Imagining a More Habitable Present: On Grafton Tanner’s “The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: The Politics of Nostalgia”

December 29, 2021   •   By Emmalea Russo

The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: The Politics of Nostalgia

Grafton Tanner

ENDLESS CINEMATIC REMAKES and sequels, nostalgic TV shows like Stranger Things, music that sounds like it was made 40 years ago but just came out yesterday, social media accounts devoted to ’80s iconography — these cultural staples signal our collective desire to grab onto comforting, seemingly stable aspects of the past in the face of a vertiginously perpetual present and a future that feels precarious. In The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: The Politics of Nostalgia, Grafton Tanner explores how we might look back not in order to freeze-frame a false, glossed-over past, but to envision other futures.

In his previous book, The Circle of the Snake: Nostalgia and Utopia in the Age of Big Tech (2020), Tanner explored digital utopianism and nostalgia for a pre-digital era as two related conditions of our time. “At a time when historical literacy is crucial, when old prejudices are starting again to percolate into the present,” he argued, “Big Tech’s algorithms resist any attempt to exit the feedback loop of amnesia.” In The Hours Have Lost Their Clock, Tanner deepens this exploration of the politics of “progress,” citing ways in which nostalgia circulates in our culture both innocuously and destructively, from retro-themed consumer goods to social media meme accounts to political slogans like Donald Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again.”

Like all complicated emotions and most things that make us human, nostalgia is a contradictory and slippery phenomenon. Paradoxically, ideologies of progress actually proliferate cultural nostalgia: Tanner illuminates the sneaky ways our very human need to look back and yearn for a time before this one (imaginary or not) gets exploited, mutated, and used against us by Big Tech. Mixing personal history and anecdote with political theory, Tanner wonders how we might learn to live productively with nostalgia:

For too long, nostalgia has gotten a bad rap. That’s primarily because it’s been spread by political leaders to win votes and commodified by corporations to sell products. The attributes we commonly associate with nostalgia — kitsch, backwardness, gross sentimentality — are really just the products of its exploitation. It’s often maligned due to its association with conservatism, but nostalgia isn’t essentially reactionary or backwards. It’s just been weaponized more frequently to carry out questionable, at times undemocratic, missions.

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“It’s all fucking nostalgia. It’s the only way they can get through the day,” says Bod, a character in Derek Jarman’s 1978 film, Jubilee, as someone inscribes the word LOVE on her back with a knife while someone else kisses a television while watching a punk band perform. This short scene, set around the time the punks affirmed “No Future,” features a pyromaniac who wants to burn the past and foretells our current temporal crisis. Nostalgia, a word whose etymological roots are to return home and pain or suffering, can be both destructive and productive, paralytic and radical — a way to get through the day, to find a hold in a rootless-feeling whir of clicks and scrolls. Nostalgia can sneakily pave over the past, yet it also contains the emotional force necessary to rupture the paved-over present of neoliberal capitalism, making space for other visions of the future through flashbacks and painful desires for change.

Social media algorithms are also nostalgorithms, Tanner tells us, looping back slices of the past along with more of whatever we’ve previously been engaged with. The question becomes: How can we envision a future when glossy pasts repeat on feedback loops? Newness exists, but it’s not frontloaded. As Tanner writes, “[A] future predicted by algorithms will remain stuck in the past.” Things repeat, says Tanner, “because decision-making is being outsourced to algorithms that rely on past data to predict the future. But predictive algorithms don’t really predict anything, they just make certain pasts repeatedly go viral.” While the past is thus mutated, the future seems foreclosed. We get stuck in a strange loop that’s getting smaller all the time:

Part of the reason why memes and discourses have such short lives is because social media prompts users to constantly historicize the present, to archive events immediately after they happen by freezing them in posts online, thus closing the gap between experience and its memory. With social media, you can yearn for yesterday — literally. Frozen into data, posts and content can be called up at whim, instead of merely forgotten. Before the age of Big Tech, nostalgic cycles were wider.

Gaps between what we experience and the memory of that experience are crucial. These gaps provide temporal grounding and perspective. Forgetting and loss happen in these gaps, pieces of the experience fall away in the dissolves that are part of human memory. What does it mean to be human during increasingly technological times? To be confronted by the technologies we’ve made, which now make us? To locate spaces of recollection and loss in times of digital recall when, as Mark Fisher wrote in Ghosts of My Life (2014), “loss itself is lost”?

In the dystopian landscape of the 1982 film Blade Runner, humans use technology to enslave rather than liberate. The importance of memory is central to android Roy Batty’s famous monologue, delivered as he dies: he’s mourning those memories that will be “lost in time, like tears in rain.” Memory’s messy processes of accrual and loss, dissolution and return, and the duration necessary for those processes to work, help us to mark time. As Tanner shows, this closing of the gap between experience and memory is disorienting, knocking time out of joint in a sea of data, constant calculation, and flexibility/precarity. “[M]emory is not what is recalled; it is rather that which returns,” writes David Rodowick in Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine (1997). As humans, we need wide and unfilled gaps to mourn the past and find traction in the present, where memories might return rather than reappear instantly.

