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4 de juliol de 2015
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Nationalism, the devil we know


In Sociolinguistics, as with most social sciences, nationalism has become an ideal object of criticism: it is a common ground for displaying commitment to “state of the art” perspectives and new paradigms, and to claim postmodernity without critique. I find this worrying. From a classical Marxist perspective, there is too much of a coincidence between the contemporary widespread critique of nationalism and the thrust of globalization. It seems a good example of the principle that the economic base produces the cultural superstructure.

In a way, it is an idea similar to McElhinny’s query whether the recent boom of literature on affect could be seen as the manifestation of the development of a contemporary self that focuses on the individual and blurs the community, a self that must primarily work on constituting itself, a process that at every step must be performed through consumption, and whose rewards and defeats are felt through various forms of pleasure and pain.

Similarly, in present day social science, the contemporary (ideal) self is also nationless and must construct her belonging free from predefined structures of the political and the emotional. In a world of national territories,  the subject has the right to travel. In a world of carefully crafted languages and national images,  she has the right to make her own collage. In a world of carefully structured symbolic systems,  she has the right to mix them and transcend them. A recent car ad runs “NUEVO MAZDA 2. diseñado para romper con lo establecido.” Like in a trotskyist or hippy dreamworld, breaking with “the system” or with convention is now what the system encourages us to do.

In linguistics we do the same and idealize fluidity, mobility and hybridity. The unbearable lightness of being reaches language and the languages and allows us an unprecedented attention to all the forms of language that were so far constructed as faulty,  disorderly, unstructured.

So here probably because I come from where I come, a specific experience of nationalism that was experienced as liberating against Spanish insistence to keep the ancien regime around, I would propose the question not only of whom nationalism serves and who suffers from it, but also submit its very critique to the same scrutiny.  To whom does the nationalist critique serve?

So if we do a map of who does sociolinguistics to whom, where and when, we find two significant constituencies: the European elites of peripheral language communities (i.e. regional minority languages) and the American Jewish community. In a way, Joshua Fishman himself was kind of both, although he was intellectually less close to the Jewish anthropologists that were beginning to query the ideological foundations of linguistic nationalism, than to the Europeans who wanted their smaller communities to finally enter the era of enlightenment on their own accord. I guess Sionism must have played a role here, I don’t know. I suppose this divide also shows two different ways of responding to the horrors of fascism. Glyn Williams’ 1992 book “Sociolinguistics: a sociological critique” constitutes also a specific complaint from the European nationalist camp: namely that some minority sociolinguists were there to pave the way for their communities to modernity, not to have their languages stay stuck as “we codes” connected with locality, rurality, tradition and the past. In any case, all these trajectories reflect, as I see it, a key component of the long intelectual dialogue sociolinguistics has been conducting, that which brings together the multiple victims of fascism into working out what to do with nationalism.

So the main new point I wish to make today is just another response in this long dialogical chain, from this position of European nationalists who, as it also often happens in postcolonial contexts, it is not comfortable either with a specific strand of conservative nationalism or with its critique.

So now that we are collectively coming to an agreement that we have to historize both our interpretation of linguistic practices AND the very tools we use to perform this interpretation, I am thinking whether it is not the moment to seriously query whether historians and sociologist of nationalism are doing us any service by putting together in the category things as different as the Serbian ethnic cleansing, the American revolution, the Bolivarian revolutions of the XIX century, the 1st World War, nazism, Irish republicanism, Scottish nationalism, and so on.

Even within the camp of European minority nationalism we can have contrasts such as the one explained by Basque ideologue Sabino Arana in his text “Catalanist errors”.

