How to Miss What Isn't Gone: Thoughts on Modern Nostalgias While Watching "The Office"




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When we decided to name our daughter Matilda, my wife bought a copy of Roald Dahl’s novel. We read it aloud to one another in bed. It held up, which was a relief, though I’m not sure it was the point. What mattered most was the little thrill we felt in recognition. We remembered everything — to reread wasn’t to discover anything new, it was to stoke the feeling of the first time around. The breathless description of evil Trunchbull swinging an offending child by her pigtails. The warmth of Miss Honey’s care. Increasingly, I think what we were looking for in the book, maybe even the name, was not gesturing forward at the expectation of having a child but reminding ourselves that we had been children — it happened; we felt it. We still do. We didn’t consider this at the time, but the name wasn’t just a reference to one beloved book, but a whole franchise, an early example of the now ubiquitous tendency to make a profitable character unending across new forms and generations. When we brought Matilda to daycare and said her name, a young teacher cooed, Oh my God, that was my favorite movie! They don’t make movies like that anymore. Then a friend of a friend at a baby brunch: You have to take her to the musical — there’s nothing better. We looked at each other with that most pointless kind of snobbery, the assuredness that the connection others felt was less pure than ours because we’d gotten there first.

This isn’t an essay about rereading, it’s about rewatching, but I’m starting to think it’s all the same impulse. Being a person who reads now feels the same as being a person who watches and one who listens, especially since sometimes all of those things are happening at once, an overwhelm of words, sounds, images all experienced before, so long as there’s no space in between for boredom or silence. This is about my relationship to art becoming recursive, in ways that feel both active and helpless. In a recent (mostly ineffectual) takedown of Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror in the London Review of Books, Lauren Oyler coined the term “hysterical criticism,” tying it to this particular cultural moment:

Hysterical critics are self-centred — not because they write about themselves, which writers have always done, but because they can make any observation about the world lead back to their own lives and feelings, though it should be the other way around.

I don’t disagree with the observation, but the conclusion seems unhelpful. I’m more interested in criticism as a reflection of the culture it’s trying to define — the constraints of what, and how, the world allows us to read. When I read Tolentino, or any of today’s best critics, it doesn’t occur to me to think of the way the self, or the solipsism of memory, always sits at the heart of an essay as a good thing or a bad thing, morally or aesthetically. Maybe this is obvious (glib false modesty is another crime of the hysterical critic), but I’m stuck on how hard it feels to engage with what we love, or even try to get a sense of what we love. I think about the source metaphor of this modern cultural landscape: the stream. How to understand any piece of culture when they’re all in the same current, moving past and around us at all times, everything simultaneously here and gone. The act of viewership becomes reaching out for something sturdy, finding the purchase of self-recognition, grabbing on tight.

The baby sleeps reasonably well now. The nights are ours again to mark with something of our choice. We’re rewatching The Office for the third time. We’ve already rewatched Friends, Mad MenBreaking Bad, and Six Feet Under, but out of all these shows, all these memories of watching these shows, The Office is the most ubiquitous, its pages most dog-eared. This does not make us unique — according to a piece in Vanity Fair, by early 2019 there had been a total of 52 billion minutes spent streaming The Office on Netflix, a collective consciousness spanning the length of human civilization. In the essay, Sonia Saraiya attempts to understand specifically why young people love the show so much, creating an obsessive backlog of their own experiences with a sitcom that cataloged the particular “detritus of late capitalism,” as she puts it, that began when they were in diapers. But rewatching flattens time. If the show is available, it can be both old and new over and over again, until what you never had and what you miss exist on the same plane. Sometimes before class, I talk to my creative writing students about The Office because it’s nice to share something non-required for six minutes. What we share is wistfulness, as though we lived through the same thing and now that thing is slipping away from all of us, even though we just watched it again and it was never really there. Do you remember that episode? I do remember! Do you remember the way it used to be to watch? I do! I do! They’re amused that someone as old as me gets their references; I’m amused that someone so young has already claimed my same sense of cultural loss. A pleasant, collaborative loop.

