feeling westalgic yet?

So I was talking about ostalgie kitsch and people sleeping in Wartburgs in north London. What, they cry, is he on about?

Well, let me throw this one out. When the word was invented, the people who felt ostalgic were a pretty well-defined group sociologically – they were the people who had been part of privileged groups in the DDR, but not enough that they could simply retool into the reunited German/European Union elite.

But it didn’t stop there. It became a broader cultural phenomenon, with a specific aesthetic, and something approaching a way of life. The stereotype participant is pretty much an original hipster and almost certainly doesn’t have any direct contact with the DDR, reason to be nostalgic about it, or ideological kinship. This is interesting – people build identities out of bits of other people’s culture all the time, but it’s classically because they aspire to be like them.

I’m fairly confident that not many ostalgie creators or consumers in mid-2000s Berlin were actually hankering to be like a mid-level communist cadre from 1978, because the typical cadre was a highly conventional middle manager in a big company. And if there’s a society that values actual, real highly conventional middle managers and their company cars…well, Germany, we’re looking at you. That you were hanging around the former east in an east German tracksuit implied that you’d rejected that kind of aspiration.

So where are we off to with this? Well, what actually goes into the ragout fin (englished here as “a time-consuming entree”) might be worth looking at more closely. Apart from the calf’s sweetbreads and anchovies and worcestershire sauce and what not.

I would argue that its content is: the look and feel of international modernism, with a bit of British-type indieness and 80s (West) Berlin experimentalism on the music side, the European project but only from a consumer’s viewpoint (it’s awesome to not have borders – yes, we know, but it’s not enough is it?), and the hyperlocal/green/cupcake conservative lifestyle package. One of the things that’s going on here is just the way people pick up and incorporate odd things lying around, of course.

But how did it get attached to something as un-green, un-hyperlocal, and un-European (hey, they built a wall) as East Germany?

Well, I reckon that this isn’t nostalgia for the east. It’s nostalgia for the pre-Euro western Europe. (Which wasn’t that bad, was it?) Much of the iconography is shared, something which is very obvious in Berlin. That was after all the point of modernism. Westalgie, as I’ll call it, is a response to the massive agenda-setting efforts of the 1990s. Because European politics was squeezed down into an argument between the modern thinkers with their serious reforms and the others, while the ideal kept its appeal (even now, with the Greek economy in ruins and the economic integration pulling apart, there is real political support), there was a need for, well, something nicer.

If you like, it’s nostalgia for a future that was put permanently on hold.

2 Comments on "feeling westalgic yet?"

  1. Ah dear dead days. Slightly tangential as usual – the (SF) Worldcon was in The Hague in 1990 by fortuitous timing, which meant lots of Eastern Europeans could attend. We went to The Hague but also Berlin – we stayed in West Berlin in a B&B run by a chain-smoking woman retired due to a heart condition with an old dog. This was post fall of wall, pre reunification, pre currency exchange. The thing I regret was being too timid to go very far on the East Berlin U-Bahn etc into East Berlin and wandering around – since it wasn’t really clear how far we could go on what ticket – though we did go in.
    Anyway, on the train from Hook Of Holland to Berlin was a student who had blagged a scholarship paid for by the Institute For Humane Studies http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Institute_for_Humane_Studies to go to a conference somewhere in Eastern Europe where a bunch of Libertarians were basically gloating about having won the cold war. He said he had written an essay on something to do with Ayn Rand though had never actually read any of his (sic) books. [We corrected his schoolboy error]


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