The other day, a first-grader whom I tutor in reading explained to me his understanding of a dictionary, which he was just learning to use: “It’s what people used to use to find things without googling them in the old days before people had Google.” For a kid who had never known life without search engines, this was a pretty good explanation: a dictionary = analogue Google. As I told this story to friends, some of whom study the history of the book as a physical object, they were amused but also a little saddened. Sure, it’s always a bit of a downer to realize that your youth counts as “the old days,” but a deeper source for their melancholy lay in nostalgia for things like dictionary skills contests, where elementary school students would compete with one another to see who could look up words the fastest. The conversation turned towards a broader complaint about what gets lost amidst all the gains promised by the digital technologies that not only complement, but often replace, the technology of the codex and the research libraries that contain them, exemplifying how education and technology are not always conjoined for the best interests of students and teachers. While the uncertain fate of the codex at libraries around the world is of vital importance, I’m interested here, however, in the way nostalgia – arguably the least progressive and most politically suspect of affects – can incite critical reflection in the classroom, particularly around questions of technological change and environmental destruction.
As any campaign manager might tell you, feelings like nostalgia involve not just an internal, subjective response, but the potential for political engagement, as we react to the world around us and act on it in turn. As researchers in the burgeoning field of affect studies have begun to understand in more detail, affect also involves pre-conscious, physiological responses, to which we later add meaning and narrative. Nostalgia is a feeling deeply connected to stories: You look around and think about how things got like this from the way they used to be. Often, these stories sound reflexively reactionary, like the stereotypical scold who hears in any new pop song evidence of the decline of civilization. But nostalgia can also be progressive, like when nineteenth- and twentieth-century radicals in Europe and America invoked their memories of pre-industrial societies in their vision of an egalitarian future. Some social psychological research even shows that nostalgia can be an empowering source of positive feelings of community. Of course, this research doesn’t tell us if those positive feelings belong to, say, admirers of Joe Arpaio’s Old West sheriff act in his crusade against Latino immigrants. Feeling good about the past can all too easily be oppressive of those who don’t fit into the narrative of “better days.” But nostalgia can also be a site of refuge and resistance, as Carolyn Dinshaw has shown, and a reminder that “the present is ineluctably linked to other times, people, situations, worlds.” Sure, this is a bit headier than casual hand-wringing about the demise of the paper dictionary, but the point about the different political directions nostalgia can take still holds: do we indulge in a knee-jerk reaction to change, or do we take up nostalgic feelings in a process of nuanced critique?
The technological nostalgia my book historian friends expressed struck me, because it was something that came up frequently while teaching an introductory class on pastoral and nature poetry for first-years who weren’t (yet) majoring in English. The first part of the course occasionally felt like a slog through classical pastoral and its neo-classical revival. This poetry usually depicts shepherds doing anything but herd sheep: they fall in love, show off in musical competitions, insult each other, and fall in love again. As we moved from the ancient Greek and Latin idylls of Theocritus and Virgil to their imitators in early modernity, recondite mythological allusions and flamboyantly artificial singing contests put up high barriers to entry for many students. But one of the things that allowed us to have conversations about poems that might otherwise have left us frustrated was the problem of nostalgia: what made the impulse to imagine a supposedly simpler time so persistent, and so pleasurable, to these poets, even when they risked the charge of being predictable or artificial? This big question became more tractable when we thought about nostalgia as a response to the experience of technological change, broadly construed, and its ecological effects. When we had to make sense of why poems about silly shepherds falling in love and singing might appeal to anyone at all, there was a shared feeling among my students that poetry about being outside and not working provided an escape from the mediated, technology-saturated learning environments of contemporary college first-years. These otherwise arcane poems intimated the pleasures of unplugging.
This conversational theme only became more pronounced as we started reading “anti-pastoral” poets (best exemplified by George Crabbe in The Deserted Village) who subverted the artificiality of pastoral conventions in order to explicitly confront the social and environmental effects of technological change and the economic systems that drive it. The insistent plow turning under hedgerows and sheep walks, as well as new advances in agrarian “improvement,” haunt the poetry of Goldsmith, Crabbe, and Clare. This anti-pastoral and Romantic turn in the history of poetry got my students even more engaged with the ways in which technology, defined in the widest possible sense, seems to produce nostalgia almost as a by-product of the material changes it makes in the world. Whether the event be the introduction of the plow to a recently enclosed common field, the arrival of the railroad, or the accelerated rollout of new information technologies, such experiences seem to invite nostalgia so pervasively that it appears to be “at the very core of the modern condition,” according to Svetlana Boym. While nostalgia may seem especially central to modernity, the study of pastoral reveals, if nothing else, that nostalgia is as constant as change. As Raymond Williams shows in The Country and the City, if you go back to one writer’s golden age, you’ll find another writer pining for yet an earlier era.
