Figure 1. Staircase at La Sagrada Familia, a basilica in Barcelona, Spain, perpetually unfinished, begun by Antoni Gaudi in the 1880s
[cross-posted to In The Middle]
I am a big fan of The Hedgehog Review, a journal published by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, each issue of which comprises, not scholarly articles, but short essais on a particular theme, such as “Intellectuals and Public Responsibility,” written by well-known scholars from a range of disciplines. The Institute states its mission this way:
The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture is an interdisciplinary research center and intellectual community at the University of Virginia committed to understanding contemporary cultural change and its wide-ranging individual and social consequences.The changes we witness today are as complex as they are extensive and, in many respects, they are unprecedented in human history. In studying these developments, our particular focus is on the changing frameworks of meaning and moral order—the symbolic and structural frameworks within which individual life, institutional adaptation, and political conflict in the contemporary world take place. Our attention, then, is directed not to the passing trends or the artifacts of change but rather to what we call the “deep structures” of contemporary culture, to the way transformations at this largely tacit and constitutive level take concrete institutional form in the organization of public life, in the moral coordinates of people’s personal lives, and in the sources of meaning that define human flourishing.
Although I love The Hedgehog Review and admire the Institute’s commitment to investigating the “deep structures” of contemporary culture, issues of the Review, which have centered on everything from “Religion and Violence,” “The Body and Being Human,” “Illness and Suffering,” “Technology and the Human Person,” “Celebrity Culture,” “Meditations on Exile and Home,” “Identity,” “What Is The University For?” and “The Fate of the Arts,” only ever include the voices of scholars [who are always well-known and admired in their respective fields] who work on either 20th-century or contemporary subjects; therefore, the “deep structures” being analyzed are being analyzed without the benefit of the perspective of scholars working in premodern studies [which I define as antiquity through the so-called "early modern" periods]. Granted, the Review is defining “deep structures” in a fashion that speaks more to what might be called the enduring structures–psychic, social, cultural, political, etc.–of modernity that undergird “the contemporary,” more so than they are meaning to imply what I would call the deep structures of a deeper historical time. This would not be such a terrible thing, given the fact that each issue always contains a “bibliographic essay,” which purports to provide, by sub-headings, the authors and titles of any work deemed essential reading on that issue’s particular topic. Rarely, if ever, does work by premodern scholars ever make these lists–so, for example, in their issue devoted to “The Body and Being Human,” neither Caroline Walker Bynum, Peter Brown, Thomas Laqueur, Sarah Coakley, or even Roy Porter were included in the bibliographic essay [and yes, I know there are many more scholars in premodern studies who have worked on the history and sociology and theory of the body that I could mention here]. Further, in that same essay, the author Jeffrey D. Tatum wrote that “[i]nterest in the interplay between body and society has a long history,” by which he meant, it begins with thinkers like Marx, Engels, Weber, and Freud (p. 126). Imagine my surprise when my new issue arrived in the mail yesterday, devoted to “The Uses of the Past,” and the entire table of contents revealed quickly that what would be at stake in the essays would be issues of memory and counter-memory, repression and trauma, memorials, nostalgia, and the “trouble” of “troubling” pasts,” but only in relation to historical events of the 20th century [or events that are seen as importantly antecedent to this century but by not more than 200-300 years].
