Andrey Zvyagintsev, Leviathan, 2014

Prisoners of Loss

Far from the escapist’s favored retreat into a world elsewhere, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries nostalgia was a disease of worlds both Old and New, its victims invariably the soldiers, sailors, slaves, and prisoners who grew sick of being moved around the Atlantic world. Displaced and unable to return home, these individuals were said to grow so depressed that they died under the spell of nostalgia, a disease that imprisoned people in rapturous hallucinations of home so captivating that they inadvertently killed themselves.

Prisoners of Loss: An Atlantic History of Nostalgia tracks the conceptualization of nostalgia in European Enlightenment medicine and its application to three American institutions of confinement: slavery, the military, and the prison. In the process, it tells a story about how labor became emotional, how emotion became racialized, and how nostalgia became a global historical emotion. This is a critical history in several senses. Most obviously, this study is a work of historical epistemology that describes nostalgia’s formation and transformations as a medical concept. As part of this work, it exposes the circular reasoning at nostalgia’s heart while showing how institutions found this medical illogic useful because it allowed them to justify and certify why ethnic and racialized populations were better suited for enslaved and coerced labor. For example, if a white ethnic migrant laborer or enslaved African became nostalgic, physicians said they suffered from the disease because they came from a certain kind of home; in turn, if they were from a certain kind of home, they were targeted as a population more likely to suffer from nostalgia. As scholars like Hannah Arendt demonstrate, European thought has long judged that disorderly emotion and motion are signs that certain individuals and groups lack agency, are controlled by appetites and necessities, and are accordingly in need of discipline and confinement. As the disease of unwilling travelers, nostalgia named both of these types of disorder.

Doubling down on the radical empiricism of Foucault, Daston, Hacking, and others by tapping into the potential of digital archives, this study examines how nostalgia was exported across the revolutionary and Black Atlantic. By mining the Google Books/HathiTrust dataset, I draw upon 25,000-plus instances of “nostalgia” to reconstruct both the concept’s routes from Europe to the Americas and the new definitions that it assumed within different colonies and nations’ respective institutions of confinement—each with different incentives and different groups bristling to be freed. In the course of tracing unstudied convergences between the history of medicine and the histories of race, ethnicity, and transnational migration, Prisoners of Loss argues that European moral preconceptions about emotion powerfully shaped the invention of ethnic and racialized groups, just as acts of resistance like desertion, marronage, hunger strikes, and suicide left profound marks on the shapes that nostalgia assumed during this period and into our present. Struggles across the Americas between enslaved, indentured, contractually bound, and incarcerated populations and their respective institutions produced powerfully different versions of this negative emotion and helped forge important lines of race and nation.