January 18th, 2008

Reflections on the Varieties of Televisual Nostalgia

Skylar was home sick yesterday. From 9am until 1pm she lay on the futon in the front room watching PBS, like she used to in pre-school when she was sick far more often than she is these days. As hard as those times were, being with her yesterday made me nostalgic for that era in our lives. Staying with her -- she wanted me nearby -- also led, though I was trying to work, to getting absorbed in the programming myself. That used to happen when she was two and three. But it's also an experience that I remember from my own childhood, which commenced more or less when public television children's programming in the United States did.

As I looked up from the laptop to see Big Bird, I had body memories of lying on the rug in the early eighteenth-century log cabin that was both our living room and the half-timberd Ur-structure around which the rest of our Pennsylvania farmhouse was built. It was usually gray in winter there, unlike the brilliant blue prevalent in these parts. Yet something about the chill in the air yesterday morning made me feel closer to that childhood home. While I was pondering my nostalgia, I suddenly realized with full force that Skylar herself was also indulging in nostalgia for her youth. She paid close attention to shows that are designed for pre-schoolers and exhibited affection towards them, not the resistance of a few years back when she felt the need to indicate that she had grown out of her pre-school preferences.

And that got me thinking about the way that I watched PBS children's television as a kid. I know that I was watching both Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood as a pre-schooler. I have diffuse, though undeniably accurate memories of both, particularly of the animated segments on the former and the model cars on the latter. But most of my recollections of PBS children's programs date from a later period, when I would watch them alongside my pre-school-age sister. Back then I could not articulate why I felt compelled to watch shows I should have outgrown with so much interest. Nevertheless, I did remark the strange feelings stirred up by the practice, filing away a mental note to return to my experience later, when I would be able to make sense of it. That's what I did yesterday, after watching Skylar do what I did at her age.

In the strain of psychoanalysis promulgated by Jacques Lacan, the "mirror stage" is a concept as slippery as it is significant. Although supposedly referring to an actual stage in development, when a child between the ages of six and eighteen months is able to identify itself as an autonomous and complete being in the course of seeing its reflection, it also functions by analogy as the name for later experiences that play a crucial role in delineating the self. As Lacan notes in his first seminar of 1953-1954, "the mirror-stage is not simply a moment in development (74)."

Seeing oneself in the mirror after one has become conscious of having a self is the most obvious example of this mirror stage by analogy. But there are other experiences, though further removed from what happens in the literal mirror stage, that still bear a strong resemblance to it. The sort of identification we experience watching a film or television show, while distinct from the identification we engage in when confronting our own image in the mirror, nevertheless functions to delineate the self. The line between identifying with a person and identifying oneself as a person is prone to blurring. This sort of confusion comes up again and again in Lacan's work, testifying, as he notes a little later in that first seminar, to the "strict intrication of the imaginary world and the real world in the psychic economy (78)."

Because the literal mirror stage is by definition locked away in the pre-history of our minds, it is inaccessible to recollection without the help of others. Our elders enable us to picture ourselves at that age -- just as they no doubt propped up our not-yet-walking bodies before the mirror -- thereby becoming the temporal equivalent of the "trotte-bébé" Lacan mentions in his famous essay on the mirror stage (1). Their descriptions of experiences which are ours, yet which we never truly feel to be our own, are our means of retroactively constructing a narrative in which we become ourselves. And those descriptions, in turn, inspire us to recall moments like the mirror stage for which we do have distinct memories.

A turning point before the mirror -- which can also be literal, such as a reflective surface, or figurative, such as a text with which we identify -- that we remember thus takes the place of that primary turning point we can't. Perhaps this is the right way to think about the varieties of nostalgia for childhood that I was musing on yesterday. Part of the difficulty in sorting all this out, however, is that children of my generation and, even more so, my daughter's were likely to go through the literal mirror stage at a time when they were already watching a lot of television, displacing one of those mirror stages by analogy back in time so that it overlapped with, rather than merely following, the literal mirror stage it mirrored. Although I am dubious of the argument that early exposure to television can be damaging to children, I will concede that there is something about this overlapping that is profoundly unsettling.

At some point, I'd like to elaborate on these reflections further. For now, I'll just leave you with a few brushstrokes sketching out landmarks on the horizon towards which I think I'm heading. I've been trying for some time to figure out the role that DVD box sets of older television shows are playing in our culture. People buy them, though they might like more recent fare better, even when they don't have the time to watch them. Indeed, as a visit to any media retailer over the recently passed holiday season would have amply illustrated, those box sets are a prime source of revenue in this era of shrinking media sales.

What I'm wondering is whether this nostalgia-driven consumption, irrational from both the standpoint of money and time management, is the product of a desire to produce the sort of experience that Skylar and I were having yesterday morning. The release of the first season of Sesame Street, which received a lot of press for being labeled as not suitable for young children, provides a perfect example of how this desire might be mobilized. After all, most of the people who buy it are not buying it for actually existing young people, but their own inner children. But other television shows -- the sort they might have watched at age eight, twelve, or sixteen -- could also function this way, as mirror stages by analogy. Furthermore, I think it highly probable, that, if they were performing this function, they would stand in for that first mirror stage by analogy -- the television programming seen before the establishment of memories that can be accessed in adulthood -- as well as the literal mirror stage.

In thinking about how the media might provide such mirror stages by analogy, it is worth noting that Jacques Lacan's conception of the mirror stage emphasizes the importance of differences in scale in the process. As Yannis Stavrakakis writes in Lacan & the Political, "the image in the mirror could never be identical to the infant since it is always of different size, it is inverted as all mirror images are, and, most importantly, it remains something alien (17)." Although Stavrakakis is not discussing identification that works through the figurative "mirror" provided by the media here, I can't help but think that the fact that television confronts us with images smaller than life size and cinema with images larger than life size plays a crucial role in their capacity to inspire so much psychological investment in spectators.