Nostalgia and Melancholy
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article was published in Ceylon Today on March 12, 2021
More and more, we compare reality to images, instead of comparing images to reality.
I have been reading yet another book about the internet and social media. This one was a little different, quirky and fragmentary, perhaps because the author is a philosopher and a poet. Maël Renouard has taught philosophy at the Sorbonne and the École Normale Supérieure on the rue d’Ulm, of which he is a graduate. The book is called Fragments Of An Infinite Memory: My Life With The Internet.
Among other things, M Renouard served as a speechwriter for François Fillon when he was prime minister. Spell-check suggests “felon” as the correct spelling, which is quite apt as in 2020, Fillon was convicted of fraud and misuse of funds, and sentenced to five years in prison (three of them suspended). Only this week, Fillon’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was sentenced to three years for corruption.
This fairly short book is divided into eleven chapters, in which the author offers vignettes which show how sites like YouTube, Wikipedia, Google Earth and Facebook have changed how people organise their lives and store their memories. Smart phones offer immediate access to captured images where once analogue film would have to be sent to a lab for processing costing money and time and also inhibited one in what one chose to photograph. The internet allows people who have the inclination to display their genitals to the world to do so from the comfort of their own home rather than going to a cold park in a dirty old raincoat.
The internet is a repository for knowledge, recordings, and images. Only the individual retains the entirety of self but you can choose your self. Some people have created their desired personas through internet entries. It is even possible for a person to exist online but not in real life. Renouard describes how even dead people can continue to live on social media.
Renouard writes, “Social networks have already created the experience of a new moral landscape, in which self-exhibition has become the norm and therefore cannot be blamed in itself. This change of atmosphere is so universal that we aren’t necessarily aware of it, or else we very quickly forget it. Judgment has not been abolished, but it rests on other nuances.”
Nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain), and was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. Sometimes nostalgia is thought of as a good thing, at other times a bad thing. For centuries nostalgia was considered a potentially debilitating and sometimes fatal medical condition. In 1985, the psychotherapist Roderick Peters concluded that nostalgia “persists and profoundly interferes with the individual’s attempts to cope with his present circumstances”. The modern view is that nostalgia can be a positive emotion that many people experience often, improving mood, increasing social connectedness, enhancing positive self-regard, and providing existential meaning. Nostalgia has also been associated with learning and memory consolidation. On the other hand, too much wallowing in the past, can lead to a chronic disposition or personality trait of “nostalgia proneness.” It is one thing to respect one’s own past and to delight in sharing fond memories, but it is not healthy to strongly desire to be in the past (it cannot happen) and to despise the present.
The psychologist Kyrstine Batcho writes. “To the extent that old photos make us feel good, nostalgic reminders of our past can increase our attachment to our devices.” Amy Bucher, a design expert and author of Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change writes, “Leveraging personal memories fulfils both parts of the equation for tech companies. People have an investment in seeing their memories now, but that feeling of longing can drive them to continue to interact with Apple or Facebook so that they refresh the supply of memories.”
Renouard discovers a great deal of nostalgia on the internet, nostalgia that has morphed into melancholy. In one of the vignettes in the book, he ploughs through a number of music postings on YouTube and compiles a series of comments from viewers. This amounts to a bizarre and quite depressing collage of extreme misery, worthy of illustration by Gustave Doré or Henry Fuseli.
“When , in the dead of night we go searching on YouTube for the music of ten, twenty, or thirty years ago, we find that we have joined a community of lonely individuals leaving the trace of an intense, ambiguous feeling, born of a reunion with time past that can take place only because these moments have been utterly lost…The internet shows that recollection has charted the path of technology -infinite distancing and preservation – and melancholy is the future of emotion.”
“Funes the Memorious” is a story, by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, of one Ireneo Funes, who, after falling off his horse and receiving a bad head injury, acquired the amazing talent—or curse—of remembering absolutely everything. Funes is incapable of real understanding. A poor, ignorant young boy in the outskirts of a small town, he is hopelessly limited in his possibilities, but (says Borges) his absurd projects reveal “a certain stammering greatness”. Funes, we are told, is incapable of Platonic ideas, of generalities, of abstraction; his world is one of intolerably uncountable details. He finds it very difficult to sleep, since he recalls “every crevice and every moulding of the various houses which [surround] him”. There is a term for this condition: “hyperthymestic syndrome”.
Renouard writes: “With the internet—which fulfills to a supreme degree the externalization of memory first initiated by writing—we might get the feeling that we have simultaneously become capable of forgetting nothing and incapable of remembering anything at all.”
Kyrstine Batcho warns: “The more we rely upon our devices to store, organise, and retrieve greater portions of our lives, the more likely it is that the devices become extensions of ourselves. Many people are already very stressed if they are separated from their tech. We feel as if we need to have our device near us at all times.”
I will let Renouard have the last word. “A day will therefore arrive when everything has been said, when it will no longer be possible to say anything that hasn’t already been said. Then, by virtue of the correspondence between deeds and words, no event will be able to take place that hasn’t already occurred as well. The world will have exhausted its stock of events. It will end and begin again.”