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  • Radical Nostalgia: Spanish Civil War Commemoration in America
  • E.J. Westlake
Peter Glazer. Radical Nostalgia: Spanish Civil War Commemoration in America. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005. Pp. 352. $70.00 (Hb).

In Radical Nostalgia, Peter Glazer reframes, and in some ways reclaims, the concept of nostalgia as a way of connecting with the progressive politics of the past. Commemorative acts that memorialize radical movements of the past, Glazer argues, serve also to reinvigorate progressive political action in the present. Recounting and analysing performances of Spanish Civil War commemoration, Glazer examines the way radical nostalgia is "deployed . . . as a necessary corrective to an official culture disinterested in America's leftist past, and threatened by its implications" (book jacket). Glazer divides his study historically, tracing his recent personal history with the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and then following the history of the veterans' gatherings, which began long before the war had ended. Glazer astutely explains the political impetus behind the gatherings and describes the performative aspects of some of the more complex commemorations. For instance, while some of the earliest gatherings provided an opportunity to remember the fallen, later gatherings had the multilayered purpose of calling attention to the problems in Spain under Franco and then also to what seemed to be a growing tide of fascism in the United States with the anti Communist frenzy of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

Music, speeches, poetry, stories, and images frequently made up the events that marked anniversaries within the history of the Spanish Civil War. Citing a rich legacy of songs and the continual participation of notable performers such as Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson, Glazer maps out the ways in which the commemorations perform what Pierre Nora termed lieux de mémoire, the places where history is secreted; nostalgia allows for the writing [End Page 420] of an agreed-upon official history in the absence of the milieux de mémoire, the lived rituals. Glazer does not shy away from the contradictions and dynamic negotiations at play in the performance of history. For example, competing ideologies threaten to write the brigade into a conservative version of history, a threat made manifest in a 1962 commemoration, which was met by protesters whose signs depicted the volunteers as "Reds" and as murderers. Glazer also explores the tension between the volunteers' sense of duty in having fought in a foreign war while at the same time joining forces with anti-war activists in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Through the latter part of the twentieth century, events breathed new life into the commemorative movement, as Franco died in 1975 and neo-conservative U.S. foreign policy galvanized the left. Eventually, new bodies came to stand in for veterans no longer living, and the songs and words of the participants came to take on new meaning. Glazer reignited the memory of my own experience with Viva La Quince Brigada and of learning about the Spanish Civil War when I joined the Benjamin Linder Brigade during the revolutionary régime in Nicaragua in the late 1980s.

Glazer defines nostalgia as at once suspect (a tool of the dominant culture that evokes emotion in order to flatten history and legitimize state power) and also potentially useful, in that it creates something reflective, restorative, and ultimately constitutive of a counter-narrative to state power. If nostalgia idealizes a history, the key to radical nostalgia lies in the embodiment of that history in order to call attention to present problems and to create, through ritual, a contemporary community of agents of social change. Glazer cites Victor Turner's definition of social drama as "our native way of representing ourselves to ourselves and, of declaring where power and meaning lie and how they are distributed" (qtd. in Glazer 253). It is tempting, I think, for the left to dismiss emotion as politically problematic and ideologically manipulative and to idealize the more emotionally refracted Brechtian models of representation as somehow more correct or efficacious. However, evoking nostalgic memory, Glazer argues, has enormous potential to help the left to reclaim history and spur political action.

Glazer represents a growing movement of artist–ethnographers...


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pp. 420-422
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