Nostalgia’s Empire: A Conversation with Grafton Tanner and Johny Pitts

Nostalgia is both a threat and a refuge.

Ever since the coining of the word in 1688 by a 19-year-old Swiss medical student, nostalgia has put us on guard. While researching my book The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: The Politics of Nostalgia, I came across framings of nostalgia as a disease requiring medical attention, alongside accusations of backwardness, conservatism, and uncritical sentimentality. People across time periods, cultures, ideologies, and persuasions (including myself) have lambasted it. The history of nostalgia is a history of criticizing nostalgia.

But I’ve always found nostalgia’s double history, as threat and refuge, fascinating. So too have scholars and writers like Svetlana Boym, Mark Fisher, Badia Ahad-Legardy, and Gilad Padva. I’m particularly drawn to artists who explore nostalgia with both a critical eye and a longing heart, who foreground its eerie allure while acknowledging its weaponization by oppressive regimes.

The esteemed photographer and writer Johny Pitts is one of those artists. As a child, Johny lived in Japan during the “bubble era” and owns one of his father’s compact cameras from that period. Using Konica film that expired at the turn of the 1990s, he regularly returns to Japan to shoot for his long-running series The Sequel to a Dream: Ghosts of 1980s Japan. The photos are haunting portraits of a Japan out of time. His camera’s date function automatically sets to 1988, and the degraded chemicals of the expired film fog the photographs in a saturated glow. Johny considers these qualities messages from the medium itself, a form of communication from the past to the present. “The film and the camera yield unpredictable results,” he writes, “warping the past and glitching the present, with a kind of séance taking place, producing an ambiguous series of images lost in time.”

Johny and I are intrigued by the role of memory in shaping policies, igniting zeitgeists, and filtering perceptions. We are also both enamored with and critical of nostalgia, this tricky human emotion that has spread more rapidly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as so many communities across the world discover that their tether to the past has snapped, both of us agree we should interrogate nostalgia’s primacy without advocating for its eradication. The purpose of our recent conversation was to do just that.

Johny Pitts (JP): Your work on nostalgia is timely for many reasons, but I think in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic—those months/years where time was out of kilter, systems were disrupted, and we found ourselves in a collective state of mourning—the notions of memory, loss and precarity, the very ingredients of nostalgia, feel especially resonant.

Has the pandemic impacted your thinking?


Grafton Tanner (GT): Absolutely. It changed not only how I view time but how I feel it, too. I live in the state of Georgia. It’s a relatively blue, democratic state but in terms of who controls the legislature, it’s very conservative. Lawmakers were all too quick to get back to “normal,” to ignore the pandemic. In Georgia, COVID is not even a topic of conversation anymore. I teach at the University of Georgia and there’s no protocol in place. I was pretty certain I had students in the fall 2022 semester coming to class with COVID. I certainly got sick.

If we want to start thinking about the idea of memory, we could talk about its opposite, which is a mass, almost coerced forgetting that comes from the top down. We’re told to move on, forget about it. It can be a bit strange. And at the end of last year, everyone was feeling just how strange it is to be nudged to forget something like the pandemic. I think that was a big reason why I, along with so many others, felt burnt out.


JP: Here in the UK we adopted a similar mentality. But we used the rhetoric of World War II: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” That slogan is at the heart of our national mythology, but what’s funny to me is that it was not actually widely used during the war.

Nevertheless, the UK is still deeply nostalgic for the Second World War. The British sociologist Paul Gilroy calls it “postcolonial melancholia”: a yearning for the last moment at which Britain was still an imperial power, could position itself as a nation of heroes. We never talk about the 24 million Russians who lost their lives during the conflict, or the help we received from our colonial subjects before, during and after the war. It’s all about how the UK were heroes. And you see that rhetoric coming through when we’re dealing with the pandemic.

