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Nostalgia and Its Discontents

The word “nostalgia” comes from two Greek roots, nostos (return home) and algia (longing). I would define it as a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy. Nostalgic love can only survive in a long-distance relationship. A cinematic image of nostalgia is a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images: of home and abroad, of past and present, of dream and everyday life. The moment we try to force it into a single image, it breaks the frame or burns the surface.

Is nostalgia ever what it used to be? Today it would not occur to us to demand a prescription for it. Yet in the seventeenth century, nostalgia was considered to be a curable disease, akin to a severe common cold. The word was coined by the ambitious Swiss student Johannes Hofer in his medical dissertation (1688). Hofer and his colleagues believed that opium, leeches, and a journey to the Swiss Alps would take care of nostalgic symptoms. Among the first victims of the newly diagnosed disease were various displaced people of the seventeenth century: freedom-loving students from the Republic of Berne studying in Basel, domestic help and servants working in France and Germany, and Swiss soldiers fighting abroad. The epidemic of nostalgia was accompanied by the even more dangerous epidemic of ‘feigned nostalgia’, particularly common to soldiers tired of serving abroad, who revealed the contagious nature of ‘erroneous representations’ and ‘afflicted imagination’.

As a public epidemic, nostalgia was based on a sense of loss not limited to personal history. Such a sense of loss does not necessarily suggest that what is lost is properly remembered and that one still knows where to look for it. Nostalgia became less and less curable. By the end of the eighteenth century, doctors discovered that a return home did not always treat the symptoms. In fact, once at home, the patients often died. The object of longing occasionally migrated to faraway lands beyond the confines of the motherland. Just as today genetic researchers hope to identify genes for medical conditions, social behavior and even sexual orientation, so the doctors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries looked for a single cause, for one ‘pathological bone’. Yet they failed to find the locus of nostalgia in their patients’ minds or bodies. One doctor claimed that nostalgia was a ‘hypochondria of the heart’ that thrives on its own symptoms. From a treatable sickness nostalgia turned into an incurable disease. A provincial ailment, maladie du pays, turned into a disease of the modern age, mal du siècle.

My hypothesis is that the spread of nostalgia had to do not only with dislocation in space but rather with the changing conception of time. Nostalgia was diagnosed at a time when art and science had not yet entirely severed their umbilical ties and when the mind and body – internal and external well-being—were treated together. This was a diagnosis of a poetic science. And we should not smile condescendingly upon the diligent Swiss doctors. Our progeny might poeticise depression and see it as a metaphor for a global atmospheric condition, immune to treatment with Prozac. Modern nostalgia is a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an ‘enchanted world’ with clear borders and values. It could be a secular expression of a spiritual longing, a nostalgia for an absolute, for a home that is both physical and spiritual, for the Edenic unity of time and space before entry into history. One who suffers from nostalgia is looking for a spiritual addressee. Encountering silence, he looks for memorable signs, desperately misreading them.

In response to Enlightenment, with its emphasis on the universality of reason, romantics began to celebrate the particularism of sentiment. Longing for home became a central trope of ‘romantic nationalism’. It is not surprising that national awareness comes from outside the community rather than from within. The nostalgic is never a native but a displaced person who mediates between the local and the universal. Many national languages, thanks to Herder’s passionate rehabilitation, discovered their own particular expression for patriotic longing. Curiously, intellectuals and poets from different national traditions began to claim that they had a special word for homesickness that was radically untranslatable: the Portuguese had their saudade, Russians, their toska, Czechs litost’, Romanians, dor--to say nothing of heimweh and mal de corazon. All those untranslatable words of national uniqueness proved to be synonyms of the same historical emotion. While the details and flavours differ, the grammar of romantic nostalgias all over the world is quite similar. “I long therefore I am” was the romantic motto.

