Seminar: Tue/Fri 4-6 pm in USP Seminar Room 3

A/P Lo Mun Hou
Office: Cinnamon South Learn Lobe #02-02
Tel: 6516 4077



“Our generation,” Singaporean playwright (and USP alumnus) Joel Tan remarks, “is sick with nostalgia.” Perhaps sparked by SG50, Singapore in recent years does seem fixated on the past. Retro and vintage styles are trendy; cafés sell “Nanyang old coffee”; and a beer company runs an ad campaign urging us to preserve hawker food before it disappears. More importantly for our purposes, many artists working in film, theatre, prose, poetry—sometimes under state sanction, sometimes not—often take “long long time ago” as their setting and subject.

Can we call these cultural, literary, political, and social practices “nostalgia”? What might make them so: is any interest in the past nostalgic, or does nostalgia consists of a style or an affective way of regarding the past? And how should we understand these nostalgic tendencies? Tan calls nostalgia a “sickness,” and he would not be alone in this. Many cultural and intellectual historians, sociologists, political thinkers, and literary critics have argued against nostalgia; just as many have sought to rehabilitate it. After defining and historicizing the term “nostalgia,” this module will examine these debates: specifically, by analyzing what thinkers have suggested are nostalgia’s complicated relationships with capitalism, consumerism, history, heritage, memory, and politics. We will then juxtapose, against such theories, recent Singaporean cultural, social, and literary practices—much of which will be picked by members of the class—ranging from films to poems to plays to graphic novels, including some that respond to the heritage crises around sites like Bukit Brown and the Tanjong Pagar railway station. Can such practices of “Singaporean nostalgia” help us rethink the potential of nostalgia?

The module is divided into three units. Unit 1 lays the groundwork by considering histories and definitions of nostalgia, but we will also deduce some of nostalgia’s meanings and features via an opening case study of the place kampongs occupy in the Singapore imagination. Unit 2 considers nostalgia’s relations to a number of related terms—memory; heritage; history and historicity; politics, conservatism, and radicalism; capitalism and consumerism. We will do so in order to understand and assess some of the objections that have been expressed about nostalgia, but also the attempts to rehabilitate it. Throughout this unit, the SG50 anthology film 7 Letters will serve as an anchoring case study. In Unit 3, members of the class will select for discussion a number of Singaporean works of art, and/or social and cultural phenomena, analyzing their uses and/or abuses of nostalgia.