Why Are We So Nostalgic?

Press Start for “Why Are We So Nostalgic?” by 8-Bit Philosophy, where classic video games introduce famous thinkers, problems, concepts, and more. In this episode, we reflect on the question of NOSTALGIA – specifically why we are so fascinated by the wonders of our past.

Written by: Adam Askenaizer
Directed by: Alec Opperman
Narrator: Nathan Lowe
Edited by: Mark Potts
Animations by: Dean Bottino
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Produced by: Jacob Salamon

Why Are We So Nostalgic?

It’s time to rev up the hype train, dear viewer. Your childhood memories are getting a reboot! That campy horror flick? It’s being remade! Your favorite 70s classic space opera? Let’s make it again! That 80s cartoon imploring you not to do drugs? Nobody asked, but let’s make a sequel! With all of these reboots, you’re likely excited to relive your idealized childhood, or infuriated that Hollywood just won’t leave it alone. It’s obvious – there’s a spectre haunting popular culture: the specter of nostalgia. While we may be quick to blame nostalgia on lazy Hollywood profiteering, our willingness to consume nostalgia can tell us a great deal about our present world.

The word nostalgia was coined in the 1600s from the Greek words for homecoming and pain. Now the term means much more than that. Nostalgia evokes a yearning for the past, that while somewhat painful, can also bring joy. Today isn’t the first time the world has seen an “outbreak” of nostalgia. Philosopher Svetlana Boym argues that nostalgia has historically coincided with revolution. For example, the French Revolution erupted in nostalgia for Ancient Rome. Women wore togas to symbolize liberty, men wore Roman-style hats to show off their freedom, and the Roman hero Hercules saw renewed popularity — they put him on coins and erected statues in his honor. Tales of King Arthur swept England and America during the Industrial Revolution; the moral anchor of chivalry was comforting as massive factories and railroads took over the landscape. When the world is tumultuous, the past provides us with the certainty of something that will never change.

Nostalgia today, then, may be a symptom of our own revolution: the digital revolution. Having a home computer may be old news these days, but the ease and speed with which we can consume media is unprecedented. Rather than being immersed in the culture of the day, we have simultaneous access to thousands of years of music, and a hundred years of film. With a terrifying amount of choice, we retreat to familiar labels like #90skids. At the same time, our devices are in a state of perpetual revolution. The way we shop, communicate, even the way we hail taxis changes faster than we can adapt. With so much change, and so many options, should we be so surprised we long for static, unchanging past? But does nostalgia mean we’re stuck in the past? Can we create anything new when we’re busy rebooting Spiderman for the 8th time?

For philosopher Walter Benjamin, nostalgia is always full of the “here-and-now:” every reimagining of the past involves our own, very modern, conceptions. The past can help us leap into the future – the French Revolution wasn’t trying to blindly recreate the Roman Republic. Instead, they loosely borrowed from it to fit their own vision of the future. So too can superhero reboots and Star Wars sequels use old ideas to analyze our own time in new ways. The original Planet of the Apes was a cautionary tale about nuclear war. Now the new franchise is a cautionary tale about how technology can pervert humanity. Star Trek used to be about cosmopolitanism – now it’s about space terrorism.

But as easily at this nostalgia can propel us into the future, a politically driven nostalgia can help lead nations down a dangerous path. Mussolini’s fascism was named after the same Roman fasces that were celebrated during the French Revolution. Monuments and buildings designed in the likeness of Greek and Roman architecture exploded throughout Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. What do you think dear viewer? Is nostalgia a mindless retreat into the good old days? Or can it help us explore the future with a few familiar faces.

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