Modern nostalgia is paradoxical in the sense that the universality of longing can make us more empathetic towards fellow humans, yet the moment we try to repair longing with a particular belonging, the apprehension of loss with a rediscovery of identity and especially of a national community and unique and pure homeland, we often part ways and put an end to mutual understanding. Algia (longing) is what we share, yet nostos (the return home) is what divides us. It is the promise to rebuild the ideal home that lies at the core of many powerful ideologies of today, tempting us to relinquish critical thinking for emotional bonding. The danger of nostalgia is that it tends to confuse the actual home and the imaginary one. In extreme cases it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Unreflected nostalgia breeds monsters. Yet the sentiment itself, the mourning of displacement and temporal irreversibility, is at the very core of the modern condition.

The ambivalent sentiment permeates twentieth-century popular culture where technological advances and special effects are frequently used to recreate visions of the past, from the sinking Titanic to dying gladiators and extinct dinosaurs. While making a claim of a pure and clean homeland, nostalgic politics often produces a mixed ‘glocal’ hybrid of capitalism and religious fundamentalism, or of corporate state and Eurasian patriotism. The mix of nostalgia and politics can be explosive.

The nostalgia that interests me here is not merely an individual sickness but a symptom of our age, a historical emotion. Hence I will make three crucial points. Firstly, nostalgia in my diagnosis is not ‘antimodern’. It is not necessarily opposed to modernity but coeval with it. Nostalgia and progress are like Jekyll and Hyde: doubles and mirror images of one another. Nostalgia is not merely an expression of local longing, but a result of a new understanding of time and space that made the division into ‘local’ and ‘universal’ possible.

Secondly, nostalgia appears to be a longing for a place but actually it is a yearning for a different time: the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition. Hence the “past of nostalgia”, to paraphrase Faulkner, is not “even the past.” It could be merely a better time, or a slower time; time out of time, not encumbered by appointment books.

Thirdly, nostalgia, in my view, is not always retrospective; it can be prospective as well. The fantasies of the past determined by the needs of the present have a direct impact on the realities of the future. The consideration of the future makes us take responsibility for our nostalgic tales. Unlike melancholia, which confines itself to the planes of individual consciousness, nostalgia is about the relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups or nations, between personal and collective memory. While futuristic utopias might be out of fashion, nostalgia itself has a utopian dimension, only it is no longer directed toward the future. Sometimes it is not directed toward the past either, but rather sideways. The nostalgic feels stifled within the conventional confines of time and space. Prospective nostalgia is not post-modern but rather off-modern; it invites an exploration of the side alleys and lateral possibilities of the modern project, to move in zigzags like the knight in the game of chess, to unearth some unfullfilled dreams of critical modernity.

Instead of a magic cure for nostalgia, I will offer a typology that might illuminate some of nostalgia’s mechanisms of seduction and manipulation. I distinguish between two main types of nostalgia: the restorative and the reflective. Restorative nostalgia stresses nostos and attempts a transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home. It lies at the core of recent national and religious revivals, and knows two main plots: the return to origins and the conspiracy. The rhetoric of restorative nostalgia is not about the ‘past’ but rather about universal values, family, nature, homeland, truth. The rhetoric of reflective nostalgia, by contrast, is about taking time out of time and about grasping the fleeing present.

Restoration (from re-staure, re-establish) signifies a return to the original stasis, to the prelapsarian moment. While restorative nostalgia returns and rebuilds one’s homeland with paranoiac determination, reflective nostalgia fears return with the same passion. Instead of a recreation of the lost home, reflective nostalgia can foster the creation of aesthetic individuality. Home, after all, is not a gated community. Paradise on earth might turn out to be another Potemkin village with no exit.

Reflective nostalgia is concerned with historical and individual time, with the irrevocability of the past and human finitude. Re-flection means new flexibility, not the re-establishment of stasis. The focus here is not on the recovery of what is perceived to be an absolute truth but on the meditation on history and the passage of time. To paraphrase Nabokov (1990:185f.), such nostalgics are often “amateurs of Time, epicures of duration” who resist the pressure of external efficiency and take sensual delight in the texture of time not measurable by clocks and calendars.

