Tag Archives: Future of Nostalgia

PUTIN AND NOSTALGIA

The year 1968, when Soviet tanks marched into Prague, was a watershed. By the 1970s the revolutionary cosmic mission was forgotten by the Soviet leaders themselves. As the thaw was followed by stagnation, nostalgia returned. Brezhnev’s and Andropov’s era of the cold war remains a contested ground: for some it’s the time of stability and better living standards, for others, the time of official corruption, widespread cynicism, degradation of ideology and development of elite networks and clans. In 1968 high school student Vladimir Putin, inspired by a popular TV series “The Sword and the Sheild,” about Soviet agents working in Nazi Germany, went to the KGB office in Leningrad and offered his services. Thirty years later the president of Russia would remember this story with great affection, remaining faithful to the dreams of his youth. It is in this late Soviet era that one could find clues for the future development of Russian leadership. It seems that 1990s nostalgia for the Brezhnev era was partially based on the old Soviet movies that reappeared on Russian TV at that time. Many Russian viewers, tired of upheavals and lost illusions of the post-Soviet decade, tuned in and suddenly began to believe that Soviet life resembled those movies, forgetting their own experiences as well as their ways of watching those films twenty years earlier – with much more skepticism and double entendre.

– Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia

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TRANSCENDENTAL TOPOGRAPHY

Lukacs coined the term of “modern transcendental homelessness” and defined it through the development of art as well as social life. Lukacs’s The Theory of the Novel (1916) opens with an elegy of epic proportions: “Happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths – ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own. The world is wide and yet it is like home, for the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars.” This is no longer nostalgia for one’s local home but for being at home in the world, yearning for a “transcendental topography of the mind” that characterized presumably “integrated” ancient civilization. The object of nostalgia in Lukacs is a totality of existence hopelessly fragmented in the modern age.

– Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia

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DIASPORIC INTIMATIONS (A FRIENDLY CONVERSATION)

In the late twentieth century, millions of people find themselves displaced from their birthplace, living in voluntary or involuntary exile. Their intimate experiences occur against a foreign background. They are aware of the foreign stage set whether they like it or not…Inability to return home is both a personal tragedy and an enabling force. This doesn’t mean that there is no nostalgia for the homeland, only that this kind of nostalgia precludes restoration of the past…I will speak about something that might seem paradoxical – a “disapsoric intimacy” that is not opposed to uprootedness and defamiliarization but is constituted by it. Diasporic intimacy can be approached only through indirection and intimation, through stories and secrets. It is spoken in a foreign language that reveals the inadequacies of translation. Diasporic intimacy does not promise an unmediated emotional fusion, but only a precarious affection – no less deep, yet aware of its transience. In contrast to the utopian images of intimacy as transparency, authenticity and ultimate belonging, diasporic intimacy is dystopic by definition; it is rooted in the suspicion of a single home, in shared longing without belonging. It thrives on the hope of the possibilities of human understanding and survival, of unpredictable chance encounters, but this hope is not utopian. Diasporic intimacy is haunted by the images of home and homeland, yet it also discloses some of the furtive pleasures of exile.

– Svetlana Boyn, The Future of Nostalgia

“Any kind of intimacy requires a strong framework of memory, right? No matter how transient or precarious that relationship remains. So what happens to those relationships when you’re attempting to forget, as you claim you are?”

“Well frameworks of memory and intimacy are nothing but tentative abroad, that’s for sure. And I’ve lost plenty. You left your camera in that cab in Seoul and didn’t even try to get it back, that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as what can be lost. Sometimes these kinds of mnemonic frameworks, when you’re on a plane, they parachute casually down between the tectonic plates, you watch them go. Some are never anything but unnamable and can never be translated where you wind up. The rest are beaten into submission on that mediocrely-tuned brass snare of mine.”

“And who leaves whom?”

“Usually it seems that – sure, I’ve done a lot of exiting and losing – but more often those framework objects, they just up and leave the foreign one day, you know? It’s an annual theme, ‘so long, so long.’ And there’s rarely not a national border at play. They’re called by fear of regret, preordained familial guilt, moments when there’s little left to wait for. Another one just left this past Thursday, actually.”

