Re-linking Place to Nostalgia (With Footnotes!)

An excerpt from Edward S. Casey’s, Remembering: A Phenomenological Study

“One of the most eloquent testimonies to place’s extraordinary memorability is found in nostalgia. We are nostalgic primarily about particular places that have been emotionally significant to us and which we now miss: we are in pain (algos) about a return home (nostos) that is not presently possible. It is not accidental that ‘nostalgia’ and ‘homesickness’ are still regarded as synonyms in current English dictionaries.”

 What is the relation between place and nostalgia?

The problem with place is that philosophers in the 18th and 19th centuries sought to emphasize metaphysical ideas over materially constructed emotions and feelings. And the concrete home, along with site-specific nostalgia, fell off the academic map. But nostalgia gained steam in popular culture. Nostalgia in the early nineteenth century was seen by many to be the natural consequence of an upheaval of memory, often catalyzed by a forced removal from a known place, especially one’s home. On one hand, conscripted soldiers and migrant laborers forced from their homes suffered from a type of nostalgia closely connected to increasingly powerful forces of capitalism and state power. And on the other hand, according to Jean Starobinski in “The Idea of Nostalgia” (1966), academics and philosophers were de-linking the physical home from nostalgia, stating, as Kant did, that it was a romantic middle-class preoccupation with the passing of youth itself. Kant’s ideas on nostalgia, of course, were not simple. Casey says that “Kant scoffed at this remedy,” of a return home; any actual return was bound to be “very disappointing” because the physical site may have become “wholly transformed” (201).1 But Casey points out in another essay titled “The World of Nostalgia” (1987), that Kant, like Johannes Hofer (see previous post), also believed that nostalgia was an imaginative act that has affinities with various memories of places that are used to construct a “created” world (367-8).2 The friction between the place-based and philosophy-based views of nostalgia, not “settled” by the medical community until the end of the nineteenth-century, is not just present in a world full of moving, displacement, and exile, it is a primary source of both human identity adjustment and reinforcement.3


So, what does this mean for today’s world in which place matters a lot to those losing their homes due to foreclosures and job losses? And what does it mean for those caught up in telecommuting and web 2.0–where workers and users are making the work place less important? 

Stay tuned to this blog for definitive answers!



Sean Scanlan

1 Casey believes that the history of nostalgia within philosophy hinges upon to role of place. While specific place diminished in stature during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the desire for a return to imagination as the source of the world increased. Put another way, by the late eighteenth century, as the geographic site of home was stripped from nostalgia, it was replaced with a spiritual return, an attachment to a way of being in the world. Artists, unlike most philosophers, elevated and refined the uses of nostalgia in terms of actual homes, and if not in terms of descriptions of physical structures, then in terms of the hope of return–often in the face of great odds. See Edward S. Casey, Remembering: A Phenomenological Study (1987; Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000) 201.

2 In “The World of Nostalgia,” Casey compares a variety of philosophers’ views on nostalgia in terms of place. Casey’s phenomenological perspective regards home as vexingly tethered to both the exterior world and the world “within.” Ultimately, Casey believes that nostalgia is a “unique mode of insight into a world that has become irretrievably past and that arrays itself, as we remember it now, in a plenitude of places” (380). Edward S. Casey, “The World of Nostalgia,” Man and World 4.20 (Oct 1987): 361-384.

3 Homesickness has replaced nostalgia as a medical term, so that a crossing of usage has occurred: nostalgia has been de-medicalized, while homesickness has recently entered medical literature. During the First World War, American troops were still being treated for nostalgia. But by the Second World War, some doctors employed therapy as treatment for homesickness. By 1952, no entries on homesickness were in The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But homesickness returned by the 1968 edition. See Susan J. Matt, “You Can’t Go Home Again: Homesickness and Nostalgia in U.S. History,” The Journal of American History 94.2 (2007): 469-97. Recent studies on the linkage between environment and body have emphasized the possible existence of homesickness as a disease. The pediatric specialist Christopher A. Thurber has written several scholarly articles on treating homesickness in adolescents. See Christopher A. Thurber, Edward Walton, and the Council on School Health, “Preventing and Treating Homesickness,” Pediatrics 119 (2007): 192-201; and Christopher A. Thurber and Marian D. Sigman, “Preliminary Models of Risk and Protective Factors for Childhood Homesickness: Review and Empirical Synthesis, Child Development 69.4 (1998): 903-34.



