The time of the nation: negotiating global modernity


Against the 'contemporary' limits of global capitalism, and the pre-given myths of nationalism, an alternative politics may emerge from the collective construction of 'time'. 

Marc Farrant
3 June 2013

Problems with the contemporary

While our contemporary situation of 'global economic crisis' is too complex to expound a single solution, it is worth dwelling on precisely what experiences it engenders. Experiences that effect the very constitution of our identities, national or otherwise. At the beginning of his notorious lecture 'Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias', delivered in March 1967, Michel Foucault conjures a diagnosis of the great nation-building epoch of the nineteenth century; "the great obsession of the nineteenth century was, as we know, history: with its themes of development and suspension, of crisis, and cycle". History is then juxtaposed to our "present epoch", which Foucault terms an "epoch of space": "the epoch of simultaneity". With a remarkable prescience, Foucault here seems to outline - in a preliminary fashion - what Fredric Jameson would come to delineate as the lived experience of late capitalism. Notably, however, Jameson does not oppose time with space in order to do this, but instead terms this the experience of a "perpetual present". Undoubtedly, since the demise of the postmodern epoch in the popular and academic imagination, the acceleration of technological forces in commerce and communication - that have paved the way for increased capital accumulation, exchange and crisis - have only heightened what Foucault and Jameson gesture towards as a lived sensation of pure simultaneity.

As we attempt a renewed articulation of resistance in the twenty-first century, this notion of simultaneity seems increasingly intertwined with the concept of globalisation. Peter Osborne's recent rendering of the becoming "world-historical" of the concept of the 'contemporary', allows for one conceptualisation of the temporal and spatial experience that Foucault and Jameson articulate. In Osborne's account, the contemporary designates the "coming together of the times of human lives within the time of the living", involving a "projection of unity onto a differential totality". The globalised nature of the contemporary thus imposes a fictional 'co-presentness' for which there is no actual empirical shared subject position; no single subject that could be said to occupy the whole of contemporary experience. This involves a startling disavowal of politics, since the future orientated element of the present is suppressed by its very presentness. This depoliticised nature of the contemporary, seen as the conceptual and experiential embodiment of globalised capitalism, consequently poses problems far more significant than the mere survival of the nation-state. As Jacques Derrida discusses in an interview just before his death in 2004:

"When we speak of the political we are using a Greek word, a European concept that has always presupposed the state, the form of a polis linked to a national territory... Whatever ruptures there may be within this history, this concept of the political remains dominant even at the very moment so many forces are in the process of dismantling it: the sovereignty of the state is no longer linked to a territory, nor are today's communication technologies or military strategy, and this dislocation does in fact bring about a crisis in the old European concept of the political".

In opposition to the crisis of the political generated by the false amalgamation of coeval living experiences, we might propose the concept of modernity; a concept that the nation-state might be perfectly situated to help elucidate. On this model, I would argue, modernity can be seen as linked to a increased self-consciousness of a secular conception of one's individual finitude (in the form of mortality but also one's personal and societal limits), and the collective negotiation of this issue via a democratic politics. In temporal terms, the primary value of the modern is thus seen as 'the new', which engenders the present as a site of permanent transition (whereas the contemporary would, as Osborne states, "[fix] such transitoriness within the actuality of spatially distributed conjunctures"). Thus, the logic of democracy would seem to be intrinsic to the temporal formulation of modernity as that which guarantees the possibility of revision, perfectibility and transition in the present.

In practical terms, we might associate some of these theoretical features of modernity with the birth of the modern nation-state: increased education and literacy, communication technologies and population movements, the steady dissolution of the power of religious and medieval symbolism, all contributing to a greater historical awareness and self consciousness that finds its will embodied in the self-determining impulse of nationalism. As the origin of the nation-state, modernity would thus seem to produce its logical and democratic guarantor in the form of a socio-political entity that would seem to contain the latent potential for participation to be mobilised at a level that would further its aims far more effectively than forms of 'direct' democracy have thus far achieved. Undoubtedly some of the impotence of movements such as Occupy can be attributed to the same false utopianism of a borderless world of cyber-communities and multinational companies, whose liberating effects have been a far cry from lived reality.

However, the heterotopian potential of the nation-state is vividly problematised through the realisation that twentieth or twenty-first century globalisation, divorced and independent of the influence of varying nation-states, is in fact a fallacy. Indeed, it is remarkably similar to the fallacy of the 'balance of power' thesis of nineteenth century diplomacy. As the historian Paul W. Schroeder has brilliantly demonstrated, the relative continental harmony of the nineteenth century (in comparison with the twentieth) can be seen to have arisen less as a result of collaborating nation-states balancing their interests through a mutual fear or respect of one another, but instead due to a dual hegemony of Britain and Russia, whose empires had distinctly different spheres of interest (intersecting only in northern India and Afghanistan, and particularly the Eastern Question - 'what to do with the Ottoman Empire?'). The question then becomes: how to conceive of the self-determining impulse of modernity - here encapsulated in nationalism - in the form of a  socio-political body that would be capable of maintaining that impulse through preserving the logic of democracy, and foster the requisite representative power in opposition to the power of transnational capitalism?