If restorative nostalgia ends up reconstructing emblems and rituals of home and homeland in an attempt to conquer and spatialise time, reflective nostalgia cherishes shattered fragments of memory and temporalises space. Restorative nostalgia takes itself dead seriously. Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, can be ironic and humorous. It reveals that longing and critical thinking are not opposed to one another, as affective memories do not absolve one from compassion, judgment or critical reflection.

Reflective nostalgia does not pretend to rebuild the mythical place called home; it is “enamored of distance, not of the referent itself” (Stewart 1984: 145). This type of nostalgic narrative is ironic, inconclusive, and fragmentary. It is precisely this defamiliarisation and sense of distance that drives them to tell their story, to narrate the relationship between past, present, and future. The past is not made in the image of the present or seen as foreboding of some present disaster; rather, the past opens up a multitude of potentialities, non-teleological possibilities of historical development. We don’t need a computer to get access to the virtualities of our imagination: reflective nostalgia has already opened multiple planes of consciousness. In the twenty-first century millions of people find themselves displaced from their places of birth, living in voluntary or involuntary exile. Immigrant stories are the best narratives of nostalgia, not only because they suffer through it but because they challenge it. They are often framed as projections for nostalgias of the others who speak from a much safer place. Immigrants understand limitations of nostalgia and the tenderness of what I call “diasporic intimacy” that cherishes non-native, elective affinities. Diasporic intimacy is not opposed to uprootedness and defamiliarisation but is constituted by it. So much has been made of the happy homecoming that it is time to do justice to the stories of non-return and the reluctant praise of exile. Non-return home in the case of some exiled writers and artists turns into a central artistic drive, a home-making in the text and artwork as well as a strategy of survival. Ordinary exiles too often become artists in life who remake themselves and their second homes with great ingenuity. Inability to return home is both a personal tragedy and an enabling force. That doesn’t mean that there is no nostalgia there, only that this kind of nostalgia precludes the restoration of the past. Diasporic intimacy does not promise an unmediated emotional fusion, but only a precarious affection--no less deep, while aware of its transience.

Nostalgia, like globalisation, exists in the plural. The sociology, politics, ethnography of nostalgia, the study of its micropractices and meganarratives, remain as urgent as ever. Nostalgia reveals pluralities within cultures and not only external pluralisms. The mimetic desire for the nostalgias of the other goes beyond the East-West of Europe: often conscientious Europeans and Americans in their more or less genuine desire to understand the Eastern ‘other’ turn the dream of multiculturalism into a reverse exoticism. They exaggerate the otherness of the other, preserving nostalgic difference while disregarding differences within the foreign culture and its forms of political authoritarianism and media manipulation. Whether it’s a matter of past grievances or present self-assertion, one always has to recognize the modernity of the other, the shared world of modern reinvented traditions and transnational individual dreams for reform and improvement. While the story that nostalgics tell is one of local homecoming, the form of that story is hardly local. Contemporary nostalgias can be understood as a series of migrating cross-cultural plots that go beyond national attachments. There is not much that is new about contemporary nostalgia circa 2011. In fact the word ’contemporary’ used first in the current sense in 1633, is fifty years older than the word ‘nostalgia’, invented in 1688. At the end, the only antidote for the dictatorship of nostalgia might be nostalgic dissidence and a swerve of freedom. The off-modern project of today which we already eye with anticipatory nostalgia from the hindsight of some potentially dystopian future—proposes to follow this mysterious swerve. Hopefully it would allow us to reflect on the prospective rather than retrospective dimensions of longing and to examine histories of what-if roads not taken and technologies that didn’t lead to the creation of the corporate giants of the Silicon Valley. Creative new media does not have to be driven solely by the existing technologies but also by estranging artistic techniques that reflect on the frameworks of technology itself. It can result in the organisation of the alternative platforms for knowledge and experience. Neither hyper- nor cyber- but another prefix that hasn’t been fixed yet.