DP, BS, JW, JT, SM, AG, AP, AR, CF, SG, GW, CL, ER

“Well can these frameworks be grounded in something other than flesh and bone? In text, for instance? Text is easy, no matter the lack of comprehension, blatant ignoring or, on the other hand, undeserved attention. But whether it’s a fixed number of characters, initials flashing round your skull, or author names standing in for those who’ve left or not yet arrived – like that time you bought The Pleasure of the Text on a snowy Sunday in Pittsburgh in hope it’d offer some congeniality – can any of that be sufficient? Or is a written framework just too thin or digressive to begin with?”

“That’s been said plenty – the failure repeated, the poorest of imitations; the endless writing, endless reading, endless writing about reading; you read this, you post this quote, you take it all very seriously; there’s too much text, we need no more, etc. Ultimately, you know, the only text worth producing is the kind you’ll forget. And your friends’ names become only email addresses, rarely to be written out in full again.”

“Let’s leave all that for a second. This diasporic intimacy, can that guard against nostalgia? I would think it depends on the mix of remembering and forgetting that the intimacy is constructed with.”

“Well it’s not even memory that constitutes the power of those diasporic frameworks. It’s the tactics of forgetting – these lethatechnics you hear about but which are hard to get a grip on. Those have proven the strongest stops on nostalgic paralysis, on the doomed pursuit of restoration, day in day out.”

“Really? I know you don’t like ice cream as much as your typical Krakowian, but aren’t there other local pleasures to pursue?”

“Sure. Just saying that, even forgetting is a pleasure – furtive, as Boym points out, but always resonant. It just depends on how much and how well you can wield it. Out-of-sight-out-of-mind, for example – that’s forgetting as utilitarian pleasure. But you have to keep it balanced and choose your objects carefully, after a lot of mnemonic processing. You have to be really, really careful, in the end. Cause it’s distasteful and inevitable to an extent, and for sure it often describes the ones who stayed behind, how they communicate or, more often, do not. But unless you stay on the move every two years or so max, you become one who stayed behind, and that same tactic can be used with you – for sure it already has! The cycle never ends. And the supposed equilibrium that results from leaving and left? For that to be any use, it must be tipped a little more towards forgetting than memory.”

“How’s that?”

“The remembering cannot subsume you. It’s got to be filtered, monitored. And forgetting becomes the gauge that lets you do this. Forgetting used through practice, method, technique. Not the other way around – memory does not gauge the forgetting. Because it envelopes memory, there’s more power in forgetting – power to shape memory, dismantle it, reject or sublimate it.”

“Isn’t out-of-sight-out-of-mind more a rather pathetic excuse than some kind of tactic? Even if you are just forgetting what was once remembered, rather than ‘forgetting’ what was never fully registered or observed.”

“It’s only an example that can be dropped and adopted again at will, reformulated, whatever. Let’s not think it’s a static solution or anything. And, again, it very much toes the line with guilt and-or laziness. And guilt plays such a big role in memory – constructing responsibilities, contriving duties…”

“That’s what I keep thinking. What about duty here, about putting time into the communication? What about valuing the textual output – all those emails about the relationship of god and capital gains on volatility, Nietzsche and post-1989 lingerie?”

“The ones that sparked so little reply, you mean? Well, that’s not the point. They were efforts put forth. There were desired ends – more exchange, dialogue, in-jokes – more mnemonic material, I guess. But the real ends were accepted eventually, not resented – they were forgotten. At least partially. But it’s almost like there has to be some kind of serious border in place to encourage those exchanges, some transcontinental span to overcome. The border gets to be too much, though, too difficult to send messages across. But you have to keep seeing the potential for such exchanges. And you just have to try not to be a jerk about it.”

“Exactly. But at the same time you can’t help but think – a tactic of forgetting? Why would I want to forget? Forget what? And that’s supposed to be good for me, even pleasurable? Isn’t it a pleasure so unexpected, you’re super suspicious of it from the get-go?”

