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Nations and Imagination

Nation in Imagination: Essays on Nationalism, Sub-nationalisms, and Narration edited by C Vijayasree, Meenakshi Mukherjee, Harsh Trivedi, T Vijay Kumar;

Economic & Political Weekly EPW august 2, 200823book reviewNations and ImaginationAishwarya LakshmiNation in Imagination: Essays on Nationalism, Sub-nationalisms, and Narrationedited by C Vijayasree, Meenakshi Mukherjee, Harsh Trivedi, T Vijay Kumar; Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2007; pp 296, Rs 795.Nation in Imaginationis a collection of 17 essays selected from papers presented at the 13th Triennial of the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. It is organised under the general theme of nations and imagination and the essays are divided into two broad categories, ‘Re-imagining the Nation’ and ‘De-centring the Nation’. The division reflects, as C Vijayasree points out in the introductory essay, the twin axis along which the book is organised: the first, one might term, “cultural”: how imagination, or more loosely, narration, impacts nation-build-ing (“Is nation a mere figment of imagi-nation? Is it imagination that conjures up nation or is it nation that inspires imagi-nation? How is nation conceived variously through narratives?”). The second is historical: the continuous morphing of the nation in the 20th century from empire to newly independent nation to postcolonial state to the deterritorialis-ing phenomenon of globalisation. The essays do not, however, neatly fit into these rubrics and cut across the divide. Overall, we get a collection of essays that straddle contradictory pulls: on the one hand, a literary or cultural mediation of the nation through narrative, and on the other, an entertainment of the idea that the very concept of the nation, as idea, affect, and geographically delimited territory, might be on its way out in the new global world.This tension reflects the doubled place of the nation in current popular thought: asa concept that is still popular at the affec-tive level, yet is also being eroded in tech-noscapes and mediascapes that cut across national borders. As an academic book, however, one would have hoped that the volume went beyond simply reflecting this tension and made an attempt to address it. A few chapters did do so and made for interesting reading. The opening essay by Gayatri Spivak, for instance, took a clear stance. The essay sees nationalism (parti-cularly in its encouragement of subjective identification) as continuingly popular and a bane and argues for comparativism as a means of undoing nationalism. The argu-ment is as follows. Nationalism is a “re-coding of an imagining of [the] un-derived‘private’ as ground” (p 3), and hence, a rigorouscomparativism,atten-tive to different re-codings of the private, could help deconstruct the identity-centric idea of the nation. The essay goes on to then read a tribal song in its use of the oral formulaic as an example of “thinking without a nation”. The song, in its invocation of places but within a mythic geography, Spivak asserts, practises “equivalence” (a term that is never really unpacked in the essay) rather than nationalist or tribal identification. The tribal song is there-fore offered as an counter-example to na-tionalist identitarianism. The countering works but is also utopian and leads us straight back to the central tension that I outlined above. Does not the “equiva-lence” achieved in the tribal song only hold true at the semantic level? The tribal song does indeed evidence a different imagination of “homeland” but this imagination finds almost no place – even as a counter-example – in contending versions of the Indian “nation”. Does not then any call to comparativism need to consider the inequalities that govern the play of languages, whether they be oral formulaic or written? In addition, would we not also need to examine the means by which “languages” (songs and media languages included) come to us, or do not reach us, as is the case with the tribal song, were it not for academic interven-tion? Such an analysis, of the nexus of language and cultural capital and eco-nomic currency, would be essential to ensure that comparativism does not remain an academic exercise that pre-sumes an equal playing field where there is none. Hyper-NationBill Ashcroft and Paul Sharrad’s essays confront directly that which Spivak’s essay hovers around: the play of narration, languages, or, more loosely, imagination in a global world. Ashcroft argues that the current world is spearheaded by a hyper-nation, which is both imperialist in nature, but also allows for the imagination to construct new horizons. Sharrad takes issue with what he believes is an overtly optimistic reading of globalisation by Ashcroft and argues that any discussion of globalisation needs to take into account the implication of postcolonial studies in the global project. Sharrad’s argument, that postcolonialism is attached to a nar-rative of progress, allows one to usefully revisit Spivak’s essay. Comparativism is an unarguably laudable task, but in light of Sharrad’s essay also becomes impli-cated in the institutional location of the postcolonial academic. It speaks, per-haps, more to the disciplinary location and direction of humanities departments in theUS, still firmly tied to a narrative of progress than it does to a practical practising ethos. Diasporic TextsThe other critical rubric under which some of the other essays may be organised is the term “diaspora”. The term is loosely EPW Blog The new EPW blog feature on the web site facilitates quick comments by readers on a selection of the week’s articles. Four topical articles from the current issue are posted on the EPW blog every week. All visitors to the site are encouraged to offer their comments and engage in a debate.Please visit the blog section on our web site (
