"It's defined as a longing much more now for a time than a place," Miller said. "It's temporal. It's yourself in the present, or a group, idealizing and almost freezing particular moments or artifacts from the past and thinking that it was better, simpler or cleaner or more genuine in some ways."
Students discuss the ways nostalgia "does violence" to memory, and the difference between nostalgia and commemoration. And she has them "build a commemorative experience through a Prezi," which is a cloud-based tool for creating presentations. (Remember when the only things based in clouds were rain and the imagination?)
"Even watching them get used to Prezi, one of them goes, 'I really miss the PowerPoint.' It's really happening as we speak, all the time. They're hard-wired to be nostalgic," Miller said.
Her 8-year-old son, she said, spends a lot of time playing a video game called "L.A. Noire," which packages a kind of nostalgia for Marlowe-era Los Angeles — itself a fiction — that the boy can only know about through its commercial representation.
In such shrink-wrapped packages, nostalgia now arrives as a commodity, said H. Peter Steeves, a philosophy professor at DePaul University in Chicago, who has spent a lot of time thinking about the concept.
Here's Steeves, from an email he sent me: "A couple of months ago I was asked to give the keynote talk at the Far West Popular Culture and American Culture Associations annual conference in Las Vegas. It was the 25th anniversary of the conference. My talk, titled "The 1988 Show," was about what has changed and what has remained the same in the last 25 years in our culture (and our study of culture), and especially what it means to be nostalgic for something so close to us still."
He included not just scholarly thoughts but a version of the winning routine from the 1988 Crystal Light National Aerobic Championship, and Steeves and his fiance re-created the big dance number from "Dirty Dancing."
Fun, right? And it certainly pressed a lot of memory buttons.
But, Steeves said: "The underlying philosophical point of it all was twofold. First, I suggested that if something changes, then something else must stay constant and unchanging behind the thing that changes, otherwise we would not be able to recognize change. But if it is the culture itself that has changed, then what is it that has remained stable, that allows us to recognize the change? We spent a good deal of time searching for that 'still point.' Second, I argued that nostalgia is doomed on two fronts, both because it has become our main mode of being today, and thus we would have to say, 'Nostalgia compared to what?' and also because it is always based on a false sense of 'an origin,' which carries with it a notion of purity that is always ontological and ethically suspect."
Remember when people used to know what "ontological" meant without looking it up? It's tricky — having to do with the nature of being — but in this case Steeves means that it's a notion that's not necessarily grounded in the real world.
He cited our move toward a post-ironic "quotational discourse," in which things can't simply be said but have to be said in quotes. The example author Umberto Eco gave, Steeves said in a telephone interview, was the young man wanting to tell a woman he loves her madly. He can't simply say that because it sounds naive. So he says, "As (romance novelist) Barbara Cartland would put it, 'I love you madly.'"
"When quotational discourse becomes the main mode of discourse, as it has today, it's always nostalgia," Steeves said.
It's always looking backward. Another case in point: sampling in music, which, again, is quotational. Or think about people filming everything at a concert rather than, you know, listening to the song. Think about the way young people, when you give them control of the music in a room or in a car, will rarely listen to an entire song because the thought of what's next and what could be happening differently is just too enticing.
"Everything's already nostalgic," said Steeves. "So there's no room for nostalgia."
That slow shuffling sound and low growling you're hearing mean the zombies are about to enter. Here, in a nutshell, is what Steeves had to say about them at another academic conference:
"What the zombie is about is the desire to have what we used to love, but is gone, back with us now so we can love it again. But, of course, when it comes back, it's not what it used to be. It's warped. It's dead. It's changed. It's disappointing. And that's scary.
"Part of the fascination we have with zombies these days has something to do with this realization that nostalgia is not giving us what we want, that it's a failed project."
Trying to wrap his mind around this explains, perhaps, why Rick, group leader on "The Walking Dead," seems so tortured all the time.
Jane Root knew that nostalgia was an ever-present force when she took on the 1980s in her new six-hour television documentary for National Geographic Channel. But one of the charms of the series is that, instead of simply giving a laundry list of 1980s artifacts, it uses them as a kind of eye candy to entice you into finding the deeper meaning that executive producer Root argues — persuasively — the decade held.
"The '80s was the moment when the world began to change," she told me, "when it became 24 hours, when it became global, when it became the time that people traveled the world, when countries stopped having their own music and started having the world's music. … The world's the same now. It didn't used to be. The '80s was the time when that happened."