The Garden of the Dead: The Cult of Nostalgia & Romantic Nationalism in Europe

Take a good look at this picture from The Daily Telegraph. This is Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party. By the way, Nigel doesn’t have a life outside of this picture. He doesn’t have family, he doesn’t have friends, he doesn’t come from anywhere, and if current reports in the press are anything to go by, it doesn’t look like he is actually going anywhere either. But everything you need to know about Nigel can be learned from this one image, an image that doesn’t just tell us everything there is to know about Nigel, but tells us everything there is to know about right-wing Eurosceptic politics in Britain today. No manifesto is needed. No battle plan, no strategy. All that’s needed is this one picture; a picture than is bursting with messages.

Naturally you have to be English to understand the picture, and indeed, all the instructions needed to decode it have been dutifully handed down from father to son in Britain for generations, so there’s little to worry about it in that respect. In the picture you’ll see that Nigel is holding up a pint of traditional British ale. It’s not lager, as that would be too European, and the glass is not one of those fancy fluted Pilsner glasses either, nor one of the dimpled mugs you get with a handle (as that would present an issue with a floppy wrist). No, the glass that Nigel is holding is a classic Tulip ‘head booster’ and designed to preserve the classic British ‘head’ (a frothy yet largely superficial feature intended to give even gas-produced beers that straight-from-the-barrel character).

Nigel isn’t just holding the beer either; he is raising it aloft like a trophy. Rather than being handed to him by the barman (sorry, pub landlord) as the result of a dry exchange of cash, the beer is something Nigel has earned in a swasbuckling, competitive fashion. Contrary to what you’d expect there is over 200 years of fermentation gone into that one pint, and the wood that produced the barrel that Nigel’s ale matured in was at one time a stout British oak plucked straight from the New Forest (and which had probably provided shelter to everyone from Robin Hood to Winston Churchill).

And it isn’t a bar that Nigel is in, it’s a pub. A traditional British pub. It has a fire, a bit of stone cladding, an exposed oak-beam or two and a stag’s head mounted on the wall. The light is dimmed, not because Britain is enduring another three-day-week energy crisis, but because it looks quaint, old fashioned and because it was the black-outs during the blitz that made Britain what is is today (dark).

The coat that Nigel is wearing is your classic Barbour jacket. This is a man’s jacket and reserved for doing very manly things (like going to the pub). It’s the sort of coat that wouldn’t look out of place on your average country squire or ‘village leader’. The fact that country-squires haven’t formally existed since the Middle Ages doesn’t deter Nigel, as it still vaguely conveys his rank as senior ‘pal’ or ‘chum’. If truth be known Nigel actually favours his knee-length Covert Coat made by Cordings and Crombie. Although originally designed as a waterproof jacket for riding and rumbustious all-weather pursuits, the coat has been adopted by people like Nigel with encouragement from the Gentlemen’s Gazette and re-runs of Upstairs, Downstairs (they actually went out of style in the 1920s). And contrary to what you might think Nigel hasn’t arrived in the pub after a gruelling day’s hunt but from an afternoon looking for ink-cartridges at Westwood Cross Shopping Centre in nearby Broadstairs.

And the tie? Is that a barbershop white tie with Tory blue stripes? Or a barbershop Tory blue tie with white stripes? Either way it embodies traditional Conservative values with a bit of a maverick kick (Mitt Romney wore an identical tie in his televised debate with Barack Obama). Barbershop stripes have a history that dates back all the way to the middle ages when barbers were also responsible bloodletting practices (with the blue or red stripes representing veins and the white stripes the bandages). In the context of the ethnic ‘blood letting’ that formed the basis of Nigel’s pledge during the 2015 General Election, it makes a queer kind of sense. It may also pack a patriotic message.

Yes, all the historical, ecological, cultural and economic arguments you’d need for backing Brexit have been encoded in this one image.

But there’s two people we need consider here not one. The person looking at Nigel is every bit as important. It could be me, it could you, it could be the 22nd Earl of Waterford – either way we are a ‘pal’ of Nigel, because that is why Nigel is smiling. We have just entered the pub and Nigel is there waiting. He has his ink-cartridges in his pocket, a glass raised in his hand and he’s sharing a moment with us. It may be a very different form of communion to the one we are used to, but it’s one that is no less sacred amongst True Brits. The smile is one of a simple pleasure being shared.

