Tobias Becker is an independent scholar based in Berlin who has published widely on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century cultural, intellectual, and urban history. He is currently a guest professor at Freie Universität Berlin.
Below, Tobias shares five key insights from his new book, Yesterday: A New History of Nostalgia. Listen to the audio version—read by Tobias himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. We can date nostalgia very specifically to the year 1688.
In 1688, a physician called Johannes Hofer published a treatise on nostalgia. He invented the term and was the first to use it in this treatise. But when he first used that term, he meant something very different from our modern definition of nostalgia. He cobbled together the Greek words “nostos,” meaning return, and “algos,” meaning pain. This implies that what he was writing about was homesickness.
He translated the German term “heimweh” for homesickness to the ancient Greek language to produce a medical term denoting a longing for a place home. He saw this condition as a dangerous sickness of which people at the time could even die. He diagnosed it mainly in soldiers and other people who were moving around in the early modern period, which wasn’t normal for that time.
For a long time, from 1688 up to the early 20th century, nostalgia was a medical term denoting a sickness that we know much better today as homesickness. Of course, we don’t believe anymore that people died from it.
2. It’s not quite clear when nostalgia lost its spatial connotation for home and acquired its current connotation for a sentimental yearning for the past.
We find the first instances of the use of nostalgia in the English language around the 1900s. However, it was not until the 1960s that dictionaries registered that the term’s meaning had changed. In the 1960s, dictionaries added a new definition, which defines nostalgia as a yearning for the past.
3. In the 1970s, people started to write and think more about nostalgia in its current meaning.
The discourse on nostalgia begins at the time of a waning idea or a more problematic idea of progress. In the 1970s specifically, there was a turn to the past. There was a huge rock and roll revival. One of the first really big revivals was of 1950s rock and roll, the fashions of the time, films, and so on. Many intellectuals pose the question of why young people are specifically nostalgic, because these revivals are mostly associated with young people.
Why would young people turn to the past and to the youth culture of their parents instead of creating a new one? We find instances of this already in the 1960s. Think of the folk revival and so on. Nobody really cared about this so much in the 1960s because the time was perceived as progressive. In the 1970s, everything seemed to turn to the past, not only pop culture but culture and society itself. Why did this happen? Why did this happen in this era?
“Nostalgia was a reaction to fundamental change.”
One of the first to try to explain this was the sociologist Fred Davis, who wrote a book on one of the first studies of nostalgia published in 1979, called Yearning For The Past. Nostalgia was a reaction to fundamental change. In this case, there were many fundamental cultural, social, and political changes during the 1960s, and many people felt disoriented and disorientated by these changes. They then turned to the past. More specifically, they turned to the decade before these changes began in the 1950s, which retrospectively looked like a more stable period. This has become a standard theory of nostalgia. Looking across the second half of the 20th century and today, there is no era when people did not see a wave of nostalgia.
This is a term that also arose in the 1970s and that we still use today. What has this to do with the belief in progress? Against the historical background of the 20th century, with all the catastrophes, world wars, Hiroshima, the Holocaust, the fear of the destruction of the earth— whether through nuclear war or through the depletion of resources and the destruction of the environment—the idea of progress was no longer tenable.
But on the other hand, we still seem to use or need the idea of progress very much. No political party can do without it. You have to promise people something. So intellectuals who wanted to hold onto the idea of progress, instead of defending it, turned to slack off those people who, in their eyes, were obsessed with the past. They started slacking off the obsession with the past more generally. So the term nostalgia, this old medical term that had lost its use and meaning, was just the right term to characterize what was going on and to criticize it.
4. Nostalgia is not a useful term when it comes to the analysis of politics.
The term nostalgia has been used recently in the media, intellectual discourse, and political analysis to explain mostly phenomena like Trump, Brexit, and right-wing populism more generally. But the term politics of nostalgia is much older than it may seem. We find it even in the 1950s. Even before nostalgia became a big thing in other areas, it was a way to criticize what was called new conservatism, the return of conservatism, or the first conservative movement in the United States. Liberals mainly used it against conservatives, but the conservatives also used it in their infighting between different factions. It’s natural to associate conservatism with nostalgia.
Both seem to be looking to the past, but we also find it in use against liberal or left-wing parties. Of course, all political camps are looking to the past for ideas or to legitimize their politics. In my analysis of how the term is used in politics, it is not usually used in any neutral or analytical sense. The term nostalgic is mainly used as an insult against someone holding anachronistic ideas and attitudes, unable to navigate the present and future. Because of this background as a political insult, nostalgia is not really a viable term to use in the analysis of politics. It’s too ambivalent and vague. Often, it is used to imply other attitudes, like racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and so on.
The time that people are generally set to be nostalgic for is the 1950s or something like that. We need to use more well-defined and correct terms that capture what’s going on and not like a soft term like nostalgia. The term is not really useful when it comes to analyzing politics.
5. The relationship between retro and nostalgia.
Often, the term nostalgia is used to explain why pop culture is looking to the past. It used to question why people are recycling, reviving, and remaking so many old films, musical styles, fashion styles, and so on. It’s implied that people are yearning for the past, and that’s why pop culture is turning to the past as a manifestation of this yearning or as a commercial exploitation of these yearnings. No doubt, nostalgia does play a big role in popular culture. Everybody has probably experienced the sense of when an old song is coming on the radio, and you specifically remember when you heard it the last time, and you remember that moment. There is a mixture of yearning but also aspects of distance and pain in nostalgia that are often forgotten.
“I think the term retro is much more useful because it’s more neutral.”
Nostalgia does play a role in pop culture, of course, but it doesn’t explain what is going on more generally. What pop does is not so different from what culture has always done, which is to look to the past for inspiration and orientation. Often, it is not done in a sentimental manner but in an ironic one. Usually, it does not respect the past in that sense or think about the past at all. It takes what it needs—certain artifacts, certain styles, certain ideas— and turns them into something new, a new culture.
This is how culture has always worked. In high culture, this is completely okay. It is referred to as intertextuality or intermediality. It’s celebrated when you can distinguish where each trend, style, or idea is coming from. But when it comes to pop culture, we still seem to be under an idea of progress that it needs to kill off the past to produce something new. Certain critics still expect this from pop culture, and so they criticize nostalgia.
I think the term retro is much more useful because it’s more neutral. It’s not implying that pop culture is running out of ideas, but it can be a way of celebrating how it uses and reuses the past in a creative mode. The term nostalgia is not unproblematic; it is too simple to describe something that is much more complex and interesting when you look closer. Too often, nostalgia, whether it comes to politics or pop culture, is used to close the debate instead of starting an investigation and looking at these different phenomena and practices more closely.
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