IMNN – book review: Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism – Gary Cross

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Author of the review: Ryan Lizardi - SUNY Polytechnic Institute - 
Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism - Gary Cross- New York: 
Columbia University Press, 2015 - 304 Pages, ISBN: 9780231167581, $35.00

Capture d’écran 2015-11-11 à 13.25.06Gary Cross’ Consumed Nostalgia is an important contribution to the field of nostalgia studies, as it ruminates on the materiality of longing for the past. Cross takes a unique perspective as he works through the items and artifacts that are paid for and consumed as a portal to reliving authentic past experiences. Thinking through the reasoning behind behaviors like spending thousands on a vintage Barbie doll, Cross blends interviews, visits to nostalgia soaked events, and his own subjective relationship to the nostalgic experience of modern culture. As a historian, Cross spends a good deal of time laying out the events, processes, and economic factors that led to particular items and artifacts being revered in present time. For Cross this means that objects of mass-produced “fast capitalism” have the opportunity to attain nostalgic value, because they connect directly to the user’s experiences, despite their lack of intrinsic value. To this end, Cross digs into the physical and tactile items that constitute nostalgia, centering not only on the collection of artifacts but also on the attempts to recapture childhoods through actual rehearsals of play. In this way, Consumed Nostalgia connects to Cross’s earlier work, most especially his book The Cute and the Cool, in his ability to work through the specific items that resonate and shape how we see ourselves over the course of our lives.

The structure of Consumed Nostalgia is not linear, like The Cute and the Cool, but instead works through the idiosyncratic categories of nostalgic focus for different groups. Though this type of organization could come off as disjointed and make reading a throughline more difficult, Cross does a nice job of creating consistent thematic connections and helping readers to understand that the longing for disparate items of consumable past speaks to the same dynamic. People are nostalgic for different things, but the feelings about those items are similar, even if Cross believes nostalgia is highly subjective and non-transferable.

There are times in the book where the blended subjective/interview perspective works really well, and others where it creates a bit of a methodological quandary. For instance, the chapter that explores hot rod culture and antique car collection/restoration effectively utilizes this type of methodology, and it helps Cross absolutely nail the dynamics behind Disney as a consumptive nostalgia machine in another chapter. Cross revels in the details of the antique car shows and rides, as well as the interviews of nostalgic character types that you would likely find at these events. Ruminating on the reasons behind the authenticity needed to be a part of this culture, or why certain familial relationships flourish or fade in light of hot rod obsessive nostalgia, Cross pulls on cultural threads important to explore in contemporary nostalgia studies such as whether anything can ever truly replicate an original experience. When examining the historical reasoning behind, and rise of, parks like Disneyland, Cross masterfully blends economic motivations with the cultural implications of the creation of nostalgic pilgrimages that always end with the requisite souvenir to relive and play with later. Readers who have been to the mouse house(s) will hear themselves in Cross’s descriptions of parkgoers and their connections to the past that are cultivated. You can tell that Cross is also dealing with his own nostalgic experiences through many of these events and parks, which gives Consumer Nostalgia a connective tissue of commonality no matter the reader’s particular nostalgia obsession. This subjective methodological approach is less effective when the experiences and details get a little too specific and personal, such as in the description of a local fair near Cross’s university. Though this review author is familiar with this specific fair, and its unique inherited fair plot dynamics, it might appear too obscure and idiosyncratic to explain nostalgic cultures to the average reader. Perhaps this is a function of the very argument Cross tries to make about the non-transferable qualities of nostalgia, but within a text about broad trends in consuming nostalgia it feels a little too subjective and unrelatable. For instance, this subjective approach, as appropriate as it may be given the subject matter, does cause breakdowns in Cross’s methodology at times, such as when broad claims of gendered differences in the nostalgic experience are unproblematically stated. It might very well be true that mid-century modern collectors differ in their desired items by gender, with men collecting hi-fis and women collecting decorative items, but without citation or interview the subjective methodology is stretched too thin.

Cross engages with canonical nostalgia studies works, like those from Svetlana Boym and Paul Grainge, but does seem to eschew working through more recent works that could have been helpful. This is especially true of Alastair Bonnett’s work, considering Cross and Bonnett are both making an argument about the nuanced progressive potentials contained within the nostalgia experience. To point out singular sources that could have been cited or engaged with can be a petty pursuit, as no work is comprehensive in its inquiry. However, it is in the unabashed subjective point of view where this criticism comes into relief as well thought out sequences can leave out crucial connections. For instance, in the concluding chapter, Cross mentions that many “others” have linked collecting consumer goods to those with Asperger’s Syndrome but does not mention who these scholars are or cite any other research. Cross’s use of a unabashed subjective point of view is not problematic on its face; it is in fact admirable given the subject matter argument about the non-transferable nature of nostalgia, but this approach inevitably leads to blind spots in both research and scope.

In terms of future research that this book could spark, nostalgia is assuredly past-focused, but there are a great many technological advances that have made the consumption of beloved past artifacts that much easier. Cross does not engage headlong with these new advances, as he focuses his exploration on more traditional avenues of past longing, which opens up opportunities for future scholars to engage with these technologies germane to Cross’s arguments. For instance, Cross uses music from specific decades as important to the derivation of consumptive nostalgic pleasure, and future nostalgia studies scholars could extend this argument to technologies like SiriusXM Satellite radio and streaming options like Pandora or Spotify with their segmenting of the nostalgic population by decade-specific channels.

These blind spots notwithstanding, Cross contributes much to the field of nostalgia studies in this book, as this deep look at the materiality of longing for the past in the face of fast-capitalism’s ephemera is important. Consumed Nostalgia is a great read for scholars interested in nostalgia studies, but also would be accessible to the broader populace looking to understand more about our current material nostalgia culture.

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