Monday, 17 September 2018

Nostalgia 7

I began my research on the subject of nostalgia inspired by Svetlana Boym's wonderful book The Future of Nostalgia.  In it, I found inspiring articulation of the idea that nostalgia can be forward-looking, radical, even subversive. It can be used to construct and sustain visions of the future.  And I've taken this idea of the possible radicalism of nostalgia, and tried to explore its potential in the context of the fourteenth century.  Utopian thinking in the later Middle Ages overlapped in intriguing ways with nostalgia for an imagined, sometimes pre-lapsarian past, and this could be harnessed to produce extraordinary and radical visions of the future.

But these ideas began to crystallise for me before Brexit and before Trump.  The resurgence of popular politics has also seen the resurgence of alarming expressions of profoundly reactionary nostalgia.

'Make America Great Again' and 'Let's Take Back Control' prey on the most basic sense of disillusionment.  Those who buy into the cliches seem often to realise that the past was not as rosy as it's portrayed - but somehow that doesn't matter if you can replace knowledge with a strong sense of loss.  And this is a powerful combination - reactionary nostalgia  combines anger and longing.  Anger on its own often doesn't get very far.  Longing certainly doesn't.  But the two together form a very potent mix.

Can nostalgia be reclaimed?  It certainly can be by the political left.  But this does not necessarily indicate a truly subversive vision (Corbynite interest in re-nationalisation is a striking example).  Can nostalgia play to something altogether more radical?  My sense is that nostalgia is a complex of feelings which can be tuned in many keys.  What emerges can be utterly, drearily, but also frighteningly predictable. But it can also make us hear old tunes afresh, harmonising them in new and unsettling ways.  There's plenty of the former in the fourteenth century - 'make ... great again', or 'take back control' are boring and unoriginal.  And I think there's plenty of the latter too.

But one of the many depressing aspects of the recent turn in global politics is the demonstration that nostalgia can be both tedious and dangerous.

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