Collective Nostalgia meets Religious Fundamentalism

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

I have long had a vaguely secretive fascination with what I’m going to call, in this post, "collective nostalgia," though I am often more inclined to call it "false nostalgia," emphasizing that the object of this nostalgia is generally something imaginary.

To scholars of nationalism and nation building, this concept is quite familiar, in principle if not in name — the public memory that underlies national histories is characterized by a collective memory (and collective forgetting) that is selective, essentialized, and at times imagined.

However, nostalgia rears its head in many other places, as well. Some examples:

  • When I read Robert Putnam’s "Bowling Alone," though his argument and data are quite persuasive, I can’t help feeling that there is a sense of nostalgia clouding his reasoning. Though I personally long for a greater sense of connection with my local community and neighborhood, much as Putnam does, I also recognize that these connections haven’t vanished (at least not completely), they’ve merely evolved along with communications technology, so that they are no longer bound by physical space. Putnam also overlooks the degree to which his memory of community is dependant about stay-at-home mothers and the luxuries of mid-20th century middle class leisure, two problems of social equality that are simply no longer acceptable in our society. Remembering this time as one of perfect community requires an imaginary history in which the values of the present are injected into the realities of the past.
  • I frequently hear people complain about how, "these days" everyone on the Metro is always listening to their iPods and ignoring the people around them, overlooking the important detail that, during the peak of Putnam’s ideal America, public transportation was about to become one of our nation’s most powerful symbols of racism and segregation. Imagining that public transit was once a hub of discourse for the working class literati, or a meeting place for social organizations is just plain silly: a bus is not a coffee house.
  • Watching the NBA playoffs over the past few months, I’ve had many discussions in which the NBA today was compared to its glory days in the ’80s and early ’90s. Last night I studied Game 3 from the 1989 NBA Finals (the Pistons swept the Lakers in four games). While I could write an entire post about this topic — and another about the Isiah Thomas / Magic Johnson cheek kiss before the game (right) — the gist of it is this: with some exceptions, the aspects of the game that fans are nostalgic for only existed because of qualitative limitations of players at that time. The players simply weren’t as athletic as they are today, and the ball and the game were not yet fully embodied in the players… the moments of clumsiness and uncertainty were key contributors to the excitement of the game. The nostalgia is, in this case, nostalgia for an imaginary NBA that never existed.
  • In the debate over gay marriage, the notion of "erosion of marriage" presupposes a time of uneroded marriage, a time when all marriages were long, happy, and prosperous, wives were never beaten, and men (married or not) never had sex with men. This is, quite obviously, nostalgia for an imaginary time and place.

Though I have many potential topics to choose from, the particular sort of collective nostalgia topic that drove me to post today comes from the book "Empire" (2000, Hardt & Negri, PDF). I’ve yet to digest, or even consume, the substantial bulk of this text, but in the section that interests me at the moment, the authors link Islamic fundamentalism to Christian fundamentalism, via a common sense of anti-modernism: "Islamic fundamentalists are most coherently united . . . in their being resolutely opposed to modernity and modernization. . . . Christian fundamentalists in the United States also present themselves as movements against social modernization" (147).

While both movements describe themselves in terms that suggest a return to a set of values and a lifestyle of the past, "fundamentalist visions of a return to the past are generally based on historical illusions" such as the "purity and wholesomeness of the stable, nuclear heterosexual family . . . [which] never existed in the United States" (148).

Rather than the "clash of cultures" model that has been so popular in the last decade, Hardt & Negri actually see the fundamentalist wings of various cultures occupying the same side in a different conflict, a clash with modernization. They place, on the other side of that conflict, the postmodernists who, contrary to broader notions of postmodernism, are for Hardt & Negri a subset of postmodern theorists who "point to the end of modern sovereignty and demonstrate a new capacity to think outside the framework of modern binaries and modern identities, a thought of plurality and multiplicity" (143). (Of course, their emphasis on a binary structure in this conflict place the authors in an ambiguous place, unless, perhaps, they intend for the conflict to be seen as a fundamentalist invention, which the postmodernists would not accept).

What interests me most about their argument, aside from its echoes of my comments above regarding gay marriage vs. the traditional family, is the way it destabilizes the categories of "Us" and "Them" (ie, the division along national and cultural lines) that have monopolized public discourse in recent years, and instead suggests a public discourse which involves a greater degree of self-reflection and self-study (though I don’t yet know how well this idea meshes with Hardt & Negri’s broader argument in the book). As globalization destabilizes the historical correspondence of cultural borders with national borders, is the very notion of a geographical "clash of cultures" not becoming, at least to a degree, an object of collective nostalgia itself?