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The Intoxicating Allure of Nostalgia
Mobilising nostalgia as a political force.
The father of the contemporary study of nostalgia, Fred Davis, described nostalgia in 1979 as a “deeply social emotion” not only felt as a personal experience but extending into our role as social actors. Davis considered nostalgia to have both private and collective forms; the former as the memories of one’s own personal life, while the latter extended to the remembrances of a wider community of people. As a social force, nostalgia thus shapes individual and community identity by providing, through the evocation of the past in the present, continuity in identity, particularly during periods of social change.
That an idea of home - nostos - lies at the etymological root of nostalgia should be a clue to the potential political power of the phenomenon. The late Russian-American scholar of nostalgia, Svetlana Boym, saw clearly this link between nostalgia, culture, and politics, and placed nostalgia at the centre of our discontents. Boym posited that the 20th Century “began with utopia and ended with nostalgia”, with the 21st Century expanding into a multiplicity of nostalgias. A recent 3am Thoughts explored the vacuum of new ideas for our challenging times; Boym had this pinned ~15 years ago, explicitly linking the void to nostalgia:
“The first decade of the twenty-first century is not characterized by the search for new ness, but by the proliferation of nostalgias that are often at odds with one another.”
Perhaps the most salient element of nostalgia is that it tells us more about the present than it does about the past. In our alienated present, little wonder there is longing for bygone days of community and locality. In our godless world, little wonder there is yearning for faith in something, anything. In our technophilic world, little wonder there is longing for nature and a pastoral ideal. In our fragmented societies, our version of Tönnies’ gesellschaft, little wonder there is pining for gemeinschaft. In our deindustrialised economic ruin, little wonder there is yearning for long gone days of living wages, stability, and dignity in labour.
Therein lies the root of nostalgia as a mobilising political force; therein also lies the danger, because nostalgia is prone to manipulation; did this time we are nostalgic for every truly exist? Who is eliciting this nostalgia, and for what purposes? Understanding this potential manipulative power of nostalgia, Boym distinguished between “restorative nostalgia”, which emphasises the nostos (home) element of nostalgia, and “reflective nostaglia”, which emphasises the algia (longing) element. Boym did not consider these distinctions absolute, however, their respective emphasis is meaningful to their expression, and consequently to their political implications.
Restorative nostalgia seeks a “return to origins”, to recreate a more authentic time based on “universal values, family, nature, homeland”, which it assumes is a singular version of national and community identity. What constitutes “truth and tradition” for restorative nostalgia purposes is thus highly selective, ignoring contradictory evidence and the complexities of history, seeking continuity with its perception of the past to restore the homeland to its pure state. Consequently, per Boym, restorative nostalgia is prone to:
“...be politically manipulated through newly recreated practices of national commemoration with the aim of re-establishing social cohesion, a sense of security, and an obedient relationship to authority.”
Faith, Flag, Family. Restorative nostalgia is on full display among the emerging intellectual beacons of New Right conservatism, from Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen to Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule, to the Herzl Institutes’ Yoram Hazony. Where the nostalgia of traditional conservatism was more recently directed toward an Enlightenment-based definition of liberalism, these emboldened Right-wing thinkers see liberalism as the root of the social, economic, and political wastelands in which we find ourselves. Their restorative nostalgia seeks a restoration of the family as the foundation stone of social order, religion as the glue of social cohesion, and a political order of Aristotelean organisation headed by a Christian conservative cultural elite.
From the other etymological root, the longing of algia, reflective nostalgia constitutes “taking time out of time and about grasping the fleeing present.” Reflective nostalgia has no singular origin narrative, and is inherently playful, opening nostalgia for different times and places. In contrast to restorative nostalgia, reflective nostalgia is more critically reflective, can hold the ambiguities of the past in tension with the present, and retains doubt over any perceived truth of the past, which may be either real or imaginary. In this regard, restorative nostalgia is “ironic, inconclusive, and fragmentary.” Per Boym:
“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.”
