What is a nation?

15 09 2009

I’ve just come back from a seminar at Chelsea with Dr. Toshio Watanabe from the Transnational Arts pathway. We discussed the translated Ernest Renan article/speech? titled “What is a nation?”

Upon first reading of the article I believe it would have been more aptly titled: “What a nation is NOT.” Although Renan is quite right-wing and Euro-centric, he quite logically dissected the concept of nationhood and even foreshadowed the loss of nation in the unification of Europe.

He defines a nation by listing the things that it isn’t.  Typical pillars of nationhood such as religion, race, geography, language and common interest are all put into question with specific example to European histories. He sites instances in the histories of France, Italy and Germany that substantiate the fact that none of these “nations” were created by a unified religion, race, language, etc. Renan is quite convincing in his argument of what a nation is not, but he then goes on to describe what he believes a nation to be. It is this part that I found a touch weak and sentimental. He states that “A nation is a soul , a spiritual principle… A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those one is prepared to make in the future” [19]. Furthermore he states that a nation is made by a shared common will in the present.

Renan’s pre-WWII speech was insightful for me in that he contextualized the concept of the nation as a recent happening and that it was very much detached from race or ethnicity. He also brought up the point that historically successful nations occurred when 1) the conquerors accepted the religion and even intermarried with the conquered and 2) the conquerors adopted the language of the conquered. “‘France’ became quite legitimately the name of a country to which only a virtually imperceptible minority of Franks had come from [10]”.

The example of the Franks that Renan cites, alludes to the fragility of nationhood in terms of the conqueror. In group discussion Dr. Watanabe brought up the point that this focus on fragility of the conqueror is another part of the post-colonial dialogue that has come about from typical studies on the victims of colonialism (I feel exemplified by Edward Said’s “Orientalsim”).

This all becomes relevant in my project which in a sense is sussing out the Philippine nation as it exists as one of many diasporas in London. I personally agree with Renan in as much as the contemporary concept of nation is fragile, but I disagree with his idealistic concept of the term nation. I guess my critique of the nation is more cynical or even post-modern as I feel that nation is created by the individual members primal need for community. Strength of the flock as one can see from the numbers of feral parakeets that have escaped captivity and have in a sense become another one of South-London’s diasporas…. hmmm maybe there is some way I can incorporate this thematically into my project. I like that parakeets are tropical birds not meant for UK climate but have found a way to thrive.

Furthermore in order to achieve nationhood a certain amount of selective amnesia is required. Renan touched on this when he stated that a forgetting of the language occurred in the creation of past nations. “The grandsons of Clovis, Alaric, Gundelbald, Albion, and Roland were already speaking the Roman tongue (when they conquered parts of the Roman Empire) [10].” I would like to take this ‘forgetting’ one step further and assert that individuals will tend to agree as a community to forget certain parts of their history. One only has to look back at the recent Bush administration’s creation of “axis of evil” to see that the concept of ‘enemy’ requires one to forget crucial parts of the past that might suggest that they were once ‘allied’.  Ultimately I feel the nation is currently a required illusion that has maintained a semblance of peace in the world. I say semblance because nationhood has also created the concept of ‘the other’ which has historically been the fuel for war and countless atrocities.

I guess I hope to expose some of the fluidity of this idea of nation through my project and possibly reveal that the nation is an outdated concept that requires revisiting. How this will be shown in my art I am still not sure. When I think of fluidity I immediately think of motion. Slow and organic. Cities change in organic ways over time and maybe it is possible to focus on the changes due to the Philippine diaspora. Could I do something with older images of areas like Earl’s Court before Filipinos migrated there. Could I look at the histories of specific sites like stores, schools, etc….

I’m going to chew on this a bit but I feel I’m on the right direction.

Upon first reading of the article I believe it would have been more aptly titled: “What a nation is NOT.” Although Renan is quite right-wing and Euro-centric, he quite logically dissected the concept of nationhood and even foreshadowed the loss of nation in the unification of Europe.

He defines a nation by listing the things that it isn’t. Typical pillars of nationhood such as religion, race, geography, language and common interest are all put into question with specific example to European histories. He sites instances in the histories of France, Italy and Germany that substantiate the fact that none of these “nations” were created by a unified religion, race, language, etc. Renan is quite convincing in his argument of what a nation is not, but he then goes on to describe what he believes a nation to be. It is this part that I found a touch weak and sentimental. He states that “A nation is a soul , a spiritual principle… A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those one is prepared to make in the future” [19]. Furthermore he states that a nation is made by a shared common will in the present.

Renan’s pre-WWII speech was insightful for me in that he contextualized the concept of the nation as a recent happening and that it was very much detached from race or ethnicity. He also brought up the point that historically successful nations occurred when 1) the conquerors accepted the religion and even intermarried with the conquered and 2) the conquerors adopted the language of the conquered. “‘France’ became quite legitimately the name of a country to which only a virtually imperceptible minority of Franks had come from [10]”.

The example of the Franks that Renan cites, alludes to the fragility of nationhood in terms of the conqueror. In group discussion Dr. Watanbe brought up the point that this focus on fragility of the conqueror is another part of the post-colonial dialogue that has come about from typical studies on the victims of colonialism (I feel exemplified by Edward Said’s “Orientalsim”).

This all becomes relevant in my project which in a sense us sussing out the Philippine nation as it exists as one of many diasporas in London. I personally agree with Renan in as much as the contemporary concept of nation is fragile, but I disagree with his idealistic concept of the term nation. I guess my critique of the nation is more cynical or even post-modern as I feel that nation is created by the individual members primal need for community. Strength of the flock as one can see from the numbers of feral parakeets that have escaped captivity and have in a sense become another one of South-London’s diasporas…. hmmm maybe there is some way I can incorporate this thematically into my project. I like that parakeets are tropical birds not meant for UK climate but have found a way to thrive.

Furthermore in order to achieve nationhood a certain amount of selective amnesia is required. Renan touched on this when he stated that a forgetting of the language occurred in the creation of past nations. “The grandsons of Clovis, Alaric, Gundelbald, Albion, and Roland were already speaking the Roman tongue (when they conquered parts of the Roman Empire) [10].” I would like to take this ‘forgetting’ one step further and assert that individuals will tend to agree as a community to forget certain parts of their history. One only has to look back at the recent Bush administration’s creation of “axis of evil” to see that the concept of ‘enemy’ requires one to forget crucial parts of the past that might suggest that they were once ‘allied’. Ultimately I feel the nation is currently a required illusion that has maintained a semblance of peace in the world. I say semblance because nationhood has also created the concept of ‘the other’ which has historically been the fuel for war and countless atrocities.

I guess I hope to expose some of the fluidity of this idea of nation through my project and possibly reveal that the nation is an outdated concept that requires revisiting. How this will be shown in my art I am still not sure. When I think of fluidity I immediately think of motion. Slow and organic. Cities change in organic ways over time and maybe it is possible to focus on the changes due to the Philippine diaspora. Could I do something with older images of areas like Earl’s Court before Filipinos migrated there. Could I look at the histories of specific sites like stores, schools, etc….

I’m going to chew on this a bit but I feel I’m on the right direction.

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