Monday, October 28, 2013


An short film titled "Nostalga" was posted on VIMEO recently that explores the different tangible expressions /representations of longing for the past.

It's interesting to note that even the visual presentation and editing emulates a VHS cassette - a piece of technology that simply isn't used any longer, but evokes deep feelings in those who wistfully remember them.

During the video a word is mentioned, but without description: Saudade.

Saudade is a fascinating term, as it described an emotional state I've felt, but never had a word for until recently. "Nostalga", "Longing", or "wistful remembrance"  come close, but are still lacking. Saudade describes a deep emotional state of longing for something or someone that is absent - either in present or the past. This also applies to the sadness of future loss where the object of affection is present now but will be gone later.

A key difference between nostalga and saudade-seeped remembrance is the realization that the object(s) of your affection may never have existed in the way you remember them. It isn't simply the absence of a toy from your childhood, or a specific album you had long ago - it's the sadness that comes from realizing that you can never recapture the same set of circumstances and perception you once had. 

I've experienced this frequently as I listen to music and television - certain chords or sound  sets remind me of childhood listening experiences. However, I know those experiences are like dreams: think about them for too long, and they disappear like morning dew. All we're left with are the tangible pop culture detritus that triggered these feelings. 

The first time I encountered the term "Saudade" was in the comments section of an article which described a "lost cultural decade": what we view as "80s" or "retro" today. The article shouldn't be read literally (i.e: there's a 10 year span people stopped counting sometime between 1979 and 1992 called the "19A0s"). Instead, the article describes in a very strange way how the expression of nostalgic longing take on particular forms during this era. These expressions (triangles, particular patterns, imagery, colors, etc.) are sampled, recycled, and made new and familiar by writers, artists, and designers in their constant callbacks and pastiche. For current music and visual aesthetics, the 'warmth' of analogue technology (photos, video & music) is often cited as more attractive than the bleak stillness of our present digital environment. 

For individuals born in the 1980s, we experienced the cultural output of that decade in aftermath: reruns, rebroadcasts, and taped VHS recording showed us a window into a world we wanted to be apart of, but never really could.

As one commenter articulated, this caused "nostalgia for something that you never really knew [...] like something on the top of your tongue that you can't fully realize, and makes you sad."

"I always had the sense that there was a giant party going on without me.  It didn’t help to see A-ha cavorting about on MTV in a comic book world where I desperately hoped to join them, and knew I never could; Jem made me hunger for a brave new holographic world I knew didn’t exist, no matter how hard I wished it did.  Even today, I harbor some regret that my life doesn’t look like a John Foxx video [... It was an era spent] trying to catch the phantoms of a pop culture that both he and I were too young to understand yet still desperately wanted to internalize[.]"

For the consumer culture of the 1980s, I experienced a heavy dose of this feeling when watching television in the late 1980s, and early 1990s. Before the connectivity of the internet, North America had a shared multi-channel television culture. With limited viewing options, it had a one-sided homogenizing effect on those watching it. We passively watched and internalized what we were shown without response. The repetitive nature of the analogue edited sound and visuals of pre-internet cable TV was reassuring and comfortable to many.

SMASHTV's Video mix sets are a supercut of '80s/'90s commercials set over top of similar music. The repetitive expressions of VHF-broadcast culture: station idents, clumsy advertisements, and cartoons carry heavily nostalgic cache. They were all sandwedged between television's assurance that they'd be back after "these messages". Decades later, I believe those "messages" aren't the ones they intended. The products and shows advertised are long gone - but the feelings they communicated remain.

For earlier decades, modern music like Belbury Poly on the label "GhostBox" mimics "the electronic avant garde of the 60's-80's period to generate a sense of disquieting nostalgia." is an avid fan of framing this style of music as haunting tunes from a "parallel world". The description is appropriate: Much of this music sounds like it comes from a hazy, half-remembered memory that occurred between 1970 and 1992 - an era I've heard  wistfully called "The Long Eighties".

All of this nostalgia comes with a flip-side:  Do we spend our years revelling in what was, rather than what will be?

An interesting post on 'The Golden Age syndrome' is worth reading. It looks at the wider implications of (western) culture and it's reliance on recycled pastiche of it's own past. The author rightly asks "What other generation spent its youth, money, energy, and talents denying its own time?"

I feel that our nostalgic longings for representations of the past come from a similarity of expression: our own memories have no clean edges. The way we store experiences and emotion are imperfect, and subject to unanticipated change over time.  
To those who grew up with the warmth of CRT-tube static, the still sharpness of a high-definition television's blue screen unintentionally alienates us.

Time will tell if musical and aesthetic interests of future generations will continue to look back and reinterpret memories of our analogue past - or embrace the singularity-like world to be.

For more saudade-inducing content, I'd suggest:

A discussion on the original term @ NPR:
Saudade: An Untranslatable, Undeniably Potent Word


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