On Nostalgia: One Quote


I am in Tallinn, Estonia, en route to a conference on ‘memory’ in Tartu. I write in Stereo: the name of a super hip bar where everything is made of molded plastic; there is a wall of flat-screens showing trance-y imagery and morphing mood lighting everywhere. Outside are 13th-century walls. The juxtaposition is surreal enough to make you reflect on history, and what’s been lost, alright.

In Tartu, I am giving a paper on colonial nostalgia — nostalgia for colonial orders by those who were (are?) subject to them.

Probably the pre-eminent contemporary theorist of nostalgia and its complex genealogy is Svetlana Boym. Her book, The Future of Nostalgia, is a fascinating meditation on post-socialist memory, as well as a historico-philosophical disquisition on nostalgia as genred affect. (I can verb anything.) I share a quote by way of introducing a topic I will blog about more later on:

There is in fact a tradition of critical reflection on the modern condition that incorporates nostalgia, which I will call off-modern. The adverb off confuses our sense of direction; it makes us explore sideshadows and back alleys rather than the straight road of progress; it allows us to take a detour from the deterministic narrative of twentieth-century history. Off-modernism offered a critique of both the modern fascination with newness and no less modern reinvention of tradition. In the off-modern tradition, reflection and longing, estrangement and affection go together. Moreover, for some twentieth-century off modernists who came from eccentric traditions (i.e., those often considered marginal or provincial with respect to the cultural mainstream, from Eastern Europe to Latin America) as well as for many displaced people all over the world, creative rethinking of nostalgia was not merely an artistic device but a strategy of survival, a way of making sense of the impossibility of homecoming…

Neither poet nor philosopher, I nevertheless decided to write a history of nostalgia, alternating between critical reflection and storytelling, hoping to grasp the rhythm of longing, its enticements and entrapments. Nostalgia speaks in riddles and puzzles, so one must face them in order not to become its next victim — or its next victimizer.

The study of nostalgia does not belong to any specific discipline: it frustrates psychologists, sociologists, literary theorists and philosophers, even computer scientists who thought they had gotten away from it all — until they too took refuge in their home pages and the cyber-pastoral vocabulary of the global village.

I find Boym evocative, engaging, brilliant. I didn’t have The Future of Nostalgia to read while I was tracking ways in which the ‘past’ is portrayed in the Asaro Valley. But I did have Discourses of the Vanishing. More on that, soon…


3 thoughts on “On Nostalgia: One Quote

  1. Having been to Estonia three times I doubt there is much nostalgia for Soviet colonial rule. Almost everybody had a family member killed by Stalin in either the 14 June 1941 deportations, the 25 March 1949 deportations or other instances of mass repression. One might as well talk about Jewish nostalgia for Naziism.

  2. Um, you seem to be assuming the subject matter of my paper. As you can see here on SM, I do research in Papua New Guinea. My paper is about Papua New Guinea. Since you have a degree from SOAS, I assume you know that there is a large and growing body of literature (in anthropology and sister pursuits) on nostalgia for empire.

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