I don’t want to use the word nostalgia. It’s easy and it conflates ideas too neatly, and like everything it’s tinged with Trumpian political relevance (though you could argue that, like with everything, Trump just made explicit the political act embedded within it). The word feels particularly loaded, but also unavoidable. When new content is endless, access constant, any act of laying claim to what to watch, or read or listen to, becomes a snatch at a moment of slowness — one complete, repeatable decision, a sense of consistency, which is another way of saying relief. When Oyler writes about the “hysterical” in contemporary criticism, I think of it as a type of exhaustion; less narcissism or verbosity and more watching a brain spin out, then loop back on the familiar. I spend time now at baby-centered functions, where the only commonality among the adults at the edge of the scrum is the proximate ages of the small humans we’re responsible for. Frozen in small talk, the only guaranteed shared frame of reference is a discussion of what we’ve watched on various platforms. These conversations almost always become more stressful than connective — Have you seen this? This? No? This is like this. I can’t remember the name, but it wasn’t that one, it was the other one. Where can you see it? Here? Here? If you don’t have that platform, you’re missing this. It’s season three already? Not yet, but we’re planning to. We’ve been saying we should. Every conversation about viewership becomes a weird self-scold, another version of the spin classes left on a punch card, the leafy greens wilting in the fridge. Falling behind. At home in our personalized stream, the algorithm tailored to us, how can it not feel like the only option is to go back to what we remember, remember it again?

I guess what I really want to say is that, if the only option is nostalgia, nostalgia alone is too simple to say. Cultural consumption has splintered off into subgenres of what was once a fairly straightforward mode of engagement. These distinctions become yet another battleground on which to cling to the comfort of allegiance. I, for instance, feel weird disdain for what I’ve dubbed evangelical nostalgia — the endless franchises, the zealous loyalty to multigenerational expanding universes that travel with you from childhood to (I assume people genuinely want this?) death. I liked Iron Man in college, but don’t have the desire to watch him return with other heroes every year, their mythologies creaking on side-by-side, each new iteration winking at the last, the meta-narrative of billion-dollar business. I haven’t seen any new Star Wars — the idea of this galaxy extending across generations brings me only fear. Or perhaps it’s distrust. It seems like a celebration of half-imagination, at best the achievement of something semi-new. A way to simulate moving forward, with none of the risk; a way to stay stagnant with no shame.

I get frustrated when friends overwhelm the group text with passion and pathos for the “final” Avengers, or a new peephole into the same Star Wars room. Where is that generosity for anything new? Somehow works that attempt originality are easier to write off as derivative. I’ve felt a similar frustration when students act like there’s just one way to tell a story, the one they’ve seen over and over and sworn allegiance to, and one set of characters adequate for populating a story — everyone a Slytherin or a Gryffindor, a Jedi or Sith — and that deviation is an insult to the love they felt and feel, the first one and the only one. Watching someone else try to inhabit the same space in their imagination on repeat, it’s hard not to see them trapped. I get it — I’m a hypocrite. A lot of teaching is demanding a level of dedication to a similarly fixed, pure idea of the sanctity of the classroom. Teachers are people who, when they were students, did whatever a teacher asked; it’s a hard lesson to learn that obedience is a different thing than taste. But how do you critique something new when its stated goal is adherence to what has already been? Sometimes, it feels like even our conversations about craft become tinged with longing. The effort of engaging with something new is tempered with the memory of what you know you already loved, and then the memory of loving it, a memory of yourself. Central to evangelical nostalgia is a yearning for control.

My brand of nostalgia wants the world to stop. Call it old testament, if you like — let’s have our Talmudic arguments, but no new volumes, please. I don’t want my favorites creeping forward, contorting toward control of all mediums. You can read this as humility, or you can read it as absolutism. You can also read it as hypocrisy, since The Office began as a British show; I was predictably pessimistic about the American version until it proved so much it’s own thing, and ran so long, that it became it’s own artifact. Either way, there’s something crucial for me in the fact that The Office cannot evolve. I don’t want to re-encounter
Jim and Pam a decade later to see how they’ve changed. I dread the clunkiness of a contemporary writer’s room trying to massage Michael Scott’s balance of bigotry, narcissism, and ultimate decency into a world where the definition of each trait is ever-shifting. The result would be simultaneously offensive and cloying, a fluorescent light flicked on in a room that never should have been entered. Instead, rewatching what is unchangeable, the narrative is the opposite of evolution. The characters, the conceits, even the specifically time stamped mock-doc format — it’s all untenable but it’s still there, still lovable, more lovable. That’s the pleasure. From the very beginning, the show was built around a feeling of impending loss. The characters were dated when they premiered; the life they showed as sad and dumb and beautiful was endangered, maybe already extinct, even then. One of the show’s best lines is the tagline of Michael’s self-directed commercial: “Limitless paper in a paperless world.” The plot is generated by the characters’ ongoing navigation of their own obsolescence. This only grows clearer with each rewatch, making it all somehow feel more valuable, a commodity in limited supply, even though it’s everywhere. The opposite of an expanding universe.

