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EDITORIAL/사회 :: Current Issues

Nostalgia and Politics

          “Make America great again.” This was Donald Trump’s slogan during his successful presidential campaign in 2016, evoking a time when America was supposedly stronger and more prosperous (though even his supporters disagree on when exactly he is expressing nostalgia for). Regardless, however, what is important is that the strategy of evoking nostalgia from American voters was used at a presidential campaign, the heart of American politics, the symbol of representative democracy and perhaps the particular form of government as a whole. Evidently, nostalgia and its political potential and implications are immense. Before Trump, Ronald Reagan also used a similar slogan "Let's make America great again" in his 1980 presidential campaign, which was also successful, appealing to the voters’ nostalgia. Through this essay, I aim to explore the concept of nostalgia in terms of both its definition and characteristics as well as its political implications that are interwoven with Eastern European history and the region’s sociopolitical culture.

          As I, a likely response to this would be to wonder why the concept of nostalgia is even being studied (as nostalgia seems like a relatively straightforward concept). According to Svetlana Boym’s book “The Future of Nostalgia,” Nostalgia was first diagnosed at a time when science was developed by philosophers and poets. It was considered a curable disease, in which doctors prescribed opium and leeches to take care of Swiss soldiers’ nostalgic symptoms. Even in the 18th century, doctors recommended seeking help from poets and philosophers; American military doctor Theodore Calhoun took it as far as claiming it to be a “shameful disease that revealed a lack of manliness and unprogressive attitudes,” (Boym 15) in which the only treatment would be public ridicule and bullying by fellow soldiers. Nowadays, scholars such as Boym consider nostalgia as an inevitable response to the “accelerated rhythms of life” (2) similar to a defense mechanism thereof. Tangent to this idea, one can now understand why immigrants, especially those who left their home country under difficult circumstances consider nostalgia as taboo: To them, Nostalgia is a waste of time and an unaffordable luxury, a slippery slope that could paralyze them, producing “erroneous representations” (13) that could cause the afflicted to lose touch with what is real. As a first generation myself, this passage really stood out to me. My first couple months in the United States, I found the transition particularly difficult for me because I moved at a relatively young age when my peers had formed social groups and were reluctant to welcome new people. I would spend most of my day constantly reminiscing about the past such as my friends and family that I left behind. Yet, the moment I let go of those things and strived to create new relationships, I was able to better accustom myself to the new environment.

          What really interested me was that when we dig deeper into the idea of nostalgia than as a mere individual’s psychology, Nostalgia can be viewed as a double edged sword according to Boym: because nostalgia tends to confuse people the actual home and the imaginary one, it itself is harmful to society; however, the sentiment itself is crucial to progress and is at the very “core of the modern condition” (6) (i.e. Nostalgia and progress are extremely similar in that both are dependent on the unrepeatable and irreversible nature of time). It is what enables us to newly understand time and space that differentiates local and universal. According to Boym, Nostalgia is a historial emotion that encompasses all of humanity: It is what humans share, not what divides them.

          In identifying the mechanisms of nostalgia, Boym states that it is crucial to observe two forms (more like tendencies) of nostalgia: restorative and reflective. Though not fully comprehensible, Boym claims that restorative nostalgia stresses nostos, the return home, while reflective nostalgia thrives in algia, longing and loss. In short, restorative nostalgia is the longing for a lost home while reflective nostalgia is a longing for longing itself. Beginning from the former, restorative nostalgia soothes the “ache of temporal distance and displacement, driven by the anxiety about those who draw attention to historical incongruities between past and present” (18). Further, it primarily pertains to individual and cultural memory, focusing on imagery, in an attempt to spatialize time. On the other hand, reflective which dwells upon “individual and cultural memory,” cherishing the “shattered fragments of memory and attempts to temporize space” (55) via humor or irony. For instance, Boym’s experience at the Nostalgija Snack Bar in Yugoslavia is a quintessential example of reflective nostalgia. Its decorations including posters of Sputnik and a newspaper clipping of Tito’s death was a humorous take of the 1950s, though not perceived well in Yuglosav culture. Obviously, this trend of communist symbols and iconography acquiring new visibility is a sensation that doesn't just pertain to Yugoslavia. Hammer-and-sickle tee-shirts are sold in Bulgaria, socialist-era songs are sung in Russia, and canteen-themed restaurants have opened in Budapest, all under the name of nostalgia. As a student at UC Berkeley, I often witness reflective nostalgia play out in real life. On Shattuck Ave., ever so often there are street vendors who sell hammer-and sickle tee-shirts or crewnecks with Ernesto "Che" Guevara’s face printed, and the school’s famous meme page “UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens'' upload memes about socialism, reflecting how politically liberal the school is.

