The Hours Have Lost Their Clock — Grafton Tanner

by Jasmine Erkan

What if history is occurring at an increasingly accelerating pace? What if there are too many events for us to historicize, changing the way we ascribe meaning, and subverting the way we perceive time? As we navigate collective climate anxiety, economic precarity, and ceaseless political upheaval, one might feel that time is unraveling. Grafton Tanner’s The Hours Have Lost Their Clock explores how a collective feeling of a loss of control over our lives has impelled us into a state of mass nostalgia, in a scurried attempt to salvage what once was.

Tanner takes a deep dive into the psyche of our time by examining the interconnectedness of this multifaceted emotion in all realms of modern life. Covering capitalism, technology, social media, war, populism, terrorism, public memory, transitional justice, environmentalism, media, and pop culture, he illustrates the zeitgeist of being alive today, and uses nostalgia, the “defining emotion of our time,” to weave together a manifesto that ardently holds nostalgia as an emotion that is being commodified, militarized, and is entrenching the homogenization of media and culture.

You or someone you know has probably made a passing comment about experiencing the feeling that time has changed since the 2010s, how each new and rapidly-occurring, major historical event leaves us as dazed and depleted as the last. Or perhaps how “we were never meant to know about everything that was happening in the world, all at the same time,” which leaves us with a nostalgic longing to escape to the wilderness, where we can log off and exist in solitude. In fact, this sentiment is a trend that became popularized during the early pandemic era with #cottagecore, a fashion and lifestyle aesthetic that romanticizes Western rural life, which speaks to a collective disillusionment with modernity and capitalism. In this vein, my friend and I were fortunate enough to escape the oppressive streets of Berlin during the pandemic, retreating to a home surrounded by nature, and indulging in a blissfully “nostalgic existence.”

Back in the present, I let myself get carried away with a nostalgia for that time, and deliberate over choosing a life closer to nature. Knowing that I probably will not have the means or courage to do this, I found comfort in Tanner’s “cabin myth” conclusion, where escapism, or leaving a punishing life in society to live in a cabin in the woods, is “fleeing your enemy, not knowing your enemy,” and logging off is the “nostalgic gesture capitalism wants you to make.” Rather than retreating, he suggests we refuse to romanticize the present as the time we must escape from, and instead participate in and contemplate it with a lust for a better future. If you find yourself nostalgic for a rural life you never had, Tanner’s theory, through which one can understand nostalgia as a lens to understand modern life, may serve as a useful tool for navigating the complexities of the present.

As it became apparent that a large part of the book would engage in a critique of capitalism, I remembered the meme of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, depicting a bed with the book cover imposed on a stock photo of a bed. Critiquing capitalism having become an undertaking that is tirelessly reproduced and easily memeified, I approached with caution. My hostility was immediately struck down, as I found Tanner’s critique of capitalism to be unique in that it encompasses a political exploration of time and space. He states: “By controlling time and space, global capitalism keeps many around the world in a perpetual state of nostalgia.” Existing in a feedback loop, we are subdued by nostalgia, which in turn perpetuates the machine of capitalism. Tanner examines how capitalism shapes not only time, but also space in the twenty-first century, taking the reader on a tour through the “non-places” (inclusive of virtual spaces), like shopping malls or social media, that make up the nostalgia-scape of capitalism. These “non-places” have a tendency to become homogenized to the point where brand identities trump diverse local histories, or where algorithmic bias narrows the scope of what media or trends on social media are popularized online. All this leaves us longing for a more diverse past. Through Tanner’s exploration, we understand how capitalism harnesses the power of nostalgia, to form not only our present, but also our perception of the past.

Alongside capitalism, Tanner tackles another contentious point of life in the twenty-first century: homeland security. As a researcher of populism, I was taken up with his exploration of “nostalgic nationalism” and his conclusion that fascism in the twenty-first century is “coerced nostalgia for the homeland.” Tanner claims that by invoking a defence of their homeland and using nostalgia for what the homeland once was, the rhetoric of populist leaders revealed that nostalgia—used as a tool of mass manipulation—paired well with racism, prejudice, xenophobia, and colonialism, and perpetuated a culture of “total war”:

Total war in the twenty-first century has become perma-war: war that doesn’t end, war that’s everywhere, so it feels like it’s nowhere. Perma-war has led to the militarization of society and, as a consequence, the rise of nostalgia.

The lens of nostalgia held over political explanations of populism and the rise of nationalism today make for a creative deliberation on the emotional and psychological root of this kind of political behavior.

I am always searching for a nonfiction book that makes me behave in the way I do when reading a gripping thriller novel: obsessed, introverted, and arrested by the reality which the book has injected me into. Reading The Hours Have Lost Their Clock, much like reading a thriller, left me consumed by the role of nostalgia in the traumas of modern life, and ruminating on my weariness “from marching to the beat of capitalism.” Although this does not sound uplifting or enjoyable, reading Tanner’s balanced lines of logic settled the bubbling anxieties and preoccupations that burden me, by interweaving them into two hard-hitting questions: “Which pasts are we consuming? And who benefits from the consumption?”


Jasmine Erkan is a writer and researcher based in Berlin, and her writing explores intersections in politics, technology and digital culture. She holds a BA in political science and an MA specializing in human rights & democratization. Currently, she is working on a memetic worlding project that speculates on a future in which memes are weaponized by a hyper-centralized digital platform. You can follow the project here.

Tanner, Grafton. The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: The Politics of Nostalgia. Repeater Books, 2021.

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