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Diacritics 29.4 (1999) 84-115

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Be-longing and Bi-lingual States

Doris Sommer

"How sad that people don't keep commitments any more. Even marriages last only about five years."

"Yes, but long-distance marriages can stretch those five years out over weekends and vacations to make relationships last a lifetime."

Benedict Anderson's provocative new book, The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia and the World, raises questions about political relationships over time and over space. Like precarious modern marriages and their corollary "political" kinships (in-laws in Spanish are one's familia política), national sentiment today strains with the movements of transnational communities from home to distant enclaves. Over time, ties can unravel as modern subjects choose, or not, to identify with adopted political relatives. Is one's country the bastion of a people reluctant to receive more immigrants? Is it the sender of surplus people who will, in turn, send money home? (Heads of state in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico typically object to US restrictions on immigration.) Or is it the harbor for many peoples? Does belonging even to a recently invented country anchor an existential need, a be-longing, because being a "man"--as Hannah Arendt still called the subject of politics--means striving for recognition among equals? Or, do many citizens today feel like resident aliens (to themselves or to others), belonging rather to ethnic minorities and perhaps--long-distance--to other nations of origin or of choice? Anderson is right to worry about precarious belongings and optional obligations.

In the end though, he finds solace from the threats of egotism and despair, and from the social decomposition of too much movement (what Arjun Appadurai calls "modernity at large") in the resilient promise of the "goodness of nations." Confidence in the extrapersonal goals and pride in national belonging appears, almost miraculously, in the last of seventeen chapters. Each of these brilliant and erudite essays will reconfirm our admiration for Anderson. My own personal debt includes his extraordinary generosity and the good counsel that encourages me to follow him, sometimes with a swerve, as will be evident when my appreciation for be-longing plays bi-lingual games.

The opening pages of The Spectre of Comparisons theorize a paradox in the postcolonial condition: the inescapable folly of comparing one's nation to another, or to a mother country. Concepts like nation or culture, after all, take on meaning in their particular contexts and by contrast with others. The core chapters chronicle aborted beginnings and abusive conflations of the nation and the state. But hope has the last word, thanks to three guarantees of national imaginings: the promising and innocent unborn generations; the nation's dead (war heroes); and the living who are ever willing to give the nation another chance, and yet another. Feelings of pride and shame come together in the end, because citizens invest, often against the evidence, in "the goodness [End Page 84] of nations" [364]. This resilience shows up right after the trouble in chapter 16, where shame was the connection between nation and narrator in Mario Vargas Llosa's 1987 novel about Peru. Unfounded but unrelenting, Anderson's hope follows on shame rather abruptly and suggests that shame itself is a sign of our care for our countries. 1 The narrator of El hablador had tried to escape from his ill-fated country, his "malhadado país," only to be haunted by it.

My question is whether Anderson's coda to this Peruvian novel is inspired by the same indomitable demon of comparisons that he has been exposing throughout the essays. José Rizal had named the meddling devil to blame it for distracting the Filipino from the lovely garden he saw in Manila, assailing him with memories of a European original or model [2]. This double vision raises a specter of possible inauthenticity; it undermines meaning as models slip from centers to peripheries. Local concepts lose their particularities in global vocabularies. Anderson calls the movement a "logic of seriality." I prefer to call it trans-latio, literally a carrying from one place to another...