The Necessity of Discrimination

Inevitably, the nation-state's ability to transcend particular societies and form a larger arena of collective identity does risk the ruin of homogenisation; of pure simultaneity that would eradicate heterogeneous experiences of the present, and hence alternative political stances. Equally, however, it is precisely the appeal to the nation that might allow a collectivity to form that would be potentially large enough to resist - in the name of identity - such transnational forms of global capitalism. This would seem to be evidenced in the necessary complicity of nation-state institutions in the functioning of transnational neoliberalism, as Graham MacPhee has made clear in this series.

Likewise, as Tom Nairn has noted, the problem - and certainly the concept - of globalisation forces a discussion of boundaries and borders. Contrary to the neoliberal utopian ideology of open space and the destruction of ancient barriers to progress, our globalised contemporary might be seen as having more borders than ever (albeit less conventional ones). Globalised or transnational capital creates an increasingly distressing disruption of the demarcations that make up the distinctions between public and private space. Borders are no longer simply dotted lines between nation-states, but often manifest themselves as ‘spontaneous’ entities such as security and health check zones all over major social and transit spaces, particularly in Europe and the West. For Etienne Balibar, this new "ubiquity of borders" marks the decline of the nation-state as the primary model of the solidified and institutionalised notion of the national border. Indeed, for Balibar, the notion of the border is intrinsic to the question of the significance of institutions, themselves often and potentially "the anti-democratic condition for partial, limited democracy which some nation-states enjoyed for a certain period". Borders thus regulate and permit democratic politics insofar as they demarcate, and thus limit, its areas of activity.

The globalisation of borders - (which refers also to the proliferation of domestic borders) - is witnessed, once again, as potentially utopian and dystopian: "once they begin to constitute a grid ranging over the new social space, and cease simply to border it from the outside...then the alternative lies between an authoritarian...intensification of all forms of segregation and a democratic radicalism which has as its aim to deconstruct the institution of the border". If the same means are understood to have the potential to reach either end, Balibar remains adamant that no radical democratic project should be associated "with the pursuit of a borderless world". But how to conceive of a democratic entity powerful enough to appropriate the multiplicity and heterogeneity of globalised borders, that would also be able to withstand, what Balibar outlines as "the risk of being a mere arena for the unfettered domination of the private centres of power, which monopolise capital, communications and, perhaps also, arms"?

If we cannot do away with borders, then they must remain out of necessity. This necessity is discrimination. As Nairn rightly argues, "cultures...depend upon conflicts unsustainable without borders". Contrasts and distinctions are internal to any logic of identity, as Balibar similarly suggests; "the very representation of the border is the precondition for any definition". Once identity is philosophically understood as differential and not self-sufficient, globalisation raises a very modernist dilemma. How to make the very diversity (of choices, cultures, of the new) that modernisation and globalisation make possible, resist the paralysing repetitive logic of what Walter Benjamin terms the 'ever-same' (i.e. the temporality of the contemporary)? 

The Temporality of Myth

Nairn argues that national movements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not attempting "old style nation-statehood", but instead, a "forward-looking form of nationality-politics" of "post-globalisation self-rule". The ambiguity of these statements arises out of the difficulty of envisaging new forms of collective distinction and identity, while at the same time preserving the technical parochialism of nationalism (when considered at a global scale). Vitally, however, Nairn observes a key feature of modernity that might be embodied in the potential of the nation-state: "secularity suggests that...universality itself must always be 'under construction'". If this modern or modernist kernel is latent within the nation-state, then a significant reconfiguration is required since the language of nationhood and nationalism is certainly not one of contingent universality. Rather it is one of mythology: mythologies of ethnicity, of genealogy, of autochthony. It would be in the interest of the state to preserve such mythologies as they are necessarily (like all myth) depoliticising. As MacPhee has elucidated, the nation-state is primarily a configuration of state and society, yet the displacement of the particularity of different societal forces and interests into the "language of the nation" has the potential to eradicate the political significance of such manifestations.

Therefore, as he argues, "the nation redraws the state/society configuration so as to insulate the state from the expression of social conflicts". The mythological language of nationalism asserts an enduring order, paradoxically so inasmuch as the precise origin or origins of any nationalist discourse remain a shrouded mystery. Myth, as structurally detached from historical or circumstantial origin, becomes a vehicle of interpretation and pathos, splitting into a potentially infinite number of manifestations in each 'national' subject (where each standardised narrative is appropriated as a personal one). This is permitted to the same extent that myth becomes a difficult object of criticism; without precise origin, the fictive or imaginative quality of myth lends itself to personal mutation and modification and at the same time remains immutable from rigorous logical criticism - critics asserting a logical (or arche-ological, in the sense of origin) solution to the entrenchedness of national mythology simply aren't speaking the same language. Thus myth itself asserts a temporality of its own, a backwards teleology that aims to move towards an original synthesis of national identity that is only permitted as no specific origin will be available.

