What to say about nation

There has been a swing away from an essentialist approach to culture and from taking the nation state as the basic definer of everything around us. We should not however go too far in discounting everything that our national upbringing gives us, but put these influences in their place.

It seems clear that nation is politically and ideologically constructed, as are ideals that can exaggerate the unities of language and culture. In many cases, without getting into the deeper politics of what makes a nation ’recognised’, nations do however often exist as geographical facts in the sense of having physically defended borders and passport controls. Through their particular education systems, economies, political structures and media configurations, they are hugely influential in how we are brought up. The left side of the grammar of culture acknowledges this influence through important cultural resources. Nations can inspire and be a major basis for identity.

The right side of the grammar also acknowledges the ‘big C’ products of literature, music, fine art and so on. While these high points of civilisation very often cross boundaries, they are also influenced by the particular institutions of nation, and also by histories, narratives and traditions, many of which are formed or at least nurtured and emphasised through nation. There are also other marked regional influences including particular religious and political ideologies.

It is also a matter of fact that populations in particular parts of the world may share significant cultural references – music, stories, narratives – that are not familiar to populations in other parts of the world. On the other hand, there are also cultural references that originate in particular geographical areas that have been translated by and become familiar to people brought up elsewhere.

However, the non-essentialist turn tells us is that none of these influences are confining. The essentialist view gives the false impression that we are all encased within national cultures as though they are boxes that contain, define and restrict everything that we are. The fact of the matter is however that nations are not like this, that people have cultural natures that can extend and travel beyond them, and that there is huge diversity within them. While nation can sometimes be defined by its physical borders, its influence on the cultural natures of people who live there cannot be defined.

In all circumstances it can be said that nations have cultures, in the same way that all human formations each have cultures. Saying that something has a culture means to me that there are processes going on between people and institutions in that something that construct norms – ways of doing, ways of speaking. But these things that have cultures are part of the huge proliferation of cultural formations, most of which are small and all of which are in the process of change, as indicated in the centre part of the grammar. The constructing of norms can be top-down, bottom-up or sideways-in; and it does not mean that everyone conforms. Cultures of behaviour may also be regulated – laws, training, hierarchies and so on; but there will also be a politics of resistance. Nation might indeed be the least recognisable and the most distant from the everyday culture formations that we are engaged with at the local level, though invoked at times of conflict. National culture as a concept therefore belongs more to the domain of ideology and narrative than something that can be described.

Nation is therefore extremely important in who we are and how we are different to each other; but this is not a straightforward matter of this ‘culture’ versus that ‘culture’. It provides us with rich resources upon which to build identity and perhaps dangerously powerful lenses through which to interpret behaviour and practices. It needs always to be put in its place, in the domain of statements about culture in the grammar of culture, tempered by discourses and coloured by global position and politics. At the same time, this non-essentialist approach to nation does not take away from the recognition of all those people who struggle for the preservation of a threatened nation or national identity, and for the immensely important values of national pride and civil society.

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