“Yeah, well, the foreign and the forgetting go hand in hand. Always. But the forgetting we’re speaking of, it’s not based on shame or shirking responsibility or something. It’s based on the same privacy you want to expand through remembering. You have your ends in mind – you want to sleep better, spend more time on music, check out the city, be less hostile or resentful, whatever. And you want some degree of pleasure in evading your memories, in moving forward and accepting other mnemonic frameworks or material. So with a letatechnic or whatever you want to call it for reaching these ends, there is a refusal at work that is even more private, a letting go that is usually unregistered by anyone anywhere. If that’s the way you want to play it, that is. You don’t have to be all nebulous or secretive about it, but not being secretive about it is another story.”

“Maybe instead of ‘shared longing without belonging,’ like Boym identifies, there can be something like shared forgetting with privacy? Cause memory is rarely wholly private, right? Recollection is supported by all of these frameworks, especially when there is some dynamic of intimacy involved, however diasporic it might be. We’ve established that. But forgetting can be an intensely private affair. And in a way, the privacy of forgetting can lead to another form of belonging – you forget one set of frameworks in order to adopt or be open to adopting another, like you point out.”

“Forgetting can be so private, I would think, that it could even become the object of intimacy itself. At some point abroad, you become as intimate with your forgetting as with your memory. And that becomes less a ‘furtive pleasure of exile’ than a joyful potentiality.”

“Exactly. Could these strains of forgetting even become objects of nostalgia, of restorative nostalgia? As if you want to get back to that place of earlier forgetting?”

“I don’t know, maybe. Although let’s not go too far. What you’re talking about could be just a parallel of forgetting – the kind obsession and total presence that is supposed to signify authenticity, but that’s not an automatic association. Considering an ‘authentic’ forgetting is hardly easy. But something that enables forgetting as a surprisingly useful by-product, something fun, more often than not, yes. Cause of course it’s easy to be nostalgic for pleasure, but you have to take it one step further to see the forgetting that was involved in that experience. What were you forgetting that day we sat drinking radlers, watching those mini-ramp skaters at Fabryka? Or when we saw Cleveland beat the Red Sox at Fenway? Cause obviously you can be nostalgic for that, but you can’t really be nostalgic for what you were not thinking about at the time, cause why would you want to be? You couldn’t even recall those mnemonic objects, what was forgotten, or any of those dynamics now if you tried – that’s the point. See, we’re really talking about a practice of forgetting – a lethatechnic that is specific enough to learn and repeat, the way to forget that you want to remember! So that more moments actually worth remembering can happen. That’s what you want to recall and be nostalgic for in some very personal though pragmatic way. Cause when you reach the specifics of your nostalgia – the context, who you were with, the weather, even – obviously that can’t be recreated. But the practice can – the mnemonic practice or the lethatechnic, you have to make that choice. And if you choose to concentrate on the forgetting, there actually is some degree of restoration involved. But it’s not a place that is being restored – it’s a method for challenging the need to belong to any place, for understanding that experience is not just a future bombardment of memory. So it’s not a memory palace you want to inhabit – it’s more like a mobile home in Nebraska and you don’t care if it’s in a tornado path or what, you’re just going to leave it behind for a while.”

“So you’d take the tornado-threatened trailer over a decked-out memory palace? Seems to me you would agree with this suspicion of a single home, then, like Boym mentions?”

“For sure. When you first feel that suspicion it seems unnatural, disrespectful even, to question that ground, allegiance, that need of comfort or whatever. But then you see it more and more in the shadowy discourse you share with other foreigners. There’s empathy, commiseration. Plenty of exasperation and complaining. There’s also excitement at the distance from where you grew up, etc. But one day that suspicion becomes the norm – you have done enough thinking on it, reading about it, even. You have come to see the fluid lines between emigration, expatriation, real and metaphysical exile. You think about alterity, destierro and destiempo, the connection of home and love. Cosmopolitanism utilizes strong threads of forgetting, and there’s the Slavic paradigm of exile, Janus, those essays by Miłosz and Wittlin. All the while the idea of a single home increasingly becomes an anomaly.”

