If nostalgia is a fond remembrance, a glance back, we seem to be in the grip of a yearning not just to remember the past but to return completely to it. Whether it’s the imagined “Greatness” of America’s past or a return to a mythical Britain, we seem enthralled to this mindset.
I use the word “we” loosely here.
It may be the result of a whole section of society who have lost power or lost control that propels this yearning, or it may be the awfulness of the prospects for the future that is driving it.
In late-capitalism everything has built-in obsolescence so institutional memory loss is perhaps no surprise.
I may have written about this before, I can’t remember.
In his novel Slowness, Milan Kundera writes that, “the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.” Kundera illustrates this point with the example of a walking man. When he is attempting recollect something, he slows down. When trying to forget a disagreeable incident, he speeds up, “as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time.”
If there is a connection between speed and forgetting it’s not surprising we’re getting forgetful as the torrent of information, crisis and change pours through our hand-held devices.
We seem to be forgetting things, and not things like “where’s my keys” it’s things like “how to be a decent human being” or “why it’s a bad idea to burn down the Amazon rainforest”.
It’s a bit of a cliché but its worth noting: if we can’t remember the past we can’t envisage the future.
With such memory loss we need to re-learn lessons over and over. Paradoxically we don’t have time for that;
As Mark Fisher once wrote:
”The odds might be stacked in such a way that we do keep losing, but the point is to increase our collective intelligence. That requires, if not a party structure of the old type, then at least some kind of system of coordination and some system of memory.”
How do we do this?
In “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire”, Pierre Nora discusses three kinds of memory: archive memory, duty memory, and distance memory.
But this attempt to try to create a structure or a hierarchy of memory is really problematic, raising questions of who creates the monuments, who writes the history and who memorialises?
Maybe lacking memory and being lost in a toxic nostalgia is a sign that progress is just lost?
Previous societies – even only a few decades ago – envisaged future scenarios, and dreamed utopian dreams. Some of these were crazy, unrealistic, or reckless, but they were future-focused.
Now our efforts are just to imagine survival.
Why is this?
In “Capitalism and memory: of golf courses and massage parlors in Badagry, Nigeria” Pius Adesanmi explores how capitalism has organised human history and experience in the pursuit of profit. He writes:
“In his classic essay, ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’, Frederic Jameson theorizes everything, every space, as fair game for a ‘late consumer or multinational capitalism’. Even the residents of ‘Things Fall Apart’ would agree with me that the new capitalism described by Jameson has not come empty-handed. It has brought its own stool into our houses and spaces, carrying in its goatskin bag what Jameson describes as ‘new types of consumption; planned obsolescence; an ever more rapid rhythm of fashion and styling changes; the penetration of advertising, television and the media generally to a hitherto unparalleled degree throughout society…’ Please note that what Jameson describes as a ‘new moment of late consumer or multinational capitalism’ would be described as old school by my undergraduate students because Jameson was writing in 1998, that is at least ten years before Facebook, Twitter, iPod, and iPad.”
1998 seems like a long time ago. As systems change and collapse, as the reality of the experience of climate breakdown emerges we are faced with a torrent of information that becomes virtually incomprehensible. We have all the information in the word but none of the wisdom to use it.
The American writer Gary Cross calls this phenomenon “consumed nostalgia”, and points out that “modern nostalgia has privileged childhood and personal memory, reducing the value of past eras and collective memory”. Cross identifies five characteristics of the new “consumed nostalgia”: it “binds together not communities or families, but scattered individuals around seemingly ephemeral things that are meaningful to them personally”.
In this understanding institutional memory-loss isn’t an aberration it’s a function of late capitalism and an essential component of hyper-individualism and a tool of mass disorientation. In a system of built in obsolescence Forgetfulness is inevitable and necessary.
Looking backwards doesn’t seem to be getting us very far.
In England, the nostalgia seems to be for times of war all of the language around Brexit swirls around this period. There are reasons, I suppose, why this would be. A distinct and clear enemy, a time when Britain really was united, a time when bravery and spirit were tangible, and a time that “we” (an imagined we) could look back to with pride, rather than the current period that can only really bring shame.
Obviously there’s a problem that being in a war isn’t nearly as good as you think it is. Also, the population that burst into tears when it can’t find a wi-fi signal isn’t going to be so good when rations kick-in. It’s not so much we’re pampered as nullified.
Not everyone wants to go back.
But I do want things to stop for a bit.
I’m getting slightly obsessed with the idea of Halcyon Days. I hadn’t realised the origins of this.
The Halcyon is a bird of Greek legend and the name was given to the Kingfisher. The ancient Greeks believed that the bird made a floating nest in the Aegean Sea and had the power to calm the waves while brooding her eggs. Fourteen days of calm weather were to be expected when the Halcyon was nesting – around the winter solstice, usually 21st or 22nd of December. The Halcyon days are generally regarded as beginning on the 14th or 15th of December.
The source of the belief in the bird’s power to calm the sea originated in a myth recorded by Ovid. The story goes that Aeolus, the ruler of the winds, had a daughter named Alcyone, who was married to Ceyx, the king of Thessaly. Ceyx was drowned at sea and Alcyone threw herself into the waves in a fit of grief. Instead of drowning, she was transformed into a bird and carried to her husband by the wind.
There’s a sort of adrenaline about the chaos and the madness of the world these days.
But what we need I think is for some respite, some Halcyon calm. It’s not very revolutionary I know but I just want time to think and imagine a way forward. It feels like if we don’t stop forgetting we’re not going to make it.