Viral Nostalgia and the Case of the Coronavirus Pandemic

Anuparna Mukherjee ( is at IISER, Bhopal.
13 November 2020

In the last few months, the digital community has effectively responded to the overwhelming changes brought forth by the global calamity with definitive expressions of nostalgia, among other things. The multifarious digital platforms have gone viral with old images, posts, and memories of intimacy and sociality, expressing a yearning for the pre-pandemic times and the restoration of “normalcy.” This article seeks to locate the close connection between illness and nostalgia by tracing its evolution through the fraught medical history of “homesickness” and its “nosological mutation” under the sway of industrial modernity. Finally, the article seeks to understand the current onrush of nostalgia and its significance as the affective aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis engulfing the world.

In the past few months, social media beheld an unprecedented surge of nostalgia with a flurry of throwback pictures and posts, recollecting the good times before the COVID-19 lockdown became the new normal. With the pandemic sweeping across the globe unabated, nostalgia has opened up a discursive minefield as digital natives succumbed to the nostalgia virus. Joining the mass mediatisation of burgeoning retromania, even the television channels started to rerun old-time favourites with instant success. Scrolling through pictures, perusing family recipes, sharing images of school events and previous travels, or rummaging the virtual debris for old memories are expressions of wistful longing to maintain a continuity with past, immediate and distant, before the regime of social isolation altered the imaginary of our everyday with an unforeseen suddenness. 

Histories of Nostalgia

This relationship between the infectious spread of nostalgia and pestilential disease-ridden humanity is, however, more intimate than we generally imagine in our everyday transaction with this mundane affect. The term nostalgia that anchors on unnatural situations, stress, and sorrow was coined by a 19-year-old Swiss medical student, Johannes Hofer in the 17th century. A compound of two Homeric terms, nostos meaning homecoming, and algos meaning pain, nostalgia was identified to be a psychological disorder with a range of bodily symptoms from fever, hallucination to anorexia and irregular heartbeat. While this visceral catalogue is less invoked in the contemporary discourses, between the 17th and the 19th centuries, like an epidemic, it affected a sizeable number of mercenary soldiers, professionals and students stationed away from home.
Hofer’s Basel dissertation was primarily concerned with the outbreak of nostalgia among the maladaptive Swiss mercenaries in Germany and France. As it was most widely observed among Swiss soldiers, it came to be known as mal du Suisse or “Swiss illness.” However, while Hofer’s postulations on this emerging diagnostic category were mainly on a localised, provincial phenomenon, nostalgic sufferings were widespread in military outposts in other parts of the world, complicating its Swiss provenance. In 1833, Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine Vol II espoused that the affliction of nostalgia occurs “in the natives of other countries, and evinces that it has its source in the very frame and constitution of human nature in every part of the world” (Hancock 1833, p 53). Subsequently, it became a major cause of worry in the Russian army in the Napoleonic and pre-Napoleonic wars when the soldiers capitulated to the bouts of nostalgia and even became suicidal. Describing the severity of its attack, Michel S Roth (1991: 10) observed in his treatise on “Medical Studies of Nostalgia in Nineteenth-Century France” that the ailment was “thought to have a rapid pathogenesis: if left untreated, the disease would soon affect major bodily organs [lungs, digestive system and the brain were mentioned frequently] and be fatal. Therefore, the nostalgic person suffered not