“What kind of a cultural space is the nation with its transgressive boundaries and its ‘interruptive’ interiority?” (p5)
Bhabha’s edited book contains chapters by prominent thinkers on the “ideological ambivalence” of nation, and the performative nature of language employed when narrating nation (p4). The book’s aim is to provide a space for writers to articulate the in-between spaces and international aspects of nation where the “origins of national traditions turn out to be as much acts of affiliation and establishment as they are moments of disavowal, displacement, exclusion and cultural contestation” (p5). The book reminds us of the complexities of modern national belonging:
“America leads to Africa; the nations of Europe and Asia meet in Australia; the margins of the nation displace the centre; the peoples of the periphery return to rewrite the history and fiction of the metropolis. The island story is told from the eye of the aeroplane which becomes that ‘ornament’ that holds the public and the private in suspense. The bastion of Englishness crumbles at the sight of immigrants and factory workers.” (p6)
Bhabha acknowledges the fact there are people in this world yet to find a sense of belonging to nation, who are seeking nationhood – he refers to the Palestinians, for example as one such people. Today, we might also think about the Rohingya people. Bhabha rightly laments that “it is our loss in making this book we were unable to add their voices to ours” (p7). Thus, any contemporary research on nation must account for ways to represent the voices of such marginalised peoples on identity and belonging. Also Bhabha highlights that through the cases of these nationless peoples we must make efforts to understand our positioning and our relationships with others.
Renan on “What is a Nation?”
Nation is a relatively new concept which “antiquity was unfamiliar with” (p9). Renan explains that although some political theorists attempt to define a nation as dynastic, a nation is not a dynasty. There have been claims that a nation is based upon the exclusivity of race or of language, yet these are proven to be misguided assertions as there is no purity of a nation due to race or language, instead the opposite is the case and nations are racially and linguistically heterogeneous.
Importantly Renan has emphasised the problematic nature of claiming an exclusive nation by proclaiming racial or linguistic superiority:
“Such exaggerations enclose one within a specific culture, considered as national; one limits oneself, one hems oneself in. One leaves the heady air that one breathes in the vast field of humanity in order to enclose oneself in a conventicle with one’s compatriots. Nothing could be worse for the mind; nothing could be more disturbing for civilization.” (p17)
Moreover, Renan reminds us that we should not neglect an exploration of “the secret of the genuine education of the human spirit”, after all universal human values matter:
“Let us not abandon the fundamental principle that man is a reasonable and moral being, before he is cooped up in such and such a language, before he is a member of such and such a race, before he belongs to such and such a culture. Before French, German or Italian culture there is human culture”.(p17)
In any teaching and learning of issues of nation and national identity there would be a need for teachers to bear these aforementioned points in mind. The book delves deeper into the meanings of nation by referring to literary genres including Australian, English and American. For Brennan, there may be multiple mythical elements to nation and narration – where nation can be seen as a distortion, or a mythical tradition, or as literary representation. Whilst for Sommer, Latin American literature reveals romantic notions of nation and identity. The chapter by Gunew refers to Australian literature and its relationship with multicultural belongings and ways of being, as she recommends ways of re-reading texts bearing in mind cultural nationalisms and multicultural concerns. Bennington highlights the distinct approaches towards studying nation – do we examine the centre? Or do we start from the edges and margins? He provides a new way of considering post-structuralist thinking in relation to narrating the nation.