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  • Spectral Nationality: Passages of Freedom from Kant to Postcolonial Literatures of Liberation
  • Matthew Scherer
Pheng Cheah. Spectral Nationality: Passages of Freedom from Kant to Postcolonial Literatures of Liberation. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. 408 pages.

Even while its title alludes to death, Spectral Nationality delights in the life of ideas, and particularly in ideas of life. In this text, Pheng Cheah traces a constellation of concepts—including freedom, culture, organism, Bildung, artifice, nature, life, and death—with confidence and aplomb from the point at which they are given a distinctive and perdurant articulation in Kant's critical philosophy through their transposition to postcolonial theory. This drama of conceptual variation is staged in two acts: the first consists of four chapters on the development of the "organismic metaphor" in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German idealism, and the second consists of four chapters on the development of this same metaphor in twentieth-century postcolonial literatures. Each chapter bursts with nuanced erudition, but submits nonetheless rigorously to the book's thesis: contemporary theories of freedom, including popular, postcolonial nationalisms, are underwritten by a metaphor of the organic body, but while this metaphor is essential to modern theories of freedom, it is also inherently unstable and prone to perform its [End Page 1239] own unraveling. The actualization of freedom, conceived as the philosophical and political project of modernity, is, then, incapable of completion, and the nation, conceived as a body in which to incarnate the promise of freedom, remains necessarily spectral, neither simply living nor simply dead.

The introduction and first chapter undertake to purge nationalism of its common associations with intolerance, fanaticism, irrationalism, violence, genocide, romantic mystification, totalitarianism, subordination, atavistic hallucination, and bourgeois ideology, as well as to foreclose appeals to faith, imagination, and the passions that might be made on its behalf (1, 6, 18, 19). Without denying the enormity of human calamity and political atrocity that has been coextensive with the past two centuries' experience of it, Cheah maintains that contemporary political thought cannot easily bypass nationalism or "replace it with utopian, liberal, or socialist cosmopolitanisms," because it is too deeply entwined within the roots of modern philosophical thought (2). Rather than becoming entangled in the web of concrete charges leveled at the concept of nationalism, the argument seeks instead to uncover its "philosophical basis" in an "organismic metaphor," which has been "subjected to the profoundest caricature and misunderstanding" (19). It is the organismic metaphor's conception of the polity as a political body that stirs reservations because it appears to sanction the violent subordination of individuals to the unchecked will of the collectivity, to invite the identification and expurgation of diseased elements for the better health of the whole, or to open yet other roads to the political horrors characteristic of the modern age. While Cheah allows that these are legitimate concerns, he argues that they are no more appropriate to the "organismic metaphor" than they are to a host of other conceptions. The "mechanistic model" that underpinned Hobbes's Leviathan—the great artificial man of springs, strings, joints, and wheels ensouled by sovereignty—Cheah claims, for instance, admits much more easily of a ferociously hierarchical and despotic employment than does the organismic metaphor (26–28).

If the organismic metaphor is the philosophical basis of nationalism, what then does this metaphor comprehend? The second chapter outlines the modern origins of the polity's metaphoric conception as an organic body in Kant's critical philosophy. The argument proceeds as follows. When Kant pressed open the divide between sensible and intelligible worlds that explains the possibility of human freedom, he created a new problem of explaining the actuality of human freedom. Kant's sensible world is composed of natural phenomena bound in an unbroken, mechanical chain of efficient causality, while his intelligible world stands resolutely outside of this phenomenal world and is bound only by reason and the moral law. As the first and second Critiques make clear, the possibility of human freedom lies in one's ability to step outside of the natural causal order and to determine one's actions in accordance with the moral law. However, the absolute distinction between sensible and intelligible orders that explains...


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