But now I must shatter this illusion. This is no spontaneous image. This is a moment that has been meticulously crafted in every respect. It’s a carefully wrought moment of Collective Nostalgia. It doesn’t have a policy, it doesn’t have a plan. In fact its only obvious intention is to share some warm fuzzy memory that’s as far removed from the overwhelming stream of constant information and transnational corporate capitalism as you can get. And because it’s not real it’s somehow more real, if you see what I mean. That’s what Nigel is really getting at here. Global economics and technological processes have overwhelmed us all to such a monstrous degree that we must now re-engage with ‘the authentic’ (or ‘authentique’ if you’re familiar with Rousseau, which Nigel probably is on the quiet).

Multiculturalism (Nigel tells us) has invaded our national immune system in such a devastating fashion that Nigel and his supporters are doing what the body does at the onset of a virus. They are flooding us with past experiences, past triumphs and past joys that act like neutrophils on the infected area. In this respect nostalgia is the cultural equivalent of a runny nose. The more imminent the danger posed by an uncertain future, the larger the dose released. In many ways it reminds me of what Jean Baudrillard described in Simulacra and Simulations: What society seeks through production, and overproduction, is the restoration of the real which escapes it 1. To those of us who struggle to cope with the world’s increasing evanescence the past is significantly more real than the present.

It must be time for another pint.

Heavy Rotation of the Past

Of course, Nigel is not alone in any of this. Whether it’s buying 180 gram vinyl, shuffling around vintage clothes shops or going all gooey-eyed over a Commodore 64 or a ZX Spectrum, we are all complicit in its studious perseverance to one degree or another. We’ve been fetishizing the past for years. As the corporeal world around us continues its spiritless upload to the global mainframe and space-age fatigue sets in, we seek additional earthly grounding. Whether it’s the course, heavy fabrics of Nigel’s Covert Coat or the glorious chunky thrill of a coffee table made from solid reclaimed timber, Nigel appeals to a demographic that seeks a permanent anchor in the past. To those of us honest enough to admit it, the past tugs at us like gravity and it just seems to get stronger (and more satisfying) the denser those objects get.

The increasing popularity of premium-quality hardback books, 600 gram luxury towels, vintage wrought iron garden furniture and heavy-duty cast-iron baths suggests we are attaching more and more worth to things that weigh appreciably more than their modern counterparts. And this is probably experienced just as much on a symbolic level and on a physical level. We look for durability and for permanence. And there are few things more permanent than the past.

The more cultural, ideological and economic fragmentation that Britain experiences (imagined or not) the more we look to the past for reassurance. It was only announced today that the BBC would be rebooting a range of dramas and comedies that first found popularity in the 1960s and early 1970s: Stepstoe & Son, Till Death Do Us Part, Hancock’s Half Hour and Are You Being Served? And this comes hard on the heels of reboots of traditional favourites like Dad’s Army, Poldark, the X-Files, Fuller House and Twin Peaks2.

The message, whether we like it or not, is that things were so much better then: the jokes were funnier, lapels were wider, browns were browner and things generally were just more real.

Of course life during any of these periods was no less complex than it is today but the encoding, storage and retrieval systems that our memories rely on is selective. It’s a well rehearsed exercise in rosy retrospection or memoria praeteritorum bonorum 3. As psychologists have found, positive memories tend to stick in our heads. It’s always past ‘perfect’ and never past ‘tense’. And so inevitably, for most of the UK’s aging population, the world around us seems to be in a state of constant and irrevocable decline. And in a world that just gets quicker, so too will its perceived decline.

But nostalgia has always been there, right, nostalgia has never been away. What’s so different about it now?

The first thing I would say is that nostalgia hasn’t ‘always been there’, not in such lavish, surround-sound re-imaginings as this. Our forebears would have had little more than a scuffed old black and white portrait of their grandparents as their window onto the past, and even these would have been fairly uncommon, especially among the lower classes. So in one sense the difference is one of technology; we now have things that allow us to record and replay the past at will. Also, in the ‘good ‘old days’ the average Brit had neither the time or inclination to indulge in such whimsical retrospectives. Reveries were a luxury to be enjoyed only by the rich or by those of a wistful, artistic bent (which often went hand in hand). During the course of a day hacking away at the coal seam or a day spent sharpening the fustian knives in the mill, there was little time to reflect on the good ‘ol days; not only because there wasn’t enough free time available but chiefly because any good days had been few and far between. In the old days nostalgia was a peculiarly middle-class phenomenon. Ironically, it was always an issue of time.