That’s why it was very frustrating to go through the pandemic with somebody like Boris Johnson who, of course, was found to be having parties in Downing Street at the height of it all. Boris Johnson is somebody who really embodies a devil-may-care, British, let’s-go-down-to-the-pub-and-forget-the-past mentality. Let’s jolly well pull our socks up and get on with it. It’s very problematic. We have a terrible record for COVID deaths in this country, but an almost childish refusal to deal with difficult things.


GT: Our version of that reactionary leader was Donald Trump who, in a very childish way, downplayed and refused to accept the reality of the COVID pandemic. I think this is one reason why nostalgia has a bad reputation. Reactionary leaders during this pandemic have rhetorically cleansed the past of its hardships and devastation while framing it as something worth longing for. There is a tacit acknowledgement that the nostalgic rhetoric of someone like Johnson or Trump doesn’t reveal the truth about the past, even the recent past, let alone the present. It’s especially galling when the rights of corporations are stridently defended even as so many people live increasingly precarious lives.

Malls were the corporate “solution” to the public square—replacing it with privatized space.

JP: In your book Babbling Corpse there’s an incredible quote by Chris Hedges where he talks about how the end of any empire becomes a carnival of folly. It’s all about averting your eyes to the reality of what’s going on and trying to act like it’s business as usual when it’s anything but.

I was in America, in the deep south, recently, and it struck me that I was witnessing the end of something. I was in Jackson in Mississippi, staying in a Hilton hotel. I always associate Hilton with a relatively high standard. But this Hilton was this postmodern, late ’80s design that was just decaying. It was a ruin, getting flooded, the tap water was undrinkable, the staff were really unprofessional and didn’t seem to know what they were doing. And it struck me as almost a metaphor for the state of America.

It’s the same here in the UK, these crumbling structures and a royal family trying to carry on as if it’s business as usual. Nobody is replying to the allegations that Prince Harry made in his recent memoir. But it’s all finishing, and nobody wants to admit that. And instead of trying to come up with solutions, being pragmatic and trying to build a reasonable and sustainable future, they’re just trying to maintain a status quo that no longer squares with reality.


GT: I resonate with that story about the Hilton hotel because that’s a very normal thing to witness in the southeastern United States, particularly where I grew up. Green spaces are always being paved over and turned into giant commercial spaces. The newness of these spaces lingers for a little while, but over time the corporation moves on, and whatever’s left behind just decays. They become what I call “dead zones.” If you travel through south Georgia, you’ll find farmland but there’s definitely a weird, ruinous drabness in so many of these small Georgia towns that fills me with dread. They were colonized by capital long ago and then leached dry when capital became concentrated in larger metropolitan centers at the end of the twentieth century.

Driving through these dead zones in the United States, often there is no tether to the past and it can be quite strange. I stand by this idea that if you deprive people of anything that feels like history—of things that might be around after we’re gone—they start to yearn for it. That’s a reason why nostalgia tends to be a prominent emotion in western culture: a dreadful, punishing sense that we have reached peak history, that history has been depleted. On the right wing, their version of the past is obviously told in a way that supports certain interests and tends to be prejudicial and extremely intolerant. But then on the more centrist, liberal side of things, there’s a disdain for the past and worship of progress. And both of those cheapen what the past can teach us. History is actually constantly renegotiated and revised, and it can be very surreal when you start to study it, when you’ve been deprived of it for so long. Learning about history is a window into certain truths that can’t be gotten any other way.


JP: You wrote about this really well, I thought, in your book about nostalgia, The Hours Have Lost Their Clock. There is a displacement of communities and the natural environment by corporate infrastructures, which often hint at some history, but in a very superficial way. Postmodern architecture in the ’80s would frequently hark back to Greek columns and this fabricated idea of time, but, of course, it isn’t real. It makes me think of Umberto Eco’s journey through America in Travels in Hyperreality, where he’s talking about a land in the grip of neurosis about a denied past, a land of facades constructed from false histories. And then once that phase of corporate development is over, once there’s nothing to sell, or no one to buy, what you’re left with are the ruins of something that was never real in the first place.