In this version of nostalgia, what expands is our lives as we return to watch. I have this memory, very clear, of my now wife’s first apartment in New York: the basement of a friend’s sister’s two-bedroom. We were a season behind but had DVDs to watch in bed into the early morning. I was an intern at a magazine that touted its prestige, worked us hard for that prestige, then paid us with $150 cash in an unmarked envelope each Friday. My wife worked at a fancy purse store, where she couldn’t go to the bathroom for fear of theft. The economy had just collapsed, which created a sense of panic but also the absolving thought of not being personally responsible. Did we see ourselves as Jim and Pam? If we did, it was way too cringey to say out loud. But we did talk in ways that approached fantasy about the lives depicted on the show. Imagine wearing a suit. Imagine having your closest relationships with co-workers. Imagine a fixed, simmering kind of sadness, with beats baked into every episode to remind you that there are much worse things. Now, the baby sleeps, the screen shifts to that sneering question: Are you still watching? We negotiate whether to watch another episode — it’s nearly 10:00 after all — and when we start watching again, we try to remember watching a decade ago. We feel the small satisfaction of being people whose lives resemble the semi-realization of ambitions loftier than a mid-sized Northeast Pennsylvania paper company sitcom shtick, but then the little tug of what it felt like to watch the show as a fantasy all those years ago, which in turn begins to feel like a fantasy, too. And if I’m honest, we’ve had this conversation before, during previous rewatches, and so time compresses, a feeling of both quickening and slowing, which I think was what we wanted when we decided to do this instead of getting into that new Jason Bateman thing — not Ozark, the new new one.

The brilliant anthropologist Kathleen Stewart once wrote a self-dubbed polemic about nostalgia:

Culture is more and more unspoken and unnamed. Painted onto the surface of things, it passes us by as a blur of images and we “read” it as if it is a photographic image already “written” and framed. […] [The] fragmentation of our present is experienced as a breakdown in our sense of time. As a result, the present rises before us in the ultravivid mode of fascination — a fascination that is experienced as a loss, an unreality.

She wrote these words in 1988. I know it’s nothing particularly revelatory to note that a sense of panic and loss that feels uniquely modern has felt uniquely modern throughout every new phase of technological modernity. Twenty-five years before Stewart, Marshall McLuhan famously bemoaned the TV, and the speed and fragmentation of what it meant to be alive in the world: “Only the dedicated artist seems to have the power for encountering the present actuality.” I find it impossible to talk about what it feels like to be alive in this moment without eventually glomming onto a misplaced certainty that nobody else could have ever felt as overwhelmed as we do now, that all past cultures flatten into a time before us, too generalized to really picture, when it was easy to understand what it all meant. Nostalgia for a time when nostalgia might have been clearer.

But at the risk of continued hysteria, it has to feel different now. Yes, maybe the blur was precursor for the stream — so much, so fast — but I want to know what changes when you still feel culture zooming past you, but nothing is ever gone. The sense of desperation lingers, the sense of the inability to keep up, but that becomes recursive when you can return to the same story on demand, re-experience the same desperation. What happens to the feeling of nostalgia when we haven’t let ourselves miss anything? The culture I miss is more available and popular than it was when I first loved it. I still watch to feel yearning, even though I keep preempting the opportunity to miss anything. Again, it’s an impulse more comfortably identified in others. What better symbol for this half-feeling than Baby Yoda — not just a return to a character so beloved (forty years beloved, now) but a rebirth? This new-old character streaming its debut at the same time as the next new-old movie premieres, which ends with Rey, whose character arc is already three movies long, returning to the place where the first scene of the franchise was set, the embodied spirits of Luke and Leia literally haunting it, Leia now extra weighted with the real-life loss of Carrie Fisher, but look at her, living on in character, even though that character is also technically dead, as the universe expands and also stays exactly the same. The comfort of the thing being everywhere, all at once, fractured in the way all culture is, but unified in the relentless survival of a single fiction, no matter what else has changed, is changing.

At the end of 2019, Annalee Newitz wrote in The New York Times that Star Wars fandom now mirrored American politics, with some imagining a progressive future while others cling to and weaponize their nostalgia. The latter group is easy to skewer — rigid, afraid, cartoons of faux-aggrieved petulance: boomers. But I don’t know if their obviousness makes those who desire a politically progressive Star Wars any less entrenched. Compared to the completely intractable, semi-imagination can seem like revolution, but the self, the need to cling to a memory, is still at the center of the desire to bend the old thing toward a version that makes the memory feel less bad. In another anti-nostalgia Star Wars analysis, in Wired, Adam Rogers implores fellow fans to force the universe they worship to creak forward: The story only ends if we let it. There’s the self again, an imagined benevolent force, pushing at some idealized version of the un-killable formula that might, for now, feel decent enough. And look over there! Something unambiguously decent: that viral picture of George Lucas holding Baby Yoda, staring down at the puppet face like it’s something more. Freeze that image, hold that image, zoom. Imagine yourself as the baby, imagine yourself holding the baby; remember when you were, remember when you did — why would anybody ever let go of the familiar?