Big Tech’s algorithms, combined with the whizzing and fragmented way we experience history and time under digitized late capitalism, result in turbo-speed loops of nostalgia. We can be nostalgic for a year ago, for yesterday, for any number of glossed-over pasts that pop up on our feed. In a present that can feel rootless, teeming with hyperlinks and economic and emotional precarity, we turn to the past for stability, rootedness. This turning-back isn’t the problem, says Tanner; it’s more an issue of how. Throughout the book, he draws on the two kinds of nostalgia that Svetlana Boym identifies in The Future of Nostalgia (2001): reflective nostalgia, which is generally more harmless, looks back at a moment in time and yearns, while restorative nostalgia, often destructively deployed in political and entertainment spheres, aims to recreate a moment in history. Continually highlighting nostalgia’s ungraspable fluidity, Tanner notes that even Boym claims her categories are not absolute and that reflective and restorative nostalgias may overlap or bleed into each other. Emotions are messy.

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In a section entitled “You Are Now Entering Nowhere,” Tanner describes Georgia State Route 316, which “funnels commuters who live in Atlanta and work at the university into the small city of Athens.” On Route 316, as with so many other non-places, “[t]here’s no way to really know where you are.” According to Marc Augé, non-places are “transit points and temporary abodes” that proliferate under late capitalism: malls, screens, airports, train stations. Tanner cites social media as a kind of “virtual non-place,” pointing out that, whether we’re zooming down a nondescript highway or scrolling through Instagram, we may yearn for what’s been smoothed over by capital, for what’s been deracinated by constant movement, clicking, and scrolling.

In her 1990 essay “On Art and Artists,” Kathy Acker wrote that “‘Culture’ is one way by which a community attempts to bring its past up out of senselessness and to find in dream and imagination possibilities for action. When culture isn’t this, there’s something wrong in the community, the society.” In Tanner’s book, this diagnosis might also be a cure. Writing that nostalgia can “inspire social change in ways other emotions cannot,” Tanner compellingly proposes a radical nostalgia that can perhaps create space for what Acker says a healthy culture must do. Radical nostalgia might act as a stop cord, halting what Walter Benjamin called “the storm of progress” in order to widen the gap between experience and memory so that we can envision something new.

It makes sense, Tanner reminds us, that we yearn to escape — to the past or the woods or wherever — in anesthetizing times when humans get reduced to data. Perhaps the pain/suffering portion of nostalgia’s etymological roots is instructive here. In his 2020 book The Palliative Society, Byung-Chul Han argues that our society values information over knowledge, but information lacks “the negativity of transformation” and radical change only arrives through pain: “Without pain, it is impossible to produce that kind of knowledge which radically breaks with the past. […] The negativity of pain is constitutive of thought. Pain is what distinguishes thinking from calculating.”

Nostalgia can’t be cured, as Tanner reminds us. So, we have to live with its pains and yearnings, which point to our human lack — a lack that cannot be filled with content, consumer goods, or information. Indeed, to relate to the lack and break from the past, we need to regard the wreckage, to experience pain so that we can think and feel the incommensurability of nostalgia and other complex emotions, unhooking them from anesthetizing market forces. Like Mark Fisher, who argued for a “new politics of mental health organized around the concept of public space” against capitalism’s tendency toward the “privatisation of stress,” Tanner’s book importantly invites a political and collective concept of nostalgia.

Because nostalgia has, as Tanner writes, the “emotional power to conjure up the potentials of the past that are constantly being paved over by capital,” it can serve as a kind of reawakening. As he points out, progressive politics have long been associated with looking forward, conservative politics with looking back. This is an outdated and false binary. There are many ways to look back/forward. Under neoliberal capitalism, with its pervasive ideologies of promise, progress, and optimization, radical nostalgia might help us to imagine a more habitable present.

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Radical comes from the Latin for root. To pull from the root, to get to the source of a problem, requires time and commitment. “We have a right to our roots, which nurture us and keep us grounded,” Tanner writes. “However, capitalism tears up these roots and then tells the rootless that staying put will hinder their ability to compete for a job.” Indeed, late capitalism’s atomized economy of entrepreneurialism, which extols the virtues of flexibility and mobility, is also an economy of precarity that fetishizes nimbleness and side hustles. “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul,” wrote Simone Weil in The Need for Roots (1949). Might we find rootedness in the puncture of radical nostalgia, opening up possibilities for the negative space of thought, as opposed to the mere accrual of information, data, and false promises?

In the book’s moving conclusion, Tanner notes that, as humans, we are “irreducible to data, variables, and parameters, even though worshippers of technology like to think otherwise.” When we try to fit a complex emotion such as nostalgia into calculable or clear-cut categories free of contradiction, we delete thought. Tracking nostalgia as an emotion, as well as the myriad ways in which that emotion gets mobilized and mutated by conservative and progressive forces, Tanner offers an illuminating examination of our now. What would happen if we were to refuse both technological utopianism and conservative, restorative nostalgia? To refuse both a calculative nostalgia that marginalizes past, present, and future and slick promise-oriented narratives that claim wholeness? To exit the loop and embrace the lack?

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Emmalea Russo is a writer living at the Jersey shore. Her books are G (2018) and Wave Archive (2019). Her recent writing has appeared in Artforum, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Granta, Hyperallergic, Los Angeles Review of Books, and SF MOMA’s Open Space. She is pursuing a PhD in Philosophy and she edits Asphalte Magazine.