or the rest of 2005, Stylus will be presenting a series of two to three essays each month in the Pop Playground section centered around an idea or theme related to music. These questions will be open-ended, allowing each writer to make of the subject what they will and to explore it more fully than they might do in a normal review or feature. This month: Nostalgia.
The toughest thing about using phenomenology to talk about nostalgia is that part of your audience is going to go “phenomewhatsis? Is this philosophy? That stuff is boring/useless/pretentious/confusing” and most of the rest already have their own prejudices about the term, ones that may or may not match up to mine. And so a little definition, in plain language, is in order: Phenomenology is the (philosophical) study of human experience.
There’s a lot more, reductions and such, but I’m not trying to give a survey course; I want to talk about nostalgia, and for my purposes that quick caricature, once explained, should hopefully be more than sufficient. I hope it’s fairly non-controversial to say that philosophy has always been concerned with issues of human experience, not just in the way that other concerns tie back in to our experience of our selves, our world and the other things and people therein, but directly with how we experience things. Science is as well, of course, albeit on a different plane.
The difference is this: If you have two people sitting in a room and one talks to the other, the listener can think about the experience in two ways (I am adapting this example from R.D. Laing’s excellent The Divided Self). They can, on the one hand, think about it in scientific, objective, concrete terms: The speaker’s brain transmits a signal to the vocal chords, which vibrate and produce sound waves which propagate until they reach the ear, etc. Or you can think in human, subjective, “fuzzy” terms: About what and how the speaker is speaking. Science has long taken for granted the idea that the latter has nothing to do with the former, and that when we are being scientific such subjective concerns are at best irrelevant. Phenomenology’s central insight is that the converse is equally true. Objectivity is worthy, even crucial if one is working in fields dealing with the objective measured world; but in fields, like philosophy, that deal with other worlds, it is at best useless and at worst distracting and distorting.
Take the example of the Muller-Lyer illusion (this example is taken from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s frankly amazing Phenomenology of Perception): when objective science looks at the lines, it measures that each line is the same length, despite what we see. Fine. There’s nothing wrong (and a lot right) with the project of science, and in that realm the solution to the Muller-Lyer illusion is that there is an error in our perception. If you hold the ruler up to the lines, you can even see your error.
Except… pull the ruler away again. Give it a few seconds. And voila, the lines are back to appearing to us to be different lengths. Human experience is not objective and measured—it is subjective and lived. When trying to account for the human experience of illusions like the Muller-Lyer lines philosophy has for too long retreated to accounts of objective measures and sensory errors, when all of those facts do not add up to a single change in our actual lived experience. If we are going to study our experience, we cannot start by denying the way things actually exist for us. When we look at the Muller-Lyer lines, before we hold a ruler up, they are actually different lengths for us in our experience. Whether they should be like that or not is a moot question.
Hopefully the ramifications of thinking this way on nostalgia are clear. Start with memory in general: Although it certainly matters in many ways whether you have remembered something correctly, that is in a way that corresponds to the objective world, in one crucial way it does not. Those memories are still your memories, still you experience of the world and the contents of the world. It would be muddying the issue (not to mention a tad disingenuous) for me to say that I don’t remember Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band being the most wonderful thing in the world when I was six because when I bought it and listened to it as an adult the record was no longer as wonderful. In a very real way for me it is still that experience I had that the actual vinyl or plastic can no longer live up to, and not in some vague, trivial metaphorical way.
The original memory was wonderful; the subsequent memories I have had of recalling how much I loved that album at the time have also been good. Those things, even if they are in the past and as ephemeral as anything else you can think of, are in my experience real. In some ways newer records simply cannot compete, even if they now sound better to me than the Beatles do. To quote Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” The things we loved exert such a strong, completely irrational pull on us for the exact same reason calling them things we “loved” is a misnomer; in our experience, they still exist for us as the loved object, even if subsequent experience tells the objective, rational part of our heads we were wrong.
It’s true that as we get older, as we accumulate more experience it is harder for most of us to feel the way about music (and everything else) that we did when we were younger. It’s always the ones that get to you first that do the most damage, and the process works both ways: For every person who can’t stand Interpol because they already love bands who did that music first, there will be younger fans who hear Interpol first, love them, and then when they seek out the bands the older fan swears by disappointment will set in. What the older fan should be keeping in mind is that when the younger listener finds those beloved bands pale antecedents of their preferred act, it is no shallow judgement made hastily because of callowness or inexperience: For the younger listener, the newer album is better in their experience in exactly the same way as the older fan experiences the older music as better, with exactly the same visceral, pre-intellectual, experiential force.
Can nostalgia be damaging? To who? False nostalgia, certainly. But real nostalgia, real longing for and love of things from our past, doesn’t stem from a willful withdrawal from the present day (although it can certainly be accompanied by that sort of thing); it’s based on something in our experience that is real. It’s not always permanent—one listen to Soul Asylum’s Let Your Dim Light Shine cured me of any nostalgia there—but while it exists it doesn’t somehow trick us into overvaluing music. That music really is in our experience better than just about anything that doesn’t have that layer of experience to enhance it.
Somebody else can hold up all sorts of rulers trying to prove that some newer or older or more famous or more obscure record is better than that one we’ve loved for years, whether it’s Slippery When Wet or The Shape Of Jazz To Come or anything else, but those two lines will always be different lengths, at least in our experience. Since we can’t fight it, maybe we should try working with it. It’s not that all the questions raised by nostalgia aren’t worthy of discussion, but instead of acting as if we can somehow get outside of our experience (which includes nostalgia) in order to think and talk about it we should start accepting that we exist within that experience and that any discussion has to acknowledge that.