From collective myth to counterpublics: negotiating national identity in an age of global flows


Monolithic accounts of national identity need to make way for a form of analysis capable of embracing the ambiguity and contradictions through which all ideas of community are created. In a context of new global patterns of immigration this task is central to the economic and political struggles of the disenfranchised. 

Christian Karner
3 May 2013

Understanding national identities today requires more than a careful analysis of the discursive and institutional delineation, reproduction and possible contestation of boundaries. These processes, which effect the distribution of rights and entitlements on the basis of citizenship (and hence assumed “belonging”), have acquired renewed salience in contexts shaped by global markets, social change widely experienced as anxiety-inducing, and everyday encounters with cultural difference.

Definitions of, and responses to, “the (cultural) other” have long been recognised as defining concerns of the social sciences. Georg Simmel’s work on “the stranger” – or “the person who comes today and stays tomorrow” – and Claude Lévi-Strauss’s distinction between anthropoemic (or segregationist) and anthropophagic (or assimilationist) strategies for dealing with “otherness” are cases in point (see Bauman 1993: 153: 163). What happens, one needs to ask, in the face of financial crises and widespread reassertions of all things national, to dominant majorities’ responses to “the other” in our current “late modern”, “liquid modern” or post-industrial era? Several dimensions, in relation to which current national identity negotiations occur, are crucial here:

1) Heightened economic globalisation affecting, and arguably colonizing, ever-widening parts of our lives. 

2) The institutions of the modern nation-state and the people socialised therein, originally profoundly forward-looking, now also look backwards; not only to the mythical moments in a nation’s history but also to more recent moments of a purported golden age of not very long ago. The here and now is thereby contrasted to an earlier modern epoch, in relation to which the present is often found wanting and disorientating. One of the hallmarks of the contemporary period thus appears to be a nostalgia that bemoans a recent fall from grace, displays a lack of faith in conventional party politics, and shows a disposition to seek and find solace in nationalist populisms that are often equally opposed to “those up there” and to “those out there”.

3) “The stranger”, despite continuing structural disadvantages and exclusions, has acquired greater political agency and cultural prominence.  

Globalisation, whatever other political and rhetorical work the term is made to do, describes a process that leads to ever closer economic and communicative ties across ever larger distances. The integration of almost every nation-state into a global market is key here, though nation-states or national companies are not the constitutive units of this global market. Instead, we now live – in Manuel Castells’ (2000a) most suggestive terminology – in a “global space of flows” defined by transnationally integrated financial markets and multinational companies whose transactions and connections span the world’s various metropolitan areas, and whose (temporary) work-forces and consumers by definition transcend localities and nation-states. What is more, economic globalisation has not just colonised ever wider geographical areas but ever more diverse social and cultural arenas. We therefore also witness the gradual commodification of extra-economic realms: formerly taken-for-granted public assets, goods or entitlements. We may think of health care, (higher) education or water here. The “dialectics of community and market” (Gudeman 2012), arguably part and parcel of every economic system, assume the shape of a particular tension in our contemporary era: whilst markets expand in scope and scale, definitions and boundaries of “community” seemingly contract and harden again, advocating measures in the purported national interest, in support of local work forces, or claiming to protect resources that are seen as a group’s collective, inherited and inalienable property. Put differently, the reinvigoration of national identities in the 21st century is, in part, to be understood as a reaction against boundary-transcending markets, as a retreat from globalizing pressures to the local, regional and familiar.

Nations and national identities are, of course, located as much in time as in space. Nation-states, essentially modern political units (e.g. Anderson 1983, Gellner 1983), have from their inception been interested in their pasts and sought to anchor their citizens’ and institutions’ self-understandings, at least in part, in their collective histories, (mythical) key events and cultural repertoires (e.g. Smith 2008). As captured in Duncan Bell’s (2003) concept of the “national mythscape”, however, there is usually more than one version of the national past on offer. Instead, “dominant” and “subaltern” memories are invoked for competing political agendas, with the past being utilised for various purposes that range from the interpretation of contemporary circumstances by analogy to the past (see Müller 2002) to rhetorical tactics of persuasion and mobilisation. These issues have acquired further relevance over recent years and in the context of current European crises, which have seen much discussion – academic, political, journalistic and everyday – as to how or, more accurately, in which political categories Europeans remember their past or, normatively speaking, should remember their pasts. While European integration derives much of its political momentum from a desire to transcend the atrocities and antagonisms of European history, its many detractors across the European Union tend to uphold reified views of nations as the allegedly only viable channels of identification and hence lenses for viewing past, present and future.

