National Narratives, Postnational Narration
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National Narratives, Postnational Narration

For Homi Bhabha

This is my final impression. The meanest mariners, renegades, and castaways of Melville’s days were objectively a new world. But they knew nothing. These know everything.

—C. L. R. James, Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways

If what Jean-François Lyotard has called the postmodern condition entailed the dismantling of the Enlightenment’s grand narratives, the nation, as the surface on which those master narratives were inscribed, also names the space in which that condition has become pervasive. The metanarratives nations fashioned out of them constituted the historically effective mechanisms whereby the Enlightenment’s ideals of freedom and equality were transmuted into universal “rights” rather than local demands. But in the era of postcolonialism and globalization, the once hegemonic narrative of the nation has been unseated. These asymmetrical but interdependent socio-economic formations share responsibility for the demotion of the nation-state to the status of a residual unit of economic exchange in the global economy. Once believed crucial for membership in the world system, the [End Page 1] nation-state has been recast as a tolerated anachronism in a global economy requiring a borderless world for its effective operation. 1

Both globalization and postcolonialism begin with the assumption that while the nation-state may not be dead exactly, it has undergone a drastic change in role. The world economy requires socially and territorially more complex organizations than nation-states, which have subsequently become splintered rather than developmental in form. The time bound and enclosed nation-state whose institutional form once foreclosed other possibilities has given way to more complex patterns of interdependence grounded in the belief that the local and international are inextricably intertwined. Global tribes with widespread diaspora networks, epistemic communities with transnational allegiances, migrant labor forces, and radically pluralist groups now construe nation-building as a provisional and highly unreliable linkage between universalism and territorial exclusion. 2

Although globalization and postcolonialism have both emerged at the site of the postnational, however, they differ radically in the significance they associate with the nation’s change in status as well as the grid of intelligibility whereby they would calculate it. Were they to be construed as narratives, these formations might themselves be conjoined in the observation that while postcolonialism “narrates” the processes whereby anti-imperial nationalisms speak back to transnational capital in the name of disparate “peoples,” globalization narrativizes the processes whereby transnational capital manages national populations in the name of the state.

As this antithetical formulation would suggest, the postnational designates the complex site wherein postcolonialism’s resistance to global capital intersects with the questions the global economy addresses to the state concerning the nation’s continued role in its management. The category of the “narrative” has been invoked at this juncture to represent heuristically the distinction between these discursive formations and to bring into focus the topic that organizes the contributions to this special issue of Modern Fiction Studies; namely, the role that narratives played in national formation and the deformations of the postnational.

In what follows, the term postnational will function in different registers—postnational narratives, national narrativity, postcolonial narration—that I hope thereafter to transmute into the variables [End Page 2] grounding its terrain. It names the site in-between the nation and the state that is traversed by these multiple and heterogeneous acts of narration. These narrative activities inscribe “national peoples” within a space that is neither organic nor contractual, neither the origin nor the end of the nation, but in-between the national and these different acts of narration.

National and Postnational Narratives

With the intention of demonstrating that they authorize very different narrative protagonists, a distinction between national and postnational narratives might be provisionally drawn at the line demarcating the temporal from the critical inflection of “aftering.” Postnational narratives might, as a consequence, be understood either to constitute belated accommodations to global capital or to narrate forms of resistance. The narrative of global capital is accomodationist in that it simply recasts the state in the diminished role of manager. It redefines national narratives as instruments of state rule through the reproduction of the collective illusion that the state is an...