Forum on World Literature (II)

Being Medium: Ten Paragraphs on the National

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Matt Hart, English

1. Spiky Exceptions. Writing after the abortive 1979 referendum on Scottish Home Rule, Tom Nairn rejected the consolations of socialist internationalism over the nation-state. Internationalism, he wrote, is “an organic part of the conceptual universe of nationalism.”1 Cosmopolitanism, the UN, the dream of a universal polity—these are important parts of political history but they aren’t (or weren’t) the fate of modernity.2 His response was to replace internationalism with internationality, an effect of relations between and among nation-states. “The overwhelmingly dominant political by-product of modern internationality,” he declared, “is nationalism […] Not swelling 'higher unity' but 'Balkanisation,' a world of spiky exceptions to what ought to have been the rule.” (13).

2. Boundary Stones. Reviewing Hardt and Negri’s Multitude a quarter century later, Nairn’s analysis changes only little. He scorns the authors’ Spinozism as a philosophy of “rapturous merging” that “identifies everything with everything else.” By “[fusing] the coat of many colours into a consummate internationalism,” he complains, such philosophy tries to invert the ideological trick of nationalism, which, although it claimed to abolish universal empire in the name of the masses, more often than not only expressed “fratricidal great-nation hegemony.” But if nationalism was the hostage of murderous elites, it was nevertheless a relatively autonomous historical force. By contrast, Nairn insists, “Internationalism’, in the old sense creakily replayed by [Hardt and Negri], was a part of the 1870-1989 nationalist world, not an answer to it.” It is only now, after the revolutions of 1989, that one can imply anything different—only now that “the wealth and the meaning of nations [have begun] to struggle out from the chrysalis of the ism.”3 This is the context in which Hardt and Negri proclaim that the job of the political future is to bridge the gap between the worldwide “production of the common” and a dead or dying “global system of sovereignty.”4 But Nairn rejects this premise entirely, arguing that the current crisis in sovereignty is insufficient reason to tear down the “painfully assembled boundary stones” of nationality. If the “mastadons” of the Westphalian system are fading away, he asks, why shouldn’t this lead towards more particularity, not less: “to new kinds of democracy, […] [and] closer links between societies and states?”5

3. Homologies. This question is of old provenance. It points to the centrality of the “national” homology between cultural and political identity—and the faultline that opens-up within it. This faultline is what Slavoj Zizek explains as the contradiction between Kantian cosmpolitanism’s “radical emptying” of citizenship as a “pure Form” beyond the contingencies of culture and the “fanaticism” of the Nation-Thing, with its pleasurable illusion that we enjoy the same way of life as our neighbors (and that our neighbors believe the same Thing of us).6 Nairn implies, with Zizek, that nationalism is an inevitable response to the contradictions of market-led globalization, where the neo-liberal state has been universalized amid profound cultural difference and staggering material inequality. For Nairn, it is also an appropriate response: a way of giving shape to smaller, more manageable, and more equitable cultures and communities.

4. At what cost? The present nature of the EU—a vast and unequal transnational project with shallow roots outside political elites—suggests that these are hardly trivial questions. There’s a lot at stake in judging whether “citizenship has to be tied to community and politics to common values if we are to have the solidarity and stability that democratic societies require.”7 And yet Nairn nonetheless struggles to answer the obvious rejoinder to his language of social solidarity. If the answer to liberal formalism depends on people having an identity in common, where does one draw the line between who belongs and who doesn’t? Who decides? And at what cost?

5. Literature At Last. For all that, the nation-state’s ideological link between culture and the state guarantees its importance to literary history. Pascale Casanova, for instance, argues that Paris is the capital of the “world republic of letters” because French is the language into which the most translations are made. Her emphasis on worldwide literary capital does not, however, imply that she comes as a prophet of “globalization.”8 She rather describes how “the writer stands in a particular relation to world literary space by virtue of the place occupied in it by the national space into which he has been born” (41). This world literary space is very much inter- rather than trans-national, defined as it is by rivalry among its members rather than by deterritorializing flows. Moreover, Casanova’s emphasis on competition between established metropolitan centers and emerging cultural-capital markets indicates the profound difference between the structure of her project and something like Gayatri Spivak’s forever-unrealizable horizon of “planetarity.”9 Despite all indications to the contrary, The World Republic of Letters describes neither a world nor a Republic.

6. More Homologies. The presumed identity between political and cultural concepts has massive implications. As Wai Chee Dimock explains, the enunciation of US sovereignty in 1776 established a dubious but nonetheless totemic cause, chronology, and cartography for American literary history.10 This story is of course longer and more complicated than this crude correspondence allows. Nevertheless, it remains true—as Giorgio Agamben has it—that we often depend on the unintelligible notion of a language to define the incomprehensible idea of a people. And we depend on that impossible idea of a people to make sense of the Leviathan, “whose body is made up of citizens but whose soul is sovereignty.”11 In May 2005, Senator James Inhofe introduced an amendment to an immigration bill calling for English to be made the official language of the US.12 For the members of ProEnglish, a group that lobbied in support of Inhofe, this attempt to leverage sovereign power to shape the language of the people should be only the first of many such biopolitical acts. For instance: “To reduce the distrust and estrangement that has come between members of the American polity,” they write, we also ought to “[end] dual citizenship by enforcing the Oath of Allegiance to the United States.”13 Thus does a single language stand in for unitary citizenship of an indivisibly sovereign state.

