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Looking Back through Anthropology

Although nostalgia seems to permeate much of modern (especially Western) society, there are few detailed anthropological accounts of this longing for the past. Editors Olivia Angé and David Berliner seek to fill this gap and explore this phenomenon in their newly published volume, Anthropology and Nostalgia. Following, the editors look back on the creation of their volume and look forward to its reception within the social science community.





What drew you to the study of nostalgia, especially as it relates to the social sciences?


Well, nostalgia is a central notion that permeates present-day discourses and practices. In many parts of the world, there seems to be a current overdose of nostalgia, a reaction to the modern acceleration deployed in universes as diverse as nationalism, heritage policies, vintage consumerism, the tourism industry, and religious and ecological movements.


In the West, a nostalgic craze glorifying past ways and objects is pervasive. It can be observed in the growing success of flea markets and antiques, organic food, “natural” childbirth techniques, eco-museums, vintage consumption, and so forth, such retromania invading modern day new technologies (think of Instagram that makes your present pictures look “instantly nostalgic”).


A whole field of research about the contemporary forms of nostalgia remains to be investigated, and this book is a commencement only. Fine-grained ethnographies of nostalgia and loss are still scarce. Most of the topical literature focuses on post-socialist contexts. We thought it was about time to expand on this research, ethnographically and theoretically. But also, the foundation of anthropology and sociology as academic disciplines was built upon a discourse of modernity structured by nostalgia. Thus, nostalgia constitutes a fascinating entry point to discuss the history of the social sciences.



To what extent do you think the book will contribute to debates among current and future academics within the field?


Most of the current literature on nostalgia focuses on post-socialist contexts. Our volume draws on disparate ethnographic fieldwork around the globe, including some post-communist settings (Argentina, France, Mongolia, Cyprus, Spain, Laos, Lithuania, Russia). It provides original theoretical and ethnographical insights on nostalgia seen as an affect, a social practice and a form of discourse. In the book, we push the discussion around nostalgia in five directions:


1) Some of our authors attempt to clarify the notional fog surrounding the label “nostalgia” and describe meticulously the multiple cognitive and emotional investments which lie behind it.


2) This volume explores how nostalgic discourses and practices work concretely in different social and cultural environments. Most articles explore the fabric of nostalgic discourses, feelings and practices, by addressing their places, interactions, agents, institutions, objects, rituals, codes, critical moments, gestures, banal temporalities and media.


3) Far from being a feeling hidden in the confines of the self only, nostalgia is a force that “does something” in the world. In the book, we put the emphasis on the performative aspects of nostalgia, its transformative “aura” in social, political and religious contexts.


4) Nostalgia reveals relationships that exist between the past, the present, and the future. Nostalgia is being crafted within such horizons of expectations and anxieties about the future. And hope is never far from nostalgia.


5) Finally, the texts gathered in this volume are interested in engaging anthropological and epistemological reflections that emerge from the conceptual use of nostalgia. For instance, how does the notion foster fruitful dialog between anthropology and other disciplines (history, psychology, political sciences, memory studies and literary critique)?



Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?


Many aspects of this work might be controversial. For instance, there is the question of the persistence of a nostalgic proclivity among anthropologists. Primitivist nostalgia played a crucial role in the formation of anthropology as well, with the first ethnographies by Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, Edward Evans-Pritchard and Marcel Griaule, among many others, fuelled with a longing for vanishing societies and ruptured equilibriums. While anthropologists in the West were building a science on nostalgia for disappearing distant Otherness, an ethnographic interest for the popular and the rural led to the institutionalization of folklore studies in the second half of the nineteenth century in Western Europe. Such nostalgia rested on combined ideas about the fragility of traditional societies and the impact of colonialism, all wrapped in a preapocalyptical tone. Some argue that this posture persists to this day, albeit under different expressions. Anthropologists’ favorite others are now the local, the particular and the poor, versus the global, the heterogeneous and the dominant, an attitude deeply rooted in their disciplinary nostalgia.



What is one particular area of interest or question, that hasn’t necessarily been the focus of much attention, which you feel is especially pertinent to your field today and in the future?


Since the foundation of the discipline, anthropologists have been interested in the cultural constructions of time. If nostalgia implies a specific positioning towards the past seen as irreversible, an awareness to something which has disappeared or is disappearing, it is reasonable to ask whether it is universal. Without giving a definitive answer to such a riddle, it is fair to point out that every society around the world has faced breaches and crises and that all human groups have experienced some reflexive distancing from their past, often taking the form of longings for a lost past.


In that regard, we follow Maurice Bloch in his famous discussion of Geertz’s appraisal of time: people, he claims, can hold different conceptions of duration depending on the context, a point that is made clear about nostalgia by some of our contributors to this volume (Lankauskas, Schevchenko and Nadkarni). As anthropologists, our intellectual endeavors consist of grasping the expressions of such nostalgic laments in the midst of historical contingencies.


But, studying nostalgia not only invites us to refine our understanding of the experience of temporality. As social representations and practices undergo constant mutations, but still persist in time, it also directs our attention to operations of continuity and discontinuity. An anthropological exploration of nostalgia (as well as other mnemonic states) indeed nurtures such a reflection upon the durability of human societies in the face of the ruptures of history.For the anthropologist, nostalgia constitutes a fascinating angle to explore the creative persistence and the disappearance of cultural forms. Even more importantly, it allows a number of important reconciliations: between the anthropological, the historical and the psychological, the continuous and discontinuous, the persistent and the mutable, but also between the past, the present, and the future.




After being a researcher at the University of Oxford, Olivia Angé is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Quai Branly Museum. Her fieldwork in the Andes mainly focuses on barter, ritual and cultural transmission.

David Berliner is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Université Libre de Bruxelles, and the coeditor of Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale. He has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Guinea-Conakry and Laos. His topics of research are social memory, cultural transmission and the politics of heritage.