Comment by David Lowenthal

In his comment of the conference, David Lowenthal defined nostalgia as a longing for longing, for both retrospective and future longing. For Lowenthal, the nostalgia boom since the 1970s is rooted in the experience of the destructions of the Second World War and the Holocaust, rapid social and cultural change and the media’s treatment of the past. In his eyes, the longing for the past is rooted in the understanding of the past as better than the present because it is over and, thus, stable in contrast to the ever-changing and unstable present. At the same time nostalgia is fundamentally tragic as it entails the recognition that it is impossible to bring back the past.


Panel 5: Object Nostalgia

Nostalgia is not only triggered by old photographs but also by objects, the material remains of the past. They formed the topic of the fifth panel. The first paper, “Mixed Feelings: Do It Yourself, Nostalgia and Social Reform in Twentieth Century Germany” by REINHILD KREIS compared the 1900s and 1970s. In both eras the loss of practices of making things oneself—due to easily available mass produced goods—were lamented. As such criticism led to the rediscovery of traditional practices, the nostalgia for the past became, according to Kreis, a tool for shaping the future.


The second paper moved the discussion from the private to the public sphere. Building on her own experiences as a museum guide, EVA C. HEESEN discussed “Nostalgia as Escapism: An Invaluable Tool for Museums”. Heesen argued, that though most curators rejected nostalgia out of hand, many visitors expressed nostalgia and that nostalgia is indeed necessary to reach broader audiences.


However, nostalgia is not only associated with museums and exhibitions but also with the conservation movement, the topic of the next paper “Future Shock? European Heritage Conservation and Nostalgia for the Past in the 1970s” by KERSTIN STAMM.It focussed on the discourse surrounding the European Heritage Year 1975. Like Kreis, she understood the references to the past less as nostalgia than as a way to critique present problems and to influence present developments with an eye to the future.


Staying in the 1960s and 70s, KARL B. MURR studied the “The Function of Nostalgia in Jean Baudrillard’s System of Objects“. In this lesser known text Baudrillard comments not only on authenticity, photography, furniture, consumerism and other topics discussed at the conference but also contributed to the nostalgia critique of these decades. Baudrillard observed a cult for all that is old and especially a fetishising of old objects, which he read as an expression of yearning for a deeper, more authentic reality.


Panel 4: Media Nostalgia

No discussion of nostalgia can do without taking into account the media—the topic of the fourth panel. KATHARINA NIEMEYER, who recently edited a collection of essays on Media and Nostalgia, gave a paper on “Amateur Nostalgia on the Web: Remixing Vintage Media Technologies and Content”. Taking her cue from the carousel scene from the TV series Mad Men she discussed various forms and uses of nostalgia on the web, which she saw less driven by an interest in the past than by the creative anticipation of the future.


In the second paper, “Vilne Nostalgia in New York: Visual Memories of the Lithuanian Jews after the Shoah”, GINTARE MALINAUSKAITE presented a project to recreate the Jewish life in Vilne before the Holocaust through photographs and a documentary film. As a return home is impossible, the visual memories of it became nothing less than a “Vilne of the mind”. Far from sentimentalising a vanished past, the project turned the photographs into evidence of destruction and death.

Panel 3: Industrial Nostalgia

Nostalgia cannot only be found in politics, but in late twentieth century Europe became a mode to look back towards the industrial past. This was the topic of the third panel. It started with JÖRG ARNOLD’s paper on “The Future that Never Came: De-Industrialisation, Nostalgia and the Politics of Temporality”. Arnold examined the decade before the miner’s strike of 1984/85 when a renaissance of the British coal industry seemed just about to be possible. These hopes, however, were quickly crushed leaving many miners and unionists traumatised—not, in Arnold’s view so much by the loss of the past but by the loss of a future that never came.


TIM STRANGLEMAN’s paper “Smokestack Nostalgia? The Work of Memory in Understanding Industrial Decline” explored how the industrial past is remembered today. He noticed a growing reflection on industrial loss and its meaning and the rise of an aesthetic obsession with what he called the “deindustrial sublime”: former factories have become destinations of dark tourism, prowling grounds for urban spelunkers and photo fodder for luscious coffee table books.