7. Shallow and Deep. But all this, so the objection goes, is reactionary nonsense: “You use the words modernity and nation-state as if these were blithe facts of human history. But they’re not. The nation-state is exceptional. Look about you, look to the margins, or back before the seventeenth century, and you’ll see that the homology between political and cultural communities is an aberration. Dig deep or look at the topsoil—either way, you can’t mistake the transience of ethnolinguistically homogenous states.”

8. Look at Britain. And the objection is right. Within the next decade, cities like Leicester and Birmingham will become “super-diverse” spaces in which, for the first time since the Norman conquest, no ethnic group commands a majority. Meanwhile, Westminster now pools and merges its sovereignty in the multilateral institutions of the EU and the European Court of Human Rights—and in a bilateral arrangement with the Republic of Ireland, which has a statutory role in the governance of Ulster. And think again about British state-formation, in which there never was any identity between culture and politics. From 1603, after all, the Stuarts reigned over a composite monarchy with one sovereign, two sovereignties, two territories, and at least four languages. Even the creation of a unitary sovereignty in 1707 did not end the multi-national character of the Union.

9. Interregnum. If the nation-state system is a mere interregnum in global history, the period of its hegemony is nevertheless coincident with the emergence of literary studies as an academic discipline. It should be no surprise, then, that our profession is simultaneously anxious and excited about reforming its largely national disciplinary structures. There’s nothing so scary as exhuming a corpse, nothing so hopeful as cutting one’s ties.

10. The trials of being medium. The dilemma facing national literatures is that their relatively large size makes it hard for them to adjust to a fluid economy of cultural difference or métissage. At the same time, they’re by definition not up to the border-crossing work of global culture. They are condemned to be medium, too big yet too small. But this condition needn’t be fatal. Among the terms in play in contemporary methodological discourse, I prefer “transnational” for how its spatial prefix implies a journey across as well as beyond the nation. It is vastly preferable, in this way, to the term “post-national,” which in its crudest version consigns the nation to the dustbin of history, forgetting that the Owl of Minerva flies several days either side of trash night. “Transnational” also contains neither the evaluative connotations of a “comparative” method, nor the hyper-ambitious geography implied by “global.”14 A “transnational” criticism goes through the nation, not around it. It pays attention to how literary cultures are built above and below the nation-state—and to the ways the nation-state still operates as an agent of patronage, welfare, and coercion.15 It cannot any more be said, if it ever could, that the concept of a literature makes sense only by analogy with a concept like citizenship. But if our critical method is to do more than chase the zeitgeist, we must nevertheless keep our eyes on the medium scale.

[1] Tom Nairn, Faces of Nationalism: Janus Revisited (London: Verso, 1997), 27.
[2] “Nationality is simply the fate of modernity” (Tom Nairn, After Britain: New Labour and the Return of Scotland [London: Granta, 2000], 199).
[3] Quotations to this point in para. 2 from Tom Nairn, “Make for the Boondocks,” London Review of Books (May 5, 2005). . Accessed February 2, 2008.
[4] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in an Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004), 358.
[5] Nairn, “Make for the Boondocks.”
[6] Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (Durham: Duke U. P., 1993), 221-2.
[7] Thomas McCarthy, “Reconciling Cosmopolitan Unity and National Diversity,” in Alternative Modernities, ed. Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar (Durham: Duke U. P., 2001), 201.
[8] Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters, trans. M. B. DeBevoise (Cambridge: Harvard U. P., 2004), 168.
[9] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia U. P., 2003), 102. Quoted in Wai Chee Dimock, Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time (Princeton: Princeton U. P., 2006), 7.
[10] Dimock, Through Other Continents, 4.
[11] See Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti & Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: U. Minnesota P., 2000), 29-35 & 63-72. The Leviathan quotation is from Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976, ed. Mauro Bertani & Alessandro Fontana; trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003), 34.
[12] See Carl Hulse, “Senate Votes to Set English as National Language,” New York Times (May 19, 2006). Accessed February 3, 2008.
[13] Quoted from the policy paper “Invaluable and Insignificant: a Meditation on US Citizenship.” . Accessed February 3, 2008.
[14] For a critique of comparative method in these terms, see Micol Seigel, “Beyond Compare: Comparative Method after the Transnational Turn,” Radical History Review 91 (2005), 62-90.
[15] See, e.g., the essays collected in Françoise Lionnet & Shu-mei Shih, eds., Minor Transnationalism (Durham: Duke U. P., 2005).


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Michael Rothberg said...

Matt's essay makes a very eloquent case for the categories of the "national" and the "transnational" as against the "global" and the "comparative." (Personally, I'm not ready to give up the comparative--for some of the reasons that Eleanor Courtemanche gets to in her essay as well as others--but I understand Matt's point about the potential pitfalls of the evaluative.)

I think the next step would be to distinguish between the levels of production, circulation, and consumption in our accounts of "trans/national" literatures. At times, Matt seems to be referring to literary production, while at other times my sense is that he's targeting the institutions and critical practices that channel and make sense of that production. As I believe Jed Esty suggested in his oral response to these essays at the Unit for Criticism's 2/25 panel, the production of literature has probably always been more transnational than the institutions of criticism. But perhaps criticism's parochialism is beginning to recede due to transformations in technology and the means of communication as well as developments in theory.

--Michael Rothberg