While time the is element of nostalgia often emphasised by scholars like Davis or Boym, the sociologist Janelle Wilson has drawn attention to the equally fundamental element of place. Nostalgia for the pastoral, evident in the face of increasing urbanisation, manifest in trends like “cottagecore”. Nostalgia for industry, a consequence of deindustrialisation, a lament for what the ruins of a mine or steel mill represent: well-paying jobs around which a community could build. Nostalgia for a particular social order and community, reflected in the Ostalgia for the former German Democratic Republic, a symptom of the sense of loss and displacement felt in the former East following the mismanaged privatisation bonanza of reintegration.
Adding the spatial to the temporal element of nostalgia provides a further delineation between how restorative and reflective nostalgias may be respectively mobilised. Restorative nostalgia takes deindustrialisation as emblematic of contemporary social decay and deploys a rhetoric of recreation, evident in the campaign trail of every American presidential candidate in the Rust Belt or British politician outside of London, promising the return of decent jobs and wages amid the hollowed-out ghosts of the industrial past. Conversely, reflective nostalgia may seek to memorialise that past in the present, maintaining abandoned London Underground stations used during the Blitz for unlikely visitors, or preserving the prominence of Checkpoint Charlie in an expression, as Boym phrased it, of “multiple contested histories and coexisting temporalities.”
From a political perspective, the delineation between restorative and reflective nostalgia are stark: “Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters.” Restorative nostalgia was on full display in the rise of Trump, and characterises the rhetoric of the emergent New Right conservatism, rejecting what Deneen terms “a life lived in a few global cities in which the ‘culture’ comes to mean expensive and exclusive consumption goods.” Restorative nostalgia lies at the core of the British Conservative Party’s crusade against imaginary dragons, from Brexit to the lies of “levelling up” the former industrial Midlands and North. It is a potent mobilising force across the spectrum of the European populist Right, which blends left-economic and social conservative policies that Deneen is imploring of his American counterparts, mixed with an emphasis on the nation state and the unique characteristics of national culture.
But while the characteristics of restorative nostalgia render it a more suitable match with the Right, it is by no means an exclusive relationship. Boym stated that the 20th century “began with utopia and ended with nostalgia”, but utopia is once again alive and well on the progressive Left, the vision of societal transformation from transgressions of thought and speech at the behest of a self-ordained caste of contemporary Puritans. The utopia is the logical end of a restorative nostalgia that seeks not the return of any particular time and place, as the past is the primary source of denigration for our social order, but the Garden of Eden prior to the moment of Original Sin. Like their counterparts on the restorative nostalgic Right, this is born of deep disillusionment with the social project of liberalism, only from a different perspective: its unfulfilled promises of Liberté, Egalité, et Fraternité. If unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters on the Right, it can pave a road to hell with good intentions on the Left.
Nostalgia may be leading us into some fraught territories. The critical remembrance of reflective nostalgia asks us to engage with the potential that the time and place we are imagining may not be real. What happens when even the facts of the past become contested, as they are now, and no longer the realm of fact? What nostalgias are created from a pincer movement of ideologies all seeking to mould and shape the past according to their ideological tenets of the present? When a selective restorative nostalgia is mobilised by a clash of ideologies that seeks to either rebuild some ideal social order or to transform and build a new one, it leads us to “relinquish critical thinking for emotional bonding.” Perhaps no words could better synopsise our severed tribalism.
And what happens to nostalgia when we are eventually removed from memory altogether? When AI generates its discarnate and hazy images of a past that it thinks may have happened, but isn’t quite sure, and neither are we? Perhaps the ambivalent sentiments of nostalgia will be subsumed by indifference to sentiment. Perhaps through uncertain times, reflective nostalgia may provide us with a useful barometer for aspects of the past to cherish and preserve. To avoid the maladaptive power of restorative nostalgia, however, requires we heed Boym’s call to “take responsibility for our nostalgia and not let others “prefabricate” it for us.” To lose this battle would be to allow the fantasies of the past influence the realities of the future.
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