The Good Kind of Nationalism (and other scattered thoughts)

When My Esteemed Partner asked me which country I wanted to visit next, I answered without hesitation: Spain. My reason was equally clear: I wanted to see Las Meninas in person. I fulfilled that goal on our first full day in Madrid, and the remainder of our trip was full of world-historical artworks: Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Picasso’s Guernica, Berg’s Wozzeck (an amazing performance at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu), and the artwork pictured above, Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia. I have wanted to see that amazing church since I learned of its existence in high school Spanish class, and it did not disappoint. More even than the Bosch, it felt like an artwork that I could never exhaust, like every square centimeter was saturated in meaning.

This morning, instead of my usual doomscroll, I started reading one of the two books I bought about the Sagrada Familia when I was in Barcelona. I always enjoy buying art books, but My Esteemed Partner explicitly limited me to one this trip, given the need to drag it thousands of miles. I allowed myself two because it intersected so perfectly with something I was trying not to think about (and mostly succeeding): my teaching. At Shimer College and now at the Shimer Great Books School, we have “comprehensive exams” that are less tests than interdisciplinary mini-courses on an unpredictable topic. Coming up with themes that bring together the three big areas of the liberal arts — humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences — can be challenging. We have had success with comps on Galileo, genetic engineering, sleep, transformation, and many other topics. I think we could also have a lot of success with a study of the Sagrada Familia. Not only is it obviously a major artwork (humanities!), but it its design is based on organic models (the tough-to-get natural science element!) and it intersects interestingly with questions around Catalan nationalism (social science!). Its very name introduces a Catalan phrase into the international lexicon, the church itself is full of prayers and scriptural quotations in Catalan, and of course Gaudí himself worked primarily in Barcelona and is a major point of national pride.

I have never been a big fan of nationalism, given that the brand most accessible to me is that of the Evil Empire. Spending time in Barcelona, though, I felt like the kind of minority nationalism represented in Catalunya had its strong points. As a language nerd, I relished the opportunity to be surrounded by a Romance language I would otherwise not encounter, and I reflected on how difficult and alienating it would be for one’s native language never to be allowed to be part of public life. There is also a public-spiritedness and inclusiveness to this kind of nationalism that is very attractive — though I wonder how much of that is actually dependent on minority status, on a desire to be better, more responsible, more tolerant, than the majority culture they are defining themselves against.

These reflections are extremely superficial, I realize. But they reflect my growing sense that the appeal of nationalism has been something of a blindspot for me. Reading Robinson’s Black Marxism, I was struck by the fact that his argument that Europeans were well-versed in racialization on the cusp of modernity was not based on their treatment of the Jews or their encounter with Muslims or other “outside” groups, but — as in Foucault’s discussion of “race” in the lecture courses — on what we might anachronistically define as white-on-white racism, both within each nation and of course between nations. Robinson shows how powerful nationalism, as a kind of submerged discourse of race, proves to be in modernity and even in the thought of Marx and Engels themselves — in a way that “shouldn’t” happen according to straightforward Marxist principles. This phenomenon, which “should” be epiphenomenal and dispensible, actually shapes people’s lives and self-understanding much more than class identity ever could. In fact, one could argue that in places where strong class identities did form, it was dependent on a kind of nationalism, even in the USSR itself.

My gut agrees with the vulgar Marxist position that this “shouldn’t” be so. The “nation” is not real in the sense that the material conditions of our livelihood are real. What’s more, I simply have an aesthetic objection to the trappings of nationalism — the flags, the sports rivalries, the insistence on “our” cultural traditions (which are often less than a generation old), etc., etc. As irreducibly American and white and midwestern as I obviously am, in my heart I not only want to be a rootless cosmopolitan, I also want everyone else to want that and don’t fully understand why they don’t.

But they don’t and they won’t and that continues to shape our world even in the face of a climate disaster that everyone knows is coming and everyone knows transcends the constructs of race and nation — and yet no one will let go of race and nation, as we game-theory our way past the canonical two degrees of warming. Perhaps this is why race and nation are indispensible to capitalism as the one true global actor: both give the illusion of ownership and control, both give people something to live and fight and die for, but at the wrong level. People are living and fighting and dying for something that, in the last analysis, does not matter. But of course it does, because being told that where you come from and how you talk and what you eat are wrong and stupid and not allowed is indeed oppression. That’s what I can’t figure out.

In any case, I plan to continue my new routine of Gaudí rather than Twitter. And I leave you with this question: is the Sagrada Familia the last great explicitly Christian work of art? I have to say that when I was touring the church, I thought, if this is what Christianity is, then I would be forced to take Christian practice seriously again. But of course the Sagrada Familia not what Christianity is. It’s the work of an idiosyncratic quasi-madman who was charismatic enough to sign multiple generations up to his crazy project. But it’s not not what Christianity is. Anyway.

