About the project

In 1953 L. P. Hartley wrote that “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” and this claim may seem even more resonant in the twenty-first century. This sense of the foreignness of the past arises from the fact that we live in societies oriented towards the now and the tomorrow, in a world obsessed with a complex and protean present seemingly impervious to historical continuity. The many tomorrows inherent in every new technology, product, and digitally mediated event drive us further away from our collective histories. What value, then, can the stories of strangers living under conditions so different to our own have? What can national histories or international histories mean in an age in which restless flows of people move alongside information, products, ideas, and capital across national and cultural boundaries, pushed and pulled by the imperatives of economics and politics into an endlessly dislocated world?

Yet the present seems stubbornly rooted in the past, a past which has now been dying for a very long time, lying always on the cusp of an unborn future; rather than moving forward, we seem to be perpetually falling backwards. This occurs both politically, as in the repeated re-ignition of history’s buried fires, ranging from the emergence of ISIS as a ultra-nostalgic force to the re-emergence of a nostalgic hard-right in European politics, and culturally, as in the persistent return of cultural production and consumption to a number of key points in our history in a restless and always unsatisfied attempt to reinterpret, reuse, or replay that which is seemingly vanished. And while this retrospective orientation is observable in all major contemporary art forms, the literary, broadly construed to include all forms of narrative art, is our most explicit repository of cultural memory; it is the place that the past lives most actively and with the most self-awareness; it is the place in which the past is written and the past writes us; it is the place in which we, as a culture, actively work through the memory of the past in an explicitly contemporary context.

If the past, then, may not be a foreign country, but inescapably our homeland, the place from which we attempt to emigrate but return to as if by irresistible attraction, nostalgia too is a country which if in some ways foreign, remains utterly familiar, and which shapes the line and weight of our own times and places. They may do things differently in that distant land, but we seem to model many of our actions, thoughts, dreams and loves on those very differences. Nostalgic remembrance can be seen as a bitter combination of entropy and teleology, but nostalgia is also, as Svetlana Boym writes, “rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress” (xv). Romantic inclination towards the past might seem irrational, but our emotional connections to our own biographies, as well as a collective solidarity with our childhoods, traditions, imaginations, anticipations and dreams may also be a rational response to modern instability.

Nostalgia, then, appears increasingly to be a modality of its own with major potential for understanding how our now is shaped by our then, both individually and collectively. Writing in the late 1990s, Linda Hutcheon pointed out that nostalgia (alongside irony) was a key component of contemporary culture. On a less positive note, Fredric Jameson posits nostalgia as an eclectic cannibalism of past styles and, more dangerously, a deceitful and commercial historicism. Similarly, Jean Baudrillard detests the quest for the past, deploring its economic and non-artistic qualities and criticizing, alongside Jameson, its lack of critical edge and its pastiche qualities. Fred Davis is one of the few who acknowledges the part aesthetics play in nostalgic art: “So frequently and uniformly does nostalgic sentiment seem to infuse our aesthetic experience that we can rightly begin to suspect that nostalgia is not only a feeling or mood that is somehow magically evoked by the art object but also a distinctive aesthetic modality in its own right […].” These voices all indicate the potential of nostalgia and nostalgic analysis to help us understand the present. Nostalgia can be seen as an aesthetic, a component of contemporary culture, politics and commercialism, tradition and structure, as well as part of individual consciousness. Its boundlessness is its vigour as a methodology for describing and analysing our contemporary moment in relation to the past. The purpose of this project is thus to begin to map the contours of this foreign homeland, this now shaped by then.