The Politics of Nostalgia: New books by Augé, Bauman and Lilla

For researchers of nostalgia, 2017 was an interesting vintage as “the politics of nostalgia” were frequently evoked in public discourse with regard to Brexit and Trump as well as political developments in Russia, Turkey, India and elsewhere (see September’s blogpost). A couple of new publications touched on this theme among which three stand out. Though varying in degree, they all share an alarmist view of the extent and effect of nostalgia on contemporary societies and politics.

Let’s start with the anthropologist Marc Augé’s memoir-cum-reflections on aging, time generally and our times particularly Everyone Dies Young: Time Without Age as it came out late in 2016 and devotes only one chapter to the subject. It is mainly interested in nostalgia as something individuals experience, especially as they get older, remembering their childhood and youth, as Augé does his own in this book. Soon, however, Augé strays from his main point to reflect on nostalgia as a (dangerous) political collective emotion:


“Nostalgia is a powerful, and therefore potentially dangerous, force. It can fuel the most instance and most reactionary passions. Today we find some ‘nostalgia’ for the Third Reich among young men whose image of it obviously comes from others. A past one has not known is the easiest kind to claim and reconstruct. In a more general way, political nostalgia marks a third category that is as distinct from nostalgia that focuses on a past that might have been. Traditionalists and reactionaries are combatants of the imaginary, utopians devoted to a past as illusory as the utopia of progressives, but those of the former category are more hypocritical, founding the new order to which they aspire on a nonexistent or shameful past.” (78)

As many have done before him, Augé likes to distinguish between political camps by their relationship to time: the right—traditionalists and reactionaries—is looking back to the past nostalgically, the left—utopians and progressives—are looking to the future so as to build a new society in contrast to a present and past they reject and turn against. Augé seems to see both attitudes as equally foolish. But what are we to do with the past then—or nothing at all? Augé doesn’t tell us.

On the face of it nostalgia—and the politics of nostalgia—plays a bigger role in Zygmunt Bauman’s last book Retrotopia, published shortly before his death in January 2017. It begins with an introduction on “The Age of Nostalgia” and makes out a “global epidemic of nostalgia” (4). However, the book has disappointingly little to say on nostalgia. The term hardly crops up again after the introduction. This gives the impression as if Bauman rather lazily adopted the popular term without in any way conceptualizing it—or explaining how it is connected with the phenomena Bauman is really interested in what he sees as regressive tendencies in politics, especially political and nationalistic tribalism.

According to Bauman the present nostalgia epidemic is a reaction to the “epidemic of progress frenzy”, the twentieth century witnessed earlier. (4) Like Augé, then, Bauman views a struggle between those, who are looking forward and those who are looking back. However, while Augé sees the two embraced in a struggle since the French Revolution, Bauman views it as two historical phases. The belief in progress, once dominating political thinking, has given way to nostalgia. Bauman doesn’t really go into when any why this happened. Like the French historian François Hartog, Bauman seems to distinguish between two “regimes of historicity”. In any case, the time of utopias has irrevocably ended. Instead we are living in an age of “retrotopias”: “visions located in the lost/stolen/abandoned but undead past, instead of being tied to the not-yet-unborn and so inexistent future“. (5)

Finally, The Shipwrecked Mind by the political scientist Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University. Lilla, too, is not really concerned with nostalgia but with political reaction:

„The reactionary mind is a shipwrecked mind. Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes. He is time’s exile. The revolutionary sees the radiant future invisible to others and it electrifies him. The reactionary, immune to modern lies, sees the past in all its splendor and he too is electrified.“ (14)

A—in all its sadness—beautiful picture. And who of us hasn’t at some time in their lives felt like standing at that shore watching the debris flow by. Yet, what Lilla says here of the reactionary in some measure applies equally to the utopians, at least to the utopian socialists and even to Karl Marx. For all their orientation towards the future, the future they were looking to often looked a lot like an idealized past. True, unlike the reactionary, they believed in the possibility of change and a better future. But are the reactionaries satisfied with admiring the past? If that were the case, they wouldn’t cause progressives sleepless nights. What gives them nightmares is exactly the reactionaries intend to shape the present and the future. Like Bauman, Lilla sees nostalgia as a natural, understandable and not necessarily despicable reaction to change. What makes nostalgia dangerous is that it can be easily exploited by reactionaries:

„Every major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of somebody’s nostalgia. And the reactionaries of our time have discovered that nostalgia can be a powerful political motivator, perhaps even more powerful than hope. Hopes can be disappointed. Nostalgia is irrefutable.“ (15-16)

Now, as straightforward as all this sounds it is not particularly original, which is somewhat disappointing for thinkers who have given us concepts such as “liquid modernity” and “non-lieu”. The idea that nostalgia is a reaction to change has been put forward time and again since Alvin Toffler, Fred Davis or Hermann Lübbe first did so in the 1970s. This does not mean that it is wrong but it certainly raises some questions today’s nostalgia critics are either not aware of or evading. Has what they are describing been going on since the 1970s? Has it intensified? Or are we witnessing a new phase of the so-called “politics of nostalgia”.

I’m still not convinced that what we are witnessing can be at all explained by drawing on nostalgia. And, surveying current politics from birds-eye view, none of the authors explain who exactly—apart from very abstract reactionaries—is nostalgic, for what and why. I’m not even sure if “reactionary” is a helpful term for a politics driven by very little knowledge at all—whether of the present or the past—but by outright egoism and hate. Finally, the three authors—like many nostalgia critics—could be accused of engaging in exactly what they are criticizing. By describing our own time as characterised by nostalgia—by an epidemic of nostalgia even—they imply that there has been a golden age before nostalgia came to dominate society, culture and politics. Are they not nostalgic for a time when progressivism was the undisputed paradigm? To be continued…

Works cited:

Marc Augé, Everyone Dies Young: Time Without Age. Translated by Jody Gladding (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

Zygmunt Bauman, Retrotopia (Cambridge: Polity, 2017).

Mark Lilla, Only an Apocalypse Can Save Us Now: On the Politics of Nostalgia, Harper’s (September 2016), 49-53. []

Mark Lilla, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction (New York: New York Review of Books, 2016).