BOOK REVIEWaugust 2, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly24used in the volume without regard to colonial, postcolonial or global specificity. It is used to refer to Scottish settlers in Australia in the mid-19th century, to postcolonial and contemporary Indian and Egyptian immigrants. Diaspora is a term that deconstructs the territorial-political-affective isomorphism of the nation and allows for the expanding of the “national” imagination and imagi-nary to include expatriate communities and foreign locales. The essays examine fiction and travel narratives by such expatriate communities to arrive at the multiple imaginings of the nation and the global. The general consensus in the essays is that these writings draw from yet transform the original national homes in these creations. Imaginative production, therefore, by diasporic communities, the essays posit, transform the contours of the “nation” in every engagement with it. Susan Cowna’s essay, here, takes a slight-ly different slant and makes a sobering point. Cowan examines the writings of Scottish settlers in Australia in the mid-19th century and points out that in their practices towards native settlers, diasporic communities themselves are often engaged in exploitative and colo-nising practices. The “engaging and transforming” imaginations that diasporic texts exhibit, therefore, cannot be seen as wholly positive, enabling acts. These imaginations might well be continued to be mired in repressive institutions of the older nation or be complicit in new repres-sions in the new nation or formulation of the global. Imaginative ProductionWe are brought back again to the question of the complicity of works of “imagination” with narratives of progress, regardless of whether they take the formof a national or global liberation-arytelos.Here, Debjani Ganguly and Aijaz Ahmed’s essays are worth mentioning as pieces that take critical, instructive stances towards the whole process of “imaginative production”. Ganguly hones in on the dark side of diasporic pro-duction and argues that these are fre-quently invested in an uncriticalproduc-tion and validation of global subjectivi-ties. She, on the other hand, would like to see a more critical “account of the floating upwards of a racially and ethnically mixed community from its colonial history, to swim the heady currents of globalised flows of peoples, moneys, com-modities, ideas and images” (pp 159-60). Imaginative production needs to be read not simply as a celebration of global difference that carry an inherently critical stance but as texts that “continue to be underwritten by a history of modern colonialism” (p 153). Aijaz Ahmed’s essay approaches the issue from the other end but is equally persuasive. Ahmed argues that instead of giving up on the idea of the “nation” altogether, as an outdated, inherently parochial category, in favour of the fashionable andseemingly critically laced categories of the global and diasporic, one needs to pay attention to the “long past” of the nation. Though one cannot entirely agree with what seems like an overly optimistic strain in Ahmed’s reading of Indian history, his overall argument is com-pelling. An examination of the “long past” automatically deconstructs the category of the nation, even while remaining firmly grounded in the “local”. Furthermore, it is a comparativist task, to boot!To sum up, Nation in Imaginationis a thought-provoking volume but reads too much like a collection of conference papers, held together by a loose over-arching theme. Thematic consistency and tightness itself is not necessarily a virtue but specificity is, and the volume suffers from a lack of it. Of the two key terms that the volume sets out to exam-ine, “nation” and “imagination”, one goes unexamined. The term “imagination”, barring a few essays, moves in the vol-ume as a liberatory term with connota-tions of aesthetic and ethical value that urgently need to be questioned. Con-versely, “nation” occupies the place of the retrograde term and only a few essayists like Ahmed and Sharrad counter this mooring by pointing out that aspects of the nation – its long past and the narrative form of realism that has formally been closely associated with the nation – might be worth returning to again. A stronger editorial inter-vention and pitching, including an intro-ductory essay that tried to bring these essays in useful, critical conversation with each other, would have been immensely helpful. This would have provided the reader a sense of the com-plexity of the issue at stake. At the moment, however, the reader is left with an impression of scattered speculations on the subject with limited crossover of critical vocabulary.Email: On Threshold of Youth and Gender – A National Symposium on Girls and GirlhoodsDates: November 6-8, 2008Venue: SNDT University, Churchgate Campus, Mumbai 400 020Vacha Resource Centre for Women and Girls and P.G. Dept. of Economics, SNDT Women’s University invite researchers and practitioners to send abstracts for papers and other forms presentations based on their work on girls’ issues. We welcome and encourage girls’ participation in sessions and in foyer events. The focus age group is 10-20 years with special emphasis on the first half.Deadline for Abstracts: August 31, 2008For more information please contact:Sonal Shukla Dr. Vibhuti Patel Director, Project Vacha HOD, Dept. of EconomicsMunicipal School Complex SNDT Women’s University Tank Lane, Santacruz West New Marine LinesMumbai 400 054 Mumbai 400 020 022-26055523 Tel.022-220529709821870625/9221217950 9321040048

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