For this reason, nostalgia may seem to have dubious analytic purchase on the world around us, because it can be so general and expected. As such, it seems incapable of offering any new insight about a given historical moment. However, reading these poems that imagine a simpler existence before various forms of mechanization came between people and their landscapes, my students recognized the predictable familiarity of the retrospective glance, while also demonstrating its potential to unlock new ways of talking about the present. A poem of Clare’s lamenting the demise of the village green, for example, might have seemed sad and fusty, but in the classroom, it became a chance to reflect on the rapidity of technological change in our own lifetimes. I would amuse students with stories of my first experience with dial-up modems, and they would reminisce about the flip-phones of their early childhoods, alongside our stories about the changed landscapes and cityscapes of our youths. With each poem and each conversation, the digital environment we live in incrementally became more materially connected to the ecosystems in which we live, and our experience of their transformation felt closer to what these poets had described.
As we moved into the last quarter of the semester, the stridently environmentalist, even anti-technological ecopoetry of Robert Hass, Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, and Mary Oliver brought the environmental effects of technological change to center stage, linking the often conservative nostalgia of anti-pastoral laments about the state of the countryside to the urgent realization that the biosphere itself is in danger due to insatiable demands for energy the world over, but especially in countries where new technologies are produced and consumed. Robert Hass’s poem, “Ezra Pound’s Proposition,” for example, manages to compress the intended and unintended consequences of building a hydroelectric dam in Thailand through a brief, imagistic narrative of an encounter with a prostitute in a neon-lit district of Bangkok. Hass traces the electricity that makes new computer technologies viable through a destructive network that connects multinational corporations and major NGOs to the loss of human communities and the ecosystems that sustained them. In a dizzying thirteen lines, the poem’s second and final stanza takes us from Bangkok to Lund, Dresden, Detroit, Paris, San Francisco, New York, and Houston, conjuring a vast machine behind the machinery of the dam humming with electricity, which has displaced the villagers that now work the constantly lit streets of the capital. It’s not a nostalgic poem, as the village life left beneath the flood waters remains a suggestive absence, but it captures the compelling urgency of confronting the damaged biosphere with the memory, however fleeting, of what is lost and how it haunts the present. This poem brought the increasingly mediated, technologized classroom experiences that my students learn in, and which I in part encourage, into focus as existing on a surprising continuum with the pastoral, anti-pastoral, and eco-poetry that we had been reading all semester. The interplay of memory, narrative, and feeling that provoked the mournful nostalgia of Virgil’s first eclogue also informs our conflicted responses to the pace of technological change all around us.
“The old days,” whether defined by the use of a paper dictionary, a flip phone, or a sheephook, are often the products not only of memory and the passing of time, but of specific technological changes, which bring tangible environmental effects. This realization unlocked the mythological arcana and curmudgeonly nostalgia of pastoral poetry, connecting it to the experience of being a student in the age of MOOCs, message boards, gradebooks, and a proliferation of new learning technologies, many of which have improved our lives, but whose negative effects must not be ignored, not least the environmental effects that ecopoets like Hass record.
By the time we read “Ezra Pound’s Proposition,” spring had finally come upon us after a season marked by surprising late snowstorms. I told my students to close their laptops on which they were (presumably) taking notes — I confess to a teacher’s nostalgia for a time I’ve never known, when one didn’t have to worry about the distractions on students’ screens — and to follow me outside. There, we would indulge in the pleasure of pastoral nostalgia, reading poetry aloud on a patch of grass, before we all went back inside to plug in, working before screens whose glow came from electricity provided by my campus’s coal-fired power plant. Nostalgia is not to be trusted most of the time, especially in the classroom, as it can function as an uncritical reflex against the new and the unfamiliar in a place where experimentation and exploration are called for instead. But when it is activated in pursuit of critical insights about new technology and what is lost and carried over from “the old days,” then it can be generative of a deeper awareness about the pedagogical status quo in which our students learn.
Technological change transforms the physical world, just as it re-arranges our mental space, our memories, and the way we learn and navigate our present moment. Sometimes, it takes reading a poem about two shepherds singing on an ancient Greek island to pause and appreciate what is lost when new technologies arrive, but it also takes reading a poet like Hass to grasp the environmental costs of those technologies. The former experience excites the pleasures of nostalgia, the politically dubious indulgence of thinking back to calmer times, while the latter kicks these musings into critical gear. Nostalgia can spur the witness of memory against the ecological destruction wrought by new technologies, as the pastoral poets taught us. But nostalgia’s critical potential gets a jolt when anti-pastoral and ecopoets call out the economic forces and corporate agents that initiate such destruction. In the same way, we as teachers can encourage our students to be attuned to the nostalgia for small things like dictionaries, so that these recollections can spark awareness of the larger processes that drive change, and the losses that can accompany it when an ecosystem, pedagogical or otherwise, gets disrupted in the name of progress. To encourage such nostalgia in the classroom isn’t necessarily to court the unthinking reaction of its regressive political use. Instead, as pastoral poetry shows, the allure of “the old days” is a malleable thing that can either stay with an idealized view of the past or enliven a critical perspective on the present. Critical nostalgia makes us aware of other possibilities, however distant or fleeting, which might allow us to question technological change in the present and imagine a more sustainable future.