So what’s different about nostalgia today? Well first and foremost I think it’s down to how time is now being experienced and how meaning is being encoded (or not as the case may be).

The present accelerates at such an alarming pace that it no longer has time to acquire any sense of durable meaning. It may sound a little too complex or a little too grand, but that’s the deal, essentially. For signs to work they have to evolve. They must have time to sink into the bedrock of experience: at an emotional level, at an intellectual level and also at a cultural level. Such is the empathy between the science of the past and the science of signs we may as well be dealing with fossils, not necessarily in the sense that Farage and his supporters have been chiseling away at Britain’s substantial fossil record (which they have and with some enthusiasm) but in terms of casts and molds.

As Italian semiotician, Massimo Leone has pointed out, ‘semiosis is the ontological result of something staying for something else, but nostalgia is the emotional result of it.’ 4 The semiotic mechanism is one of existence- absence-existence. Now you see it, now you don’t, now you see it again — only now it’s slightly different — now it has a more impervious and more resilient exterior. You remember the Cybermen in Doctor Who? Well it’s a little like that only with a distinctive archaeological spin.

The processes of fossilization are complex. From the time of burial to the time of discovery the fossil will have endured a very complex and a very time consuming process. And without wishing to extend the metaphor beyond its natural limits, the semiotic process is really very similar. Leone goes on:”signs evolve with different rhythms, and that the less explicitly codified they are, the faster they mutate”. If you were to take this idea to its logical conclusion then the sheer speed with which things change in the modern world means signs will barely have time to get codified at all. If current time-keeping trends were to continue in this fashion, it may very well be that signs and language will begin to reflect a more anchorless and transient environment; that they will become a variable in an endlessly re-programmable and endlessly adapting world. Like much of the cyber technology envisaged by scientists and science fiction writers alike, signs will begin to enjoy real-time dynamic programming. And just as it would be pointless to have road-signs in a world in which everybody navigates their own path, or where targets keep moving around, there may well come a time when there is no longer a use for signs at all (at least not in the way we understand them today).

But don’t look too downhearted, Nigel. The upside of all this is that we will no longer have endure the shows like ‘I Love The 80s’ and ‘I Love The 90s’. The future will not hang around long enough to ever get written. And as a direct consequence of this, neither will its past. History will disappear leaving only the thinnest of ongoing stories frozen at the precise moment they begin to collapse at the event horizon.

Or at least they would if it weren’t for nostalgia.

Nostalgia offers a regrouping strategy, an escape route. In a deeply ironic twist it seems that it is the past and not the future that concedes the most promising deus ex machina. As American author and critic Mark Dery contends in his book, Escape Velocity (1996) ‘a timely retreat to the past obviates the need to confront and resolve social, political, economic and ecological challenges’. The past offers an instant solution. It is the ‘theology of the ejector seat’ 5.

As the Romantic Nationalist notion of hegemony encounters a challenge and the commoner’s ‘Mandate of Heaven’ begins to collapse under the weight of various claims and counter-claims of sovereignty, the Nationalist ideals inspired by Hegel and Rousseau threaten to shatter into a thousand tiny pieces. And the only way to go is back.

In Escape from the Planet of the Apes, three apes (Cornelius, Zira and Dr. Milo) escape the eventual destruction of the earth by salvaging and repairing a spaceship. The shock waves produced as a result of the earth’s destruction mean they enter a time warp and the apes arrive on Earth in 1973, splashing down off the Pacific coast of the United States.

It’s a neat little concept that sets you off on your own, endlessly recursive thought cycle, contemplating whether the apes colonized the planet as a result of the earth’s destruction or whether the destruction of the earth was a result of the earth’s colonization by apes (which came first, the chicken or the ape?). For now though it will suffice as a metaphor.

What people really want to know is this: does the Romantic Nationalism epitomized by Nigel Farage have much in common with the Common Sense Nationalism of people like Donald Trump. But answering this question may be something I have to work up to.

New and Old Romantics

Whether it is the nostalgic revivalism of Völkisch that energized Hitler’s Nazi Party, the medievalism of Isis, the neo-Eurasianist longings of Vladimir Putin, UKIP or Donald Trump’s race back to the 1950s, it seems there is no escaping the past. Einstein talked of the curvature of space, but as Jean Baudrillard and Francis Fukuyama have both found, the theory might apply just as well to history. The faster modern life becomes and the quicker we race to the end of history, and the further into the past we get drawn.