          In Maya Nadkarni and Olga Shevchenko’s essay Anthropology and Nostalgia, they argue that the very existence of post-socialist nostalgic practices of the socialist-era, such as young entrepreneurs opening a pizzeria called ‘Marxim” is proof that socialism is comfortably dead. This notion is observed throughout various mediums such as documentary films, theme cafes, and much more. Thus, it is quite evident that Eastern European post-communist nostalgia is one of a kind, different from nostalgias elsewhere including the Soviet Union itself. Pondering deeper into mid to late postmodern history, this makes sense: the ideology of socialism was somewhat less orthodox in Eastern Europe and thus each country in the union responded to the crises of the post-Stalinist system differently from post-Soviet Russia. Consequently, the Communist party survived as a major political agent in Russia while Eastern European countries constantly attempted to remodel their social democracy.

          Though post-communist nostalgia could be used as a comedic and amusing material in a light-hearted manner, devoid of politics, nostalgia must be acknowledged as a volatile concept that has its threats. Its susceptibility to be integrated into political agendas and the potential thereof is innumerable. However, it is absolutely necessary to identify where such sentiment builds its foundation from. For some, post-communist nostalgia comes from the difference between the West and the Eastern Europe, which is rooted from the gap between socialist ideology and its reality. Initially, post-socialist countries considered the Western countries as selfish who only seek to defend their own national interests instead of betterment as a whole; however, socialist regimes could never reach the production caliber of capitalist countries, resulting in a shift in perception of the West from a politically-disappointing dystopia to a consumer utopia with access to goods that are of higher quality. It resulted in the loss of a projected future, leaving them destitute and obsolete. In doing so, the production of films supposedly have played a huge role: a scene in Moscow on the Hudson portrays abundance of groceries in an American store, in which people in the Soviet bloc could only watch in envy and perceive it as an unattainable luxury. For others, it comes from the dissolution of socialism’s own utopian aspirations. In this view, post-communist nostalgia is a critique of “capitalist triumphalism that [discards] the legacies” (Nadkarni and Shevchenko 70) and values of socialism, in terms of both politics and personal memory. One recurring form of cultural practice was the commodification of official symbols of communist ideology such as Soviet medals or any practice that pertains to reflective nostalgia as mentioned above. Yet, different from Boym, Ange and Berliner differentiate the “good” and “bad” forms of nostalgia, where reflective (ironic, self-reflexive, elegiac) nostalgia is considered good while restorative (aggressive, political, reactionary) is seen as bad, which is difficult to categorize because practices are rarely categorical.

          In the chapter “From Algos to Autonomous” in the edited volume “Post-Communist Nostalgia,” author Dominic Boyer provides an excellent summary in what we have discussed thus far. In summary, Boyer states that Eastern European nostalgia (or “nostomania”) in particular is essentially viewed by the West as a “coping behavior” (Boyer 19) for the people who have lived most of their lives under an uncomfortably powerful state. Yet the concept is filled with necessary corrections to be made according to Boyer, in which he establishes the five theses on Eastern European Nostalgia: Nostalgia (i) is heteroglossic, (ii) is indexical, (iii) is allochronic, (iv) is symptomal, and (v) always carries with it a politics of the future: Nostalgia is heteroglossic in that it is not consistent. In the case of nostalgic expression being ubiquitous and uniform, one should remain skeptical; Nostalgia is indexical in that it should be defined situationally and positionally; Nostalgia is allochronic in that it is not unique to Eastern Europe and the thought is pernicious; Nostalgia is symptomal in that it is a symptom of transcendence of alienation. For instance, Eastern European nostalgia is a symptom of the increasingly manic need in Western Europe to fix Eastern Europe in the past; lastly, Nostalgia always carries with it a politics of the future in that what is important is ultimately in the future rather than the present.

          Eastern Europe is culturally unique, both in terms of its sociopolitical aspects; at first sight post-socialist nostalgia in Eastern Europe seems like an anomaly. It is vastly different from how the United States or most other nations would perceive reflective nostalgia. Yet, if we peer deeper than the mere surface level of a person’s individual psychology, nostalgia is more than that: it is an alluring sentiment that brings people together, a longing for a longing, and a concept that should be approached carefully due to its astounding political potential and implications.