Learning the Languages of Nostalgia in Modern and Contemporary Literature

Buttler, Tasha Marie. Learning the Languages of Nostalgia in Modern and Contemporary Literature. 2012. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation builds upon recent discourses on nostalgia that focus on the generative potential of a sustained melancholic stance and position the past as resource for the future. My particular interest is in the potential for de-subjectification out of regulatory regimes, as outlined in the work of Judith Butler, particularly in The Psychic Life of Power. This text has allowed me to develop a robust theory about accumulated experiences of love and loss that are central to the formation of "character" that repeats or disrupts patterns of social relation. I differentiate between politicized nostalgia and experiential nostalgia, suggesting that the latter can make use of inevitable experiences of loss by initiating and sustaining a melancholic agency. I use various literary texts and memoirs to identify how the thwarting of melancholia can lead to nostalgia's obverse: the desire to return suffering, or what Czech author Milan Kundera calls litost. These instances of thwarted grieving are positioned against a set of characters in the work of Virginia Woolf, Eva Hoffman, and Clarice Lispector who allow themselves to honor their experiential nostalgia rather than reverting to politicized nostalgia that repeats representations and clichés associated with empire. Often these characters' grievances are undirected or misdirected criticisms of social politics and cultural inheritances that perpetuate gendered, racialized, and class identities, or even nationalistic practices that have led to loss and suffering.

This study further examines the psychic economics associated with exile since, arguably, cultural inheritances are more readily perceived by those who have greater "vantage points." In most cases, exiles must re-negotiate words, gestures, and subjectivities, and may be able to see naturalized practices with heightened sensitivity in her or his choices to repeat new social practices or to modify them, pushing the limits of cultural intelligibilities. Although all of the characters in this study struggle to represent the psychic maneuvers associated with loss of something beloved, ironically, most of these novels suggest that these dynamics are inadequately representable in language. My final argument is that the nascent subjectivities that emerge out of the characters' and authors' experiential nostalgia, and the texts that strive to account for these experiences, are of consequence for more than just the transformed individuals. The final novel used in this study, Lispector's The Hour of the Star, manipulates the instruments available to narrate genesis (language) to break orders of repetition, to recodify language, and to unsettle the reader, inviting us to experience the radical alterity of another's psyche and develop affective possibilities for new moral epistemologies spoken through the fragmented languages of nostalgia.

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