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The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: Nostalgia in the 21st Century

By Sofia Brizio

Raise your hand if you spent lockdown rewatching and re-reading things you loved as a teenager, or as a child. In other words, things that you enjoyed in easier times. I think we can all agree that Disney+ has been a godsend and if that isn’t enough to realise we’re obsessed with nostalgic media, I don’t know what is. But it’s only after I read The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: The Politics of Nostalgia by Grafton Tanner (Repeater Books) that I started to notice the extent to which nostalgia drives my choices in terms of media consumption.

Yesterday, for example, I went to a Disney Store and bought a copy of Once Upon A Dream, one of the many titles in the series of twisted fairytale retellings for children where Sleeping Beauty never wakes up and has to figure out a way to escape dreamland on her own. I just thought I needed a break from reality and maybe a children’s book could provide exactly that. As Tanner explains, there is a reason for this.

When we feel that things are out of our control, we tend to go back to what feels familiar, things that have always given us joy and that we can therefore control. It’s no surprise that many people are choosing to curl up under the blanket of nostalgia, with a pandemic in progress, climate change, messy politics and social inequality. I remember my first year at university when I sometimes spent my nights reading my favourite book in Italian (my native language) desperate for something that would feel familiar. It’s the same need for escapism that drives those who decide to live “off the grid” in search of a completely distracted life.

But, if you’ve ever felt homesick, you’ll have encountered what Tanner calls “the paradox of nostalgia: that which comforts also distresses.” The media “allow us to communicate with the dead and distant, a power that is both a gift and a curse. It can worsen the sense of loss and make us feel nostalgic in the process.” From this standpoint, it’s clear how nostalgia can be easily exploited by capitalism when our emotions are involved. Tanner’s striking analysis of social media platforms highlights how constantly sharing Facebook memories encourages us to stay fixed as human beings, almost turning us into brands in a way that appeals to advertisers who can thus turn consumers into “units of capital.”

The negative side of nostalgia from a capitalist perspective can be seen in politics as well. Donald Trump wanted to “make America great again” and the Brexit campaign was built on the promise to “take back control” as a reminder of supposedly easier times when the EU wasn’t in the picture. In the words of Svetlana Boym, cited in Tanner’s book, “contemporary nostalgia is not so much about the past as about the vanishing present.” Now more than ever, nostalgia perhaps gives us the illusion of having some control over the future at a time when it feels like the world is ending and there might be no future at all.

In his clever and groundbreaking work, Grafton Tanner takes us on a journey across time and space, encouraging us to look back on the past as well as to ponder on the future. The Hours Have Lost Their Clock will change how you think about reality and even about your own life. Relatable and witty, this book is perfect for anyone who wants to truly understand the times and the world we are living in.

The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: The Politics of Nostalgia by Grafton Tanner will be published by Repeater Books on 12 October 2021. You can preorder it on the author’s website here.


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