of a rosy, simpler, consensus-driven past – a vision that’s naive and retrogressive. On the other hand, the phenomenon we call nostalgia may incorporate other desires as well, and not all of these desires need to be discouraged. When people look at an old film and wish they could catch a ride on the next transport back into its world, they’re of course yearning for an escape from a complicated society, but they’re also trying to negotiate their own way out of a situation they find intolerable, to move in a more traditional direction. Now, this can be good or bad, depending on who stands to gain and lose, but I like to think that there’s a utopian side to this escape. Many of the changes that we most need to make in this society actually constitute steps backward: strengthening local communities, living more sustainable lives, putting the sport-utility vehicles out to pasture. Many other steps backward we don’t need to make: I want nothing to do with nostalgic visions that are built on oppression and exclusion.

So, to bring this rant full circle, I think that nostalgia is a powerful vehicle for getting people to think about history. Many times I show films that reek with kitsch, and with a few carefully chosen words of context, shift the discussion in quite another direction. If people ooh and ah about fifties populuxe design, start to talk about how all of this great stuff actually served as a fig leaf for the military / industrial complex. If Boogie Nights awakens desires in our young to live a seventies lifestyle, point out how it depicts a culture of latchkey children left behind after our defeat in Vietnam.

— (via Design Dialogues)