Against Nostalgia

Maybe there is no better by going back

*tap tap*

Is this thing on? 

In 1922, the sociologist William Fielding Ogburn, interested in how technology and society interact, coined the term “cultural lag.” The concept is straightforward for our 21st century sensibilities, where things change fairly rapidly. 

As Ogburn wrote: “The thesis is that the various parts of modern culture are not changing at the same rate, some parts are changing much more rapidly than others; and that since there is a correlation and interdependence of parts, a rapid change in one part of our culture requires readjustments through other changes in the various correlated parts of culture.” 

What happens when different parts of society change at unequal rates and fail to adapt to each other? Ogburn’s example in his seminal book resonates easily with today’s issues. He argued that industry and education correlate. If one changes, the other has to change commensurately. If one changes rapidly, but the other does not—if industry changes rapidly due to technological advances, but education does not—we get cultural lag. In Ogburn’s view, that leads to Ogburn called maladjustment and instability, the gears of society fitting poorly together.  

Much of Ogburn’s legacy in modern sociology focuses on the lag between material—the technology, the infrastructure, the physical things—and immaterial culture—the rituals, the rules, the institutions. Ogburn often looked at technology as the rapid driver, and our cultural institutions as the ones that are lagging. Ogburn’s concept is certainly a bit of an oversimplification, and one need not assume that such harmony is achievable, or even that societies function in the way he describes. 

But there is certainly something to the concept of a lag, when one part of a system drags on while there are rapid changes in the other. But there is also no need to confine this idea of “maladjustment,” to tensions merely between the material and the immaterial. Often the cultural lag is between…culture and culture. 

Humans, our culture and institutions, carry a lot of inertia. We carry on with rituals and ways of doing things long after it’s become obvious that they do not serve the purpose for which they are intended. Strikingly, we can keep doing it all with a straight face, with pomp and circumstance, even when, in fact, the exercise  borders on ridiculous. Even when some players have decided they’re no longer playing the same game. And this inertia can react to the mismatch through nostalgia: hoping that there is a coherent, synchronized past we can return to to fix the mismatch between one part of the system and the other, and between the normative and the reality.

I’m writing this the day after the second presidential debate. I, of course, understand the attractiveness of the idea of a debate, a back-and-forth between candidates that is supposed to highlight differences between them. But I don’t understand how it is remotely possible in this format, in this moment, between these candidates. 

Yet we did it, as if it were a serious thing.

There could still be nationally-televised, focused events that attempt to meaningfully highlight the differences between the candidates. But the format shouldn’t be a moderator giving  candidates  merely two minutes to recite well-rehearsed soundbites or habitual rants, followed by 30 seconds alloted to his opponent to “respond.” It’s a joke. It’s not serious. It’s so ridiculous that I don’t think I need to explain all the ways in which this doesn’t work, even with the mute button that was deployed in the last debate. Debates in this format might have made some sense in an area before cable television, before social media, before our fractured epistemology, before a president that does not even pretend to nod to a common narrative.

Yet it goes on, in front of our serious faces.

But what else could be done in place of that format, you might be thinking? It might still be important to try to compare candidates, normatively speaking. But to  make debates useful, we  would need  to change how they are done. We could, instead, have panels of journalists interrogate the candidates in separate hours, where the candidates have time to speak. The panel could consist of journalists chosen by the candidate and his opponent, with questions alternating between the friendly questions and those less friendly. The questions could be negotiated so that some of the same questions are asked of both candidates. They could be a mix of questions submitted in a town hall and questions polled among the public. The follow-ups could also alternate. And so on. Something else. Anything else. 

Of course, all that seems impossible. Who’d make the changes? Who’d agree to them? I agree with the skepticism. But that’s an important reason to see the lag as something beyond a problem of relative speeds.  The lag is there sometimes exactly because some of the players are intent on breaking the system,  the normative consensus. We should not  respond to that destruction with  a failure of imagination as we sink into our obsolete rituals. It becomes impossible to adjust, to sync things normatively and ritually. Over time, we lose our normative sense as well, because something has to give. Who takes the debates seriously? We laugh at them on social media. They just generate memes or funny moments. They become part of the nihilistic phrase that “lol nothing matters.” 

Of course, no society completely synchronizes normative ideals and rituals and institutions, either temporally or between groups. Equal opportunity might be a normative goal for many modern societies, but we all know our institutions don’t work like that, and that opportunities are filtered through a multitude of factors—race, gender, class, geography, resources, and so on. But there is failing and imperfect on one hand, and then on the other there is ridiculous. There’s a difference between most countries in Europe and the United States, where there is genuine intergenerational mobility, and countries like South Africa and Pakistan, where children are much less likely to exceed their parent’s income status. There is a line between feeling angry at failing ideals, and feeling hopeless and despairing when the ideals cannot be countenanced seriously.

In all these examples, the mismatch often means something has to give. Either the normative expectations that underlie a social contract, or the legitimacy of the rituals and the institutions that are supposed to uphold them. For example, the experience of voter disenfranchisement—a gap between the ideal that voting is a means to representation, and the reality of deliberate obstacles to voting—can lead to further detachment from the political system, so that even more people don’t vote even if they could. Disenfranchisement can also cause a backlash and a push for improvement, with people trying to overcome the problem with the only tool they have: voting and electing representatives who will restore a fair process. Societies are somewhat like people: there is only so much cognitive dissonance that can be tolerated before people either adjust their expectations so that they are no longer disappointed, or things get better.

One may be tempted to blame much of our cultural lag on President Trump. He does make a mockery of many rituals and institutional norms. But it’s also possible that he got elected partly because of the huge gap between our normative ideals and the reality of how our society functions, and how he positioned himself relative to it. In the run-up to the 2016 election, his signature style had been to break that fourth wall, topoint out failures. Sometimes he voiced opinions that were assumed but not voiced in that manner anymore as they had been ritualized away—for better or worse. That was his appeal to many Americans. 

Whatever else was going on--and a lot else was indeed going on in 2016--such appeals become more powerful as the sense of the gap between the normative and reality grows. In the United States, our social contract has been increasingly breaking. But we acted—well, many people in power acted—like that wasn’t the case. And we haven’t stopped acting that way. And a lot of the opposition to Trump has been predicated on the idea that the contract was stable before Trump.. There is a tendency to think of ours as an era defined entirely by Trump and the pandemic, rather than seeing them both as a stress test in an increasingly broken system where the gap between our social contract, our normative expectations and the way our society actually functions grows and grows 

Until we call out the ridiculousness when it appears, until we recognize exactly how broken things are we may be falling into the  trap of longing for nostalgia. For a past we can return to where the problems we have didn’t exist. Or, we can recognize that  nostalgia is fed from exactly the dynamic that got us to this thorny moment in the first place: the denial of our broken social contract, and institutions and rituals that were performatively there, the way the debate was, but no longer providing the function that was the stated reason for their existence in the first place. I know this flies against what this moment seems to inspire, but this morning, to me, nostalgia looks less and less appealing.