I would argue, however, that one can change the concept and keep the content. After all, what would nationhood mean absolved of the above mythological parameters? The task would thus be to re-conceive the concept so as to transform the meaning of the content. Preserving the potential for collective identification and therefore action, but acknowledging the inherent contingency of genealogy, of birth, of life itself, as well as the inherent constructedness of myth and culture in general. By structuring a logical response to the fictive or imaginative quality of nationhood, rather than an imaginative response, it is possible to comprehend both the power and reality of fiction - now demystified and revealed to be itself subject to convention and logic. The utilisation of the fictive potential of nationhood would thus become evidenced in the collective capacity to rewrite and rethink our individual and collective destinies, against the stultifying pre-inscribed backwards teleology of a mythical nationalism.

Such a rewriting would thus embody the temporality of modern democracy as a definitively self-conscious act of the present. This prioritisation of the present over the future of the past (a future promised by the mythology of nationalism) is a splitting of the present: an opening of the present as a space of competing interests, active discriminations and dissenting voices. Once again, I would argue, democratic logic would be intrinsically linked to the temporality of the modern, whereby the prioritisation of 'the new' is not seen simply as resulting in the creation boundlessly different specificities (cultures, discourses, commodities etc. - resulting in the 'ever-same'), but instead functions so as to create the potential for an infinite perfectibility. Consequently, the necessity of borders - of discrimination - is the necessity of dissensus to democracy, since dissensus maintains a dialogic relation of perfectibility and holds open the relation to the future.

Global Modernity

Undoubtedly, as MacPhee argues, if an English national project is to offer a twenty-first century alternative to the legacy of British imperialism, it cannot do so by drawing upon its own mythological past - a past too implicated in the very identity of Britishness. MacPhee concludes that, rather, successful national projects involve a renegotiation of the state/society configuration; "That is, where incipient constitutional reorganisation drives and is driven by an expansion of the state's openness to the plurality of social claims and consequent restriction of the imperatives of transnational capitalism (outcomes that necessarily involve commitments to global legality and the pooling of sovereignty, although not in their current neoliberal form)". Therefore, international or global institutions and law are necessary to do the best of what national institutions ought to do: guarantee the logic of democracy. A refusal to operate at this level risks permanently losing to an outflanking and ceaselessly adapting transnational capitalism that, in the UK, would seem to be paradoxically expressed in the euro-sceptic mythological English nationalism of UKIP and the Conservative party. Consequently, at a logical level, it would always be in the national interest to have as much to do with one's neighbours as possible, dependent as the nation is on its very identity via the network of relationality it participates in with other nations.

By arguing the case for global modernity in the form of the nation-state, however, one faces the immediate problem that modernity is almost unthinkable without capitalism (despite any such attempt to render modernity as a democratising force tied to a conception and experience of time). Indeed, the problem of collusion might be most vividly rendered in the form of the nation-state, where globalisation would consequently be envisaged less as a distinct follow-on process but instead the necessary culmination of the nation-state world structure (as Balibar explicates; "what is now called globalisation is only the backlash of an age-old process, constantly fostered by capitalist expansion, which started with the constitution of rival national units, at least in the core of the world economy").

Nevertheless, I would argue, modernity contains the logical principle of an alternative future. In an interview after the 9/11 attacks, Derrida discusses the discourse and strategy of terrorist fundamentalism and religious fanaticism as the use "of what is worst in technocapitalist modernity". For Derrida, "such actions and such discourse open onto no future and, in my view, have no future". Although the European tradition has established laws and institutions (including the nation-state) that remain significantly flawed, these still provide a democratic logic that guarantees the possibility of revision, of perfectibility, of the future. If the nation-state can embody a heterotopic space that permits identification through processes of willed negotiation and division, guaranteeing the possibility of the present to always be changed, then it might still serve as a tool for resistance. We must hope that emerging national projects, in Europe, the UK and elsewhere, can turn away from the future of the past and embody this logic of a future to come; the distinction of which is between the stultifying, depoliticising nationalism of the contemporary, and the latent potential of national politics within a global modernity.


Michel Foucault, 'Des Espace Autres', in, Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité, trans. Jay Miskowiec (March, 1967).

Jacques Derrida, Learning to Live Finally: The Last Interview, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

Giovanna Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (London: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

Etienne Balibar, Politics and the Other Scene, trans. Christine Jones, James Swenson & Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2011).

Jameson, F., Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991).

Peter Osborne, 'Global Modernity and the Contemporary: Two Categories of the Philosophy of Historical Time', in, Breaking Up Time: Settling the Borders Between the Present, the Past and the Future, eds. Chris Lorenz & Berber Bevernage. Göttingen: VandenHoeck & Ruprecht, 2013

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