The final paper of this panel, PETER N. HÖRZ’s “Processions Towards Railway History—On Rusty Tracks” was devoted to one subculture mourning the decline of a specific aspect of the industrial past: railway hikers. Walking along abandoned railway tracks they they mentally reconstruct the times when these tracks were still in use, thus preserving the memory of a past that has been destroyed by the transport policies of the 1970s. Hörz considered these hikes as performative acts akin to a procession, a ritual or a game.


Panel 2: Political Nostalgia

The second panel explored the possible political implications and triggers for nostalgia from various, differing perspectives. It was kicked of by PATRICIA LORCIN on “Memory and Nostalgia in the Post-Colonial Context”. LORCIN differentiated between imperial and colonial nostalgia, the second of which she studied for both French and British societies by drawing on the Pieds-Noirs and the Falklands War respectively.

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MANCA G. RENKO’s paper “Welcome to the Hotel Nostalgia” explored the nostalgia for the Habsburg empire in the writings of authors like Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth and Karl Kraus, who had experienced it themselves and mourned its fall and its recent representation in Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project and Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel.


In the only paper to tackle the role of music in nostalgia ROGÉRIO MIGUEL PUGA looked at the “Myth of Saudade” and its representation in, for instance, Fado. In the nineteenth and twentieth century Saudade was seen as a marker of lusphone uniqueness. A word that was seen as untranslateable described an emotion that was said to exist nowhere else and thus was used to construct a national identity.


The following paper “Nostalgia for West Germany: Rationalising the Emergence of Westalgie” by OWEN MOLLOY looked at the still rather new phenomenon of a yearning for the old German Federal Republic. Taking his cue from a recent exhibition on West Berlin and the West Berlin tourism more generally, Molloy saw the better known Ostalgie in the process of being replaced (or rather augmented) by Westalgie.


Keynote 2: Achim Landwehr, Nostalgia and the Turbulence of Time

ACHIM LANDWEHR’s keynote “Nostalgia and the Turbulence of Time” reconstructed the history of nostalgia from the year 1688, in which the physician Johannes Hofer had coined the term. Landwehr connected the birth of nostalgia to the invention of the present in the seventeenth century, the topic of his latest book. Stressing the temporal dimension inherent in nostalgia from the very beginning, he contrasted the perception of time before and after the seventeenth century, when the present became much more important and the past lost its exemplary character. Landwehr described nostalgia as a time practice that produces unique time by connecting the present time with unpresent times. Instead of understanding nostalgia and history as opposites, as is often the case, he emphasized their communalities.


Panel 1: Theorising Nostalgia

The first panel looked at nostalgia from a more theoretical point of view. In his paper “‘Good Old Things’: Nostalgia and the Discourse of Historical Authenticity” ACHIM SAUPE explored the relationship between nostalgia and authenticity by exploring the changing meaning and usages of the two terms in the nineteenth and twentieth century and by looking at the contemporary “nostalgia industry”.

While authenticity is ofthen associated with nostalgia ISHAY LANDA was interested in an often neglected aspect of nostalgia: pain—in this case a nostalgia for pain, which he traced beginning with Nietzsche, via Joseph Conrad, Ernst Jünger and Aldous Huxley to Michel Foucault.


Keynote 1: Constantine Sedikides, The Existential Gravitas of Nostalgia

The conference began with a keynote by CONSTANTINE SEDIKIDES, Professor of Psychology at Southampton University, on “The Existential Gravitas of Nostalgia”. SEDIKIDES began his talk by recounting, why he had started to research nostalgia. It was the overwhelmingly negative attitude towards nostalgia in psychology that had piqued his interest. Through experiments he and his fellow researchers were able to show that nostalgia, instead of being a disadvantage, has overall positive effects. In a world, in which our sense of meaning is constantly threatened, nostalgia provides a natural defense against threat, a sense of sociability and decreases our mortality awareness. As a meaning-making machine it increases our perception of meaning. These findings have been published in a number of articles, one of which can be found here.