“Or if you’re really feeling arrogant-slash-insecure, even something quaint.”

“Sure, sure. But once that suspicion of the single home becomes natural, it’s even sometimes like you have no interest in talking to others who speak your language. Even if they speak with a Rust Belt accent, maybe especially then! Cause, you know, you’re out, you hear them on the street, their vocal fry singeing the Old Town, ‘oh my god you guys,’ you know. You see their shoes and shorts and sizes and haircuts and Purell bottles. You can spot ‘em and hear ‘em from a mile away. Doesn’t matter if they’re tourists or how long they’ve been here, who wants to talk about travel or living abroad anymore? You become tired of relaying your stories yet again, that spiel of where you’ve been and how you wound up here.”

“Especially when they have that glint in their eye, which can seem way more tragic than an enabling force, yeah? Cause they have no idea how they’ll cope with that fading, after they’re all jaded and fed up, tired of the foreign altogether or of this particular foreign. After they’re tired of being asked for drobne by those horrid Kefirek cashiers, tired of all the broken vods bottles all over the place, people running into you on the sidewalks, that pedestrian ‘Slavic swerve.’ So how are they going to eventually cope with their mnemonic frameworks running weak? They’ll encounter a novice need to forget – forget any notion of home, forget everything irritating here, who’s in Malaysia and who’s in Chile and all those in New York. They have no idea they’ll have to deal with that when the glint in their eye’s still strong. But that becomes the only thing worth talking about at some point, you know? That’s the real enabling force. The diasporic intimacy Boym is positing, the real core of that? It’s forgetting. What can you share in forgetting.”

“Thus the lethatechnics.”

“So ok, what is it today?”

“What is what, today?”

“What are you trying to forget today? What do you want to use those for?”

“Oh, well, today it’s…the idea that you have to ‘catch up’ on yard work. The emptiness of hearing country music on a rainy day. Drinking beer in plastic cups. The horror of opłatki and Wigilia in general. Steel wool. Watching golf on tv. Those beat departure lounges at CAK. Being envious of an eighteen year-old kid’s university prospects. The Dostoevsky I haven’t read. That email from J about how I didn’t seem to like his girlfriend. That whole situation with, ‘why don’t I put this cigarette out on your eye,’ what a mess that was. That J might never read the Kapuściński book I gave him – he didn’t even put it on his Goodreads! How T smacks his lips while eating.  Some $2,000 chair J lets his dogs sleep on. How M shot a deer through the heart somewhere outside Philly and then ate the heart with his new wife and a little balsamic and ended up biting down on the slug, that was a wild email to get. That I missed my cousin’s wedding.”

“Wait wait wait, he ate the heart of a deer he shot? Raw or something?”

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THE DEFEAT IN THE FUTURE OF NOSTALGIA

Some interesting views on nostalgia in this post on Robert Hughes. And the two passages from Hughes are wonderful, the first haunting, the second begging the question, how quickly does valuing solitude lead one into (too) actively engaging nostalgia, to the point that that opportunity for nostalgic reverie and active recollection becomes the main value of one’s solitude in the first place?

To move away from engaging nostalgia is an important part of the ars oblivionis, of course, but the threat of a double-loss must be considered. For in such a move not only is one cutting ties with those indeterminate objects of loss envisioned and mourned sweetly, but one is disavowing a certain level of reverie and melancholic perspective as sources of creativity. Overcoming that potential double-loss is one of the challenges, then, in turning difficultly to forgetting rather than so easily to nostalgia and memory.

I cannot help but think there are degrees of defeat at work, however: forgetting as the defeat of the writer’s expected turn to memory as well as the defeat of the nostalgic’s desire for mythic return, and at the same time, the defeat of one’s belief in and capability of worthwhile recollection. Nostalgia can be self-defeatist, without a doubt, but does not the forgetting involved in embracing the fact that there really is no possibility of return – not even artistically – signify a far more serious kind of defeat? And in that case, how can the art of forgetting overcome its own contradiction in terms?

I must revisit Svetlana Boym’s fantastic book, The Future of Nostalgia.

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