Monday, October 20, 2008

The difficulty of talking about nationalism

I'm having a hard time talking to an audience about nationalism. I've tried to understand what's the source of my problems: is it that I don't explain what nationalism is? Is it that my explanation and the audience's understanding of nationalism differ? Is it because my expectations on what 'understanding' should be like are misplaced?

Truth be said, defining nationalism is a problem in itself. Worldview, discourse, ideology - exactly what are these terms supposed to refer to? A way of thinking about the world. Seems rather weak, I agree. Bourdieu offers a nice - though still problematic - way of talking about 'isms': a web of statements defining the core term (in this case, 'nation'). So, nationalism could be understood as the words, phrases, ideas, meanings etc. which explain what the nation is.

The problem with this definition is that it doesn't provide any further qualification to the core concept - the nation. In other words, what is it about the nation that makes it so important. We don't talk about house-ism or table-ism; we do talk about national-ism and liberal-ism and race-ism. So what sets these core concepts of nation, liberal, race etc. apart? What is it about them that puts them at the center of a web of statements dealing with their nature, features, implications etc.

The pair nation-nationalism refers to a particular type of community, which has political and moral implications. To put it differently, they talk about groups of people, providing an explanation for a particular form of political organization, which subsequently has moral implications. We still miss here the territorial aspect: this political form of organization predicates a 'natural' link between people, territory and political organization.

I'm not sure how one can easily talk to an audience about these things... Part of the problem seems to stem from their abstraction. To talk about discourses, worldviews, ideologies requires you to talk about the relation between language and reality, a relation which we take for granted in social constructivist oriented environments, but which is far from being a common-sensical view. Trying to define nationalism - or to explain the idea of the nation - requires a discussion of how concepts referring to the social world are necessarily constructed through language, as well as through a material infrastructure which derives from the way in which we come to talk and think about the social world. Grrrr, things are getting complicated again...

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