Nostalgia kills

Anyone remember Springsteen’s “Glory Days”? “Well I hope when I get old, I don’t sit around thinkin’ about, but I probably will, glory days…”

So living in the past makes it harder to live in the present—kinda basic mindfulness stuff, right? Already in first year of college, I knew there was something wrong about the football player I vaguely recognized who wore his letterman’s jacket from our high school.

Also consider Ellen Langer’s research that showed that being expected to live in the present helped maintain well-being, while being encouraged to reminisce about the past did not. (I’m paraphrasing, see Ellen Langer, Mindfulness.)

So, what’s this got to do with religion? Reading “Spirituality and the Body in Late Modernity” (Agata Dziuban, Religion Compass, 1/4 [2007]: 479–497) is what it’s got to do with religion–the rhetoric of rupture well-loved by so many who write on modernity and late modernity, a rhetoric that displays a bad case of nostalgia. And I quote:

The overproduction of signs and the reproduction of images ‘leads to a loss of stable meaning’, leaving individuals without the frames of reference previously provided by religion and traditional bonds (480).

Citing Giddens, the

institutionalization of reflexivity, along with globalization and detraditionalization, has turned contemporary society into a ‘risk culture’, marked by uncertainty and constant doubt. (481)

Quoting Giddens (1991, p. 28):

“no aspects of our activities follow a predestined course, and all are open to contingent happenings” (481)


The increasing separation of individuals from their embeddedness in a world perceived as meaningful and cohesive, as well the pervasive feelings of self-estrangement and being lost, are ‘existentially troubling’ for individuals. (481)

Also deployed are the categories of Romantic sociology (Tönnies) Gemeinschaft and at least by implication Gesellschaft.

All of this is a fantasy of nostalgia. Supposedly before the rupture of modernity, the world was good and sweet and everyone believed in God and felt warm and comfy and authentic and happily creative in their close little communities. This nostalgic fantasy ignores wars, famines, plagues, vendettas, witch hunts, infant mortality & death in childbirth, poisonings from food gone bad and poor sanitation, and all the other vagaries of premodern life. The rhetoric of rupture—of whatever sort—is basically a religious mythology, a mytheme if you will, that has come to be written into sociology, and religious studies.

But wait! There’s more!

This would be bad enough if it were merely an intellectual self-delusion. But it is also a political delusion. Out of work miners believing Trump’s fairy tale of bringing back the coal industry, and blaming government regulations put in place to protect miners’ life and limb. Even more dangerous is the nostalgic fantasy now active in the White House. David Brooks in his column explains that Steve Bannon spoke to a Vatican conference in 2014, and Brooks summarizes:

Once there was a collection of Judeo-Christian nation-states, Bannon argued, that practiced a humane form of biblical capitalism and fostered culturally coherent communities. But in the past few decades, the party of Davos — with its globalism, relativism, pluralism and diversity — has sapped away the moral foundations of this Judeo-Christian way of life.

Humane capitalism has been replaced by the savage capitalism that brought us the financial crisis. National democracy has been replaced by a crony-capitalist network of global elites. Traditional virtue has been replaced by abortion and gay marriage. Sovereign nation-states are being replaced by hapless multilateral organizations like the E.U.

Decadent and enervated, the West lies vulnerable in the face of a confident and convicted Islamofascism, which is the cosmic threat of our time.

(forget Brooks’s misplaced comparison with “early Marxism”—as one reader correctly noted: Strange to compare Bannon’s neo-nationalist ideology with the early days of Marxism when its clearly closer to fascism and ideas of the ‘volk’. It’s not anti capitalist.)

“Humane capitalism”? Truly a nostalgic fantasy, when compared to the reality of union-busting through murder and intimidation. <here for just one example> This is much the same propaganda about a mythic past in which ethnicity, and social unity, and happy workers/paternalistic corporations, and religious belief were a reality and all was good in the world that the Nazis and other fascists propagated and by which they have justified acts of “ethnic cleansing.”

So the dark religious nostalgia for a bygone era looks on the verge of being able to not just kill by the despondencies of old age, but actively through some of the most brutal evocations of violence justified by a nostalgia about a utopian past of peace and prosperity.

So, I wasn’t kidding when I said “nostalgia kills.”

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