Archaeology and Nostalgia

This afternoon I’m scheduled to talk to a journalist about nostalgia, the Atari excavation, and punk archaeology. Over the last few years, I’ve thought a good bit about nostalgia, in part, because it seems rampant in a few of my hobbies.

For example, among “audiophiles” or folks who enjoy carefully organized stereo systems, there’s been a longstanding attraction to simple, single-end-triode vacuum tube amplifiers and equally simple and easy to drive paper-cone speakers. These are throwbacks to mid-century stereos, some famously built from kits, that many in my hobby imagine to have created a particularly authentic form of sound reproduction. Needless to say, this is frequently coupled with the so-called vinyl revival. More recently, there’s also been a renewed interest in 1970s solid-state amplifiers by brands like Sansui, Yamaha, Marantz, and Pioneer. Again, there’s a feeling that these amps, particularly if carefully maintained, produce a kind of sound that it particularly engaging. In most cases, this audiophile nostalgia juxtaposes older gear (or gear built using more traditional material and designs) with more modern equipment. In most cases, the argument is that this older gear sounds “better,” but in some cases, it’s enough to say that it sounds different or simply more appealing.

Watches likewise have enjoyed their moment of nostalgia. Not only has the smart watch “revolution” kindled a new interest in mechanical (and even quartz) watchmaking from traditional manufacturers, but the mechanical watchmakers themselves have doubled down on nostalgic pieces meant to highlight their pre-quartz heritage and recapture the charm and familiarity of mechanical watches. Unlike some audiophiles who will argue that their 1970s Marantz amplifiers sound better, most watch folks won’t try to pretend that their mechanical (or automatic) watch keeps better time or is more functional than the latest from Apple, Casio, or Fitbit. Instead they suggest that their watches evoke past habits of life, supports traditional practices of manufacturing (to an extent and depending on the brand), and encourages regular reflection on time. To be clear, I don’t necessary buy any of these arguments, but I still do think that a good mechanical watch is pretty cool.

It seems to me that nostalgia and archaeology both require an awareness that our current time is different from the past. This work of distancing in contemporary consumer culture is often driven by update cycle on products and our endless thirst for innovation. For historical archaeologists, this pushes the archaeological horizon ever closer to the present as it becomes increasingly easy to distinguish the date and character of material assemblages from those that define our contemporary world. Motorola Razr phones, Gateway laptops, plastic drinking straws, Ugg boots, and New Coke cans have all emerged as type fossils for the strata of the recent past. The expansively contemporary world of the Anthropocene parsed finely by our experience.  

We’re also aware, of course, that nostalgia has the potential for being profoundly corrupting. The comforting, sepia-toned view of the past often supports regressive and reactionary agendas and hides profound injustices under the claim to personal experience. For many people, nostalgia accompanies a profound sense of guilt both because nostalgia is pleasurable and because it requires a selfish view of the past to be sustainable. 

Archaeology and the work of archaeological distancing does not escape similar critiques. When archaeologists emphasize discontinuity with the present, we run the risk of defining our own work in ahistorical ways and suggesting that barriers can exist between the past and present experiences. This runs the risk of undermining the pain and damage of past trauma, subverting historical claims of groups, and imagining levels of autonomy and agency that defy the lived experiences of individuals. Our disciplines to practices, methods, and methodology do a good bit insulate archaeological knowledge from claims of contemporaneity with the past.

Methods, of course, are never quite enough. Archaeologists are increasingly willing to acknowledge that our practices are colonialist, they are driven by a set of European values that are not separate from imperialism and our linear view of history, causality, and development that allows us to argue for discontinuity serves also to order political, economic, and social power in the world. This isn’t to say that some of this isn’t changing. Recent attentiveness both to decolonizing archaeological practices and critical engagement with the ideas of archaeological time, argument, and causality have slowly eroded the pernicious confidence that can so easily creep into ahistorical commitments to methods. 

In this context, perhaps some aspects of contemporary nostalgia are useful because they are so compromised. The simultaneous guilt and pleasure that nostalgia evokes creates a space for critical engagement and contemporaneity. Nostalgia whatever its connection with our personal past remains an experience only possible in the present. The complications of a present that bears the affective weight of the past and the need for critical distancing makes our conflicted view of nostalgia feel less like bug and more like a feature. Perhaps archaeology can and should be more like nostalgia.

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