When Slavoj Zizek warned the crowds at Occupy Wall Street a couple of weeks ago not to “remember these days, you know like, ‘Oh, we were young, it was beautiful.’ ” it seemed he could sense how tempting it is to exit your moment, jump forward, and view the present from a comfortable distance, to become separated from the immediacy of your action and head straight into the phase of hazy remembrance.
When times start to feel historic, the temptation might be even stronger. I rushed to the newsstand to snatch up a copy of the New York Times on the day after Barack Obama was elected President. I thought I would treasure that document forever because it would remind me of a moment of collective triumph. But you can never be sure how the past will look from the future.
I’ve recently been reading The Future of Nostalgia, Harvard Comparative Literature Professor Svetlana Boym’s treatise on the various ways that yearning idealization of the past acts on our wild contemporary existence. It has got me thinking about this moment, this year of protest and revolt, and how there are times that are particularly ill-suited for nostalgia—and yet we can’t resist collective reminiscence even in the middle of everything.
Boym writes “Nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology.” It has the counter-revolutionary quality of stopping time and framing the past, just when forward movement is most important.
Around the time Zizek was talking to occupy Wall Street, I was sitting in a dark movie theater thousands of miles across the ocean in Egypt, watching tear-jerker documentaries of the 18 day uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, one after another at the Alexandria Film Festival. Most of the films were made in the late spring of this year, only weeks after the end of the uprising. Most present the same story: a glorious build-up of protest, outrageous lies from state-controlled media, hilarious and inspiring chants, culminating in a heartbreaking moment of victory for the masses. And as Egypt post-January 25 becomes less and less rosy, watching such films feels not just painful, but painfully unhelpful and unproductive.
“We were young, it was beautiful,” and it only happened a few months ago.