Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Ends of Nostalgia: waiting for the past-to-come (From my afterword to Andreas Bandak and Manpreet Kaur Janeja, Ethnographies of Waiting, forthcoming from Bloomsbury. A book to look forward to)

As anyone who has worked on the phenomenon knows, nostalgia is a lot more than a yearning for the past. Firstly, nostalgia is a yearning/waiting for a past that is perceived to have been lost (that is, perceived to be lacking) in the present. Secondly, it is not a yearning for any kind of past, it is a yearning for an idealised past. Thirdly, it is an active and/or passive yearning/waiting which entertains the possibility of, and as such is hopeful that, such a lacking idealised past will materialise in the future. All of this is part and parcel of the Lebanese migratory yearning to return. First, in the process of migration, Lebanon or the village, the land one imagines to have left behind, ‘back home’, is often slowly yearned for and perceived to be what is lacking in the migratory present. Second, this ‘back home’ is quickly idealised as a place of plenitude and well-being in opposition to the harsh land of migration where a kind of reality principle prevails. Third, most Lebanese emigrants strongly believe in the eventuality of return, even if not all of them are capable of actively pursuing it. The nostalgic waiting for return is therefore a yearning to return to a past that never existed but that is hopefully yet to come. It is in this sense that nostalgic waiting can be called a hopeful waiting for a past-to-come.  It therefore takes this general imaginary structure (in the sense of the way it is thought by the nostalgic subject in the present):

Idealised                      Present as lacking idealised past                                the future
past                 à        of plenitude and where the                à                    as the past-to-
of plenitude                 yearning/waiting subject is                                        come

Undoubtedly, this is a form of waiting in that we have a subject negotiating their relation towards the future from the present and with a specific past behind them. Intimations of Arendt’s theorisation are clear (see introduction). At the same time, however, it is a specific kind of waiting where the drama of negotiating the future is staged as a desire to regain a lost plenitude. But to what extent is this waiting for the past-to-come unique to the migratory experience? It can be easily argued that this nostalgic waiting is not specific to migration as much as it is specific to modernity. Is not all modern waiting structured by a sense of loss of plenitude caused by industrialisation, urbanism, pollution and a yearning for the plenitude of the countryside? Does not modernity by its very nature stage a nostalgic subject who is forever waiting to overcome a sense of loss and alienation? This modern yearning is always a yearning for a past time as well as a past space. It could be argued that what characterises diasporic waiting and diasporic modernity is that the emphasis on place becomes greater. If the ‘classic’ modern European waiting is structured by yearning for a predominantly conceived lost time, Diasporic waiting is structured by yearning for a predominantly conceived lost place. We can easily see how this modern structure of waiting/yearning sociologically shapes other forms of waiting/yearning/seeking. Are not current forms of white nationalism in the western world structured in exactly the same nostalgic way, with the white nationalist subject imagining an idealised national past of plenitude (the nation before x, y or z ruined it) and a yearning for a national future that is precisely this idealised past now perceived as forthcoming?

Nonetheless, there are arguments to be made for the universal nature rather than the modern, let alone diasporic, specificity of nostalgic waiting. Such an argument comes from psychoanalysis with the foundational role that ‘waiting for the breast’ plays in the formation of the human subject. In its Freudian/Lacanian version, this waiting for the breast initiated what is a distinctly nostalgic structure. This is because the moment of waiting is the moment of awareness of a lack of immediacy between needing and receiving. For as long as there is no waiting there is no consciousness of one’s separate existence. It is the moment when we need and have to wait for the breast that we become aware of our separateness. However, this separateness is painful and the moment it is experienced one begins to yearn for an imagined time when it did not exist. That is the imagined moment where there was a kind of fusion between mother and baby and a sense of plenitude that comes from this lack of separateness and the absence of the need to wait. Thus, when we receive the breast, we get what we need (milk) but we do not get what we desire (a return to the state of fusion with the mother where we imagine that we did not even experience ‘need’). Consequently, the desiring subject is a subject structured by nostalgia for this state of plenitude and fusion for the mother, waiting for a past-to-come.

While claiming a certain universality, we don’t need a reminder that the psychoanalytic claim is nonetheless a western claim for universality. Integral to this psychoanalytic argument is a more general phenomenological one about the universality of the nostalgic subject: the very moment of consciousness is a consciousness of ‘separation from…’ and a yearning for lack of separation. But this kind of separation rests on a very modern imaginary of the division between nature and culture. Indeed, it does not take too much effort of the imagination to see that what is staged here is an opposition between a state of nature (no separation and plenitude) and a state of culture (separation and alienation) with the subject of culture continuously yearning/waiting for a return to a state of ‘being one with nature’. After all, one of the most fundamental manifestations of this imaginary past plenitude/present lack/future as past-to-come remains the structure of monotheist religion as it is present in the bible, where it takes the form Garden of Eden/the fall as the present of the waiting subject/heaven as the yearned for past-to-come.

The question of cultural specificity/universality of the structure of nostalgic waiting ties into the sociological argument presented above: to what extent have we internalised this macro nostalgic structure of waiting and hoping? And to what extent does it play a role in shaping all the micro modes of hoping we engage in. As I write, I am passively and actively waiting for this afterword to finish. Am I also unconsciously imagining in my very waiting and yearning for an end, a state of plenitude, a return to a state of fusion with the mother, a return home and a being one with nature all in one? Indeed, can one yearn/wait non-nostalgically? Perhaps this is an important political question we are facing today.

If nostalgic waiting is structured among other things with a hopeful fantasy of being one with nature ‘once again’. Is not this kind of waiting and hopefulness beginning to crumble in our Anthropocenic age where we have to confront the impossibility of this fantasy of one-ness ever coming to be fantasised again? And if this kind of macro structure of waiting has a determining effect on other micro forms of waiting, expecting, yearning and seeking, perhaps we are in the midst of one of the most radical transformations of the way we experience our position ‘between past and future’.

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