Xenalgia vs. Nostalgia: a Proposal

Elsewhere, the “dis-ease” of nostalgia has recently been invoked. The medicalisation of this term already raises interesting questions, and its etymology sheds further light on this:

1770, “severe homesickness” (considered as a disease), Modern Latin (cf. French nostalgie, 1802), coined 1668 by Johannes Hofer, as a rendering of German heimweh, from Greek algos “pain, grief, distress” (see –algia) + nostos “homecoming,” from PIE *nes- “to return safely home” (cf. Old Norse nest “food for a journey,” Sanskrit nasate “approaches, joins,” German genesen “to recover,” Gothic ganisan “to heal,” Old English genesen “to recover”). Transferred sense (the main modern one) of “wistful yearning for the past” first recorded 1920.

From the roots and related meanings of the word, it seems something quite necessary and authentic gets identified (i.e., “food for a journey”). Making these sort of basic needs into a pathological condition seems telling. Because of this medicalisation, which dovetails egregiously with capitalism in general and US capitalism especially, any legitimate claim to examine the past—the word “legitimate” remains key–gets dismissed, parodied, or slandered as nostalgia (as any number of current anti-racism workers know, when they “refuse to accept the doxa” that we now live in a post-racial world and get branded some updated version of uppity). As such, a distinction would help to protect those with legitimate claims to raise about the past from such dismissal.

Let us distinguish then between the nostalgia (“severe homesickness”) of the non-adopted and the xenalgia (“severe foreignness” or “the pain of strangeness”) of the adopted.  This exposes nostalgia as a demand for falsified memories about real events in childhood, whereas xenalgia identifies a demand for real memories about a childhood’s falsified events.

In effect I propose xenalgia as an exact antonym of nostalgia, including the sanity of it in distinction from the apparently typical and pathological sense now associated with nostalgia.

As a new term, xenalgia becomes vulnerable to misprision and misuse, so any suggestions by people to further articulate it to avoid this would help significantly.

8 thoughts on “Xenalgia vs. Nostalgia: a Proposal

  1. I do not need recreation (re-creation) to know the pain of multi/transracial adoption is real…

    If one dare apply Critical Theory to the “world of adoption”, it becomes quite apparent where the pathology exists.

  2. Reblogged this on 4gottenadoptee and commented:

    Extremely interesting article – I personally believe that the vocabulary that is used in and around adoption is just as important as the training and support that all those who choose to enter the adoption field are given. Whether potential APs or adoptees embarking upon their own journey of discovery, recovery and revelation

  3. I am absolutely in favor of countering terms of the dominant discourse that might be used against adoptees (or any group that resists).

    This discussion reminds me of the Xenopatriotism one. In that case, an offensive (to my ears) term was designed to enforce even more a sense of dominance over a group that is “lost” in a way. So going against the “dis-ease” of nostalgia with a more pointed term that defines in fact our given situation in a way that also reveals the “corruption” of the original term deserves much kudos.

    My “framework advice” would be: Are we aiding and abetting a kind of labeling, meaning, the practice of labeling and categorizing “illness”; diagnosing as it were, when we do this? Just some food for thought. How do we, within the constraints of a dominant paradigm that labels and diagnoses, correct those labels and diagnoses without falling into the rut carved for us by the labelers and diagnosticians? If so, how do we reposit this in order to get away from such a conclusion?

    • Daniel:

      I suspect one way to avoid the rut–since I specifically insisted that xenalgia points to a variety of mental healthiness, but I know mere insistence doesn’t necessarily count for much at times in these sort of things–arises from the fact that almost no one anymore knows that nostalgia (the term) got coined as a mental illness.

      I was speaking of my coined distinction yesterday with someone, and she essentially defended nostalgia (not s a mental illness) by pointing out how nostalgia as it operates these days (or is taken to operate–at least since the 1920s, as the etymology suggests) centers nostalgia on the experience OF THINGS in childhood, not just on the experiences of childhood, e.g., “oh, that was my favorite TV show then, that was my FAVORITE toy” etc. Capitalism has encouraged us to substitute or festishize the objective correlatives (the symbols, the objects) of our childhood as signifying our “happy childhood” itself, which of course we might recapture by re-owning.

      In this way, it appears that the “insanity” of nostalgia has been normalized into a necessity of capitalist culture. (I want to remind myself that Hofer pathologized “homesickness” along with the other entirely legitimate human senses of land, place, experience, etc, that words like genesen point to. “Nostalgia” already demonizes “Heimweh,” but we stand now 300 years past Hofer’s proposal, so that the authentic Heimweh of back then has been corrupted or substituted with object fetishizing. Nostalgia–when in the guise of Heimweh–can have an authentic root when it does not substitute the objects of the past as the carrier of the experience of the past. This shift in the carrier of memory points to the “normaliization” of the mental illness of nostalgia. Why not then just respond to charges of nostalgia with, “No, I’m homesick,” but not only does homesickness itself carry obvious connotations of sickness, in general, people who complain of homesickness get told to “grow up” or “suck it up” because it is seen as a “childish” malady, suffered by those at camps. By which I do not avoid the sense of camp as refugee camp either; certainly exiles, especially Russians apparently, have expressed in emigree literature a devastating degree of homesickness, but this itself gets criticized as a failure to assimilate, &c. All of this, it seems, because nostalgia has been normalized in capitalist culture as a yearning for objects rather than places.)

      This normalization offers cover for xenalgia, since if nostalgia is normal then so could xenalgia be. I think this might be an example of using the labelers against themselves.

      The main thing I see is that, when someone accuses adoptees of nostalgia, the reply, “No, I’m xenalgic” becomes available. This stops the normal discourse cold, because now my listener has no idea what I’m talking about (or, if they can suss out the roots, has that to occupy their imagination briefly). Meanwhile, I can say, “Where nostalgia demands falsified memories to replace actual events, xenalgia demands real events to replace falsified memories” (something that even non-adopted people may identify with, given certain kinds of familial experiences in their own childhood) … and with that, the conversation continues further (if at all). There’s no need at that point to invoke the “mental illness” of nostalgia; the term xenalgia will have taken on such a dominant (if confusing) presence in the dialogue that no shortage of time will be spent clarifying its “definition” for the listener–all the while one is “making points” (about the lies of childhood, closed adoptions, etc), etc. It will take some moments or minutes for the listener even to “catch up”.

      Conversationally, inserting a distinction in this way often functions to have this kin of discourse-stopping effect, even without elaborately defending the distinction in teh face of the dominant discourse. Simply to stop the hurtling locomotive of dominant discourse, to shunt it off into a side rail, even for a few moments, dispels a lot of momentum (or can). It doesn’t guarantee the discourse won’t pick up steam again. Also, I think this works far, far more effectively in actual conversations, i.e., not written discourse, because the effect of this unexpected insertion into the conversation has a startling quality, and it is that bafflement factor that derails the dominant discourse, at least temporarily (until it can get back up on its wheels again).

      And, as mentioned elsewhere (in Redressing the Second Offense) making how the dialogue progresses NOT reprise painful past patterns involves a key step in redressing the second offense of adoption. Inserting distinction (of xenalgia or whatnot) stops the discourse, or proposes to, and helps to not let it run over us with its usual locomotive inertia (or force us to jump out of the way so we can’t even intervene into it).

      I don’t know if this sufficiently addresses your expressed concerns. I’m interested to know how and where it still falls short.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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