Trial by Fire: Gender, Power, and Citizenship in Narratives of the Nation
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Social Text 19.4 (2001) 29-51



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Trial by Fire:
Gender, Power, and Citizenship in Narratives of the Nation

Usha Zacharias


Central to the imagination of Benedict Anderson's national community is the "time of the meanwhile," which generates the sense of coexistence among national subjects. Ironically, the novelistic scenario that Anderson (1991, 26) invents to illustrate the "time of the meanwhile" metaphorically hides and reveals the gender differences that structure his narration of the nation. The scenario is divided into three time phases that track a set of activities involving four characters: a husband, A, his wife, B, his mistress, C, and her lover, D. In the "meanwhile" of the first time phase, the husband and wife quarrel while the mistress and her lover make love, and in the second time phase, while the husband telephones the mistress, the wife shops, and the lover plays pool. A and D never meet during these sequences and, as Anderson points out, "may not even be aware of each other's existence if C has played her cards right" (25). "What then actually links A to D?" he asks. For Anderson, the central question that emerges from this scenario concerns the link between A and D, the husband and the lover, that must be forged if the national community is to be imagined. A and D, he writes, overlooking the wife and mistress as national subjects, can even be described as "passing each other on the street, without ever being acquainted, and still be connected" only on the temporal ground of the "meanwhile" that allows their imagined coexistence as part of the same community. Women as citizen-subjects are erased through two ancient tropes of feminine sexuality--only the husband and lover are acknowledged as nationally significant actors.

One might playfully reread this scenario from a feminist perspective so as to locate it within the politics of desires that, as Ramaswamy (1999) points out, compose national imaginaries. For Anderson, the temporality of the national community is achieved through the imagined "meanwhile" that houses the parallel activities of the husband and the lover, who are the significant citizen-members of the nation as a social formation. However, the possibility of the husband's and lover's mutual nonrecognition--and therefore the male, heterosexual narration of the nation--rests on the silence of the mistress, C, if she plays her cards right. Women's sexuality, its contingent deployment and its tactical silences, regulates this miniature national allegory. To pursue this somewhat quarrelsome reading, isn't it also coincidental that A and D, the husband and the lover, appear to represent [End Page 29] competing patriarchal interests through the sexual politics of male-centered triangles of desire? Passing each other anonymously on the street and "yet connected" through the sexual triangle, do they not embody one of the principal patriarchal anxieties, that ever-present fear of incomplete possession over the trope-laden female body?

The wild card of the narrative is framed as C, the mistress, whose complicity in the nation's field of desire seems to necessitate her temporary silence that is the condition for the modern, faceless, national community. The silence of B and C ensures the transition from the archaic, sacral temporality of destiny and prefiguring (traditionally ascribed to feminine forces) to the modern temporality of simultaneity and homogeneity. The fragility of this silence or, rather, the potential to transform this silence into speech, makes the woman an ambivalent, inconstant figure who measures the temporal transformations that enable/disenable the fictions of the nation. The silence, if one were to draw more from this now elaborate fable, is a metaphor for the erasure of her citizenship even as her sexuality forms the narrative hinge for the temporal transformations of the imagined community.

I explicated Anderson's little scenario partly for the pleasure in delineating gender differences in a text that barely acknowledges any. 1 More seriously, my argument here is that the gender politics of national narratives are critically structured through historical contradictions that situate women as subjects of the...


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