If you were to believe the likes of Fukuyama and Baudrillard then globalisation (collectively recycled as the ‘Totalitarian Adversary’ by the vast majority of National Anarchists, National Conservatives and National Romantics) has thinned the collective experience to virtually nothing (or at least how the collective experience manifests itself at a national or regional level). And it is a persuasive idea certainly. One look at Farage standing alone in his handsome Cordings and Brombie overcoat and it seems like the very fabric of social bonding has perished to such a frangible extent that modern cognizance of the world around us no longer offers as much value, or as much support as the past. But how did we get here, Nigel? How on earth did we get to this? Well get another round in and I’ll tell you.

You didn’t hear it from me, but in an accelerated world of overnight technological progress and instant communication there is too little time for experience to get ‘explicitly codified’ 6. And whilst the grandiosity of this statement may be enough to make you choke on your own cigar-smoke, it’s really very simple; we are no longer engaging with the real. We text or tweet our friends that we are enjoying a walk in the park, a drink in the pub or a cosy night in with a loved one, but in the process of recording the moment for posterity, or indeed uploading it to the non-phenomenological technosphere (crikey!), the entire moment is either suspended or aborted. At best, the experience is being codified in a partial, unfinished form, and at worst it is not being codified at all.

The excitement that compels us to text or tweet our friends about the moment we are enjoying is overwhelmed by an habitual flurry of electronic commentary and narration. We long for the real but it continues to elude our grasp. The experience is being consigned to memory practically before it happens. It’s rather like packing your suitcase for a holiday in a mad-rush for the airport; you’ll clearly get there faster, but it’s likely there will be something essential that you’ve missed.

This is unlikely to present an issue in the case of all those near automated actions we carry out during the course of an average day, but when it comes to encoding new experiences or making new connections we could be looking at an eventual famine.

Take the new Facebook and Instagram news-feed algorithms, tartly described as ‘algorithm bubbles‘ by some. Facebook images and posts are no longer going to be presented in chronological order, but in an order that reflects your historical tastes and preferences. Google employs much the same kind of filter, in that your previous search history will priorities what you see. The downsides are fairly obvious. As Forbes writer Tony Bradley points out, such an artificial bubble shields you from new experiences and new perspectives. The whole thing works on the principle that you want to see more of what you know. It reinforces rather than challenges, recycles rather than rewards.  As a result we are more likely to see opinions that you agree with rather than those you don’t. It’s the social (and political) equivalent of a hall of mirrors or an echo chamber. Instead of breaking new ground you are just breaking old bread.

As Jean Baudrillard points out in Dance of the Fossils, ‘we live in a world that is both without memory and without forgetting’ 7. Sounds like the stuff of nonsense? Well I’m with you on that Nigel, but hear me out. Today we look constantly toward the resolution of the past; revisiting old quarrels, reestablishing contact with old friends, visiting the place of our birth. The popularity of Friendsreunited and genealogical website, Ancestry is proof enough of that. My old Gran didn’t care at all about any of these things. She’d be hard-pressed to tell you where her own grandfather was born, much less be able reel-off an endlessly recursive list of forefathers and great-great forefathers. And don’t go spinning me the old yarn about folklore and oral histories either. The concept of folklore and folk tales, as we understand them today, are themselves a nostalgic myth extrapolated from the various strands of national romance and national history that were collated in the 1700s. Although the word was formally coined in the mid-1800s, the idea of traditional stories peculiar to one group or nation goes only as far back as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Gottfried von Herder (the Brothers Grimm got their idea from this pair). And at the risk of having Rousseau turn in his grave,  the stories that really endure are the ones we still find relevant irrespective of their place of origin, the Everyman stories, those that have a universal or even timeless moral or message. Those that are not composed in this way tend to perish. Oral histories doesn’t even come into it.

The process, Nigel my old pal, is a little like the relationship between that pint of ale you’re holding and the Whisky chaser that will follow it (Single Malt of course, and matured in a Sherry cask). Pretty soon you’ll forget everything. Apart from whose round it is, naturally.