In her essay on Roland Barthes, Kate Zambreno writes about staring at her baby’s sleeping face, recognizing herself, and then gaining the sensation of embodying her mother, staring at the same image a generation earlier — “unsettling, but in a calm way.” She takes pictures of her daughter every day: “Every morning now my baby’s face looks different. Every day her eyes look a bit closer together, or perhaps further apart. […] Will the photographs later reveal the nuances, the gradation?” In my experience: Yes, if you want them to. When the baby’s asleep, phones come out. Another stream: Matilda’s life; our lives, too, standing on the opposite side of the image. Some photographs get thrown up on the shared drive with family, those inviting a funny caption make it onto an Instagram story, and finally the most beautiful or milestone-y hit the Instagram feed. These separately curated narratives are padded by thousands of random shots and clips of our daughter, captured because we thought something important might happen and that possibility made us terrified of being unable to revisit the thing even before it happened. Already, I’ve selected the images I want to revisit. In real life, I am ashamed of how angry I can get, in bursts somehow impotent and frightening at the same time, screaming into my pillow when it feels like nothing has progressed. This quality appears in no images, but I think about it a lot. I look to confirm the opposite. My wife took a video months ago from outside our living room window, when Matilda and I didn’t know we were being watched. She’s fussy at first, but I hold her on my lap until she cheers up, hiding my face with a towel and letting her pull it off. Her smile when my face reappears, her little body leaning exhausted into mine at the end, the way I absorb her gently, capably — every time I watch it, I think I see, then feel, something new. More contours of love, gentleness, ease — a thousand other images and all their possibilities or terrors fade away. Often, we sit in the same spot, me holding her as she faces the window, and I try to make our bodies appear the same way, to recreate what it might feel like to watch us.

The most interesting line in Oyler’s review of Tolentino’s book describes a culture that rewards those who “tend to find simple things complicated and complicated things simple.” I don’t know if that’s an accurate description of Tolentino, but it feels like an increasingly accurate description of me. Embedded in this critique is recursivity — the more you return to what was once a simple pleasure, the more destabilized it feels, and that feels complex, and soon it’s like you’re not retreading well-worn territory at all. There’s a tendency, I think, to justify writing about something, or caring about something at all, by framing it as an obsession — a much more active and interesting word than saying comfort or inertia, or trying to explain the feeling of just passing time. Every time I watch The Office, I think there’s more to say about it; each stupid gag contains new pathos or hidden politics, or the evolution of my politics is reflected in the way interpretation has changed. This time, all we talk about is Pam, and Jenna Fischer’s brilliant performance as Pam. Pam’s humility or little squashed moments of vanity; the way everything framed as a good thing carries an inevitable current of regret — I don’t know, just Pam: hero; us watching Pam and recognizing heroism. What does she mean? Something more than we previously thought, surely. Look at her eyes move when Jim reappears in that most famous scene, the way she bites at her lip as she cries, as though trying to pinch her way out of a dream that she doesn’t deserve him, one from which she never quite wakes. It feels momentous; it feels like it’s about us watching it, which I assume means that it’s about so much more, but maybe it’s just the right combination of happy and sad that a sitcom must reach for, which I’ve been conditioned to expect and make new each time. No, there has to be more than that.

When Nabokov gave his famous “one cannot read a book: one can only reread it” lecture, even back then he was asking for things to slow down. A book, he said, was too overwhelming, just a stream of words, and only upon revisiting could there be meaning. I guess what I’m trying to understand is the line between deepening and inertia. And my own silly need to look at someone demanding a new Star Wars every year, as though there’s truly new ground to cover, and see something different than my need to rewatch the same episodes, the same characters, as though there’s truly something meaningful that I might have missed. Wherever you find comfort, it’s also comforting to think there’s something more. But maybe that’s as pointless as it is greedy. Maybe whatever the object of revisiting or retelling is, the thing we refuse to let flow past, the meaning lies in the act of imagined preservation. As Lauren Berlant writes in Cruel Optimism, all you can do is “admit your surprising attachments […] trace your transformation over the course of a long (life) sentence.” This, she writes simply, “is sentience.” Pam Beesly, happy and sad, repeated — our own little Yoda, shifting as we shift over time: proof of life.

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Lucas Mann is the author of Captive Audience: On Love and Reality Television, Lord Fear: A Memoir,and Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere.

 

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