I’m fascinated by dead malls because they conjure nostalgic feelings about environments that weren’t exactly healthy for my community. I don’t always know what to do with such nostalgia. How can we explore those ambivalent connections to these landscapes? Or what Mike Davis called Evil Paradises? They were, after all, embedded in our childhood memories.


GT: Malls were the corporate “solution” to the public square—replacing it with privatized space. I grew up in malls too, and what I’m nostalgic for is the feeling of being around people, the feeling of being in an open space, the feeling of being around friends, of having unstructured time to just wander. For teens this is especially important—having a space where they can congregate away from parents, outside of school, where the purpose isn’t just to shop but hang out, too. Alexandra Lange has conducted fascinating research on this.

But then you reach a point where you learn a bit more about what the mall really represents—consumerism, privatization—and now we’ve got this nostalgic tension: I miss the mall, but I recognize what it represents in the history of capitalism. We find ourselves caught in this tension frequently, and instead of trying to punish the nostalgia out of people, the corporate sector invites us to relieve it through consumption. The marketing industry tells us, here’s a bunch of stuff to bring old feelings back so you don’t have to miss them anymore. It appears at first glance that our consumption of nostalgic goods and content is due to our nostalgia for the past. But this isn’t quite right: the purpose is to extinguish nostalgia through consumption. It’s a new spin on an old formula. In the distant past, nostalgia was a threat against capitalism because it might inspire one to pause and dream, and not work. Juridico-medical authorities all the way up until the middle of the 20th century were looking for cures and drawing up plans to discipline nostalgia out of individuals. Now that nostalgia has been commodified, we have new weapons to get rid of it, but they don’t seem like weapons.

I really got to thinking about this in regard to the Star Wars reboots. Every time a new Star Wars movie comes out, there’s some article somewhere talking about the nostalgia factor of this latest installment. But how can anyone be nostalgic for Star Wars? There are new Star Wars movies coming out all the time! That to me is the most dangerous thing about today’s nostalgia. You’ve got politicians, elites, corporations framing what’s worth being nostalgic for, and then saying, “Here you go.” Here’s some content for you to eradicate that feeling. It’s one in a long line of methods to combat this bittersweet feeling.


JP: When you are force-fed nostalgia, you have to live in a space where there is no future, where it is just a repetitive and regurgitated cycle of the things that you think you want more of, or at least the leaders think you want more of. It’s like that episode of Black Mirror, “San Junipero,” where, when people die, they can have their consciousness uploaded into their favorite place and era forever, which for the characters was California in 1987. But the people who’d been living this dream for too long ended up in a state of dark decadence and debauchery in a club called “The Quagmire.” I think much of the West is in a collective state of Quagmire.


GT: That episode is a fascinating exploration of our collective nostalgic dreams. It posits a strategy to achieve utopia by rebooting an aesthetic gesture from the past into the present. And once that has happened, then the assumption is that we can freeze it there and live in that utopia without time passing it all. The question is, why are elites so worried about time passing? Perhaps they know that the more time passes, the possibility of climate and/or economic weirding increases. The obvious answer is that it’s more profitable to enclose the past and monetize its intellectual properties, its discredited ideologies, even the prejudices everyone thought had died long ago. A political candidate in the west with a platform promising to reboot the past can write their own ticket to office.

That restorative impulse seems to be so popular among media corporations and political leaders today. They aren’t merely arguing that certain parts of the past are worth restoring and being nostalgic for. They’re also saying, “Okay, I’m going to be the one to take you back to that period and then we don’t have to miss it anymore. It’ll be the 1990s or 2000s for as long as we’re in political power.” Our understanding of the past is now increasingly shaped by these utopia-chasing figures. They think like advertising algorithms: if you like nostalgia, you’ll love this.


