PURPLE PATCH: Nationness —Robert J C Young
[P]sychoanalysis suggests that if history can be thought through as a form as repetition, then there are good and bad forms of repetition that are repeated by us or which repeat on us. But it is not only history, or the history of individual patients, that work in this way. The same structures will be acted out by social and political phenomena which achieve their identity through history. Nationness, for example, is a repetition effect of this kind, an historical repetition both in the sense of the nation being a repetition (or retrieval) of history and as something which constantly repeats.
Nationness might be thought of as a form of sickness, or madness, or at the very least of neurosis. And since nations must always invoke a Romantic little narrative (as opposed to the Enlightenment grand narrative of internationalism), perhaps it was this that Goethe was thinking of when he said ‘Romanticism is sickness, classicism health’. The nation, too, is often imaged as if it existed in a dialectic of sickness and health, but almost any dialectic will do. No nation ever makes the mistake of defining itself permanently, in essentialist terms.
Nationalism after all is a historical, political ideology developed in the eighteenth century in order to provide a new form of legitimation for a country that could no longer find it in its heart to justify the basis of its government by the claims of a ruling monarchical dynasty. A new monarch, this time conveniently spectral and immortal — the nation — had to be invented so that the king’s subjects could remain subjects, and as has been pointed out, the new dynasty of the nation was instantly given an appropriately respectable lineage or history, that of ethnicity, culture and language, which it was required to repeat in the present. Obviously, the forms and conditions of nationalism have continued to change and develop since, then, particularly in the postcolonial era, to the extent that nationalism in general can hardly be discussed as such. Yet despite the argument that the question that nationalism poses is one specific to different moments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ever since Renan’s famous essay ‘What is a Nation?’, it has also been assumed that whatever the diversity of particularities, the nation at least is a category that can be analysed as such.
This is the challenge that has been taken up by Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner, Hobsbawm and others. What their work shows is the variety of factors that must be brought together to make the successful equation that binds the nation into a State. It also demonstrates that its ‘natural’ units exist in an unending tension with heterogeneity. The connections that were generally made between race, language, and religion in the nineteenth century often assumed as a norm the possibility of some kind of unitary, homogeneous form in which they could all be united: the nation. But according to the norm/deviance model that was endemic to nineteenth-century forms of thinking, from racial theory to sexology and criminology, the norm itself became best defined by those things which deviated from it, which meant in practice an obsession with the occurrence of the deviant: not only so-called sexual perversions, but also racial and linguistic hybridity. The ‘nation’ is constituted through a constant dialectic between these centrifugal and centripetal forces, between homogenization and heterogeneity, sameness and diversity: though it is often claimed that one part of the polarity is a recent phenomenon (for example, heterogeneity from immigration), an antithetical pressure has always been central to nationness. The problem for the nation has always been that it wants to suggest that its political formation, at the level of the State, coincides with a ‘natural’ cultural identity. Since cultures are always multiple and always involve a great variety of identities, the State, coincides with a ‘natural’ cultural identity. Since cultures are always multiple and always involve a great variety of identities, the State therefore has to produce an ‘imagined community’, which has only been brought into being by virtue of the existence of the State itself. This accounts both for the diversity of conditions of specific nations, and also for the necessarily conflictual state of the nation as such. The sickness of the nation is that it will always have too many cultures for its well-being as a State.
Robert C J Young is a professor of post-colonial theory at Oxford University. He has authored “Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction” and “Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race”. This excerpt is from an essay titled, “History, Racism, nation — and psychoanalysis”.