I’ve always found it to be a deeply disturbing aspect of my generation (Y) that we seem to be nostalgic before we’ve even finished experiencing. Nostalgia, conventionally understood, is a regressive attempt to escape the dull, demanding and/or disturbing present and return to a safer past preserved, wax-like, as a scene in a snow-globe. It should be the domain of those whose ‘wonder years’ have long since past – we are meant to be nostalgic for our youth, not whilst we are in our youth.
The time between experience and nostalgia for this experience has been radically foreshortened, leading to a change in the temporal structure of nostalgia itself: premature nostalgia. Whereas nostalgia conventionally happens long after the flux of experience to which it looks back on fondly, a structure of feeling that belongs to the twilight years and looks back on decades-old experience through the vicissitudes of time and memory, inevitably warping and idealising such experience, premature nostalgia is instead a pre-emptive nostalgia in which the present and near-future is barricaded through reference to a recent past.
Let me try and explain this more specifically, through reference to a passage from Randolph Bourne’s essay ‘Youth’, from 1913, which crystallised my thinking on this subject when I read it:
From the state of “the little child, to whom the sky is a roof of blue, the world a screen of opaque and disconnected facts, the home a thing eternal, and ‘being good’ just simple obedience to unquestioned authority,” one steps suddenly into that “vast world of adult perception, pierced deep by flaring search-lights of partial understanding.”
The child has an utter sense of security; childhood is unconscious even that it is alive. It has neither fears nor anxieties, because it is incorrigibly poetical. It idealises everything that it touches.
What Bourne identifies here is that childhood itself is a state of utter certainty and genuine idyll - every experience in childhood is experienced as authentically ideal, in which contingency plays no role. Youth, Bourne argues, is that part of life in which we come to experience contingency itself, not only in terms of the limitations of our options but also that our understanding is ‘partial’ and unrealised, as are ourselves.
For Bourne, this is a thrilling prospect – “Life becomes in a moment a process of seeking and searching”, of ‘finding oneself’ as we might say. But perhaps what my generation have experienced is a quantitatively and qualitatively greater level of contingency to previous generations – though this is disputable – in which various options for certainty and order are categorically absent – the self is no longer ordered or found in traditional gender, work, ethnic or class roles but instead, as many have argued, is now a never-ending entrepreneurial project. Couple this with the scale and pace of change within the world into which the young person is thrust from the “warm fireside” of childhood and we can begin to get a sense of how, today, the thrill of finding oneself in youth looks more like a daunting, incompletable and perhaps crippling task.
As such, whilst only still in our 20s, when we really should be living life to the fullest, we become nostalgics, longing precisely for the ontological security of childhood that Bourne outlines. This conforms to the understanding of nostalgia as a means of coping with change by withdrawing from it, but crucially it shifts the target of nostalgia and the time in which we are nostalgic backwards a whole life stage – from nostalgia’s object as youth from the perspective of old age to nostalgia’s object as childhood from the perspective of youth.
I think this – admittedly sketchy – understanding of premature nostalgia provides the beginning of how we might understand the related ersatz nostalgia of something like Hipstamatic and Instagram, in which young people attempt to give the sheen of childhood to current experience. But whilst today’s premature nostalgia is perhaps understandable given the difficult conditions young people face, what remains in doubt is whether it is really an effective coping strategy (if nostalgia ever is). More urgent, though, is the problem it poses for Randolph Bourne’s original celebration (itself problematic, mind) of youth as a force for perpetual renewal – premature nostalgia, that is, might prematurely atrophy the force of youth as a time for questioning and remaking the conditions of experience itself.