Out of the debris of the Post-Cold War, neoliberalism’s ideological mantra – the “dictatorship of no alternatives” as Roberto Unger called it – succeeded in terminating the possibility of future-oriented utopia, leaving a nostalgic utopianism to curdle in its wake. Only it is a utopia that is no longer directed towards the future.
The Russian-American philologist Svetlana Boym (1966-2015) was a dedicated diagnostician of the nostalgic impulse. Her most renowned work, The Future of Nostalgia (2001), is a fascinating survey of the contemporaneous proliferation of nostalgia. A sort of training manual for the wistful, Boym alternates “between critical reflection and storytelling, hoping to grasp the rhythm of longing, its enticements and entrapments”. Boym understood that “the sentiment itself, the mourning of displacement and temporal irreversibility, is at the very core of the modern condition.” She detected nostalgia to be a “historical emotion” of our age, whose attempts to create a “phantom homeland” realized through transhistorical restoration would only breed monstrous consequences.
The first part of her study traces the history of nostalgia as a disease and introduces two varieties: a “restorative nostalgia”, which “is not about memory and history but about heritage and tradition. It’s often an invented tradition – a dogmatic, stable myth that gives you a coherent version of the past.” This is contrasted with “reflective nostalgia”, which while grounded in longing, contemplating, and remembering, does not attempt to restore the past. “You don’t deny your longing, but you reflect on it somehow,” she says. “It’s a positive force that helps us explore our experience, and can offer an alternative to an uncritical acceptance of the present.”
According to Boym’s typology, it is a restorative nostalgia that “is at the core of recent national and religious revivals. It knows two main plots – the return to origins and the conspiracy.” And so we inhabit a landscape where MAGA hats, Little England, the Hindu Rashtra, and a mythical Caliphate have arrested imaginaries with a panoply of symbolic overtures; as it gestures towards the rehabilitation of a time and space that preserves tradition and absolute truth by zealously pursuing historical revisionism and purification of the social body from contagion.
The past may be conceptualized in any number of ways. To Boym, the only truly pernicious nostalgia is the prefabricated, Disney-fied kind that keeps one from thinking about the future.
Below is an adapted excerpt of her book’s first part, “Hypochondria of the Heart”:
The word “nostalgia” comes from two Greek roots: νόστος, nóstos (“return home”) and ἄλγος, álgos (“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 phantasy. 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.
In spite of its Greek roots, the word “nostalgia” did not originate in ancient Greece. “Nostalgia” is only pseudo-Greek, or nostalgically Greek. The word was coined by the ambitious Swiss student Johannes Hofer in his medical dissertation in 1688.1 (Hofer also suggested monomania and philopatridomania to describe the same symptoms; luckily, the latter failed to enter common parlance.) It would not occur to us to demand a prescription for nostalgia. Yet in the 17th century, nostalgia was considered to be a curable disease, akin to a severe common cold. Swiss doctors believed that opium, leeches, and a journey to the Swiss Alps would take care of nostalgic symptoms. By the end of the 18th century, doctors discovered that a return home did not always cure the nostalgics—sometimes it killed them (especially when patriotic doctors misdiagnosed tuberculosis as nostalgia). Just as today genetic researchers hope to identify genes coding for medical conditions, social behavior, and even sexual orientation, so the doctors in the 18th and 19th centuries looked for a single cause, for one “pathological bone.” Yet they failed to find the locus of nostalgia in their patient’s mind or body. One doctor claimed that nostalgia was a “hypochondria of the heart,” which thrives on its symptoms. From a treatable sickness, nostalgia turned into an incurable disease. A provincial ailment, a maladie du pays, turned into a disease of the modern age, a mal du siècle.
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. First, 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 the 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 is actually a yearning for a different time—the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a 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 as 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 merely be another time, or 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. Considering 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.
In fact, there is a tradition of critical reflection on the modern condition that incorporates nostalgia. It can be called “off-modern.” The adverb “off” confuses our sense of direction; it makes us explore side-shadows and back alleys rather than the straight road of progress; it allows us to take a detour from the deterministic narrative of 20th‑century history. Off-modernism offered a critique of both the modern fascination with newness, and the no less modern reinvention of tradition. In the off-modern tradition, reflection and longing, estrangement and affection go together.