I don’t want anyone to think I am complaining here, as I have never been disappointed by the essays I read in The Hedgehog Review–oftentimes, they are positively thrilling to read, and some issues have inspired new directions in my own work, especially their issue on “Weak Ontologies,” which no one who is interested in where theory might be going next can afford not to read. I mention this because I think the Institute at Virginia has absolutely the right notions about the study of contemporary culture and their mission statement provides an opening, I think, for yet another journal that might be dreamed up and put into play alongside journals like The Hedgehog Review as a kind of long-missing and much-needed supplement. Imagine a journal run and managed entirely by scholars working in, say, medieval studies of a deeply cross-disciplinary bent, that would structure each issue around a “presentist” or contemporary issue or troubling present question, such as [to cadge from Hedgehog] “Religion and Violence” or [to pose our own questions, as opposed to themes], “What Is The Place of the Past in the Present?” and “What Are the Proper Uses of Historical Memory?” and “How Does Deep Time Return?” and “What Is Going Abroad?” and “What Is Justice?” and “What Was/Is the Human Person?” and “How Should We Count Time?” and “Who Is the Foreigner?” and “Who Is the Aboriginal?” and “Who Is the Child?” and “What Is Terrorism?” and “What is Nostalgia?” and “What Is Globalization?” and “How Many Sexes?” and “What and Where is the Modern?” and “Where Is Utopia?” and “Is There a Third Culture Yet?” etc. etc. I could go on and on. This would be a journal that would have two faces or orientations: one looking to the future, the other into deep time, and always seeking to make present the often invisible and deep structures of the past in the present, but with the desire to effect change in the dispositions and habits of its readers as regards their present-day “worldliness” [to cadge from Edward Said's brilliant essay, "The World, the Text, and the Critic"]. This would be a journal that would [hopefully] demonstrate the worth and value of premodern studies to pressing present-day concerns and anxieties and world “troubles,” and the scholars involved in its publication would be willing to step outside certain old ways of doing scholarship in order to make occasionally obscene and always new connections between histories, ideas, cultural artifacts, discourses, and texts [literary and otherwise] that have traditionally been perceived to be disparate from and incommensurable with each other. This would be scholarship that would be erudite and learned and serious and rigorous [in all the ways that medieval scholarship has traditionally been], while also being playful and sensuous and artistic [but without ever forgetting that something that matters is always at stake]. Similar to The Hedgehog Review, each issue would feature, not the long-ish and heavily footnoted scholarly article but the more nimble and artful essai, in order to allow the entire issue to be read in one [invigorating] sitting. For those who want a place to begin a more extensive exploration of the subject at hand [such as the figure of the child or the "aboriginal," or the theme of utopia, in the premodern world, just to suggest three examples], a bibliographic essay on that subject would also be included. Finally, while the journal would primarily feature work by scholars working in premodern studies [antiquity through medieval to early modern studies], scholars working in more contemporary fields from a variety of disciplines [both within and without the humanities] would be invited to join the conversation in each issue [in some cases, the work of a particular scholar working on a modern or contemporary topic--such as nationalism or sexuality--might be the spur to a particular issue's contents]. Such a journal is possible, and consider this a prolegomenon to its prospectus.
In the meantime, I do want to encourage everyone to somehow get their hands on the most recent issue of The Hedgehog Review, “The Uses of the Past” [vol. 9, no. 2; Summer 2007]: you can see the Table of Contents here, and to whet your appetite, I will leave you with some excerpts from Svetlana Boym’s “Nostalgia and Its Discontents,” an essay that [I think] is very thought-provoking for those of us who work with the literatures of the distant past:
The twentieth century began with utopia and ended with nostalgia. Optimistic belief in the future became outmoded, while nostalgia, for better or worse, never went out of fashion, remaining uncannily contemporary. . . . I would define it as a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy. Nostalgic love can only survive in a long-distance relationship. A cinematic image of nostalgia is a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images–of home and abroad, of past and present, of dream and everyday life. The moment we try to force it into a single image, it breaks the frame or burns the surface.
. . . .
The nostalgia that interests me here is not merely an individual sickness but a symptom of our age, an historical emotion. Hence I will make three crucial points. First, nostalgia is not “antimodern”; it is not necessarily opposed to modernity but coeval with it. Nostalgia and progress are like Jekyll and Hyde: doubles and mirror images of one another. Nostalgia is not merely an expression of local longing, but a result of a new understanding of time and space that makes the division into the “local” and the “universal” possible.
Second, nostalgia appears to be a longing for place, but it is actually a yearning for a different time–the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to turn history into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition. Hence the past of nostalgia, to paraphrase William Faulkner, is not even past. It could be merely better time, or slower time–time out of time, not encumbered by appointment books.
Third, nostalgia, in my view, is not always retrospective; it can be proscreptive as well. The fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future. Unlike melancholia, which confines itself to the planes of individual consciousness, nostalgia is about the relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups or nations, between personal and collective memory. While futuristic utopias might be out of fashion, nostalgia itself has a utopian dimension–only it is no longer directed at the future. Sometimes it is not directed at the past either, but rather sideways. The nostalgic feels stifled within the conventional confines of time and space.
Boym goes on to formulate a typology of nostalgia that distinguishes between reflective and restorative nostalgia, and ultimately concludes with this:
While restorative nostalgia returns and rebuilds one’s homeland with paranoic determination, reflective nostalgia fears return with the same passion. Home, after all, is not a gated community. Paradise on earth might turn out to be another Potemkin village with no exit. The imperative of a contemporary nostalgic is to be homesick and sick of home–occasionally at the same time.
The article and entire issue are well worth reading in full. Cheers.