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Remember when nostalgia died?

Steve Johnson

Tribune reporter

1:49 PM EDT, April 12, 2013

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I cannot be the only one who gets a little jolt anytime he encounters someone waxing nostalgic over the 1980s or even the 1990s.

We just lived the '80s and '90s, like, a moment ago, didn't we? They seem so recent that many of us are working harder at forgetting things than remembering them.

I, for instance, will probably never live down, even in my own mind, that I used Summer Blonde one beach season, and my parents still hold a photograph of me in parachute pants — paired with a sweater vest, if I recall — poised to head into the city from my country-suburban hometown. Dude!

And yet people, in blogs, in books, in TV series and in conversations, are avidly digging this stuff up. Like board games or Facebook, gettin' nostalgic is turning into another way to pass the time and will probably soon enough become one more thing to pine for: "Remember when we used to get all wistful about the '70s? I miss that."

Too few, it seems, will take a cue from Theo Huxtable of the quintessential 1980s sitcom "The Cosby Show": "I don't necessarily think I miss anything from the '80s," Theo's portrayer, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, told me recently. "I had an awesome time in the '80s. But I don't really know that there's anything I miss."

Here's a quick demonstration that the longing for recent eras has become a little too prevalent:

NPR's "Morning Edition" news program recently ran a piece on a 1990s reenactment group called Hootie and the Time Travelers. All the cultural markers made sense: the Zima, the Bugles snack food, the bad group singalong to Semisonic's "Closing Time."

But I didn't catch the announcer's line coming out of the piece: "On this first day of April, it's NPR News."

Indeed, I didn't even know I'd been had until I mentioned the piece the next day in the presence of my 12-year-old son. I was amazed at what people were spending their time doing and impressed by the fact that a group leader was described as the son of a Civil War re-enactor. My son was amazed I didn't know the whole thing was a fake and impressed not in the least.

I had been fooled by NPR's news division, which normally works very hard to eliminate any acknowledgment that life includes laughter and irony. It was like getting punked by Betty White. (She was so great in "The Golden Girls," wasn't she?)

But it made perfect sense that folks would get together to say, like, "like" all the time and lionize the date that "Friends" first aired. I had already seen that the National Geographic Channel (Seeing nudity in National Geographic used to be such a big deal, didn't it?) was running a big, three-day miniseries about the '80s — "The '80s: The Decade That Made Us," a show that begins airing Sunday (7 p.m.) and features, in the fifth of six hours, Warner talking about the import of "The Cosby Show."

I knew that a Chicago concert by New Kids on the Block had provoked a wave of nostalgia from people younger than me that I found, frankly, unsettling, like the first time it hits you that while you may be getting older, the college basketball players are staying exactly the same age. Meanwhile, not only won't vinyl records go away, to name one artifact, but cassette tapes are supposed to be getting a bit of a revival too.

In that context, why would I be suspicious of the NPR piece's reverential reference to Pearl Jam? Aren't they, after all, touring this summer, playing a Chicago date in Wrigley Field, a venue large enough to suggest that an awful lot of folks miss 1990s grunge and itself a magnet for all manner of nostalgia?

But as a child of the current era, my son is well-trained to spot faux nostalgia because he is so steeped in the real thing. He got Sperry Top-Siders for his recent birthday, the boat shoes of the '80s, and before that the '50s, that are enjoying yet another revival.

He and his older brother are avidly watching back episodes of the TV series "Psych." A more devoted recycler than some municipalities in the Pacific Northwest, "Psych" packs its crime-solving stories with '80s and '90s references. When one character spouted a definition for "relationship" and cited "Webster," another responded, "I hardly think Emmanuel Lewis is an authority on relationships."

But my younger son's favorite show is "The Walking Dead," and zombies, according to one professor, are not just flesh-hungry human husks who bring ratings magic to basic cable channels. They are totems of cultural illness, of an unhealthy longing for the past.

The boy lives in a time when everything old is new again, when eras crash up against each other with so much zest that very little is ever truly new or, indeed, truly old. And with so much of current culture being recycled from past culture, you wonder what the current generation will be able to ponder when it comes their time to get dewy-eyed.

"For this generation that has never not had a screen in front of them," suggests Daisy Miller, "I don't know. Maybe they'll miss the larger screen?"

Rather than the lead character in a Henry James novella (before Twitter, short writings were called novellas), Miller is an English professor at Hofstra University in New York, and she's teaching a course on nostalgia and writing.

Among the things she teaches her students: Nostalgia, when coined in the late 17th century, was originally defined as a longing for home, noticed in soldiers, and was a medical condition.

"It's defined as a longing much more now for a time than a place," Miller said. "It's temporal. It's yourself in the present, or a group, idealizing and almost freezing particular moments or artifacts from the past and thinking that it was better, simpler or cleaner or more genuine in some ways."

Students discuss the ways nostalgia "does violence" to memory, and the difference between nostalgia and commemoration. And she has them "build a commemorative experience through a Prezi," which is a cloud-based tool for creating presentations. (Remember when the only things based in clouds were rain and the imagination?)

"Even watching them get used to Prezi, one of them goes, 'I really miss the PowerPoint.' It's really happening as we speak, all the time. They're hard-wired to be nostalgic," Miller said.

Her 8-year-old son, she said, spends a lot of time playing a video game called "L.A. Noire," which packages a kind of nostalgia for Marlowe-era Los Angeles — itself a fiction — that the boy can only know about through its commercial representation.

In such shrink-wrapped packages, nostalgia now arrives as a commodity, said H. Peter Steeves, a philosophy professor at DePaul University in Chicago, who has spent a lot of time thinking about the concept.

