"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 durée 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 "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 forgotten.
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 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