Narrating the Nation

From “Introduction: narrating the nation” by Homi K. Bhabha, in Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha

Nations, like narrative, lose their origins in the myths of time and only fully realize their horizons in the mind’s eye. Such an image of the nation–or narration–might seem impossibly romantic and excessively metaphorical, but it is from those traditions of political thought and literary language that the nation emerges as a powerful historical idea in the west. An idea whose cultural compulsion lies in the impossible unity of the nation as a symbolic force. This is not to deny the attempt by nationalist discourses persistently to produce the idea of the nation as a continuous narrative of nation progress, the narcissism of self-generation, the primeval present of the Volk. ….

What I want to emphasize in that large and liminal image of the nation with which I began is a particular ambivalence that haunts the idea of the nation, the language of those who write of it and the lives of those who live it. It is an ambivalence that emerges from a growing awareness that, despite the certainty with which historians speak of the ‘origins’ of nation as a sign of the ‘modernity’ of society, the cultural temporality of the nation inscribes a much more transitional social reality.

Benedict Anderson [in his book Imagined Communities ] expresses the nation’s ambivalent emergence with great clarity:

The century of the Enlightenment, of rationalist secularism, brought with it its own modern darkness…[Few] things were (are) suited to this end better than the idea of nation. If nation states are widely considered to be ‘new’ and ‘historical’, the nation states to which they give political expression always loom out of an immemorial past and…glide into a limitless future. What I am proposing is that Nationalism has to be understood, by aligning it not with self-consciously held political ideologies, but with large cultural systems that preceded it, out of which–as well as against which–it came into being. (19)

The nation’s ‘coming into being’ as a system of cultural signification, as the representation of social life rather than the discipline of social polity, emphasizes this instability of knowledge….In Hannah Arendt’s view, the society of the nation in the modern world is ‘that curiously hybrid realm where private interests assume public significance’ and the two realms flows unceasingly and uncertainly into each other ‘like waves in the never ending stream of the life-process itself’. No less certain is Tom Nairn, in naming the nation ‘the modern Janus’, that the ‘uneven development’ of capitalism inscribes both progression and regression, political rationality and irrationality in the very genetic code of the nation. This is a structural fact to which there are no exceptions and ‘in this sense, it is an exact (not a rhetorical) statement about nationalism to say that it is by nature ambivalent.’