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Marvels & Tales 17.2 (2003) 285-287

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Imagined States: Nationalism, Utopia, and Longing in Oral Cultures. Edited by Luisa Del Giudice and Gerald Porter. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2001. 217 pp.

Twenty years have passed since Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities: Reflections of the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983) popularized the idea that the histories of print culture and nationalism are inextricably linked. Anderson observed that national identities are fundamentally discursive constructions, requiring an imagined rather than an experienced sense of collectivity and solidarity. The creation of collective identity on a grand scale became possible, he suggests, through a series of historical and political developments, including the emergence of "print-as-commodity" (37)--the mass production and wide dissemination [End Page 285] of text made possible by the invention of the printing press in the sixteenth century and the rapid rise of vernacular languages in print form in the decades and centuries that followed.

In Imagined States: Nationalism, Utopia, and Longing in Oral Cultures, editors Luisa Del Giudice and Gerald Porter acknowledge Anderson's influence. But while Anderson's focus was primarily on the conditions that made national identity formation possible, the diverse contributions to Imagined States offer insight to the dynamics of identity construction as they appear in a range of traditional and popular print forms--including English and German broadsides, Neopolitan festival, Scandinavian occupational lore, and Latvian folk poetry. Several significant shifts of focus are implicated here.

First, the current volume foregrounds ways in which discursive constructions of the Other are central to those of the Self, demonstrating that the conceptual vocabulary of identity formation often hinges on certain diametric oppositions (male-female, native-foreign, human-animal) and is as much a process of negation as identification. This is nowhere clearer than in Gerald Porter's insightful study of Welsh, Scottish, and Irish characters in London broadsides of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries ("'Who Talks of My Nation': The Role of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland in Constructing 'Englishness'") and Tom Cheeseman's fascinating analysis of Turkish figures in nineteenth-century German Bankelsäng ("The Turkish German Self: Displacing German-German Conflict in Orientalist Street Ballads"). In the former, Porter looks at Englishness as "a fiercely contested site" (105)--echoing the work of Linda Colley, Simon Gikandi, and others--but also reveals that Welshness, Scottishness, and Irishness as constructed in the London ballad tradition were equally unstable. Such figures as "The Welsh Fortune Teller" (105) or "Coy Moggy" (115) may have served to make the English consumer feel witty, worldly, or articulate by comparison, but Porter demonstrates that the broadside's "reductionist" (132) representational strategies were varied, denying England's neighbors the prize of national distinctiveness. In Cheeseman's study, the stock figure of "the Turk" is also shown to take multiple forms: lover, despot, infidel. Changes in German orientalist ballads are shown here to be less a reflection of Germany's political entanglements abroad than "a screen onto which local conflicts are projected" (144).

Another significant way in which Imagined States departs from Imagined Communities is in its intention to focus on "oral cultures"--a move which would seem to challenge, at a fundamental level, Anderson's own construction of modern subjectivity as the product of print communication. The subtitle of this book is, in fact, misleading: most of the traditions explored in these interesting essays are drawn from popular print culture of past centuries (in which orality often figures as a literary device or trope) not from the authors' own [End Page 286] ethnographic fieldwork. The most compelling contributions to Imagined States take account of medium and means of transmission in their analyses. For instance, Luisa Del Giudice's research on the Italian version of a "mythic land of plenty" (12), the Paese di Cuccagna, includes consideration of a wide range of expressive forms--from Renaissance art and literature through popular broadsides and Neopolitan carnival festivities. As a utopia, Cuccagna was characterized by dreams of free and easy access to Nature's abundance, of a world in which hard work is frowned upon...


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