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The Politics of Nostalgia

By Jacob Bruggeman

Nostalgia seems to be everywhere in politics today. On the left, communitarian movements and concepts like “degrowth" seem to search for a future informed by a human past that was more localized and in touch with the environment. Then too, policy proposals like those clustered in the “Green New Deal” explicitly harken back to the heyday of midcentury and wartime liberalism, when the American never shied but rather embraced big social problems and infrastructure projects. On the right, where do we even begin? The terminally online who embrace the label “trad” to call back to a previous era of gender, family, and economic dynamics; the “post liberals” and “integralists” who often envision futures without liberalism by turning to one of the oldest institutions, the Catholic church; and the language of immigration and race which, among many politicians and subcommunities on the right, seem to appeal to past periods of ethno-religious unity. Nostalgia, it seems, is everywhere in American politics today.

In Yesterday: A New History of Nostalgia, historian Tobias Becker examines the history of nostalgia as a concept across the Atlantic world. Becker's book covers the late twentieth century, when ideas about progress and nostalgia competed for space in academic tomes, fashion trends, popular television, and politics—especially in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The results, Bekcer argues, included waves of "retro," enthusiasm for odd pursuits, such genealogy and historic preservation, and politicians who welled up with longing for the greener pastures of times that had long since passed—and critics who saw the past as a prisonhouse of imagination in the present.

Did the concept of nostalgia help us make sense of the world then? Is it at all valuable today? I recently spoke with Becker about these questions, the origins and politics of its nostalgia's use, and its fate as a concept in the twenty-first century. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

— Jacob Bruggeman

Jacob Bruggeman: When did the concept of nostalgia emerge? How did it relate to other concepts, like “modernity” and “progress”?

Tobias Becker: Many studies on nostalgia begin by tracing the history of the term back to its early modern origins, then denoting a pathological form of homesickness. However, in my view this helps little to understand what nostalgia means today. It wasn’t before the twentieth century that the term took on the meaning as a sentimental yearning for the past, not before the 1960s that intellectuals and dictionaries registered the change in meaning. In the book I’m arguing that it was not coincidence that this happened in the 1960s and, particularly, the 1970s. At the time, intellectuals claimed that people became more nostalgia, that there was a “wave of nostalgia” in society. However, the evidence they were relying on was neither new nor more numerous than in previous decades. Rather, the idea of progress came under sustained attack as hopes into scientific and social progress faltered. As the idea of progress became indefensible, those who nevertheless aimed to defend it, resorted to attacking what they saw as it opposite: an unhealthy obsession with the past. Reviving an old medical term that had lost its meaning they pathologized it as nostalgia. It was not, as many have argued, that modernity produced nostalgia as what nostalgia signifies – the belief that the past was better than the present or the future – can be found long before modernity. What modernity produced was the concept of nostalgia as an antonym to progress to uphold the idea of progress, the idea that one must look to the future rather than the past. 

Few words today rival “progress” for its contested status in discourse. Even if progress occurs, its critics are around every corner. On a closer examination, however, you argue that many critics of progress are less critical than they would like to appear. As you write in the conclusion, on page 237, “Even though fewer intellectuals may have been willing to defend progress in the face of its mounting costs and critique, that does not mean they were willing to relinquish it; instead, they defended it indirectly—by attacking nostalgia.” Can you explain the central contradictions of nostalgia as it appears in political debate?

Since the 1970s it has become apparent that terms like “progress”, “progressive”, “conservative”, “reactionary” are no longer useful to political analysis if they ever were. At the same time as “conservative” politicians promise change and a better future, “progressive” politicians aim to conserve certain things – abortion laws, the remnants of the welfare state, nature and so on. With many ideas or projects, it’s hard to say at all whether they are “progressive” or “reactionary”, outdated, up-to-date or forward-looking. While nobody is really convinced by these terms anymore or uses them with conviction, we do not seem to get rid of them. The persistent – reinforced even – critique of nostalgia, for instance, shows exactly that the idea of progress has endured even in the face of its continued disappointment as those who criticize what they see as nostalgia in politics do so to defend the idea of progress or at least to display their progressive credentials.

You observe that the concept of nostalgia is sometimes used as a pejorative bludgeon against political opponents. Invoking nostalgia, or labeling thinkers, ideas, and political movements as nostalgic, can render them beyond the pale of appropriate debate. When did this trend in the use of nostalgia start, and what is its fate today?

It is possible to distinguish three phases: in the 1950s, when the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. coined it, the phrase “politics of nostalgia” was a rather abstract one, something intellectuals threw at each other and primarily liberal intellectuals like Schlesinger at the self-declared New Conservatives. Gradually, political commentators and the media used it to describe – attack rather – conservative politicians such as Barry Goldwater and then first and foremost Ronald Reagan. Today, they use it to characterize their voters. Trump is not seen as nostalgic himself, but as someone who cunningly employs nostalgia, catering to preexisting nostalgic tendencies to win elections. In all three instances, nostalgia is a way to declare someone non-contemporaneous, to say that someone—or their ideas, attitudes—belongs to the past. This is what makes the nostalgia charge so suitable for political rhetoric and, by the same token, so bad for political analysis which tends to merely reproduce one’s own political bias.

