Nostalgia and history

[26 September 2005]

By Rob Horning

I’m looking forward to watching this evening’s Dylan documentary on PBS. But there will be at least a tiny grain of salt in my viewing thanks to this interesting article by David Greenberg, who sees the worship of the sixties’ Dylan as emblematic of the baby-boomer inspired nostalgia for the sixties in general, when they were young and “changing the world” rather than padding their nest eggs and watching JAG.

Yes, cultural conservatives love to evoke the 1960s as a lawless time that unleashed rampant individualism which destroyed the foundations of society, providing rallying cries for right-wing politicians who subsequently exploited for votes that “silent majority” who missed out on all the sex, drugs, fun and student revolution. But that doesn’t mean we as wise liberals should defend the 1960s in those same terms, praising the same hedonist excess that masqueraded as a kind of egalitarianism. That’s the same sort of thinking that holds purchasing power to be a proxy for existential freedom. And the generation that adopted “alternative lifestyles” only to abandon them has done more than any other generation to reinforce the notion that it’s inevitable that as we grow up, we get “realistic” and stop worrying about changing anything about the status quo.

As Greenberg points out, what we should be alert to is the ways in which we sentimentaliize the 1960s and cover it with a mummifying patina of nostalgia. “Nostalgia is also sentimental and thus meshes well with the machinery of mass culture, which, as Dwight Macdonald wrote years ago, tends to produce prepackaged cultural artifacts not dissimilar from chewing gum. More than any individual historians or critics, it’s the leveling tendencies of mass culture that are really to blame for perpetuating our flattened, idealized images of the 1960s.” Greenberg makes it sound a bit inevitable, but this leveling is not an accident; it’s what our society specifically is calibrated to do, it’s what keeps our particular configuration of the social relations of production going. In other words, consumerism relies on nostalgia depoliticizing and defusing any potentially troublesome visions of a different kind of society, making them ultimately as unreachable Utopias that only silly daydreamers would work to achieve. Much less silly to try to get a bigger car or TV set.

Anyway, this Dylan documentary caters to those impulses, to lionize the upheaval of the 1960s as something unique and lost—something that inspired indivudal artists rather than critiqued society—and not a flawed work that could still be in progress. It’s as ahistorical as any status-quo-loving corporation could want. And who needs to be told yet again that Dylan was a genius (an “American Master”—the great-man theory of history in full flower) working at an unparallelled level in 1965? Wouldn’t it be far more interesting to have a documentary about what in the world he was doing by converting to born-again Christianity in 1979? We can only hope that film is in the works.

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