Prisoners of Loss: An Atlantic History of Nostalgia

Prisoners of Loss constitutes a case study in the racialization of emotion. More specifically, this project reveals that the medicalization of emotion played a major role in the formation of the modern categories of race and ethnicity. In reconstructing nostalgia’s conceptualization in Enlightenment medicine as a disease of forced migration, I argue that western definitions of emotional suffering powerfully shaped the invention of ethnic and racialized groups, particularly in conjunction with this concept’s exploitation by slavery, the military, and other colonial institutions of containment. In one chapter, published in American Literary History as “What Was Black Nostalgia?” I show that enslaved Africans and European ethnic migrant laborers were both labeled as high-risk populations for nostalgia, but differentiated by the trigger of the disease. If white ethnics died from the affective pain of forced mobility, physicians, particularly in Brazil and Cuba, said that African slaves died from forced im-mobility: slavery itself. The figures of resistance that still haunt this medical contact zone, like the zombie and Flying African, testify to the ongoing status of nostalgia as a colonial site of struggle over the meaning of the undercommoner’s death.

Portions of this project appear in American Literary History and the forthcoming The Cultural History of the Sea.