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Death to false nostalgia

(BagoGames / Flickr)

A childhood bedroom. A first kiss. Mac and cheese that tastes just like how Mom made it. A movie that’s just as good as the first time you watch it. Nostalgia, derived from the Greek words “nostos” (homecoming) and “altos” (pain), can be a wonderful thing. The ecstasy that comes when a memory—long tucked away in a tiny brain corner—is reanimated by a fleeting image or familiar sensation, is practically indescribable.

But as the Law of Diminishing Returns demands, prolonged exposure only cheapens the emotional resonance of that initial nostalgic feeling. Chasing that first high isn’t healthy, and if our media is anything to judge by, we’ve become addicted to recreating previous experiences. Fake nostalgia is killing us.

Perhaps “nostalgia” is not an adequate enough descriptor for the cultural mentality. “Fauxstalgia” seems more apt of a term, and the pervasiveness of this fauxstalgia is so overwhelming that I’m shocked that I haven’t asphyxiated from it.

(Maxwell Zaleski/Collegian)

Fauxstalgia, when it comes to critical discussions about art, is a conversation killer. There’s nothing wrong with liking a work for sentimental reasons, but that’s not actually engaging with the merits of the work itself. A magical bildungsroman like “Spirited Away” isn’t good just because you were in middle school and it was the first Studio Ghibli project you watched.

But don’t take my word for it. Take one of the greatest literary minds ever (and queer Jew icon), Marcel Proust, wherein in the first volume of his epic “In Search of Lost Time,” a bite of a madeleine triggers a childhood memory long tucked away in the back of his psyche:

“And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine…my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”

Although this passage tells us nothing about the culinary merits of the cake Proust ate, it gives enormous insight into the author’s childhood. The key to nostalgia is that it’s inherently personal. No one cares how old you were when you first saw “Star Wars.” What’s more, how can one even be nostalgic for a franchise like “Star Wars” if that property steadfastly refuses to ever. go. away.

If a viewer cannot articulate their appreciation for an artistic work beyond “I saw it when I was kid,” then they aren’t really engaging with the work on any meaningful level. There’s plenty of junk that I liked as a kid that I’ve outgrown. Likewise, there’s plenty of childhood texts that I feel I can make a pretty compelling case for regardless of when I first saw them. Even worse, these nostalgia addicts have internalized these properties to such an unhealthy extent that a criticism of the work is considered a personal attack. The reactions some people have when I point out that “Full House” is maudlin, saccharine garbage that’s so sickeningly sweet that it infects the viewer with diabetes on contact, people act as if I just insulted their grandmother. A key tenet of fauxstalgia is perpetual infantilization.

Clickbait sites like Buzzfeed have made a whole enterprise out of this mentality, which leads to a secondary aspect of fauxstalgia that’s even more pernicious—one that is so desperate to remember anything, and I mean anything, that it completely ignores what makes the original properties work and fails to consider if the original properties are worth remembering.

Remakes of films with no discernible spin. Reboots of franchises less than a half-decade old. Repackage. Repackage. Repackage. It’s omnipresent in the film and television industry now, from “La La Land’s” artificial Hollywood tributes that don’t remotely resemble classic Hollywood films to the signifier-over-substance references of “Stranger Things,” recognizability is seen as a greater virtue than innovation.

So when I see people get excited about a live-action “Lion King” remake or a studio that recasts the titular antagonists of “Heathers” as genderqueer people of color (how progressive to “reimagine” conniving narcissists as black and gender-nonconforming), I feel like an alien.

The recent trailer for “Ready Player One,” an adaptation of one of the most self-indulgent pieces of heinous nerd-wank ever written, is the apex faustalgic example. Freddy Krueger! Transformers! Ghostbusters! You all recognize those words, right? It’s the definition of shallow, soulless fan service, and it’s sad to see Steven Spielberg buy into his own mythos rather than work to create something new. Indeed, it does seem like fauxstalgia functions as part of a wider neoliberal capitalist scam that seeks to repackage products that functioned perfectly well without need for adjustment.

This obsession with getting a nostalgic fix on the regular is part of a wider cultural sickness. What is the statement “Make America Great Again” but a pining ode to a nation that never was? I’ll be brief with the history lesson, but it should go without the saying that for African slaves and their descendants, the nearly wiped out Native population, the poor and working class, LGBT folks and immigrants forced to assimilate into the white hegemony (if their complexion was/is light enough to give them the option), America was never that great, and it is unfortunate that such a statement inspires death threats rather than be acknowledged as the world’s most obvious truism.

The past can be a nice place to visit, but you should not want to live there. Dwell in the past too long, and you lose the ability to critically assess how we got to the present in the first place. To quote Proust again, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” That sublime moment when the memory reveals itself can never occur if we shackle that memory to the hip and never let go.

Nate Taskin can be reached at ntaskin@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @nate_taskin.

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