Friday, June 20, 2008

Challenging the Homogeneous Nation from Within

I've finished reading Michael J. Shapiro's book Methods and Nations (2004, Routledge). It is an interesting reflection on collective imaginaries of the nation: how we imagine our nation is not only shaped by our own context (education, social status, class, gender, race, ethnicity, access to power and resources) but also by the public discourses around our nation. Shapiro argues - following the foucaultian framework of power/resistance and Terdiman's discussion of discourse/ counter-discourse - that such public discourses are not as uniform and homogeneous as they claim to be, but are always negotiated and challenged by various voices in our societies in theater, music, painting, and film.

These are interesting discussions, though primarily focused on the US context and the erasure of the Native history from the narrative of the (US) American (white) national identity. I resonated with one of the examples: as a child, far away from the American continent, I read Fenimore Cooper's books about the far wild west. I remember feeling sad for the last of the Mohicans. And I remember feeling happy about the white'n'red friendship between the two main characters, the settler and the last native of the tribe, trying to re-enact the spirit of their adventures in my backyard, with a bike instead of a horse... But, as Shapiro points out, I never questioned the narrative, the context it presented me, the view of the North American continent as a vast and impressive land to be conquered by the settlers. I never questioned why the Mohican was last of his tribe. I took it for granted. I never thought there could have been civilizations on that empty land - and if they were, I never wondered why they disappeared (after all, history did teach us that some civilizations do in fact disappear - at least, that's the story we are used to).

Cooper's scripted account of western landscape is therefore of a piece with the process through which the imposition of a European state model of social and political organization 'overcoded' the prior affiliations that were to become, cartographically speaking, a vanishing 'Indian country'. (Shapiro, 2004: 110).

Coincidentally, in a group discussion last night, I was reminded that we do tend to view history as the history of the survivors. And that we still tend to disregard the importance of everyday, peaceful life - after all, once the ancient Egyptian or Mayan civilizations were gone, what was left was the evidence of their rulers' greatness (read the pyramids or other historical sources describing the life of the most important leaders of that society). It is surprising, given our Western obsession with individualism, that we are also eager to accept that in the 'grand scheme of things' we do not count. It is only NOW that the individual can and should matter; in history, we're not interested in her/him. Maybe this has something to do with the ways in which we accept the decimation of some non-Western societies as a matter of fact, a matter of historical social Darwinism...
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