Here's Steeves, from an email he sent me: "A couple of months ago I was asked to give the keynote talk at the Far West Popular Culture and American Culture Associations annual conference in Las Vegas. It was the 25th anniversary of the conference. My talk, titled "The 1988 Show," was about what has changed and what has remained the same in the last 25 years in our culture (and our study of culture), and especially what it means to be nostalgic for something so close to us still."

He included not just scholarly thoughts but a version of the winning routine from the 1988 Crystal Light National Aerobic Championship, and Steeves and his fiance re-created the big dance number from "Dirty Dancing."

Fun, right? And it certainly pressed a lot of memory buttons.

But, Steeves said: "The underlying philosophical point of it all was twofold. First, I suggested that if something changes, then something else must stay constant and unchanging behind the thing that changes, otherwise we would not be able to recognize change. But if it is the culture itself that has changed, then what is it that has remained stable, that allows us to recognize the change? We spent a good deal of time searching for that 'still point.' Second, I argued that nostalgia is doomed on two fronts, both because it has become our main mode of being today, and thus we would have to say, 'Nostalgia compared to what?' and also because it is always based on a false sense of 'an origin,' which carries with it a notion of purity that is always ontological and ethically suspect."

Remember when people used to know what "ontological" meant without looking it up? It's tricky — having to do with the nature of being — but in this case Steeves means that it's a notion that's not necessarily grounded in the real world.

He cited our move toward a post-ironic "quotational discourse," in which things can't simply be said but have to be said in quotes. The example author Umberto Eco gave, Steeves said in a telephone interview, was the young man wanting to tell a woman he loves her madly. He can't simply say that because it sounds naive. So he says, "As (romance novelist) Barbara Cartland would put it, 'I love you madly.'"

"When quotational discourse becomes the main mode of discourse, as it has today, it's always nostalgia," Steeves said.

It's always looking backward. Another case in point: sampling in music, which, again, is quotational. Or think about people filming everything at a concert rather than, you know, listening to the song. Think about the way young people, when you give them control of the music in a room or in a car, will rarely listen to an entire song because the thought of what's next and what could be happening differently is just too enticing.

"Everything's already nostalgic," said Steeves. "So there's no room for nostalgia."

That slow shuffling sound and low growling you're hearing mean the zombies are about to enter. Here, in a nutshell, is what Steeves had to say about them at another academic conference:

"What the zombie is about is the desire to have what we used to love, but is gone, back with us now so we can love it again. But, of course, when it comes back, it's not what it used to be. It's warped. It's dead. It's changed. It's disappointing. And that's scary.

"Part of the fascination we have with zombies these days has something to do with this realization that nostalgia is not giving us what we want, that it's a failed project."

Trying to wrap his mind around this explains, perhaps, why Rick, group leader on "The Walking Dead," seems so tortured all the time.

Jane Root knew that nostalgia was an ever-present force when she took on the 1980s in her new six-hour television documentary for National Geographic Channel. But one of the charms of the series is that, instead of simply giving a laundry list of 1980s artifacts, it uses them as a kind of eye candy to entice you into finding the deeper meaning that executive producer Root argues — persuasively — the decade held.

"The '80s was the moment when the world began to change," she told me, "when it became 24 hours, when it became global, when it became the time that people traveled the world, when countries stopped having their own music and started having the world's music. … The world's the same now. It didn't used to be. The '80s was the time when that happened."

"The '80s: The Decade that Made Us" gets this across with narration by Rob Lowe and a passel of experts, from Warner to author and editor Kurt Andersen to Larry King and Jane Fonda.

Its strategy, which gives the narrative punch, is to find defining moments. So the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's game-winning goal against the Soviet Union is the moment the country's malaise of the 1970s begins to lift. The recording session that brought Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. together to re-cut "Walk This Way" is the moment that took hip-hop music off the street corner and put it into the mainstream.

Root demonstrates that the antidote to nostalgia is fact. "You wouldn't have Beyonce or Lady Gaga if you hadn't have had Madonna in a wedding dress at the MTV Awards," she said. "It's hard to re-create the level of shock and astonishment that people had about that."

Or, more seriously, you can say you can remember the 1983 airing of the nuclear apocalypse film "The Day After," but the documentary uses it to try to convey how genuinely terrified people were of nuclear war.

"That's a different kind of nostalgia," Root said, "because it's not like nostalgia for shoulder pads. It's like, 'Wow, it really did feel like the world was about to end at any time.'"

One of the more entertaining things about making the show, she said, was when junior researchers would come scurrying up to her to announce their discovery that people didn't even have email in the 1980s or "that the news used to only be on at certain times of the day."

And this was where she came to realize that your feelings about the past have a lot to do with your place in the present.

"If you're in your 50s, the '80s is not that long ago," Root said. "If you're like some of my junior researchers and you're 23, it's a really long time ago."

This notion of relativity explains, perhaps, why some of us are stunned to hear nostalgia for recent eras and others revel in it. As a child of the '70s, for instance, I remember feeling how distant the 1950s were and how weird it seemed that the time was so present with my parents. The 1940s, meanwhile, might as well have been ancient Rome.

I pointed this out in my chat with Warner, that just in math terms the '80s and '90s are to the current decade what the '40s and '50s were to the '70s.

"Yeah, dig that," he said. And then he paused for a moment. "Wow. Oh, wow."

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

'The '80s: The Decade That Made Us'

7 p.m. Sunday, continuing Monday and Tuesday; National Geographic Channel