The end of enchantment? Childhood remembered and hyperrealised. A critical analysis of contemporary women's nostalgia in Aoteaora/New Zealand
Thesis DisciplineFeminist Studies
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
To apply critical cultural theory and gender analysis to life in Aotearoa/New Zealand in the last five years means recognising the changes wrought by the contemporary face of late capitalism including technoscience, global consumerism, the relentless plunder of natural resources and a process of deculturation in the interests of transnational markets. The purpose of this dissertation is to critique what discourses of nostalgia might tell us about women's lives in this context. The research was initially motivated by the curious and disturbing observation that nostalgia, which to me signifies an experience of wholeness, intensity and spontaneity, seems either to denote the sentimental and rather demeaned longing for the past, or to be constituted in the banality of consumerism. Questioning whether this dissonance might in some way be linked to certain effects of 'postmodern' forms of social regulation, I have explored three interrelated foci: (1) the historical meanings of nostalgia within authoritative Western literature; (2) a qualitative, empirical research project generating narrative accounts of nostalgia from twenty New Zealand women born immediately following World War Two; (3) the critical potential of nostalgia to articulate salient psycho cultural aspects of the lived experience of contemporary women's lives. The methodology is grounded by Baudrillard's theoretical analysis, whereby the coded structure of late capitalism, underpinning value in both political economy and the linguistic sign is now understood to proliferate in hyperreal form. Grace's engagement with Baudrillard's theorisation as a basis for gender analysis crucially informs my reading of women's nostalgias in this context. Concomitantly, Rose's neo-Foucauldian and Spivak's postcolonial approaches are juxtaposed with a post-phenomenological, semiotic reading, following Kristeva, Csordas and Alcoff. My resulting research metadiscourses, Home, Homekilling and Homesickness, emphasise the critical import of numerous embodied singularities informing women's situated knowledges of nostalgia. The first substantive thesis resulting from this research is that nostalgia's maligned status is best read in Baudrillardian terms, where it echoes the ongoing preoccupation of the hyperreal West to obliterate residual cultural experiences concerning "symbolic exchange", as Baudrillard evokes this term. The three metadiscourses created here evoke the destructive effect of Westernisation upon forms of symbolic exchange that nurtured Maori and Pakeha girlhoods in the 1950s, by clarifying how opportunities to experience jouissance and ambivalence are today either gone forever, or intensely under threat. The second, central and most important thesis claims that the haunting of hyperreal logic by remnants of individual women's memories of a once-experienced symbolic realm throws contemporary totalitarian systems into critical relief in important and unprecedented ways. The research participants metadiscourse of nostalgia reveals the deeply bewildering effects of evoking the intensity of a remembered sensation that can only be evoked because its very intensity is suppressed through being reduced to an icon and commodified. Accordingly, the women's nostalgic experience might also be read in terms predicated on Freud's explanation of the death drive generating what Kristeva calls the "melancholic-depressive" synthesis signalling the collapse of social connections, prior forms of communication and cultural reciprocity. It can be argued that this synthesis now characterises life in Aotearoa/New Zealand, but there is more to nostalgia than that. The third thesis considers rethinking contemporary understandings of nostalgia in a way that avoids reliance upon the dichotomies underpinning globalising formulae, so that nostalgia is not able to be hyperrealised by higher order general systems. This expanded reading is substantiated by Kristeva's notion of 're-volt' and Baudrillard's 'ex-centric' practices, which would reconnect us with the innumerable singularities of symbolic exchange. The argument is that by rethinking nostalgia, we might generate ongoing critique of the quality of life under globalising systems and actualise reinvigorated psyches and bodies to offset processes of the virtual, robotic and hyperreal.