“Aquí padecemos muy mucho cuando vemos la firma de un Pérez al pie de unos versos euskéricos, oímos hablar nuestra lengua a un cochero riojano, a un liencero pasiego o a un gitano (…). Los catalanes quisieran que no sólo ellos, sino también todos los demás españoles establecidos en su región hablasen catalán;  (…) Si nos dieran a elegir entre una Vizcaya poblada de maketos que sólo hablasen el euskara y una Vizcaya poblada de vizcaínos que sólo hablasen el castellano, escogeríamos sin dubitar esta segunda porque es preferible la sustancia vizcaína con accidentes exóticos que pueden eliminar o sustituirse por los naturales, a una sustancia exótica con propiedades vizcaínas que nunca podrían cambiarla (…)”

In any case, not that Anderson and Hobsbawn can be accused of simplifying their surveys of nationalisms in their multiple shapes. Had we retained their pan European perspective, we would have been using terms similar to “superdiversity” for much longer. But somehow the pictures that stay in people’s minds don’t do justice, for me,  to the intensive and extensive investments that nationalisms commanded in Europe for decades.

Generally speaking, what I see in nationalism is the most well articulated and widest appropriated narrative about the political community that got Europe out of the ancient regime. There have been indeed other powerful narratives, basically Marxism. Not that we need Marxism to be set aside. That capitalism provided the imprescindible economic base that both required a new order and provided it with its productive capacity is obvious. This includes the fact that the new forms of knowledge production, the disciplines, about which Foucault talks so much and which came very handy to articulate the states’ multiple bureaucracies (governmentality), would probably hardly have attained their social legitimacy were it not science’s inscription in the capitalist process. I doubt that there would have ever been a social science of real consequence without the steam engine anyway. And the layout of bureaucrats and students in front of their desks reminds me of that of workers in front of their machines.

However, in all these accounts, nationalism seems to get set aside as an epiphenomenon, often as the remains of the bad dreams of the dark and irrational centuries. And there is certainly a point in which the rationalist oligarchs decided to delete the past altogether, as Bauman and Briggs pointedly show when they discuss John Locke, the Royal Scientific society and so on. However, in that context and at that time, it was only nationalism that had a narrative about the past that was not religious and feudal, and maybe this was the reason why it made more sense to many.

Nationalism provided a set of principles that mobilized populations ready to go to battle, because they felt they fought for themselves and their families in their citizenship status.  It provided a set of principles that offered a liturgy, a communion over some sacred symbols. Language has been a good example of this set of symbolic objects. Moreover, along with the ancient regime, Latin had to go; but then the national languages had to provide their own sources of legitimacy, their own scientifically managed resources. That linguistics emerged as the discipline to manage and protect this public good was therefore a necessity. Linguistics emerged as part of nationalism, nationalism was essential for the legitimacy of linguistics, and maybe this explains why linguistics is also in crisis now.

Certainly, the bourgeoisie (when there was one) managed to benefit most from nationalisms. But most social movements competed to become the best managers of public interest, with the Nazis as the typical disturbingly obsessive student who wanted to show it was the best manager and cleaner of national bodies (although, like Arana, Nazis were ambivalent about language). And now states claim to protect the nation against immigrants. Immigrants, by the way, are felt to threaten the conquests brought about by the nation state (read: the welfare state). Of course, what most nationalists often fail to see is that migration is a consequence of their own success, and that the free circulation of goods is actually much more threatening for the welfare state than immigrants are. Sometimes, indeed, you may have to protect the nation from nationalists.

To conclude, present day social sciences should, in my view, always be wary of how ideologies and allegiances are constructed, whom they serve and against whom they are pitted. Nationalism is indeed one powerful ideology, which is why so many different groupings vie to control it and to speak from it. But this does not warrant a sweeping and uncritical condemnation of what is a fairly open-ended schema to narrate communities as collective political agents. Critiquing minority nationalisms, for instance, is not the same than critiquing those of powerful nation-states or multinational alliances. If academics and intellectuals do not use their critical eye to understand the intricacies of each specific nationalist project, they may find themselves walking alongside very strange and scary companions in their journeys. To suggest just one good example, just go to Spain and try to talk to the colorful guys who call themselves “non-nationalists”.

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