Nostalgia, Mourning, Disappearance

"Nostalgia, Mourning, Disappearance"
brings together a wide range of diverse reflections from
Arcade contributors. What holds this colloquy together
overall, however, is how those contributors collectively
reflect on historical change. Even more specifically,
they focus on the experience of historical change as a
form of loss. As the title of the colloquy suggests,
that experience comes in something like three stages,
beginning with nostalgia. A feeling of longing, or
perhaps belated wonder, nostalgia allows me to imbue a
lost object with an aura that it probably did not have
in the here and now once upon a time. That aura depends
on the transformations wrought by historical change; its
glow is the glow of time passing. The stage of mourning
arrives when the aura of historical change fades,
burning less brightly as I begin to let go of whatever
lost object it illuminated. This is the moment in which
I perceive that the lost object is in fact lost to me.
And only then comes disappearance—that stage at which I
relinquish the object and it no longer appears to me
with a past poignancy, much less a temporal aura and
historical glow. The stage at which, potentially, I have
forgotten the lost object even existed.

Typically, the experience of historical change
I have just described in the subjective terms of a kind
of psychological process is sparked in the first place
by an objective disappearance: polar ice caps melting,
leaving one city behind for a new one, the collective
murder of an ethnic group, the appearance of the next
generation of iPhones. Whether you see the experience as
beginning with or ending in disappearance, it is
precisely historical change as a temporal experience of
material, natural, technological, cultural, and psychic
loss that the essays, lectures, posts, and comments
gathered in this colloquy address. And they address that
experience from two directions by and large—on the one
hand, from the direction of historical change the
historicity of which feels especially pressing and
present; on the other hand, from the direction of
transformations that go unnoticed, their historicity
nonetheless preserved here by the contributor reflecting
on them. In this sense, "Nostalgia, Mourning,
Disappearance" is about what it means to live,
feel, and think historically, particularly in the long
twentieth- and twenty-first-century durée
of the present.

The pieces that address that longue
from the first direction do so with an
eye towards forms of disappearance that galvanize the
times in which we live: species extinction and
biodiversity loss (Heise); technological obsolescence in
the digital age, in which objects and industries from
LP’s to Hollywood studios lose the foothold they once
had (Bemis; Burges); the continuing problem of coping
today with the events of yesterday (the Holocaust, World
War II), the massive effects of which are still with us,
but the causes of which are not even memories for the
great majority of us now (Eshel; Gray; Bowen). These
forms of disappearance are everywhere around us now,
indeed, still. They are material signs of time unfolding
in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that,
beautifully and violently, remind us of the historicity
of the moment in which we live.

At the same time, "Nostalgia,
Mourning, Disappearance" includes pieces in
which authors reflect upon the failure to think
historically about experiences of change in the present.
This colloquy contains a thread on disappearances that
seem to lack all historicity because they go unremarked
in ways that biodiversity loss, the digital transition,
and the legacies of World War II rarely do. Take Emily
Thornbury’s " href="">The Garden of
Endangered Metaphors." Thornbury
reflects upon clichés whose original meanings have
vanished without a word. "With a certain
anguish of soul," Thornbury writes, "I
note that 'free reign' seems now to be the accepted
reanalysis of 'free rein' even among quite educated
people. It makes some sense, of course, and as a figure
of thought it makes more sense to the average person of
the 21st century than an equestrian metaphor."
She goes on to fantasize "about a theme park in
which the clichés of yesteryear can live on. There will
be a great many horses there, kitted out variously, so
that park-goers may ride roughshod over the flowerbeds,
or drive a coach and four through apertures of adequate
width, or (yes) give their borrowed mounts free rein
when not keeping them in check." Thornbury’s
short post is an excellent reminder of all the ways that
we experience historical change without quite realizing
that we are, as the slip-and-slide of language over time
captures unconscious shifts in the Zeitgeist. Her post
is also a reminder that loss need not only be a catalyst
to feelings such as nostalgia and mourning, but also an
occasion for fun and play. In her playful fantasy of a
theme park where we can enjoy the clichés of yesteryear,
after all, Thornbury turns to humor in order to think
historically about that which would otherwise be

Whether a given contributor is laughing or
crying, playing or grieving in response to some
experience of historical change in this colloquy, "Nostalgia,
Mourning, Disappearance" is consistently a
place where critics forsake those "chronocentric
obsessions [that] make us over-hype the exceptionalism
of the here and now" (as Gregory Judanis puts
it href="">here).
For the "here and now" gains a
temporal depth in "Nostalgia, Mourning,
Disappearance" as a function of the collective
effort to think historically about and beyond the
present that the great majority of the pieces gathered
here embody. Hopefully, that "beyond"
will include future reflections in which more Arcade
contributors and readers assume the labor of thinking
historically as well.

—Joel Burges, November 2011

Image attribution

Image: Tintern Abbey.
Lollar, 2007. href="">CC
BY-NC-SA 2.0.