The Nostalgia Awakens

IF a Hollywood movie were made about my 2019 Festive Season (highly unlikely as it is), it would be called The Nostalgia Awakens. Christmas 2019 was the year that I succumbed to the Force of Star Wars nostalgia, embracing a franchise in which I only ever had casual interest. While my fandom was short-lived, it inspired me to embrace another cultural phenomenon: nostalgia itself.

I grew up in Australia in the 1980s — and became a TV-watching, toy-obsessed school kid some time after the original Star Wars trilogy was over. I missed the main hype and hysteria surrounding it. Despite this, by 2019, I had seen the original movies, engaged with the prequels and, like many, incorporated an annual trip to the cinemas into my Festive Season traditions to see the sequels. This was all without really caring that much about the Galaxy at large.

As life began to slow down over Christmas 2019, however, I found myself in the company of a mind that wouldn’t stop. After thinking about digital media and migration (my doctoral thesis topic) all year, my radar was suddenly picking up other things, most of which — for some reason — related to Star Wars. These, primarily, were previews in the media, hype about the launch of a new Disney channel and the inevitable arrival of droids in every store (a sure sign that it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas).

I guess this was the result of having two wide-open weeks of vacation after an intense, yet highly rewarding year, in which I welcomed a child, saw my daughter complete kinder at my old preschool and found myself on the verge of completing a PhD thesis (and thus, a long educational journey). With time off over Christmas, a highly emotional, deeply reflective me suddenly found myself nostalgic for childhood, Christmas rituals of old and, for some reason, Star Wars.

My response to being gripped by such nostalgia was to pledge to watch all Star Wars films from Episode 1 through to Episode 8 — so I could walk stridently into a theatre, like the fan I’ve never been, and embrace the final chapter (until the next trilogy, at least) in all its glory. In the end, I watched the prequels and the classic Episode 4 before, frankly, losing some enthusiasm. I skipped the rest but still went to see Episode 9, which I kind of liked. Afterwards, I read a heap of reviews of The Rise of Skywalker — taking delight in how diametrically opposed they could be — reflected on a few boyhood memories, and more or less left it there.

My fandom had worn off. In fact, it had been half-baked to begin with; I realised it was the nostalgia of it all that I was really interested in. I have vivid memories of first seeing the Kenner Star Wars figures at a toy shop as a child. My dad took me into this amazing wondrous place, where toys covered entire walls. I remembered a Return of the Jedi pillowcase I had on my bed as a child. And an old VHS copy of The Empire Strikes Back I picked up secondhand after my parents bought our first VCR. Then there were the conversations about Luke Skywalker with friends at school.

Underpinning all these memories was a pop cultural phenomenon — a giant of late-modern capitalism — that I only ever had moderate feelings for. But these memories were my memories; they were fragments of a life lived. Star Wars — even as a recurring backdrop — had significance to my childhood.

For those who wanted to, I realised, the nostalgia of childhood could be bought, streamed and watched, over and over again. It could evoke the magic and the innocence — but it could only bring me, and anyone else, so close to the past. We could glimpse, but we couldn’t grasp, what we had lost through the passage of time. There was a certain bitter-sweetness to it all, no matter how fresh or familiar the latest Episode might have been.

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I am a media and migration sociologist with a range of research and writing interests. My yearning for Star Wars has inspired me to make nostalgia another of them. As a sociologist, I am interested in social structures that influence experiences of the self. Nostalgia is an emotion — and emotions are highly social. Nostalgia is everywhere in Western culture: not just in our minds and emotions, but in our routines and rituals, our pop culture and the background music to our everyday activities.

The power of a Hollywood film franchise — the most significant of all time — is just one way in which our nostalgia is curated by structural forces that go beyond our biology and psychology. We now exist in a digital landscape in which our communicative devices, platforms and pop cultural choices heavily facilitate our emotions and our imaginaries. In an on-demand streaming world, we choose what to watch, often based heavily on how we feel and — importantly — how we want to feel.

Nostalgia is not just part of our inner worlds, but it is also part of our broader cultural worlds. Through nostalgia-focused posts on this blog, I will explore how media and technological frameworks help to shape our experiences of nostalgia. My focus is anything related to “nostalgia” — from dictionary and academic definitions of it, to histories of it and examples in the media. I intend also to document my own experiences of being (and avoiding being) nostalgic.

Through further exploration of the technology and practices that facilitate our nostalgic gaze, I look forward to considering what it means to look back.

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