The Uses of Nostalgia


Robert Crumb’s nostalgia for that old time music.


Nostalgia is a suspect emotion, both psychologically and politically. Emotionally, nostalgia carries connotations of escapism, ignoring present realities while longing for a mythical past. Politically, nostalgia has often been used by conservative and Fascist leaders who have deployed images of the good old days in order to thwart social progress.


I’m uncomfortable with this view of nostalgia as a purely regressive phenomenon because some of my favorite contemporary artists often do work that consciously tries to evoke melancholy at the passing of time. I’m thinking here of the films of the Coen brothers, the music of Bob Dylan, and especially the comics of Robert Crumb, Seth, and Chris Ware (among many others). All of these artists are nostalgia-obsessed but none of them fit the stereotype of complacency and escapism that fit the nostalgia stereotype: these artists are all astringent and challenging. As an example think of Crumb’s use of blackface racial images: stylistically he is working in a nostalgic mode, but the end of effect of these drawings is to remind us of an uncomfortable past (which lingers into the present).


Reading Fredric Jameson’s great book Marxism and Form, I came across an account of nostalgia in the writing of Walter Benjamin that helps explain why these artists are both social critics even while they evoke fond memories of childhood and the distant past.


“An astute critic has pointed out the secret relationship between Benjamin’s fondness for Brecht on the one hand and ‘his lifelong fascination with children’s books’ on the other,” Jameson notes. “Thus, where we thought to emerge into the historical present, in reality we plunge again into the distant past of psychological obsession.”


Jameson goes on to say: “But if nostalgia as a political motivation is most frequently associated with Fascism, there is no reason why a nostalgia conscious of itself, a lucid and remorseless dissatisfaction with the present on the grounds of some remembered plenitude, cannot furnish as adequate a revolutionary stimulus as any other: the example of Benjamin is there to prove it.”

Jameson is being a little bit more bluntly political than I would be if I were writing about Crumb or Ware. But still, his basic insight is sound: these are artists who use the remembered plentitude of the past (particularly the craft values of the past) as the basis of a critique of the shoddy present. Nostalgia, far from bolstering the status quo, is in their works the ground of being that allows us to see what is wrong with the world.

5 thoughts on “The Uses of Nostalgia

  1. Isn’t all satire reactionary?

    Although he may snort in derision, I think that Crumb’s art (and his nostalgia) is deeply revolutionary. Maybe he’s not an overt Trotskyist or anything, but everything he does seems to be a mostly-conscious form of political statement. Almost from the beginning his art has been a radical break from late-capitalist American culture that is informed by the art and culture of the past, especially children’s art but also the old masters. We can also see a similarity to Benjamin in this obsessive need for an ever-elusive authenticity. Ware’s critique of post-1900 aesthetics are there for anyone to see, but I get the sense that politically he is more playful in his art than his reportedly left-liberal politics may indicate. Seth’s nostalgia has a combined Benjamin/Phillip K. Dick feel to it (“is the past dead or is it merely invisible?” he asks). Politically, maybe a post-punk Canadian small-l liberal with a nationalist streak a mile wide.

  2. Hi Bryan,
    Thanks for the great comment. I think you’re spot on about the different uses of nostalgia in Crumb, Ware and Seth. The only point I’d add is that Seth’s Canadian nationalism has a nostalgic/political dimension because it’s tied to a specific era: the Expo Canada of the 1960s.

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