Modern nostalgia is paradoxical in the sense that the universality of longing can make us more empathetic toward 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 a unique and pure homeland—we often part ways and put an end to mutual understanding. Álgos (longing) is what we share, yet nóstos (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 with an imaginary one. In extreme cases, it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Unelected nostalgia breeds monsters. Yet the sentiment itself, the mourning of displacement and temporal irreversibility, is at the very core of the modern condition.
Outbreaks of nostalgia often follow revolutions: the French Revolution of 1789, the Russian revolution, and the recent “velvet” revolutions in Eastern Europe were accompanied by political and cultural manifestations of longing. In France it is not only the ancient régime that produced revolution, but in some respect the revolution produced the ancien régime, giving it a shape, a sense of closure, and a gilded aura. Similarly, the revolutionary epoch of perestroika and the end of the Soviet Union produced an image of the last Soviet decades as the time of stagnation or, alternatively, as a Soviet Golden Age of stability, national strength, and “normalcy.” Yet the nostalgia that I explore here is not always for the ancient régime, stable superpower, or the fallen empire, but also for the unrealized dreams of the past and visions of the future that became obsolete. The history of nostalgia might allow us to look back at modern history as a search not only for newness and technological progress, but also for unrealized possibilities, unpredictable turns and crossroads.
The most common currency of the globalism exported all over the world is money and popular culture. Nostalgia too is a feature of global culture, but it demands a different currency. After all, the key words defining globalism—“progress,” “modernity,” and “virtual reality”—were invented by poets and philosophers: “progress” was coined by Immanuel Kant; the noun “modernity” is a creation of Charles Baudelaire; and “virtual reality” was first imagined by Henri Bergson, not Bill Gates. Only in Bergson’s definition, “virtual reality” referred to planes of consciousness, potential dimensions of time and creativity that are distinctly and inimitably human. As far as nostalgia is concerned, having failed to uncover its exact locus, 18th‑century doctors recommended seeking help from poets and philosophers. Nostalgia speaks in riddles and puzzles, trespassing across the boundaries between disciplines and national territories. So one has to face it in order not to become its next victim—or the next victimizer.
Instead of a magic cure for nostalgia, I will offer a tentative typology and distinguish between two main types of nostalgia: the restorative and the reflective. Restorative nostalgia stresses nóstos (home) and attempts a transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home. Reflective nostalgia thrives in álgos, the longing itself, and delays the homecoming—wistfully, ironically, desperately. These distinctions are not absolute binaries, and one can surely make a more refined mapping of the gray areas on the outskirts of imaginary homelands. Restorative nostalgia does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition. Reflective nostalgia dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. Restorative nostalgia protects the absolute truth, while reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt.
Restorative nostalgia is at the core of recent national and religious revivals. It knows two main plots—the return to origins and the conspiracy. Reflective nostalgia does not follow a single plot but explores ways of inhabiting many places at once and imagining different time zones. It loves details, not symbols. At best, it can present an ethical and creative challenge, not merely a pretext for midnight melancholies. If restorative nostalgia ends up reconstructing emblems and rituals of home and homeland in an attempt to conquer and specialize time, reflective nostalgia cherishes shattered fragments of memory and demoralizes 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, just as affective memories do not absolve one from compassion, judgment, or critical reflection.
The 20th century began with a futuristic utopia and ended with nostalgia. The optimistic belief in the future has become outmoded while nostalgia, for better or for worse, never went out of fashion, remaining uncannily contemporary. Contrary to what the great actress Simone Signore—who entitled her autobiography Nostalgia Is Not What It Used to Be—thought, the structure of nostalgia is in many respects what it used to be, in spite of changing fashions and advances in digital technology. In the end, the only antidote for the dictatorship of nostalgia might be nostalgic dissidence. Nostalgia can be a poetic creation, an individual mechanism of survival, a countercultural practice, a poison, and a cure. It is up to us to take responsibility of our nostalgia and not let others “prefabricate” it for us. The prepackaged “usable past” may be of no use to us if we want to cocreate our future. Perhaps dreams of imagined homelands cannot and should not come to life. Sometimes it is preferable (at least in the view of this nostalgic author) to leave dreams alone, let them be no more and no less than dreams, not guidelines for the future. While restorative nostalgia returns and rebuilds one’s homeland with paranoid determination, reflective nostalgia fears return with the same passion. Home, after all, is not a gated community. Paradise on earth might turn out to be another Potemkin village with no exit. The imperative of a contemporary nostalgic: to be homesick and to be sick of being at home—occasionally at the same time.