only from a sentiment, but from an affective disorder that destroyed the body.” During the American Civil War, when a large number of amateur soldiers were conscripted in the Confederacy Army, their long period absence from home led to mental and corporeal sufferings related to clinical nostalgia. Elsewhere, Thomas Dodman’s book, What Nostalgia Was: War, Empire, and the Time of a Deadly Emotion, describes the exponential spread of nostalgia like an epidemic that frazzled the French army. By claiming multiple lives in a day during the conquest of Algiers in 1830, it almost frustrated their imperial ambition.
Likewise, if we track the affective histories of the Empire in Africa or British India, medical accounts evoke strange illnesses resulting in physical decrepitude and the severe mental trauma that may be ascribed to the contemporary understanding of nostalgia, especially among military cadets and administrative officers, posted in the backwaters of the colony. “Pining,” which is often linked with nostalgic affects is derived from Old English pinian, meaning to torment, torture or even to languish in pain for something unattainable. People suffering from nostalgia often wasted away, pining for a faraway home in alien lands. 
From recreating a home-like environment with objects or activities that the patient enjoyed in the past (as a substitute to actual repatriation) to leeching, the treatment of nostalgia varied across the board by vetting its symptoms. To thwart the random outbreak of actual and counterfeit nostalgia among inexperienced and recalcitrant soldiers in the battlefield, ridicule or public shaming, to more serious punitive actions, such as death threats at the putative signs of nostalgia, were meted out as potential measures of containment.
The depathologisation of nostalgia occurred in clinical nosology with a gradual shift of emphasis from “homesickness” as a malady caused by a prolonged period of absence, to a sentimental, bittersweet “longing for or regretful memory of a period of the past, esp. one in an individual's own lifetime" (OED Online 2020). With the industrial revolution and the concomitant expansion of rail routes and postal services, the extreme forms of homesickness (nostomania) could be brought under control. Maintaining contact with one’s family or visiting far off places became relatively uncomplicated. With the shrinking of distance, nostalgia changed its character. It detached itself from the traditional understanding of homesickness: “since space is re-traversable but time is not, the return is possible for the homesick exile in a way that is not for the nostalgic” (Phillips 1985: 65). Nostalgia shed its medical moorings as a serious threat to physical and mental health in the late 19th century. The ideational change in nostalgia also ubiquitously altered the meaning of home in the new space-time configuration. The home, modified and inhabited, became both physical and metaphorical, spatial as well as temporal. Linda Hutcheon (1998) averred that nostalgia is the “very pastness of the past.” Modern nostalgia focused more on how our “finitude is conditioned by temporality” (Phillips 1985: 67). It hinged on the irretrievability of chronology as a corollary to industrial modernity that clearly attached a value to that which is buried in time. Pivoting on time’s irreversibility, nostalgia was commonly perceived as mourning for an imaginary lost world in the narratives of inevitable historical decline.
However, by accessing a stable past, nostalgia also articulates our relentless yearning for the ideal destination or the “home” that we wish to reach in the future. It thrives in periods of sweeping change, separation and loss—when lives are in disarray and habits disturbed—to reinstate normalcy (on the flip side, to hold the status quo of the past). This evolution of nostalgia as a disease of anguished imagination to quasi-cure for a disordered world, then begs the question: What does nostalgia tell us as a social symptom of the challenging times we live in? 

