Monochrome memories : nostalgia and style in 1990s America
Memory is central to the way that cultures produce, negotiate and contest ideas of nationhood. This work examines how, as an aesthetic mode of nostalgia, the black and white image was used in the 1990s to establish and legitimate particular kinds of memory within American cultural life. It locates the production of visual (monochrome) memory in different forms of cultural media and explores how attempts were made in the nineties to authorize a consensual past, a core memory - what might be called an archival essence - for a stable and unified concept of "America." The 1990s were a period when liberal ideologies of nationhood and mythologies of Americanness came under particular, and intensified, pressure. In a time when national identity was being undermined by transnational political and economic restructuring, when ideas of national commonality were being challenged by an emergent politics of difference, and when the metanarratives of memory were straining for legitimacy against the multiple pasts of the marginalized, the desire to stabilize the configuration and perceived transmission of American cultural identity became a defining aspect of hegemonic memory politics. By considering monochrome memory in nineties mass media, I look at the way that a particular "nostalgia mode" was used stylistically within visual culture and was taken up within a discourse of stable nationhood. By examining the production and visuality of aestheticized nostalgia, I make a cultural but also a conceptual argument. Much of the contemporary work on nostalgia is bound in critiques of its reactionary politics, its sanitization of history, or its symptomatic contribution to the amnesiac tendencies of postmodern culture. I explore the subject from the vantage point of cultural studies, mediating between theories that understand nostalgia in terms of cultural longing and/or postmodern forgetting. I account for the manner in which nostalgia has become divorced from any necessary concept of loss, but, also, how particular modes of nostalgia have been used affectively in the mass media to perform specific cultural and memory work. Critically, I examine nostalgia as a cultural style, anchoring a set of questions that can be asked of its signifying and political functionality in the visual narratives of the dominant media.