Though nostalgia is sometimes a bludgeon used to attack conservatives, it is also an explicit feature of conservative thought. In fact, the relationship between political conservatism and nostalgia is another through-line of your book. Still, this relationship is more vexed than conservative thinkers and their critics claim. We can see this in the life of one conservative thinker, the poet Peter Viereck. In 1949, for example, Viereck published Conservatism Revisited—the same year he won a Pulitzer for poetry, no less. There, you show how Viereck elevated a “fruitful nostalgia for the permanent beneath the flux” as a core conservative value. But by the mid-1950s, Viereck voiced a powerful critique of American conservatism. Its “main defect,” he wrote, was conservatism’s “rootless nostalgia for roots.” What do you see the relationship Conservatives’ embrace and rejection of notalgia?

The example of Viereck shows that nostalgia initially was not the pejorative term it increasingly became in the 1960s and 1970s. He started out using it in a positive sense yet quickly gave up on it, when it became an invective not only liberals used against conservatives but also one conservatives used against one another. So, if conservatives embraced the term nostalgia at all this only pertained to a select few and only for a short while. Generally, they did not as there is little to be gained from it where it opens the door to criticism, criticism conservatism was sensitive to anyway.

You offer a wonderful diagnosis of how, in late 20th century popular culture, the past became folded into the present. Wave of revival and “retro” throughout the West, you argue, reveal a deep-seated “presentism.” As you write on page 170, “the past was no longer past; instead it was part of the ever-expanding reservoir of references only someone schooled in the history of fashion and pop culture could pinpoint to any one period—or perhaps not even they anymore, given how elements from various periods mixed with one another.” What led to this collapse of the past and present?

In a way, past and present are never clearly delineated, especially when it comes to culture. Artists, whether in high or popular culture, are constantly looking to the past for inspiration. Over the course of the second half of the twentieth century this became much easier thanks to technological innovations. Today, we can hardly imagine a time when you had to go to a library or an archive to access old music or to watch an old film. First, VCR technology and cable television and then the internet with its video sharing platforms and streaming services have brought past cultural artefacts back in unprecedented ways. So, the past hasn’t returned because people were so nostalgic but rather because ever increasing airtime needed to be filled. (Although what the airtime is filled with can, potentially, make people nostalgic when it reminds them of their past.)

Your previous answer gestures toward the way that appeals or claims to nostalgia disguises various forms of presentism. What do you see as the central features of “presentism”? Is it a problem for thinkers and individuals, or an unavoidable feature of our being in time?

In the book I’m arguing that the critique of nostalgia anticipated the critique of presentism. Historians among the nostalgia critics weren’t so much worried about the past swallowing the present as the present swallowing the past. In their eyes, people neither yearned for nor were particularly interested in the past itself but revived it in ways to suit their contemporary needs and sensibilities. For the critics of presentism this has now reached a point where we soon won’t be able to see past and present as different at all which many of them view as a loss. However, one could argue that they are still stuck in—and defend—the modern understanding of time that conceives of time as universal, dynamic, linear, and teleogical, whereas the past and the present have never been clearly delineated and separated. Every present contains multiple pasts and futures. That’s why I prefer the term pluritemporality which acknowledges this multiplicity, whereas presentism—like nostalgia—carries a pejorative connotation. Admitting that the perception and experience of time is more complicated than modernity allowed for should be seen as a chance rather than a sign of cultural decline.

Let’s close by surveying the state of nostalgia today. Where do you see nostalgia fitting into American and global politics today? If you accept that nostalgia(s) are proliferating in politics today, what do you make of the current moment in historical perspective?

The term proliferates in politics, that’s true, but that is one of the reasons I don’t find it particularly helpful. You can use it as an invective—and that’s mostly how it is being used—but what does it explain about politics? What exactly is it saying? What it says is that certain attitudes like racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia and so on—along with the people who hold them—belong to the past. However, labelling such attitudes or those holding them “nostalgic” will neither make them go away nor convince them to change their ways. In fact, labelling someone or something as nostalgic says less about those being labeled than about those doing the labeling: it is the realization that progressive politics has not come as far as it may have hoped to have come and that some of the gains it made are under threat. Throwing around words like “reactionary” and “nostalgic” may feel good in this situation but it’s not helping. It’s not helping to reach these people and it’s not helping in terms of political analysis. We are operating with categories that are less and less meaningful. I don’t have any better categories to offer myself but acknowledging that the existing ones are not helpful might be a first step to either clarify them or develop new ones, to scrutinize our own critique and its ideological blind spots a way to improve

Jacob Bruggeman is the associate editor of FUSION and a Ph.D. candidate in history at Johns Hopkins University.


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