7 thoughts on “The Good Kind of Nationalism (and other scattered thoughts)

  1. Being rootless is an experience of root-lessness, that is to say, of loosing the connections with your roots. It is a very important experience that can be both painful and pleasant, depending on the circumstances and the ability to deal with it (it is, also, a matter of training I guess). One needs to have roots but one also needs not to have them and when I say ‘need’ I mean it in a normative and, ultimately, in a factual sense too: one cannot but have roots and one cannot but be rootless.
    For example, I am Italian but I’ve lived in UK for almost 5 years and, to this day, I still don’t feel confident speaking english (not as much as I am when I speak in my mother tongue, of course). Often I cannot find the words and I have to fight an internal battle in order to make what I want to say truly communicable. When the battle is won, it almost feels as if the language spoke through me rather than the other way around. When the battle is lost what I say feels more like gibbering to me. This last one could be a painflul experience and yet it is also true that you can’t never fully tell what the other understands and often I like to think that my internal gibbering does not sound too bad from the outside after all. Something very similar happens when I play the drums too (I’ve practiced for many years but, to this day, I still feel like a novice). I use a certain drumming technique to express myself and this implies that I have, at the same time, to alienate myself into that technique and, conversely, make it my own. Some times it works, other times it doesn’t but in both cases I have to go through an experience of root-lessness. Some times it is pleasant, other times it is painful. Some times sound good, other times sound bad.
    In any case, what matters the most, beyond victory and defeat, is to make these experiences of root-lessness (in the first example, abandoning one’s language in order to enter a new one’s, in the second, forcing your own body into a pattern which does not belong to its internal memory.. many, more radical, examples could be made.. not here though!). I treasure these experiences as the most precious ones: they remind you who you are and, at the same time, that you are not who you are, that one can always be otherwise and yet that this experience is only possible from within the limits of what one is. That one is never really at home anywhere and that one can find home almost everywhere.
    After many years spent thinking about it I think I ultimately agree with Tristam – from Sterne’s ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy’ – when he argues (or at least this is what I remember him arguing) that the most important identity traits for a person are their first name and the shape of their nose (both, by the way, can change through time eventually). However, as an immigrant (certainly a priviledged one, if for not other reason than that of being a legally recognised one), I have ultimately realised that your mother tongue and the culture(s) of your place(s) of origin(s), including those of your State, matter too, to some degree. It is, or at least should be, a minimum degree but it is still relevant after all. However – actually precisely in consideration of this – one should forget, at least for a moment, about these connections and indeed, whether we like it or not, in a whole life there are many situations in which this occurs.
    In fact, in order to be root-less one does not even have to go and live abroad. One can make the experience of being (ultimately one always is) root-less at home too. One looses the words even while speaking a native language. Leaving home and speaking a different language just make it easier to experience root-lessness but that experience is entirely possible and necessary from within the limits of your own language, country, town, house, body, etc. The way I see it, it is a tragedy and the source of much suffering when one, wherever he is and however strong his roots are, becomes unable to experience his own root-lessness. It is equally a tragedy, I guess, when one becomes unable to experience some form of rootedness. Maybe ultimately both experiences are one and the same experience. Maybe not, I don’t know, but that is not really important as long as one keeps making this/these experience(s).
    Sorry, this does not answer the question about the Sagrada Familia. On that one I am more clueless than rootless.

  2. Gramsci is still the pre-eminent theorist of how, and even why – since they become embedded in human relationships, which are material, and so makes them more real than you’d vulgarly-marxist think – these “not real” identifications and their constellations set limits on what can be accomplished politically, practically speaking. But also, sometimes, afford possibilities for action.

  3. Also may want to visit or re-visit Benedict Anderson’s classic materialist analysis of nationalism, Imagined Communities. As a Walter Benjamin reader you may know this book already, or maybe not – Anderson makes significant use of concepts drawn from Benjamin, esp. the “homogenous empty time” from the Theses on History, which he regards as a central aspect of the experience of modernity.

    “Nations” as supposedly eternal spiritual or racial entities are, obviously, not real – but nationalist consciousness, according to Anderson, is nevertheless a fairly logical outcome of capitalism. A key factor for Anderson is not differences in language and cultural traditions per se, but specifically the kind of language and culture promoted by the capitalist mass media (a pioneer industry of early capitalism). Mass media levels some kinds of linguistic/cultural differences, but accentuates others. It promotes a standardized form of vernacular language at the expense, not only of local dialects, but also of traditional languages of education, like Latin or Greek, that promoted elite cosmopolitanism in the past. Mechanical reproduction of texts also encourages the promulgation of a standardized literary culture that produces the illusion, not only of national homogeneity, but also of the nation’s eternal duration – from the news media that bring us information on an eternally-repeated cycle, to the creation of a literary canon that can be taught to millions of schoolchildren as a set of timeless classics. There is a tight symbiosis between media culture and state power where they relentlessly reinforce each other.

  4. To add a bit to dneuser1’s comments on Anderson, for him, the prototype of nationalism is that nationalism of the Spanish and English colonies in America. And as regards them, he makes the point that there was a clear materialist substrate to the emergence of those nationalisms. They grew out of a common identity built out of the restrictions enforced by the colonizing nations: if you were a colonial from, say, Mexico, you were never going to manage to achieve a social standing which would permit you to move to Spain — nor would you even have significant opportunities to move to a different colony. So, in Anderson’s view, the policies of the European colonial powers had a lot to do with creating nationalisms there (but not in, for example, Scotland, from which you could make the transition to London).

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