Research

The research being carried out as part of NCIC is wide-ranging, but it can be conceptualised as occupying four main interelated research fields.

 

Memory, Affect, Subjectivity

The basis of all nostalgia is memory, memory of a time now past, or of a time that never really existed, at least in the shape in which it is remembered. In his recent book on the nature of political nostalgia, Mark Lilla notes as a “revealing psychological fact” the common, indeed, almost ubiquitous, historical myth of inevitable decline as an explanation for present pain: “We suffer because we live in the Age of Iron, far removed from our origins in the Age of Gold. If we are good perhaps one day the gods will smile down and return us to the world we have lost.” But this social, historical form of nostalgic memory is rooted in, and indeed reflects on a larger scale, a similarly ubiquitous personal experience of diminishment and loss. As we age, we inevitably leave behind an ever larger pool of past experience, both remembered and forgotten, which shapes and defines us as individuals: as David Hume put it, “memory not only discovers the identity, but contributes to its production.” Our relationship to our personal pasts is thus of central importance: the past makes us what we are, and we only know the past through memory. However, as George Steiner has argued, “It is not the literal past that rules us, [. . ]. It is images of the past. These are often as highly structured and selective as myths.” Our memories are our personal historical myths, and like the collective myths discussed by Lilla, these, too, frequently operate within a framework of decline, and hence nostalgia. Research within this field will explore the centrality of this sort of personal nostalgia to contemporary cultural production, examining key texts such as the Proustian project of Karl Ove Knausgård’s six-volume My Struggle.

 

Nostalgia and Empire

Empire is tinged by nostalgia. For if every empire must eventually fall, eventually someone will mourn its demise. Whether it was the empires of the ancient Greeks and the Romans, the Chinese or the Mayan, the French or the British, empires exist in a temporal nexus of the then and now, of former or present glory, and eventual future collapse. This was the reason, after all, that Hitler imagined the Third Reich as the Thousand Year Reich and that he made sure government structure were constructed so that they would decay into beautiful ruins. Even before it had become a reality, the German dictator viewed his future empire from the perspective of a look backwards, a nostalgia for the great times that were even before they had come to be. Empire and nostalgia take on many cultural forms. First and foremost in that specific empires entail different nostalgias. Nostalgia for the empire of the Ancient Greeks may imply a longing for the roots of a Western civilization as yet untainted by history. Similarly, nostalgia for the heyday of the British Empire may entail reveries of white supremacy and English greatness, of exotic travel in faraway lands and of a kind of adventure the modern world no longer has to offer. Whether it is in Joseph Conrad’s yearning for the ‘blank spaces of the earth’ yet to be conquered by empire as he described it in The Heart of Darkness (1899), of the evocation of an India ruled by Englishmen as seen in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), or of Vladimir Nabokov’s longing for a Russian aristocratic childhood in pre-revolution Russia as seen in Speak, Memory (1951), narratives of imperial nostalgia abound. Secondly, empire and nostalgia permeate media of any kind even to this day. We see this in films like The English Patient (1996), for instance, as in computer games like Victoria: An Empire Under the Sun (2003), but we certainly also see it in the news, in the hopes that Brexit can reestablish the importance of a Britain reduced in power, or that electing Donald Trump can ‘Make America Great Again’ by returning to former days of military glory. Imperial nostalgia is here to stay. Indeed, some may argue that it never went away in the first place.

 

Migration and exile

In his 1999 memoir, Out of Place, Edward Said writes that “nothing more painful and paradoxically sought after characterizes my life than the many displacements from countries,cities, abodes, languages, environments that have kept me in motion all these years.” The sense of multiple and permanent dislocation explored by Said arose out of his member of the exiled Palestinian diaspora, the hundreds of thousands, now become millions, displaced from their homes by the creation of the state of Israel, itself intended as the end to a millennia long state of vulnerable exile and migration. Responses to these, and the countless other instances of large and small scale dislocation which character contemporary history––in the summer of 2016 the UN Refugee Agency reported that the number of refugees in the world had reached 65 million, the highest ever reported––frequently, indeed almost inevitable, involve nostalgia. Who, indeed, could experience of the pain of the impossibility to return home implied in the etymology of the term nostalgia more acutely, more persistently, and more hopelessly, than the refugee or the exile, who all too often literally cannot go home or has no home to go home to. This form of nostalgia appears widely in contemporary culture, from the poems of Bejan Matur (“You chose your exile among rainswept mountains”) to Claire Denis’ recent films 35 Shots of Rum (2008) and White Materials (2010). But as Charles C. Lemert has pointed out in his discussion of Said’ memoir, “dispossession” is the “ubiquitous condition of a globalizing world,” and thus not exclusive to literal communities of exile: global neo-liberal capitalism makes exiles out of us all, and one response to this state is nostalgia.

 

The Anthropocene, the post-human, and Utopian-Dystopian Imaginaries

The term 'anthropocene' indicates the idea that human beings are no longer only biological agents on the earth, but have taken on the role of a geological agent, changing the fundamental conditions of the entire planet. The most well-known, and arguably the most alarming result of the anthropocene, is global warming, but there are other consequences of human influence on Earth's system, such as a dramatically diminishing biodiversity and biogeography. All of these transformations are leading to dramatic changes for human life on planet Earth. Taking the challenge of the anthropocene seriously thus leads to reinvestigations and wide-ranging re-appreciations of basic concepts and conventional dichotomies like, for instance, history versus prehistory, culture versus nature, human time versus geological time. Timothy Morton writes in “How I Learned Stop Worrying and Love the Term Anthropocene” that the “Anthropocene ends the concept nature: a stable, nonhuman background to (human) history.” At a time when there is a potential risk for the annihilation of the human species, nostalgia has become a defense mechanism in order to cling onto the Anthro in the Anthropocene: the human, civilization, history, culture, and the stable binary of human versus nature. This can be seen in apocalyptic and dystopic blockbuster films set in the wake of climate change, such as Waterworld (1995), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and 2012 (2009) where there are strong nostalgic tendencies towards what defines us as humans, e.g. what our loss will be and what we need to preserve, or as in Waterworld, a search for the past and a firm desire to turn the clock back. It thus seems that nostalgia is a popular, and general, reaction to a set of changes which feel incomprehensible or unacceptable to most people. The fear of loss of stable humanity, both in the Anthropocene and posthuman condition, might be interpreted as reactionary and conservative, but these concerns are indeed real, and need to be negotiated in any utopian ideas of a human future on this planet. This sparks, as in romanticism, a strong desire to return to the slower rhythms of rural and mythical life, preindustrial routines and traditions, and a belief of an untouched human heart and nature.

 

Last updated: 30.3.2017