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Homesick for Yesterday. A History of the Nostalgia Wave

Tobias Becker

The project studies the ‘nostalgia wave’, which began in the late sixties, was increasingly discussed in the seventies and eighties and in some respects has not yet abated. Although nostalgia was no invention of the twentieth century, the term referred to homesickness well into the sixties and only then took on its current meaning as a sentimental longing for an irretrievable past, a semantic shift itself indicative of a larger social and cultural transformation. The project investigates the phenomena and practices contemporarily described as ‘nostalgic’, such as living history museums, re-enactments, heritage tourism, retro fashions and the antique boom. It asks who felt nostalgic, what they felt nostalgic for and what sorts of functions nostalgia—individually as well as collectively—fulfilled. Studying nostalgia brings central issues in twentieth-century history into view: the acceleration of the tempo of life, the experience of time and changing perceptions of the past. The study focuses primarily on Britain and Germany, two countries where the nostalgia wave attracted particular attention. However, because of its transnational dimension, developments in other European countries and the United States are also taken into account.

The project looks at five objects of nostalgic desire thereby focusing on five types of nostalgia particularly prevalent from the sixties to the eighties: rural nostalgia, industrial nostalgia, everyday nostalgia, social nostalgia and postcolonial nostalgia. These types of nostalgia derived in part from actual or perceived losses—the loss of empire and colonies, deindustrialization, the pollution of the environment, the decline of the aristocracy and so on—but loss does not account for the widespread nostalgia for the fifties. Neither does the crisis of the seventies—the oil shocks, lower economic growth rates, rising unemployment—explain the nostalgia wave as it predated these problems.

The nostalgia wave, the study argues, was a consequence of, as well as a reaction to the rapid acceleration of technology, social change and the tempo of life since the eighteenth century as described by the sociologist Hartmut Rosa. Firstly, acceleration resulted in a ‘contraction of the present’, that is, the present becomes the past in ever decreasing intervals. The nostalgia waves are a good example for this. While the Romantic movement looked to pre-industrial medieval times, the seventies witnessed a nostalgic longing for the fifties. Secondly, nostalgia acted as an implicit critique of acceleration and modernity by mourning the loss of old buildings, rural landscapes and traditions and, more generally, by looking to the past instead of the future. Thirdly, nostalgia was also a strategy to cope with acceleration. As Rosa has argued, every surge of acceleration was accompanied by a call for slowing down and the emergence of ‘oases of deceleration’. The study understands nostalgic places (the nature reserve, the museum, the steam train, the antique fair) and practices (collecting, preserving, renovating, re-enacting) in which the passing of time is suspended or at least decreased as precisely such ‘oases of deceleration’, where the hurried inhabitants of late modernity can recover from the stress of living in a high-speed society.

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