Rear-view mirrors: reclaiming the past's foreign countries

Nostalgia was once taboo in academe but a new generation is unafraid to explore longing and loss, says Alastair Bonnett

August 7, 2008

Intellectuals used to hate nostalgia. The sentimentalism, the conservatism, the sheer vulgarity of it were beneath contempt. Back in 1962, Eric Hobsbawm brusquely observed that ideologies that offer "resistance to progress hardly deserve the name of systems of thought". Being backward-looking was, well, backward.

But something is stirring down among the settled prejudices of the intelligentsia. Over the past few years, readers of humanities journals, and even some in the social sciences, will have noticed the intrusion of any number of wistful themes: memory, melancholy, haunting, exile. Yearning emotions of all kinds have come to the fore and, with them, the iconoclastic idea that a sense of profound cultural loss, of nostalgia, can be "productive", "restorative", even "radical".

It is somehow fitting that one of the more influential books of the new millennium was The Future of Nostalgia. Fitting too that the author, Svetlana Boym, an artist and professor of comparative literature at Harvard University, is a Russian emigre, someone who fled "existing socialism" not long before it too became an ambiguous object of nostalgia. Boym has returned time and again to the uncomfortable yet necessary relationship we all have (perhaps especially ex-Soviet citizens and those on the political Left) with abandoned aspirations and mouldering assumptions. Amid the many photos of romantically decayed buildings and things "not working" that dominate her website, Boym offers what she calls an "Off-modern Manifesto". "Art's new technology," she tells us, "is a broken technology. Or shall we call it dysfunctional, erratic, nostalgic?" Perhaps sensing that she has gone too far, Boym reassures us that her "Broken-tech art is not Luddite but ludic".

Whatever the appeal of "broken tech", Boym's work has become a common reference point for a new generation of younger academics who are trying to rethink nostalgia. The cutting edge of this activity is located in postcolonial history. It is the nostalgic yearnings of communities that have been forcibly displaced and otherwise "forgotten by history" that fascinate. Jennifer Ladino, a professor of Native American studies at Creighton University in Nebraska, argues that nostalgia can be employed to resist dominant images of the past. For Ladino, Native American reminiscence and storytelling are forms of "counter-nostalgia". Such narratives "utilise the unlikely ally of nostalgia as a catalyst for action".

Ladino's interest in the counter-nostalgia of the marginalised finds echoes across many disciplines. Linda Tabar has used her interviews in Palestine's Jenin refugee camp to explore "longing and sadness" as examples of political activism. The historical geographer Alison Blunt's investigation of the Anglo-Indian community highlights the "liberatory potential" of nostalgia. Blunt also suggests that hostility to nostalgia draws on a masculinist tendency to dismiss the importance of the private sphere and home. Thus for Blunt, "an antipathy towards nostalgia reflects a more pervasive and long-established 'suppression of home'".

Snorts of disgust can still be heard from some quarters at the prevalence of feelings of loss. One of the recent objects of censure in Marxist circles has been what David Harvey, an eminence grise of the fraternity, calls "place-bound nostalgia". The idea that people might have deep attachments to certain places, and that they might not want to see them changed out of all recognition, is troubling stuff for old-school revolutionaries (whether Marxist or capitalist). Not unrelatedly, the current reappraisal of nostalgia is often enlivened by the pain of political disillusionment. It is with barely suppressed bitterness that Robert Bevan, in The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War, chronicles the almost festishistic desire for demolition that has accompanied the creation and maintenance of modern states (especially, it seems, state communism). The "violent process of change", says Bevan, was designed to uproot and disorientate people and hence make them politically malleable. The power of political bureaucracies to control people has demanded the eradication of "place-bound nostalgias".

Is this observation conservative or radical? Probably both. The politics of nostalgia makes a mockery of this anachronistic yet still jealously guarded distinction. And hovering over the whole debate is the spectre of environmental change. When it comes to the climate, the aspiration to "return" to times past is now government policy. But, of course, nostalgia is rarely about really wanting to "go back". And the new debates opening up on the topic will have achieved little if all they do is reverse nostalgia's negative image. Nostalgia can be a source of hope, but it can also be a cruel refusal of hope. Nostalgia is not best studied as a moral choice but as a political and personal inevitability. We all do it, we all feel it. And the time when we could turn our backs on it is gone.

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