Nostalgia is a curious thing. In times of uncertainty, segments of a society often use it as a coping device. Consequently, it can also become a political tool with which leaders shape promises about reconstructing a past that was supposedly better than the turbulent present.
Nostalgia is not history. It is a sentiment. It is an emotional snapshot of a past that is perceived as being something that was less complex. For nostalgia to work, it needs to avoid cold analysis. As a memory, it is usually isolated from what was happening outside that particular memory, something that was not that warm.
According to research published in 2015 by the British psychologist Constantine Sedikides, nostalgia can be a healthy emotion. Nostalgia of this nature is often associated with ageing men and women who feel that their influence inside the house and outside is being overwhelmed by rapid economic, social and political shifts.
However, psychologists are of the view that nostalgia also comes into play within younger people, especially when they cross a milestone. They reminisce about what all they went through before the crossing. Here too, memories isolated from the not-so-warm ones in the same time frame, work as momentary feel-good emotions.
But whereas psychologists such as Sedikides see nostalgia as healthy, it becomes problematic when used as a political tool. Documentaries of the British journalist Adam Curtis often posit that, as the world continues to become more complicated than ever, political leaders are increasingly struggling to comprehend today’s complexities and, thus, failing to formulate and provide a coherent vision of the future. They are attempting to define the complexity of today’s realities in an overtly simple manner.
Failing to find new ways forward, leaders often look backwards in nostalgia, promising to bring forth an apparently better and less complicated past. But did it even exist?
Curtis sees this happening across all manner of thought leadership — political, academic and cultural. So, driven by a demand to simplify modern-day complexities, the leaderships, instead of trying to figure out new ways forward, have begun to look backwards, promising to bring forth a past that was apparently better and less complicated.
But the recollection of such pasts is often not very accurate, because it involves a nostalgia which is referred to as ‘Anemoia’, or a nostalgia for a time one has never known. A past that is not a lived experience. A past that is largely imagined.
The pace of change, in almost everything that supplements human advancement, greatly accelerated after the 18th century, especially with the emergence of breakthrough ideas in politics, science, economics and philosophy. It was a reaction against centuries of slow change, stagnancy and superstition. And even though the word nostalgia was first used in the 18th century, it was seen as anathema to change and ‘modernisation.’ Therefore, leaders in almost all fields were required to continue providing visions of an even more dynamic future.
However, the frenzied pace of change was also disorienting. Beginning from the 1970s onwards, ideas of progress and advancement, which had been shaping almost every human activity and thought for more than a century, began to face an intellectual and then a political onslaught.
According to the American historian Richard Wolin, in his book The Seduction of Unreason, rebellion against post-18th century ideas of progress was not new. Pockets of resistance had continued to crop up. Wolin writes that observations of classical ‘anti-rationalists’ — such as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the psychiatrist Carl Jung, and the philosopher Martin Heidegger — inspired the rise of a plethora of scholars who began to criticise modernisation as being exploitative, mechanical and even violent.
‘Modernist’ visions were critiqued by them for being shaped by a ‘biased’ understanding of societies and constructed to regiment human behaviour. But this criticism did not really offer any alternative vision, as such. Instead, many ‘post-modern’ scholars plunged into imaginary realms. For example, one of the leading critics in this respect, the prolific French philosopher Michel Foucault, began to look backwards to the so-called ‘pre-modern’ times for inspiration.
According to Janet Afary and K.B. Anderson in their book Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, Foucault concluded that modernity had made the West spiritually empty and, therefore, Western societies needed ‘spiritual politics.’ Foucault romanticised the ‘passion’ (untempered by reason) of pre-modern societies and was excited to see it return in the shape of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. He saw it as a creative force.
The enthusiasm with which Foucault wrote about the Iranian Revolution was infectious. But he suddenly went quiet when news of mass executions and oppression of women began to pour out of Iran. The experiment of rebelling against modernity through pre-modern impulses that Foucault excitedly saw taking shape in Iran, had become as violent as the modernity he was critiquing.
Foucault and his contemporaries had been taken in by a nostalgia of a romanticised past that they were not a part of: the anemoia. We have seen this happening over and over again after the 1970s: nostalgia of a misconstrued past offered as a solution to a complicated present.
Prime Minister Modi in India dishes out unsubstantiated claims of an entirely elusive Hindu past that he wants to revive and where technology was incredibly advanced and organic. Donald Trump promised to make America great again, but without mentioning exactly when he thought the US stopped being great. Many of his supporters were sure he was talking about an America that was simple and uncomplicated and/or when racial segregation was a norm, and a large majority of Americans were white.
Pakistani PM Imran Khan likes to talk about ‘Riyasat-i-Madina,’ or an ‘Islamic state’ that supposedly existed in pre-modern times. But as the anthropologist Irfan Ahmad and the historian Patricia Crone have demonstrated, there was no concept of a state anywhere in pre-modern times, east or west.
The idea of the state began to emerge slowly after the 17th century and matured from the 19th century onwards. It is a European concept. What’s more, according to Ahmad, the idea of an Islamic state is a 20th century ideological construct. It was never a historical actuality. PM Khan is thus dealing in anemoia.
Critics of modernity rebelled against its supposedly cold and mechanical disposition. But instead of offering something new but less dispassionate, they erased the idea of formulating forward-looking visions and, instead, spent more effort in trying to revive romanticised pasts which, most probably, did not even exist. At least not in the shape that they are often remembered as.