Cultural Uses of Nostalgia

Matt Horning '04

Although the three-year anniversary of 9/11 has come and gone, we continue to be deluged with references alluding to that morning.  With these references come wide-ranging interpretations:


- A cold-blooded first strike in the global war on terrorism motivated by hatred of     

  America's freedoms (George W. Bush)


- Retaliation for U.S. support of Israel and our continuing presence in Saudi Arabi

  (Osama bin Laden)


- A clandestine plot involving Castro, the CIA, Halliburton, Dan Brown, and a secret 

  religious society (online conspiracy theorist)     

Popular culture has given us further vitriolic interpretations that span the spectrum.  On the one end of it is Michael Moore's finger-pointing, Bush-bashing Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004).  On the other is Toby Keith's pre-Abu Ghraib anthem, "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue: The Angry American," with its promise, soon to be realized: "We'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American way" (2002).

Despite the heat generated by these divergent theories, it might be useful to step back from the event itself, along with its interpretations, to explore our collective memory and our understanding of what happened.  Last year, I wrote my senior thesis on 9/11 and cultural uses of nostalgia.  In the process of research, writing, and reflection, I saw how difficult it could be for individuals to maintain accurate memories of the past, especially catastrophic events that are constantly reinterpreted in popular rhetoric.  Additionally, how we remember an event in the past alters not only our memories of the past but our present actions as well, which are based upon our understandings of the past.  Using the concept of nostalgia, I attempted to frame 9/11 in a way that was interdisciplinary, non-partisan, and accessible.  I did so by analyzing presidential speeches, popular music, scholarly works, print media, and other sources.

In The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym writes that nostalgia-homesickness for a past, often-idealized time or place-is ubiquitous, the condition of our times.  Such nostalgia is also inescapable.  But Boym differentiates between "bad" restorative nostalgia-a monolithic, reconstructed version of the past and home-and "good" reflective nostalgia-a self-aware remembering of the past that focuses on our longing for better times while acknowledging life's ever-changing one-way flow.

An example may illustrate the difference.  On the site of the Twin Towers, two very different memorials are being built.  One, entitled Reflecting Absence, is, according to its artist, an attempt to create "a space that resonates with the feelings of loss and absence that were generated by the destruction of the World Trade Center."   But this memorial will be overshadowed by the other memorial, the Freedom Tower, an unprecedented display of American hubris that will become the world's tallest building, stretching 1776 feet upon completion.  The reflective nostalgia of Reflecting Absence generates introspection and a critical appraisal of how we remember the past, whereas the restorative nostalgia which lies behind the Freedom Tower says selectively and categorically, "This is how it was and is."

Unfortunately, most public rhetoric about 9/11 is built on restorative nostalgia.  It exhorts each of us to "remember 9/11," usually implying that there exists a shared memory of 9/11 that we all possess and can access.  Too often, this statement has been followed with significant rhetorical and ideological shifts in policy.  9/11 has been used to justify the adoption of the "You're with us or against us" Bush doctrine as well as passage of the Patriot Act and its accompanying limitations in civil liberty.  9/11 has been used to silence opposition: it discredits critics of U.S. foreign policy, both past crimes and present operations.  9/11 has been labeled the first strike in the war on terrorism (despite Reagan's declaration of a "war on terror" over twenty years ago) and is being used to justify preventive war as U.S. foreign policy.  The list goes on.




I propose we remember 9/11 in shades of gray. . . .

If we refrain from over-simplification and refuse to blindly accept "official" understandings of 9/11, our present decisions and future actions will be both more constructive and more just.  I propose we remember 9/11 in shades of gray rather than in a binary worldview of black and white, good versus evil, us versus them. Reflective nostalgia teaches us to remember September 11 as a day when Americans, and all global citizens, were reminded of the usually invisible web connecting all humanity.  Reflective nostalgia reminds us of our desires to live free from fear and of our worries about death and dying.  It evokes our anger at injustice.  It elicits our ability to feel compassion for strangers minutes and oceans away.  Reflective nostalgia teaches us about the fragility of human existence and the profound inability of memory to make sense of life's past and present complexities. 

Living in New York City for the past month has reframed my thoughts and observations on 9/11.  It has helped me link more directly with the people and places immediately impacted on that day.  It has taught me to reflect more deeply on the ways in which memory is unconsciously shaped.  It has exemplified for me the way our present reality is governed by memories of the past.  Finally, it has led me to see ways we can critically and continuously evaluate how we remember major events in our history.

On September 11, 2004, I attended a concert by the rock group Marah twelve hours after family members read the names of all the victims at Ground Zero.  The group's banjo player and singer, Serge Bielanko, paused after the opening song and paid tribute to the victims, closing his personal reflection: "It's strange playing a show tonight.  But I think those people would've wanted us to keep playing."  The show ended with two verses of "Amazing Grace" on bagpipes. 

Behind me as I left for the subway station, two blue towers of ephemeral blue light pulsed where the towers of the World Trade Center had once stood.  For me, they are a reminder that although the world may have changed on 9/11, we will determine how.  By critically reflecting upon the past, we can challenge the assumptions and misconceptions that fuel the errors and misjudgments of today.  In doing so, we open doors for a more thoughtful, honest, and progressive future.