Nostalgia and Modernity

While the medical ontology of nostalgia was decentred by modernity’s onset, its affective contours retained certain irreducible traits, like its affinity with crisis and embattled situations. It is contagious and spreads across the board from humans to virtual bodies through digital hypermediation and exposure, engulfing a vast cross-section of the global community. In the current calamity, the factors that have contributed to the efficaciousness of the nostalgia outbreak have been the sudden loss of social, aligning with the spatial changes to address the new exigencies at various levels. The pandemic has not only forced us to modify our prevalent behaviour, but it has also ushered major transformations in the built environment impinging upon our freedom and movement. Spaces, as Gaston Bachelard (1958) posited in The Poetics of Space, are intimately woven into memory. While time is evanescent, the retentive power of space can secure memories within its fold. Unhinging of familiar spatial arrangements has a direct bearing on the way we perceive our everyday world. As the common spaces of sociality such as tea stalls, cafes, shops, and markets are shut down or monitored to maintain social distancing, people are left to grapple with the new norms of isolation in overcrowded homes or deserted streets. The medicalisation of the urban/suburban spaces—the playgrounds, stadiums, empty railway coaches, turning into temporary hospitals—reoriented the builtscapes in a significant way. In response to the public health debacle, these are only the beginning of a series of ineffaceable changes creeping into our daily lives to reinforce the robust resurgence of “biopolitical governmentality”—segregation with ever-deepening social fissures, digital surveillance, and spatial reforms. The changes in the quotidian arrangement, including the micromanagement of intimate domestic spheres, consumption habits, and commuting patterns are irrevocably altering our relationship to memory, identity, and the place we inhabit by disturbing the sense of equanimity. Our botched-up efforts to reconcile with this reality and the anticipatory sorrow for the losses yet to come have fostered a haunting melancholy at the new impoverishment of the world. As the global wave of illness ruptured the familiar and familial, people started relying on nostalgia to experience continuity by resurrecting the sensory and affective worlds that connect them to their pasts.
The future in the post-pandemic world is overcast with manifold uncertainties, thus, harnessing the past for refuge becomes a way of negotiating with the frightening sense of disquiet. W G Sebald (1944–2001), one of the finest writers of post-World War Europe once asserted in a television interview: “because, knowing what I do, I fear it [the future] can only be blighted and that, therefore, the past, horrendous though it is, with all its calamitous episodes, nevertheless, seems to be a kind of refuge because at least the pain that you had there is over …” (Denham and McCulloh 2008: 23). But he reflexively acknowledged the irony that “the presence of the past has something very ambivalent about it. On the one hand, it is burdensome, heavy, it weighs you down, on the other hand, it is something that liberates you from the present constraints” (Denham and McCulloh 2008: 23–24). Nostalgia, for many, is a survival strategy to cope with the ravages of an epidemic, war, or coerced human migration. The accelerated pace of our lives in the digital age that thrives on prompt gratification, technology fosters instant nostalgias. One need not always wait for major social upheavals such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, or the Partition, for reminiscing events. The abrupt changes that the coronavirus crisis has brought into our lives have left us craving for the “normalcy” that the past, albeit recent, now represents despite its odds.
Nostalgia has a propensity towards affixing objects to our memories. The fact that an old photograph, an antique object, a certain smell of home-cooked food can stimulate nostalgic impulses, leads to its objectification by the kitsch industry. Achille Mbembe in an interview in November 2018 warned how computational capitalism, since its advent, has used the “technological escalation” to exploit dreams and fantasies, as well as our pasts. He purports that as “a repository of our desires and emotions, dreams, fears and fantasies, our mind and psychic life have become the main raw material which digital capitalism aims at capturing and commodifying” (Mbembe 2020: 3). The virtual platforms use inbuilt technology to woo us with “vintage aesthetic” (Bartholeyns 2014: 52). In the global technoscape, nostalgia is obstinately mediated through the digital windows by digging the yesteryears with throwback pictures, retro playlists, “on this day” memories, friendship anniversaries, and photo apps that can make your pictures look older than their times by adding a patina of the past. This “antiquing of experience” replaces spontaneity through the incessant production of carefully curated souvenirs and mythologies. Nostalgia is exploited as a reliable marketing strategy by forcefully promoting a false sense of loss that dwells on transience. Like Jameson’s “nostalgia for the present” in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Arjun Appadurai in Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization speaks of the ways in which the consumer industry profits by creating an economy of desire around an artificial “lack” when there is none. Appadurai (1996: 78) terms this phenomenon “Ersatz” or arm-chair nostalgia where: “Rather than expecting the consumer to supply memories while the merchandiser supplies the lubricant of nostalgia, now the viewer need only bring the faculty of nostalgia to an image that will supply the memory of a loss he or she has never suffered.”

Nostalgia and Digital Infrastructure

Social media, deeply imbricated in this nexus, plays a balancing game. It accentuates our morbid obsession with the disease, death, and the suffering of the multitudes on the one hand, with a relentless and reticular circulation of news items, posts, tweets, observations and rumours about the catastrophic conditions of the world. On the other, it creates incessant contents and contexts for the nostalgia industry, which proliferate as an outcome of the anxieties that the media churns out to saturate the minds. Through an intersecting network of reciprocity, it simultaneously promotes remembering and oblivion of the present, to its benefits.