Modern Homesickness: History and Meaning Behind the U.S. Housing Meltdown


This editorial might be of interest to those following the housing meltdown as it melts down the rest of the economy here in Iowa, in the U.S., and around the world. Yes, I know it is a year old. But, unfortunately, much of this is still current.

Originally published in the Iowa City Press-Citizen


September 23, 2007

Section: OPINION

Page: 11A



Modern homesickness

By Sean Scanlan

Guest Opinion


Even if you are safely housed, you may suffer from a worsening case of homesickness. Consider the following: The ongoing Darfur conflict has displaced more than 2.5 million people. More than 1.1 million Iraqis have been displaced since 2003. Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, displacing an estimated 1.1 million.


Closer to home, in Chicago, the subprime mortgage crisis sent foreclosures literally through the roof. Writing in the Chicago Tribune, John McCarron reports than urban foreclosures in 2006 were more than 10,000. But in the suburbs, the holy grail of the American dream, there were nearly 19,000 foreclosures.


Even closer to home, Iowa has its own housing crisis. When I started to write this guest opinion, Iowa was ranked as the ninth most affected state in the subprime collapse. By the second week of September, Iowa moved up to fourth, according to Iowa Public Radio. Last year, 1 in 2,700 Iowa property owners faced foreclosure — up 9 percent from the previous year. Losing one’s home is not something that affects somebody else in a foreign land, it happens to your neighbors, to you, possibly to me. And something must be done.


These statistics are part of the story of American homemaking and building that goes back to World War II. This story has two sides to it. The mythical side that says if you don’t succeed, it is your fault. The other — which is based on recorded documents and personal experiences — says that opportunity is not handed out equally and systemic profiteering ruins actual lives. Because myths have enough presence in popular culture and in the marketplace, I will focus on the less well-known side of the story. The central plot of this story is the alliance between the for-profit housing industry and government (local and federal) that altered laws, infrastructure and housing design, eventually creating a monstrous machine in whose belly we now find ourselves.


Historical context


Historical context is important. After World War II, the demand for housing was so great, reports historian Kenneth T. Jackson, that retired trolley cars, large ice boxes and surplus grain bins were sold as homes. To solve this crisis, the Veterans Administration mortgage program and the FHA combined with businesses to help families move into their own homes.


Sounds good so far. But four decisions altered the very look and feel of the American home:


•   First, house builders promoted factory production techniques that stripped away the need for skilled labor.


•  Second, the government did not require massive building companies such as Levitt and Sons to build roads, schools, sewers or sidewalks.


•  Third, the VA and FHA backed loans for single-family homes, not apartments, and rarely in urban areas.


•  Fourth, house loans were largely restricted to white males.


If these policies did not include the elderly or minorities, if they isolated families and women, if they destroyed public transportation and urban neighborhoods, at least they provided many millions homes on a large scale.


Iowa City and ‘in loco parentis’


The farm crisis of the 1970s shocked the housing structure of Iowa City. As the university’s enrollment grew, the state’s coffers dried up. With no money to build new dorms, local housing businesses approached the school with a proposition: Get rid of the “in loco parentis” rule, and we will take care of your housing problems.


For example, the last university-built dorm was Slater Hall — that was 1968. The ramifications of this decision have changed the shape of Iowa City’s homes, architecture and streets. It has changed people’s lives, whether these people are students who now live in “undergraduate ghettos” of converted single-family homes or families who have been forced out of these once quiet and safe neighborhoods.


