Wednesday, September 20, 2006

"A nation simply is"

Step outside the nation to study nation: Andrew Ross points out the potentially radical act of studying nation and nationalism:
Hobsbawm points to the need to step outside, so much as possible, the ideology one studies (teaches), which should prevent the historian from directly contributing discursively to nationalist ideology.
Andrew's comments, however, reminded me of others by Friedrich Meinecke about his more famous mentor:
The '‘nation’' belongs to the basic concepts that [Leopold von] Ranke's overall view of history employs, concepts that are so remarkably fruitful because he never demands too much of them, never misuses them for an overly simple classification of historical material, and because he knows that they have no absolutely clear limits of application. When he uses them, he always hints at their origins, which keep blending continually into the infinite. Only a talent as unusual as his, only a mode of thinking simultaneously empirical, philosophical, and artistic could dispense with sharp, clear limits and firm categories without becoming blurred and unclear. A study undertaken with ordinary scholarly means cannot do without them and must make use of concepts such as 'cultural nation,'” '“political nation,'” '“liberal idea of the national state,'” '“conservative idea of the national state,' and so forth--–concepts that Ranke would probably never have used, although his historical writings lead to them often enough and are rich in observations that can easily be fitted into such categories.
One of the problems that I have with studies of nationalism is that they cannot often escape, though they strive to, basic assumptions about the legitimacy and primacy of nation. Ranke's outlook reveals how completely infused history is with nationalism, especially one in which pre-determination outweighs self-determination and culture is treated as nearly identical to nation, and the ease with which such studies can legitimize what they seek to historicize.


At 9:44 AM, Blogger air said...

I think you're definitely right. During lecture the professor in charge of the course often finds himself devolving into simple categories that do often simply re-inscribe the nation as historical subject. For example, he was using the story of Joan of Arc to attempt to show how a national myth is created through simplification of history. But in order to explain the story itself, he almost had to explain the conflict in terms of English vs French, even though it, ahem, wasn't quite that way.

I don't know how to get out of the trap. My discussions, since they focus on pretty theoretical books, have been able to remain fairly general as I try to challenge my students to think about their assumptions. But I know that I do the same thing as my professor.

At 8:46 PM, Blogger The Wrath said...

Definitely. I've noticed how much in the case of US political debates for example, history is very selectively distorted for perceived nationalist (and nativist) causes.

The English-only crowd that seems to hate Spanish-speakers in the US does this all the time-- talking about how "so-and-so group came in here from wherever and learned to speak English, therefore all these damn Spics need to the same." They, of course, entirely neglect to mention that Latino-Americans in the USA are *not* immigrants-- they are the original population of the Southwest and of Florida who were attacked in the US-Mexican War (and in many cases expelled). They, their property rights, the Spanish language and Mexican legal customs preceded English and the Anglo influx, and therefore Spanish is protected as an official public language in these regions, as are the basic property and legal rights of the Latino population.

The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo protected the language and cultural rights of Latinos, but so did common law and other treaty arrangements. All of the new states obtained from the Mexican War were bilingual at their inception, and in fact, Spanish-language newspapers and media predominated over English-language ones.

There were some nativist Anglo political parties in the 1870's who hated both the Chinese and the Latinos and pushed for "English-only" legislation, but this just shows up how ignorant the English-only crowd is in its history when they gripe about all the Spanish-language media that's so prevalant these days. If anything, California, Texas, Arizona and Florida are merely returning to their bilingual origins and standards when they became US states in the first place. I make sure that all the nativists and Latino-haters know that whenever the issue arises.


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