However, in the present context, the massive nostalgia spill in virtual spaces and beyond has other significant sociopolitical ramifications as a cultural formation. It must be addressed more fundamentally to apprehend the unusual experience of being homesick when one is probably locked in one’s home for days altogether. Caught in an absurd Godot-like limbo, we are like the tramps, Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s play, waiting for a tomorrow that is endlessly deferred. In the meantime, we create trifle games and memories to cope with our quandary, as we wait. 
Under these changed circumstances, while the digital infrastructure gives it a congenial playfield, nostalgia is sustained by spiralling anxieties about aged parents, ailing relatives, family members grounded in different cities, or the fundamental fear of contagion and death in isolation, if contracted with the disease. There are countries that cannot give their bodies a burial. The dystopia is real! 
The innumerable micro-concerns are cumulatively feeding into the nostalgia for a more stable time when journeys were possible and the prospect of travel did not entail such grim uncertainties. We are witnessing a classic manifestation of old “homesickness” with people actually failing to return to their homes, except that it occurs in a world where, conceptually, home is more fluid and contingent. Yet, the angst of not being able to reach one’s home at this point could not be more pressing with the unaccommodated millions—migrant workers, jobless labourers, insolvent families—left to their nightmares, trying to travel back in sheer desperation and vulnerability and failing to do so. Never, since the partition, has the subcontinent witnessed such a mass migration with moving trails of families and children walking across state borders or thronging the bus stations with their meagre belongings in an utterly helpless situation. 
Much of the vaunted iterations of the nostalgia that we see around us now in virtual spaces and elsewhere, of course, come with certain social privilege and leisure. The teeming populace teetering for survival on the roads have little time or alacrity for internet banalities. But the propensity to look back into the past with a desire to retrace the basic coordinates of security (“when things were not as bad”!) for anchorage and social meaning is a common human experience, which gives nostalgia its universal appeal.
Right now, the struggle with the quotidian is coupled with more severe depression about the uncertainties looming over the horizon with the economic meltdown, pay cuts, and joblessness as we emerge from medical lockdowns. The riddling anxieties that cohere around a spectrum of failures—the inability to mourn, to be productive in one’s profession, or to distinguish the smudging boundaries between the real and the imagined threats—frame our negotiation with the disease. And at the same time, they take us back to the imagined sanctuaries of the past, making us forget, or, at the least, detach ourselves, albeit momentarily, from the things that are wrong with the world. Nostalgia as an aesthetic and therapeutic force distracts us from those harrowing narratives of sickness while drawing its energy from the same. So, a seemingly humdrum gesture, involving selection, organisation, and uploading of old pictures on social media as a mnemonic exercise in these times allows us the pleasure of fiddling “with the scale of the world” to create our own “anthology” of image-memories, which can be “blown up, cropped, retouched, doctored, tricked out” to aestheticise the reality in a way that “painful or unpleasant aspects” are “systematically erased” (Sontag 2005: 2; West 2000: 1). It grants us a counter-narrative where we feel that we have an authority to arrange our pasts and envision a future, even when the present is spiralling out of control. Thus, despite its problematic dimensions, many intellectual traditions have endowed nostalgia with a radical agency, capable of rebelling against the contemporary doldrums. By envisaging another time and place, nostalgia refuses to accept the present as it is. For instance, right now, in the most exaggerated photoshopped images circulating in social media of the sick landscape healing itself from the scars of carbon emission lurks the imaginary of the lost pastoral from the past that may be restored against the current crisis presaging the imminent ecological collapse. So, even as we wake up to the depopulated streets, ambulance horns, and the soaring number of deaths in a world infested with deadly pathogens, unleashing a regimen of fear and scaled-up biopolitical surveillance, the resilient hope in nostalgia strives on! 
However, the confabulations and selective remembrance in nostalgia do come with a price, particularly when its optimism assumes a sinister proportion to drown the entire past by removing the memories of strife, political inaction and disintegration. Nostalgia, propped by escapist fantasies, creates blinkered histories purged of substance in the digital “bunkers,” where “men and women are all invited to hide away, in isolation” (Mbembe 2020).
Yet, while debates continue to rage about the antinomies of nostalgia in varying contexts, in the coronavirus-devastated landscape, its amplified symptoms tell us something pressing about the disorder beneath the skin. The stifling feeling of being “unhomed” that many of us are experiencing right now, once again, brings us round to the moot question of being stricken with “homesickness” even in one’s own dwelling. The sickness and panoply of regulatory measures have altered the nature of our intimate habitat in the new “pandemic culture.” Homesickness then is not so much about the physical return, “but to be exposed to the unhomely” (Klopper 2016: 14). Individuals are forced to live within the four walls, “intimately with one’s own death, contemplating it as a real possibility” (Mbembe 2020). Our immobility has imprisoned us, resonating with the Foucauldian imaginary of “confinement” in the plague-ridden city by invoking colonial-era epidemic laws: “Each individual is fixed in his place. And, if he moves, he does so at the risk of his life, contagion or punishment” (Foucault 1995: 195). This political and spatial grammar of the quarantine has indelibly incorporated face mask, respirator, isolation into our everyday vocabulary. Even when the curfews are laid off, these will persist, and so will the nostalgia virus. In its state of constant mutation, nostalgia might outgrow its present incarnation, but it is here to stay in the face of the new uncanny.

Anuparna Mukherjee ( is at IISER, Bhopal.
13 November 2020