Thursday, March 20, 2008

On nations and homes

I've been re-reading Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities and I found his idea of communities as imagined extremely appealing. It might be because I obsess a lot with nationalism, trying to figure out how it is possible that - in Anderson's witty formulation - "in an age when it is so common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals (particularly in Europe?) to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other", people still buy into this idea of a nation... (yes, it seems patronizing, and you'll say I miss the empowerment dimension of nations, but this is yet another story).

I like Anderson's argumentative thread that the nation is only one possible form of imagining the community - yet the most accepted one in modernity. We live in a world of nation-states, and in spite of the claims that other communities such as regions or the cities (the metropolis) are emerging, there's overwhelming evidence that the nation (with its accompanying state) remains the ultimate model of socio-political organization (On a side note, there's really no surprise that Kosovo opted for a nation-state model, just as there's no surprise that Serbia perceives this as an amputation. The surprise would have been the creation of another type of political organization!). But there's an interesting question as to what the nation, as a model, gives us in modernity. And Anderson's answer seems to me quite convincing: the idea of a nation provides us with a mechanism of dealing with and making sense of the new social conditions (like mobility or capitalist relations) and anxieties (like loneliness, life and death).

I was thinking today about this idea of a 'home'; the vocabulary describing the nation, says Anderson, is strikingly similar to the vocabulary we use for our homes and families. The nation itself is a homeland, a father/motherland. Like your own home, it gives you a feeling of security. It's the place where you can be yourself, among your relatives who care for you and so on, and so forth.

Not only that this idea of family is quite of recent origin (see the work of Philippe Aries), but the whole concept of the family as love and blood ties is often far from our everyday realities. The times of communal life are gone - at least in the Western world. Urban planning, architecture, banks, education - they are not communal, but individual based. Take birth and death; they now take place in the hospital, not in the home surrounded by your extended family. Atomized individuals have to lead an individualistic life: we - more or less - earn our own money for our own work which we use for our own lives.

It occurred to me today that the nation may as well be a solution to the unintended consequences of Enlightment's view of the human being. How can one be a fully independent, self-aware individual and still part of a community? How can one live knowing s/he can only think, feel and act in an individual manner? How to cope with being alone in the world, inescapably moving from birth to death? Nationalism, argues Anderson, has to be thought of closer to 'religion' than 'political ideology'. It gives us answers to our why-questions and it tames the burden of individualism.

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