Monday, 22 November 2010

Restorative Nostalgia

^Reconstructed Cathedral of Christ Our Saviour, Moscow source

The first excerpt of two laying out the two entirely incomensurable and often confused forms in which contemporary nostalgia manifests itself -Restorative and Reflective- the one dangerous and easily abused, unconscious and easy to accept, the other profoundly complex, personal and requiring active contemplation and engagement, and ultimately hugely rewarding. Both extracts are from Svetlana Boym's deeply inspiring and thorough book "The Future of Nostalgia", in which she takes Nostalgia as an intrinsic and inescapable condition of moderinty, set only to increase in potency in the years to come, and sets about breaking it down into its component parts, its various appearances, sinister and beautiful, and states the case for positively engaging with it as a key to understanding and in a way, enjoying, our fantastically unstable 21st century Human Condition. It was my best read since, and the best possible Architect's addendum to "In Search Of Lost Time", and was also strangely similar, but far more precise and ambitious than Nicolas Bourriaud's The Radicant, in which Bourriaud posits an artistic form of  nomadic rootlessness, in which artists engage in creating their own micro-narratives of belonging in a life-long, international trajectory, positing the artistic project as one of a perpetualy Reflective, and transformational Nostalgia.


Restorative Nostalgia: Conspiracies and Return To Origins

"Two kinds of nostalgia are not absolute types, but rather tendencies, ways of giving shape and meaning to longing. Restorative nostalgia puts emphasis on nostos (returning home)and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps. Reflective nostalgia dwells in algia (aching), in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance. The first category of nostalgics do not think of themselves as nostalgic; they believe that their project is about truth. This kind of nostalgic characterizes national and nationalist revivals all over the world, which engage in the anti-modern myth-making of history by means of a return to nationalist symbols and myths and, occasionally, through swapping conspiracy theories. Restorative nostalgia manifests itself in total reconstructions of monuments from the past, while reflective nostalgia lingers on ruins, the patina of time and history, in the dreams of another place and another time.

To understand restorative nostalgia it is important to distinguish between the habits of the past and the habits of the restoration of the past. Eric Hobsbawn differentiates between age old “customs” and nineteenth century “invented traditions”. Customs by which so-called traditional societies operated were not invariable or inherently conservative: “Custom in traditional societies has a double function of motor and fly wheel… Custom cannot afford to be invariant because even in the traditional societies life is not so.”
On the other hand, restored or invented tradition refers to a “set of practices normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and a ritual of symbolic nature which seeks to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition which automatically implies continuity with the past.” The new traditions are characterized by a higher degree of symbolic formalization and ritualization than the actual peasant customs and conventions after which they were patterned. Here are two paradoxes. First, the more rapid and sweeping the pace and scale of modernization, the more conservative and unchangeable the new traditions tend to be, Second, the stronger the rhetoric of continuity with the historical past and emphasis on traditional values, the more selectively the past is presented. The novelty of invented tradition is “no less novel for being able to dress up easily as antiquity”.

Invented tradition does not mean a creation ex nihilo or a pure act of social constructivism; rather, it builds on the sense of loss of community and cohesion and offers a comforting collective script for individual longing. There is a perception that as a result of society’s industrialization and secularization in the nineteenth century, a certain void of social and spiritual meaning has opened up. What was needed was a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning. Yet this transformation can take different turns. It may increase the emancipatory possibilities and individual choices, offering multiple imagined communities and ways of belongingthat are not exclusivelybased on ethnic or national principles. It can also be politically manipulated through newly recreated practices of national commemoration with the aim of re-establishing social cohesion, a sense of security and an obedient relationship to authority.

Cultural identity is based on a certain social poetics or “cultural intimacy” that provides a glue in everyday life. This was described by anthropologist Michael Herzfeld as “embarrassment and rueful self-recognition” through various common frameworks of memory and even what may appear as stereotypes. Such identity involves everyday games of hide-and-seek that only “natives” play, unwritten rules of behaviour, jokes understood from half a word, a sense of complicity. State propaganda and official national memory build on this cultural intimacy, but there is also a discrepancy and tension between the two. It is very important to distinguish between political nationalism and cultural intimacy, which, after all, is based on common social context, not on national or ethnic homogeneity.

^93metre high statue of Peter The Great in the Moskva River, built 1997 source
National memory reduces this space of play with memorial signs to a single plot. Restorative nostalgia knows two main narrative plots –the restoration of origins and the conspiracy theory, characteristic of the most extreme cases of contemporary nationalism fed on right-wing popular culture. The conspiratorial worldview reflects a nostalgia for a transcendental cosmology and a simple pre-modern conception of good and evil. The conspiratorial worldview is based on a single trans-historical plot, a Manichean battle of good and evil and the inevitable scapegoating of the mythical enemy. Ambivalence, the complexity of history and the specificity of modern circumstances is thus erased, and modern history is seen as a fulfilment of ancient prophecy. “Home”, imagine extremist conspiracy theory adherents, is forever under siege, requiring defence against the plotting enemy.

[...] Nostalgia is an ache of temporal distance and displacement. Restorative nostalgia takes care of both these symptoms. Distance is compensated by intimate experience and the availability of a desired object. Displacement is cured by a return home, preferably a collective one. Never mind if it’s not your home; by the time you reach it, you will have already forgotten the difference. What drives restorative nostalgia is not the sentiment of distance and longing but rather the anxiety about those who draw attention to historical incongruities between past and present and thus question the wholeness and continuity of the restored tradition.

Even in its less extreme form, restorative nostalgia has no use for the signs of historical time –patina, ruins, cracks, imperfections. The 1980s and 1990s was a time of great revival of the past in several projects of total restoration –from the Sistine Chapel to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow- that attempted to restore a sense of the sacred believed to be missing from the modern word."

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