The Chronicle Review

Longing for a Past That Never Was

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle Review

April 16, 2017

For many, the past has never looked more attractive and the future more scary. In his last book, the eminent British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who died in January, turned his attention to this nostalgic mood and labeled it "retro­topia."

Throughout his long career, Bauman remained fascinated by the paradoxes of modernity. His most important works, such as Modernity and the Holocaust (Cornell University Press, 1989), are exemplars of empirically led critical social theory. In Retrotopia he explores the strange alliance of modernity with nostalgia. The book’s main intent is to dissect the way different nostalgic currents act to both create and cope with a dysfunctional and bewildering present.

Bauman begins by outlining what the late Harvard University literary scholar Svetlana Boym called the "nostalgia epidemic," a condition that, Bauman tells us, is now "palpably felt at every level of social cohabitation." He sets out his task as "unraveling, portraying, and putting on record some of the most remarkable ‘back to the future’ tendencies inside the emergent ‘retrotopian’ phase in utopia’s history." These tendencies are grouped into four chapters: "Back to Hobbes?"; "Back to Tribes"; "Back to Inequality"; and "Back to the Womb."


Retrotopia By Zygmunt Bauman

(Polity Press)

It is something of a roller-coaster ride; the short, densely argued book takes us from a new "war of all against all," stopping at xenophobia and racism and the growing gap between the rich and poor before depositing the panting reader in a complex exegesis on the rise of narcissism and loneliness.

To tie those disparate threads together, Bauman offers what he calls a "Hegelian triad." His contention is that Thomas More’s original place- and community-bound utopia has been overturned by a new one centered on the "unfixed," the "individualized, privatized, and personalized" — a shift that has itself now been challenged by a nostalgic yearning and the emergence of visions of the future located in the "lost/stolen/abandoned but undead past." A more straightforward contention dominates the bulk of the book: that the past has become attractive because people find the present upsetting and bewildering. Bauman argues that all our attempts to get back to the many homelands of security, familiarity, and thumb-sucking comfort spring from an inability to cope with an "exasperatingly capricious and uncertain present." This state of fear connects and encourages not just diverse but opposing forms of nostalgia, bringing together narcissistic individualism with a surge in ethnic communalism. Retrotopia’s most impressive passages come when Bauman is working with this kind of paradox:

"Back to the self" has been born as a battle-cry of the war of liberation from the horrors of tribal imprisonment, resurrected by the still-birth of its ostensible cosmopolitan alternative — just as "back to tribes" was, and still remains, the motto of running-for-shelter from the abominations of the loneliness of the orphaned/bereaved individuals of the post-liberation era. Both calls are poisons, curiously serving as antidotes to each other.

Such confident summaries are characteristic of Bauman’s style and can be intoxicating, but they rely on the reader’s faith in his labels, such as the "‘back to the womb’ phenomenon" (under which heading Bauman places "back to the self"). Bauman derives this tag from a passage in the essayist Melissa Broder’s So Sad Today (Grand Central Publishing, 2016) in which she confesses to having spent her life "trying to get back" to the safety of the womb. It feels, to me at least, plausible to extrapolate this self-insight to a societal condition, but, at the same time, I doubt nostalgia for the womb is unique to our era. Like many species of exceptionalist argument, Bauman’s insistence that the contemporary age has an exceptionally dysfunctional relationship to the past offers a kind of perverse flattery; who, after all, would want to admit that their times and their country are not, after all, that special?

Unfortunately, Bauman’s omnivorous depictions of our fearful, nostalgic condition start to resemble lists of how awful everything is. Top of the list is the "growth in the volume and intensity of violence," which reflects the fact that "our world … is again a theater of war: a war of all against all." Contra Hobbes, this "war" reflects not the absence of Leviathan but the presence of lots of "big, small and tiny Leviathans, gravely malfunctioning." Another site of crisis is addressed in the chapter called "Back to Inequality," which draws on Bauman’s Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All? (Polity Press, 2013). Explaining why rising levels of inequality have not led to a "revolutionary situation," Bauman says that it is because the "present-day existential condition" is nothing more than "a factory of mutual suspicion, antagonism of interests, rivalry and strife."

Mixed in within these broad-brush dystopian portraits are a variety of sharp criticisms of more particular contemporary phenomena, ranging from the internet to self-help books. It was when Bauman starts to grumble about satellite navigators (despite never-ending updates, "most drivers risk finding them nevertheless grossly outdated and liable to lead them astray") that it dawned on me that there is another paradox at work in his book, one that he does not address.

Bauman is hostile to nostalgia and wants "the Angel of History to turn around once more" and face the future. But Retrotopia is a deeply nostalgic book. There is almost nothing about the present day that Bauman seems to like. In a post-Marxist and postsocialist era it is hardly surprisingly that leftist scholarship should develop a powerful sense of loss and yearning. The problem is that this tradition is so used to defining itself as forward-facing and nostalgia as inherently conservative that it is not able to acknowledge its own nostalgic imagination. Such an acknowledgment is not an easy or comfortable task, but it is a necessary one. In The Future of Nostalgia (Basic Books, 2001), Svetlana Boym put it best: "Survivors of the twentieth century, we are all nostalgic for a time when we were not nostalgic. But there seems no way back."

Alastair Bonnett is a professor of social geography at Newcastle University and the author of, among other works, The Geography of Nostalgia: Global and Local Perspectives on Modernity and Loss (Routledge, 2015).