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Diacritics 29.4 (1999) 58-83
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Imagi-Nation: The Imagined Community and the Aesthetics of Mourning
Of the many relics of the Romantic era that continue to shape our (post)modernity, the nation-state surely ranks among the most significant. Two decades ago Benedict Anderson commented that "'the end of the era of nationalism,' so long prophesied, is not remotely in sight" [IC 3], and the intervening years have made it increasingly clear that the developments and processes we summarize as "globalization" operate in mingled synchrony and tension with the political form of the nation-state. 1 That the nation-state should remain the premier vehicle of political and economic legitimation in an era dominated by American imperialism and international capital--forces that, of course, regularly and flagrantly violate the sovereignty of disadvantaged nations--is unsurprising if one accepts the continuing pertinency and power of a Western master-narrative of modernity, according to which the nation represents the emergence of a people into history and prefigures the global achievement of universal human concord. As the proper subject of history, the nation-state can prefigure history's end because, as David Lloyd writes, "the particularism of [nationalism's] contents, potentially in contradiction with the universalism of modernity, is subsumed in the formal congruence between its own narratives of identity, directed at one people, and the narrative of identity that universal history represents for humanity in general" ["Nationalisms" 178]. Lloyd goes on to note that the nation's intermediate status in this narrative--halfway between primitive tribalism and modernity's ever-deferred perpetual peace--accounts for nationalism's irreducibly double association with modernization and atavism. In consequence, the modernist paradigm continues to rule many skeptical or hostile accounts of nationalism, for so long as the nation-state is taken to supersede other political or social formations, the cosmopolitan critique fails to challenge "the fundamental philosophy of universal history that underwrites nationalism's inscription in modernity" ["Nationalisms" 177]. Indeed, both in the corporate media and in mainstream Western political discourse generally, nations and nationalisms are commonly treated as atavistic or progressive depending on the degree to which their behavior harmonizes with globalizing imperatives. That these imperatives emanate quite blatantly from Wall Street in no way seriously troubles the effectiveness of modernity as a narrative paradigm. 2
Seeking to discredit universalizing narrative, much cultural criticism in recent years has exchanged cosmopolitanism and the abstract question of "nationalism" for an emphasis [End Page 58] on the contextual construction of national movements or identities. 3 This valuable body of work has sought to recover the particularity of cultural and socioeconomic circumstance, stressed the fundamental role of racism in colonialist contexts, and noted ways in which nationalist movements draw on or unleash forms of resistance that challenge representationalist politics. The pages that follow, however, remain focused on the nationalist fantasy proper to the discourse of modernity. Cultural critique can only profit from knowing as much as possible about the favored turns of the universal-historicist model, particularly since, as Lloyd and others have emphasized, this model is an aesthetic one that grants a world-historical role to "culture." The state, in a tradition that in its main lines runs from Schiller through Hegel and Matthew Arnold and is still very much alive today, represents the community to itself, thereby giving the community form and in a certain sense giving it an ethical imperative and a future: the state represents "our best self" [Arnold 99, passim], "the archetype of a human being" [Schiller 17], because it signifies the formal unification both of the citizen with the community and of the community with universal humanity. Because this unification is ideal rather than actual, it can be projected as the ethical terminus of history (that is, as the ideal of an accomplished modernity). The state's core mission thus becomes pedagogical: its job is to acculturate its subjects into citizens. The production of a docile citizenry thereby obtains an ethical aura and an aesthetic character, insofar as the artwork and the domain of aesthetic or "cultural" experience generally become...