“We Live in an Age of Dynasties”

By Catherine Zimmer

JP: Yes, we’re having this in the UK at the moment where Labour are trying to take us back to the 2000s and rebranding themselves as a return to “New Labour.” But the “new” is now old, and there’s an amnesia about the illegal Iraq War, the dismantling of left-wing politics under a neoliberal system, the cozying up to right wing rhetoric and the demonization of immigration and multiculturalism. There’s a promise to go back to a time that never really was.

I can’t let myself off the hook, by the way. I sometimes find myself getting nostalgic when I see a poster of a red Ferrari driving in the sunset, a tropical cocktail, or power suits with shoulder pads because that’s the “eighties.” But in reality that wasn’t the eighties for me. My 1980s was a gray, working-class, post-industrial area in the hinterlands of Sheffield, with high unemployment that was being decimated by Margaret Thatcher. And I realized that it was the branding of the decade that had caused me to inhale a false, dislocated personal history.


GT: That’s nostalgia’s trickery. It makes us aware of how our memories sometimes contradict the nightmarish aspects of history. Another good example of the battle between the past and its branding is the Far Right’s war on education in the United States. They fear that primary and secondary school students and college students might learn about the history of race, gender politics and violence toward marginalized populations. They’d prefer a flattened history that it isn’t discomforting—history that is a “good time” as opposed to something that, once we learn about it, might be a bit uncomfortable and it might produce truths that call into question dominant ideas.

When we talk about individuals whitewashing the past, I really do think that that’s what we mean: creating a brand of the past that is appealing on a mainstream level in a way that drives traffic and engagement to news and social media platforms. This kind of whitewashed nostalgia is so popular under capitalism because political reactionaries can base their politics on the promise that they will return the country to that branded past.

JP: I’ve been reading Melancholy by Hungarian philosopher László F. Földényi. He argues that other cultures deal with nostalgia differently than Americans. You have the Portuguese idea of saudade, or the Japanese notion of mono no aware, which are both encoded with a gentle, wistful sadness at time’s passing, and the ephemeral nature of things. These nostalgia-filled terms, unlike the politically contrived nostalgia you’re talking about, are not saying that the world was better back then or somehow more glamorous, they’re not advocating for going back to the past, they’re just acknowledging the ephemerality of life, the nature of human time, and memory. So, instead of yoking nostalgia to happiness, you attach it to melancholy. I wonder if that’s a way of working through nostalgia in a more constructive—or at least less pernicious—way.

Relatedly, I’m also interested in Svetlana Boym’s ideas of how nostalgia is not always retrospective but can be prospective. We can be nostalgic for obsolete futures, for things that didn’t turn out the way that we imagined, for the ghosts of futures imagined by the past. In my work at the moment, I’m trying to walk through the rubble of failed visions of the future to see if we might glean something to construct a new future. But I know that can be problematic in itself. I love what you wrote, for example, about how the problem with algorithms is that they don’t create anything new. It’s just composed, composite parts of things that have already been done. There’s nothing intrinsically new about the way that an algorithm works. But I think of that famous Godard quote: “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to”—taking the past somewhere else has to be a human intervention.


GT: Obsolete futures is a great way to put it. They are windows into how the past thought of its own future. They allow us to see the disconnect between what we were dreaming of then and where we are now. And then we can ask, who back then was deciding what the future was going to be, who’s deciding it now, and how different are they? Because it’s easy when you’re caught up in the present to only pay attention to the futures being proposed by major political leaders, major corporation, tech companies, etc., without realizing there are a number of different people at any given moment negotiating what the future might look like.

And tech companies today are really good at suggesting that the future is already predetermined with the next AI chatbot, the next smart product, the next update. But, in actuality, the future is dreamt up by a number of different people and they produce their own ideas of what it might look and feel like. And some of them are really fascinating and far more egalitarian than anything Google might dream up. icon

This article was commissioned by B. R. Cohen. Featured Image: Photograph of Swansea Mall in Swansea, Massachusetts by JJ Bers / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)