Reflections on the politics of memory and history
I’ve been thinking a lot about nostalgia lately. The very first piece I uploaded when I was getting back into writing was about what can be loosely referred to as the “nostalgia industry”. In it, I discussed the way in which the powerful emotion of nostalgia serves as a tool to anchor ourselves with as the increasing pace of technological “progress” under late capitalism continues to warp our collective sense of the passage of time, and how a vast industry had emerged to capitalise on it. However, over the course of the past year, as we have descended further into the madness of our present-day bizarro-world, I noticed again and again, in disparate contexts, many variations of the same concept of nostalgia. More than simply being an aesthetic consumer style, this nostalgia, it would seem, has become a ubiquitous thematic element that pervades both our culture and our politics.
One of the common features of our digitally mediated hyper-reality is a sense of deja-vu, a feeling that we have seen this all before. Are we living in the 80s again? 808s and layered synths still don’t seem to have gone out of fashion, neither have the clear-rimmed oversized glasses or the grandma’s-couch-print jackets. What’s more, Britain is reeling after a decade of Tory cuts, and the US is sending Elliott Abrams to Latin America again. Or is it perhaps the 60s? Students are taking to the streets en masse challenging the impending catastrophe of the broken world they inherited from the older generations, and meanwhile, a new Red Scare over Russian infiltration dominates the Anglo-American political discourse. Or maybe it’s the 30s that we’re living in. Fascism is on the rise around the world in the wake of a global financial depression, and the violence that it inevitably entails threatens to come to a head.
There is something to be said of the idea that history is bound to repeat itself, that it appears to adhere to cyclical patterns. Especially when it comes to the products of our culture, no idea is ever truly original anyway, but rather a reinterpretation and synthesis of ideas which have come before it. This is true of everything, whether the design of a city or the content of a film. However, thanks to the internet, we now have access to almost the entire archive of human culture at our fingertips at any given moment and as a result, history itself has been squashed into a present continuous. The ways in which the past has always bled into the present and beyond is simply more visible now than at any time before. No wonder it feels like we are living in a world that is constantly haunted by the spectres of the many worlds it has been built upon, particularly as we continue to create the past with every passing moment. As we document every detail of our daily lives and our inner thoughts on social media for all to see, even the relatively recent past gains an aura of nostalgia.
But why the instinct to be drawn to this particular emotion at this particular moment in history? Modern digital technology has certainly accelerated the pace at which we live (and often struggle to keep up with) our lives, but there is something more going on here than a mere attempt to save ourselves from being swept away by the tides of time. Faced with the seemingly insurmountable inequalities of capitalism and imminent climate catastrophe, living alienated existences and working meaningless jobs in order to sustain ourselves, we are engaged in a process of perpetual self-infantilisation.
Some of the most popular cultural artefacts of today are relics of an imagined collective memory of childhood because they are reminiscent of a simpler time when the world just made more sense, that we can take comfort from. This applies in equal parts to the bizarre emergence of adult colouring books as well as the surrogate-father-figure Canadian psychologist who tells you to clean your room lest you awaken the dragon of chaos, or the multi-billion-dollar industry for caped comic book superheroes who save the world over and over again, and the ball pit bar in Old Street. However, while we are understandably jaded by these constant regurgitations of pop culture references and aesthetic stylings done to hackneyed and obnoxious effect (I’m looking at you, Ready Player One), nostalgia has had a far deeper impact on our present political landscape.
Ever since the election of Donald Trump, and concurrent events such as the rise of Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in India and Orban in Hungary, everyone and their uncle has been trying to decipher what fascism exactly is. Umberto Eco’s frequently-referenced essay Ur-Fascism, written for the NY Review of Books in 1995, remains to this day one of the most relevant pieces pertaining to the subject. Having grown up in Mussolini’s Italy, Eco’s first-hand account is invaluable in painting a picture of the ideological architecture which props up fascism. One of the most important observations it makes is that there are in fact very few characteristics which unify fascism in all the various forms in which it has manifested. However, one feature which does seem to run through almost every mutation of fascism is an appeal to a return to an imagined past which was the domain of greatness and glory which has been robbed from us by modernity.
The cult of tradition, as Eco notes, is far older than fascism itself, dating back to the late Hellenic period. It dreams of “a revelation received at the dawn of history”, a sort of eternal truth, which had been “already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message”. With fascism however, it is thought of in conjunction with a disparaging look at contemporary society as being in decline, the blame for which is placed on the shoulders of whichever convenient out-groups, and the only path to redemption is thus seen as a return to that supposed past, usually by expelling or murdering those out-groups. In the case of Mussolini, this was an attempt to recreate the military conquests of Imperial Rome. This is similar to the way in which Sanghis in India today imagine the reinstatement of a Hindu empire before the arrival of Islam to the Subcontinent, just as for Daesh it is the desire for a medieval caliphate governed by strict Sharia law. In reality, such histories are little more than fictional mythologies. Much like the teenagers who listen to lo-fi vaporwave and try to mentally relive what they imagine to be the feeling of hanging out in the mall in the 90s, fascism too is rooted in the longing for a syncretic vision of the past which never actually existed.
The recent furore surrounding Winston Churchill’s legacy has gone a long way to prove how little British society has actually reconciled with its colonial past. Churchill’s role in facilitating the Bengal Famine of 1943, his use of chemical weapons on the Kurdish people long before Saddam Hussein, his brutality in suppressing the Irish independence movement, are all firmly established in historical study and are widely known particularly in Britain’s former colonies. However, whenever his heroic status as the man who single-handedly saved Britain from the Nazis is challenged by this record, countless defenders crawl out from under every precipice to preserve his image. His face still stares back at us smugly on the shiny new £5 note.
As the Brexit deadline looms nearer, it becomes ever more apparent how much what has transpired is because of a nostalgia for the time when Britannia ruled the waves. Ministers are hurriedly purchasing fridges for medicine in contingency for No Deal and telling people to stockpile supplies and prepare to embrace the Blitz spirit with pride once again, as if that wasn’t a time when the British people were terrorised daily by bombs raining from the sky and had to live through extreme poverty and misery. Indeed, the idea that Britain is being restricted by EU bureaucracy and would be better off outside it is born of a delusion that it commands the same geopolitical power as when it once held dominion over so much of the world and its peoples. Regardless of reality however, it is a tempting proposition for people who otherwise feel so powerless over their own lives.
It is no coincidence that the influence of nostalgia permeates both the personal as well as the political in the present historical moment. Against the impersonal and alienating coldness that living under techno-capitalism precludes, and the vastness of the systemic collapse facing us, the lure of nostalgia is seductive. It’s like the cosy warmth of a fireplace in winter, or the patter of raindrops on the window, it’s like that scent of something forgotten but so clear that grasps you, even if just for a second, and then escapes without a trace. As Don Draper says in the first season finale of Mad Men, nostalgia is “delicate, but potent…it’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” When such a visceral emotion is weaponised for political purposes, the results are generally disastrous, as we are seeing in the news every day. If we wish to genuinely tackle the existential threats of our time at their roots, then while it is imperative that we learn from the past, it is surely the future that we must ultimately look towards.
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