Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mona Domosh on Nationalism

In the now famous words of Benedict Anderson (1991), nations are imagined communities; that is, a nation connotes a group of people who believe and imagine that they belong together even though an individual will never meet more than a tiny fraction of the other members of his/her 'community'. Understanding the politics of nations, therefore, involves much more than studying their geopolitical boundaries; it involves analyzing cultural discourses. People believe and imagine that they belong together because they participate in, read, and hear a common set of cultural practices. This national imagination is constantly being made and remade through words, images, music, performance—that is, through pageants, patriotic songs, political speeches, holiday rituals, iconic figures, memorialized landscapes. The political geography of nations then is intricately bound up with cultural practices and products.

Understanding how and why certain of these practices and products participate in the making of national identity is no simple matter, yet it is extremely important to do. As Jan Pettman argues, ‘nationalism constitutes the nation as above politics, and so disguises the politics of its making. This is the extraordinary power of the nation as that thing which people will kill and die for’ [Worlding Women: A Feminist International Politics. NY: Routledge, 1996: 48]. In other words, feelings of national identity are what prompt people to act in powerful ways, yet the politics of nationalism - how and for what reasons it has been formed in particular ways - are disguised from common view. The most basic research questions stem from the quest to disclose and make visible the workings of nationalism. Cultural geographers and others investigate the constitution of national identity - how notions of race, class, sexuality and gender are used to set up distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ hierarchically, so that ‘others’ outside the nation are placed lower in the ranking; they examine the deployment of nationalism - how national identity is reiterated daily, often in the most banal ways; and they study the relationship of nationalism to landscape - how nationalism both shapes and is reinforced by particular symbolic landscapes and human-environmental practices.

Imperialism – the imposition of one country on another – is often predicated on a form of nationalism based on ‘natural’ superiority. The Roman world, for example, distinguished between those ‘civilized’ people of the Roman nation who spoke Latin, and those living outside of Roman boundaries who spoke other languages – the ‘barbarians’. Assumptions of national superiority provided both the reasons for and legitimation of the conquest of ‘barbarians’ by the ‘civilized’ Romans. National identity in nineteenth and early twentieth-century England was based partly around notions developed from evolutionary theory that posited the English people as ‘naturally’ more evolved and civilized than others living outside its borders; again providing cause for and legitimation of imperial conquest. Understanding the cultural practices and products of national identity formation, therefore, is critical to analyzing imperialism – the actual military or political or economic imposition of one country over another is made possible by and legitimized with a set of cultural ideologies and practices that we call nationalism. Cultural geographers, among others, investigate the ideologies that underlay the complex social relationships between the ‘conquerors’ and those that are ‘conquered’ both in colonial settings and in the spaces at the heart of the empire; the relationship between national identity and imperial discourse; and the specific cultural practices that were constitutive of, and in turn shaped by, imperialism, such as photography. (141-142)

Domosh, Mona. “Selling America: Advertising, National Identity and Economic Empire in the Late Nineteenth Century.” Cultural Geography in Practice. Ed. Alison Blunt, et al. NY: Oxford UP, 2003.

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