The “Strange Alliance” Between Modern Life and Nostalgia

Retrotopia2“Make America Great Again!”

If you interpret this phrase historically you need to identify the time period or era that is being invoked by our POTUS.  This is still not clear.  Is Trump referencing the 19th century? The 1950s? The 1980s?

Once the era is identified, historians can then tell us something about what that period or era was like.  Then we can decide, using some system of morality, whether or not the era was “great.”  The interpretation of such a phrase requires the work of both historians and moral philosophers.

Or we can interpret this phrase nostalgically.  This does not require a great deal of historical work and it is often the preferred method of politicians.  It merely requires that we tap into feelings of longing for a bygone era. We don’t think too deeply about such an era.  Instead we merely assume that it was better than the present–a kind of golden age to which we need to return.

Nostalgia can be a very selfish way of thinking in the sense that it focuses entirely on our own experience of the past and not on the experience of others.  For example, people nostalgic for an “Ozzie and Harriett” or “Leave it to Beaver” type of world may not be aware of the fact that other people, including some of the people actually living in this suburban “paradise,” were not experiencing such a world in a way that might be described as “great.” Or perhaps they do know that people were not experiencing such a “great” life in this era, but they just don’t care. Nostalgia can often give us tunnel vision.  It often goes hand-in-hand with a very selective view of what was happening in the past.

From a Christian point of view, nostalgia denies the fact that sin has always been a reality in this world. Golden ages are hard to find because human beings are inherently flawed.

I started thinking about nostalgia again after I read Alastair Bonnett‘s review of Zygmunt Bauman‘s Retrotopia in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Here is a taste:

For many, the past has never looked more attractive and the future more scary. In his last book, the eminent British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who died in January, turned his attention to this nostalgic mood and labeled it “retro­topia.”

Throughout his long career, Bauman remained fascinated by the paradoxes of modernity. His most important works, such as Modernity and the Holocaust (Cornell University Press, 1989), are exemplars of empirically led critical social theory. In Retrotopia he explores the strange alliance of modernity with nostalgia. The book’s main intent is to dissect the way different nostalgic currents act to both create and cope with a dysfunctional and bewildering present.

Bauman begins by outlining what the late Harvard University literary scholar Svetlana Boym called the “nostalgia epidemic,” a condition that, Bauman tells us, is now “palpably felt at every level of social cohabitation.” He sets out his task as “unraveling, portraying, and putting on record some of the most remarkable ‘back to the future’ tendencies inside the emergent ‘retrotopian’ phase in utopia’s history.” These tendencies are grouped into four chapters: “Back to Hobbes?”; “Back to Tribes”; “Back to Inequality”; and “Back to the Womb.”

Read the entire review here.