Consuming Time & Time Consuming

As history ends and is replaced by the routine upload of experience onto the expanding global mainframe we are more and more eager for signs of the past. Massimo Leone of Turin University has already brought enormous clarity to the subject in his article, Longing For The Past – a semiotic reading of the role of nostalgia. Massimo rightly observes that one the best ways of looking at the semiotics of nostalgia is to appreciate it as two sides of the same universal coin: the nostalgic consumption of space (expressed in tourism) and the nostalgic consumption of time (express in nostalgia) 8. Massimo contends that nostalgia is just another consumable. We are in the market for something we don’t have and we will pursue it at all costs. And at the risk of drawing an unfavourable comparison with dodgy TV dealers like Del Trotter and Arthur Daley (with whom he shares a love of long beige overcoats) Nigel has set himself up as something of an Independent Trader where time is concerned.

But let’s be serious about this for a moment, Nigel. It’s a fast, fast world we live in and you may need to slow me down a little.

As we found with the Facebook response to the massacre that took place in Paris last November, even the traditional processes of grief have been accelerated. As intense and overwhelming as the initial response was, within a week of the attacks all those defiant Tricoloure flags that users had uploaded as their Facebook profile picture had been replaced with the usual mugshot selfies of the Facebook member themselves (or worse still, the member’s cat). The traditional 5 stages of grief, denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, were resolved in a week-long frenzy of point and click activity. They say a trouble shared is a trouble halved, so by this same reckoning, sharing, liking and re-tweeting it with millions around the globe in moments should have ‘halved’ it exponentially. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross would have been turning in her grave (when news of her death had finished trending on Twitter).

Our engagement with that something beyond ‘the building line’ was practically over in a flash. It was like flying briefly over another country’s airspace. Our rediscovery of the collective sentiment was over all too soon.

I’m reminded of that phrase again: What society seeks through production, and overproduction, is the restoration of the real which escapes it.

Such fleeting yet intense mass-outpourings of grief may be an indication that whilst we have an appetite for greater emotional engagement with the world around us, modern habits and distractions preclude us from satisfying them in a more generous, more extensive fashion. The properties of over-production are even beginning to characterize language itself. Today the language of exaggeration has become the default expression of the Internet. Check out those Facebook comments next time you go online. You’ll see “people reduced to tears” over a YouTube clip of a scuba-diving hamster, “literally crying” over a mis-sent emoji or “laughing out loud” over a vaguely amusing anecdote about a cat jumping up at a curtain.

Sadly Nigel, the buzzword, buzzfeed practices of Internet marketing have worked their grossly overwrought and over-ebullient magic on the rest of us.

Interestingly the word ‘hyperbole’ has its roots in the Greek word for ‘over-casting’. On the rare occasion the blacksmith was drunk, a surplus of liquid metal or resin would be poured into the mold and would set with more casting than it actually needed. There would be a surfeit, a glut, a profusion. And we seem to be doing much the same thing today with signs: giddily packing too much resin into the mold, too much meaning into the shell of a relatively void experience.

I know I’m beginning to sound like you, Nigel, but do people really need to use four exclamation marks to tell us what a ‘beautiful’ day it is!?!!! Was that sticky toffee pudding I bunged in the microwave for five minutes earlier today really that ‘awesome’? Well 9 out of 10 regular Internet users would probably say it was. And with trending updates occupying a permanent slot on the left hand column on Twitter we have a constant visual reminder of just how volatile and ephemeral our cognizance and engagement with the world around us has become. It can be #trumprally in the morning, #TypeOneDirectionWithYourNose by lunchtime and #morganfreemanisdead by hometime.

Superficially at least, this may sound a little like Einstein’s idea of ‘time dilation’: the faster than light we move, the more likely we are to go backwards. Do vinyl-lovers, classic car drivers and retro gamers have more in common with the Fundamentalists and Radical Nationalists than we think?

Make mine a double, as it’s time we addressed that question …

contd here:
The Cult of Tradition: Let’s Make The Past Great Again!


1Simulacra and Simulations, Jean Baudrillard, 1981
2 – In defence of the BBC’s revival of Are You Being Served?, New Statesmen, 24 Feb 2016
3Interactions, Norman, D. A (2009). Memory is more important that actuality. Interactions, volume 16, issue 2, pages 24-26
4Longing for the past: a semiotic reading of the role of nostalgia in present-day consumption trends, Massimo Leone, 2014
5Escape Velocity, Mark Dery, 1986
6Longing for the past, Massimo Leone, 2014
7Dance of the Fossils, The Illusion of the End, Jean Baudrillard 1993
8Longing for the past, Massimo Leone, 2014