Nostalgia for Obsolete Technologies
Be Kind Rewind, New Line Cinema, 2008
by Eric Linus Kaplan
A friend of mine who used to work in the largest video store in Michigan recently confessed to feeling blue at the disappearance of VHS and its replacement by streaming services. He missed the look and feel of the brick and mortar store, he missed waiting by the return slot to see what interesting movies were coming back, he missed the social experience and the reassuring feeling of a tape in his backpack, which meant a night of Fellini was in the offing.
Why not, right? After all technology makes everything solid melt into air, as was noted by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. As Martin Heidegger points out in the “Question About Technicity” our technological practices reduce everything into something like a delocalized grid in which anything can be converted into anything else and no point and no thing is home.
And yet there’s something obviously ironic about being nostalgic for VHS, which is after all just another technology. People who first encountered VHS felt nostalgia for the lost days of the movie revival house, didn’t they? And our grandchildren, should there be any, will be nostalgic for the lost world of Netflix as they access images and streams through their embedded brain chips. Won’t they?
They did and they will. So is there something absurd about feeling nostalgia — the pain of the lost home — for a method of storing images on magnetic tape, and a system of distributing those tapes through stores? Sure. Absurd and perhaps dangerous as well, since political reactionaries exploit our longing for a supposedly simpler past as a way of imposing an authoritarian agenda on the present. The 1950s were not simple, despite what Ronald Reagan claimed, and the days of the Caliphate were no picnic, despite what Islamic fundamentalists believe. The world of our childhood seems simple to us not because it was, but because we were. VHS tapes and VHS stores were not a simple paradise, but a complex technological system of their own.
Absurd as it may be, my friend’s longing for the VHS store is not completely foolish.
What can we say about the steps that take us from the theater to the movie house to the VHS rental store to the streaming service on a laptop to the hypothetical brain-chip our grandchildren may enjoy? Each step gives us more freedom and power, but each step makes the particular arrangements — social and material — less meaningful. If a VHS tape is damaged, I lose my chance to watch the movie. The physical specificity of the object matters to me and I care about it, because I need to guard its vulnerability. Not so the streaming video from Netflix. Similarly in the case of the video rental store a bunch of unplanned for, inconvenient, brute details — where the store is located, what tapes happen to be in stock, whether the tape is in good condition or not, the personality of the video clerk, etc. etc. etc. — define what it is like to watch Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. On Netflix those details are all gone. A gain in freedom gives us a loss in a certain kind of vulnerable, embodied meaning. In Yiddish the feeling for that kind of meaning is called “haimish” — homey. Heidegger talks about “dwelling” to get at the same idea. But if something is not haimish it is “uncanny” or “unheimlich”. (For some reason the classic example in the literature is of marionettes — they inhabit the “uncanny valley” between toy and human.) You can’t feel at home with it. You are nowhere.
This is a tragic predicament. We want freedom, power, and convenience, but to get it we need to eat up the very specifics of life that make us feel at home and comfy. We lose the video store. Nostalgia — the pain of home — is telling us something important about what we have lost.
And yet I would argue this predicament is not so tragic after all — at least it’s not a tragedy we should wish to avoid if we could – perhaps by hipsterish eschewing streaming and embracing retro video stores.
How can we feel nostalgia for the loss of something that was never simple? What does it tell us about ourselves that we are the sort of animals who do such a strange thing? The Italian humanist and Christian kabbalist Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola shed some light on this issue in 1486 in his Oration on the Dignity of Man.
It makes sense that Pico would have something to teach us about the longing for a lost world, since he was engaged in providing the rationale for the rebirth of classical learning we call the Renaissance. Pico begins his philosophical anthropology by asking where the special sauce of humanity lies – what makes us outstanding or gives us his dignity. He pointed out that our dignity does not lie in being wise — the angels are wiser — or powerful, lions have us beat at that. Rather, it lies in the fact that we are able to reprogram ourselves to be whatever we want to be. Pico writes:
We have given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgement and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.
The picture Pico lays out is that human beings are placed in a world full of things, but we ourselves have no essence. We look around to see the materials at our disposal and then freely and proudly shape ourselves. We lack a face, but are able to make one for ourselves.
Students of Heidegger will hear an echo of his famous definition of Dasein as the only being whose being is at issue for it. Pico’s actual sources are more obscure to students of Western philosophy. He is the inheritor of a tradition of Kabbalah which began with Rabbi Yitzchak Luria in sixteenth century Galilee. Two central concepts of Lurianic Kabblah figure in Pico’s anthropology: the tsimtsum and the breaking of the vessels. According to the Ari’s myth, God created the world by withdrawing from it in order to allow a space in which human activity could occur. This creation happened by means of generating numerous universes and aspects of Godhood which broke to pieces. Each successive stage of creation takes place by God collecting the fragments of the previous divine personalities and using them to form a new creation.
This explains Pico’s conclusion in the passage above that by looking around us for something to copy and choosing it we imitate “the life divine”. The God referred to in the Bible for Luria is a personality made up of broken pieces who creates by looking backwards at where he is from and forging a new creation – and new personalities — from these fragments. For Pico, as for Heidegger, a human being is not something following a law – like a lion – but more like the open space of the Tsimtsum. Like Luria’s divine personalities we gather broken fragments of the past to forge a future.
Nostalgia for a loss technology is a little ridiculous. Lord of the Rings fans who miss the middle ages would, if transported back there, cry for a dentist within a week, and bewailers of texting who miss letter writing should read Plato’s letter about the damage wrought on human memory by the new technology of writing. Yet as Pico shows us this absurdity also gives us a peek into the heart of what it is to be a human.
Since we are an unfinished being who discovers itself in the midst of life and does the best it can to move forward we will always find ourselves in the position of pining for the lost VHS store while we simultaneously long for the brain chip of the future. Our nostalgia will wake us up to the pain of lost dwelling, while our chutzpah tempt us to horizons of greater power and freedom. In less lofty terms, we just happen to be the kind of animal that has the capacity to train itself – a dog that has taken over the obedience school and is choosing which new tricks it wants to learn. In more lofty terms that means we can, as Pico says, “rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine”. Pico, following Luria, suggests that one of the secrets of the life divine is that it is not just a capacity for power but also for longing; we don’t experience our divine potential only when we are confident reshapers of the world but when we are vulnerable, homesick children too.
About the Author:
Eric Linus Kaplan is an Executive Producer of (and writer for) the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Previously he wrote for the Late Show with David Letterman, Futurama (for which he won an Emmy Award), and Flight of the Conchords. Kaplan graduated from Harvard and is currently completing his PhD dissertation in philosophy at UC Berkeley.