A second, defining contemporary tension arises at this point: between, on one hand, pragmatic realisations that a European “network state” (Castells 2000b) has become a necessity in our globalising era and ethical commitments to a European project premised on learning the painful, shameful and traumatising “historical lessons” taught by genocide and two world wars in the first half of the 20th century; and, on the other hand, various ideological reactions, some of which gather pace and force against the backdrop of deepening financial crises and painful austerity measures, whose chief historical points of reference remain national and which in several European countries bear the traces of what Paul Gilroy (2004) has described, in a different context, as “postcolonial melancholia”.  Growing numbers of people, as outlined earlier, look to a relatively recent past that gets constructed – in positive contrast to the present – as the nation-state’s heyday and as a now bygone era of purported order, stability, standing-in-the-world and security.

The third core aspect to contemporary national identity negotiations pertains to people’s (everyday) encounters and relationships with cultural difference. Whilst today’s ethnic pluralism and “the stranger’s” experiences of social disadvantage and exclusion are historically far from unique, what appears to be more particular to the contemporary context is a diversification of popular culture and a more prominent place being accorded to ethnic minorities representing their cultural traditions, identities and histories in shared public arenas. Reflecting on the new forms of “cultural communication and representation” that have re-shaped our lives over the last three decades, Stuart Hall speaks of the “most profound cultural revolution” of our era, consisting of the “margins com[ing] into representation” and acquiring “through struggle … the means to speak for themselves” (Hall 1997: 179; 183). This is further illuminated by Nancy Fraser’s concept of “subaltern counterpublics” (1992: 123), which she defines as “parallel discursive arenas” where members of subordinated groups reflect on their histories and articulate their “identities, interests and needs”. Hall’s and Fraser’s respective observations of this cultural revolution and of such subaltern counterpublics enable us to make sense of the very different reactions, ranging from reactionary nationalisms to inclusive celebrations of multiculturalism, dominant national majorities have generated to the new cultural prominence of often long-established “others” in their midst (Karner 2011). Put differently, contemporary national identity negotiations also unfold in relation to a further tension: in social, political and cultural fields, where ethnic and religious diversity is experienced and responded to in a variety of very different ways; nationalist yearnings (Bauman 1992: 134) for narrowly, ethnically defined in-groups, on one hand, and various politics of multicultural inclusion, on the other, mark the respective end points of an ideological spectrum of competing reactions to cultural pluralism.      

So where does all this manifest? Simply put, across a wide range of obvious and not to so obvious social arenas: from the domain of party politics, to our biographical experiences of particular localities and our relationship to “the other” therein; from educational curricula to media discourse; from civil society organisations to popular culture; and from public controversies to everyday language. Particular attention should indeed be paid to how linguistic habits and argumentative patterns reflect how differently positioned discourses and social actors delineate, reproduce and possibly contest ethnic and national boundaries (e.g. Billig 1995; Wodak et al. 1999), albeit often without reflecting on the ideological work they perform thereby. Similarly important are civil societies, as they now operate across different geographical scales (i.e. the local, regional, national, transnational and, at times, global), as arenas of debate, struggle and mobilisation; and the aforementioned domains of our daily, lived experiences of encountering – and responding to – globalizing forces, memories of the past and their invocations in the present, and cultural diversity.

Definitions of national identity are inherently contestable and indeed frequently contested. As such, monolithic accounts need to give way to analyses capable of illuminating the symbolic and institutional struggles, contradictions and ambivalences shaping and surrounding national identity negotiations. The latter, in turn, reveal much about human rights, social exclusion, and political and economic struggle in an era shaped by the continuous and manifold crossing and re-asserting of collective boundaries.


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