The rise of undergraduate apartment culture has changed the feel of Iowa City, and reciprocally, those feelings affect the future shape of this city. The current housing crisis is mainly a homeowner problem, but we can see how university students are implicated in the mess.


This crisis does not lead to nostalgic homesickness for a lost, yet better, past. This is a structural homesickness. Actual housing practices (redlining, unfair mortgage rates, restrictive covenants, complex rate adjustments, unfair landlord-tenant agreements) and actual short-term government policies (FHA loans to builders but not for infrastructure) have combined to deface the connections between where people live and how they live.


Architect Dolores Hayden explains that for the past 50 years, federal subsidies for accelerated depreciation for commercial real estate and subsidies for interstate highways have laid the groundwork for the catastrophe of “sprawl” including, for example, abandoned Wal-Mart and Menards stores. These shortsighted decisions do help somebody: big businesses. These decisions have also created a contest between residents who wish to enjoy the suburban city and developers who seek to profit from them. This contest ruins communal ties; it does not have to be this way.


Solving the current crisis


The current subprime foreclosures are part of the legacy of 1980s banking deregulation — a real-estate speculation debacle that resulted in 1,000 bank failures and $150 billion in losses. Who should we blame? John McCarron warns against placing all of the blame on defaulting borrows.


How about some proof that business is really to blame? Last year, Ameriquest Mortgage Co. entered into a $325 million settlement with the attorneys general and regulators from 49 states because they pleaded guilty to predatory lending practices such as hidden charges and falsified loan applications. The machine of business and government are “gaming” the system because they made the system.


What should we do? McCarron has some good ideas:


• First, mandatory mortgage counseling.


• Second, full disclosure of all costs to the borrower.


• Third, cap rates.


• Fourth, make all mortgage company rates and financial statements a matter of public record.


In addition, we must do one essential task: plan our neighborhoods and our city for long-term, balanced and equitable growth.


Recently, the Iowa City Council has taken up the idea of long-range planning. I applaud this drive, and I hope that residents have a voice in the actual process of reconfiguring our hometown. But, I am worried about whose interests will ultimately rule the day. Specifically, who will be helped and hurt by the development along South Gilbert and Sand Road? We’ve already seen how road widening in that area may cause more problems than it solves.


The majority of blame for the current housing crisis rests with the rapacious housing industry that builds without foresight, lends without scruple and profits without personal ethics. The collective feelings that produce homesickness enable us to yearn for something better, not for the homes and the practices of the past (surely our lending practices are better than the misogynist and racist practices of the early 20th century).


We must demand homes for young Iowans, old Iowans, new Iowans, especially those who face barriers to gaining their own home. Let’s leave behind the myth that says failure in our democratic society is due to not working hard enough. It takes more than one person’s hard work to reinvent the idea and place of home. It requires a collective, communal effort to change the machine, so that fairness and profit are in balance. Within such an effort is a story worth following.

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What Is Nostalgia

Johannes HoferNostalgia is a word that was invented by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss medical student, in his 1688 dissertation titled “Medical Dissertation on Nostalgia.” He combined two Greek roots: nostos, or return home, plus algia, or suffering. So together we get homesickness–the common synonym for nostalgia in many dictionaries.

Commonly thought of as a yearning for the recent past, or homesickness due to present losses, nostalgia is a deceptively complex word that, like an umbrella, covers a wide range of personal and collective feelings about the collision between the past and the present. But nostalgia is also about the future, characterized by, especially, the tension between looking toward the past for traditional answers and looking toward the future for hope. The simultaneous presence of peculiarly modern forms of destabilization and recurrent desires for stabilization produces this tension. 

Nostalgia helps frame the past in terms of present experience. Nostalgia illuminates the historical context of the actual and perceived loss of home. But what is more, when public pasts fuse with private feelings in stories of historical change (real or imagined stories), nostalgia informs and structures decision-making and ultimately it reconfigures identity. Nostalgia is not amnesia, but rather, it is a complex use of the past during present moments of crisis.