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Cultural Nationalism

From Europe To A Worldview

In the mid-1970s, observations concerning modern Europe and its ability to represent a universal ideal became increasingly contentious. Thus the discussion in this article turns from Europe's culture to a worldwide perspective, following a brief detour from structuralist to poststructuralist philosophy, since that transition influenced studies by historians and literary critics of the world outside Europe.

Structural philosophy and linguistics used such binary oppositions as true/false, civilized/savage, culture/nature, modern/primitive, and public/private to decide what was worthy of study, and what was not. These opposing terms were indebted to the same forms of authority that created modern nation-states in Europe, and therefore owe some part of their power to states' monopoly over coercive force. Jacques Derrida and other poststructuralist philosophers recognize that such binary terms are not equally valued since the term in the structurally dominant position assumes the power to define its opposite. Such hierarchical oppositions grant mind power over nature, cognition privilege over feeling, and reason over desire, as discussed in Derrida's article, "La Différance" (1972). Feminists adopted similar strategies to conceptualize masculinist authority. For others, the West enjoyed a cultural nationalism not merely over "The Rest," but at its expense.

Scholars employed in English and comparative literature departments around the world may describe their work as Third World literature, or literature of resistance. Discussions of cultural nationalism cluster around language, genre, and analogy. While postcolonial intellectuals recognize neocolonial economic and political relations, many write in European languages. Drama and poetry in local languages were central to postcolonial politics of global literature; among prose genres, fiction and travelogue, which are closely tied to European forms, are used for critiques of nineteenth-century modernities. And by means of analogy, the feminine is marked as differentiated from European modernities.

Franz Fanon's work—in particular, an address to the second Congress of Black Writers and Artists, which met in Rome in 1959, published as a chapter in Wretched of the Earth (1963)—asserts that the demand for a national culture and the affirmation of such culture's existence represents a special battlefield. Reference to the dignity, glory, and solemnity of a past culture rehabilitates the nation when addressing colonialism's distortion, disfiguration, and destruction of precolonial histories. Yet in discussing Arab cultural nationalism and negritude, Fanon notes the fatally ambiguous position of the native intellectual as it develops through three phases: unqualified assimilation, poetic exoticism, and finally the literature of national struggle. It is the "progress of national consciousness among the people" that "modifies and gives precision to the literary utterances of the native intellectual" (p. 239).

Ngugi wa Thiong'o noted that colonialism entailed a double procedure. Colonialism meant the deliberate discounting or even destruction of the colonized culture, whether its art, dance, religion, history, geography, education, or oratory, as well as the conscious elevation of the colonizers' language (1986, p. 16). Beginning with the founding authors of liberalism (David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel), nineteenth-century modernity denigrated the colonized. This system of domination's final triumph was symbolized by the dominated singing the system's virtues; the literature Africans penned in European languages was identified as African literature, as if there had never been a literature in the languages of Africa. But writing in African languages will only bring about an African cultural renaissance if these texts convey a struggle to create postcolonial political and economic community.

Michel Foucault's philosophical/historical work, Discipline and Punish (1977), provided flexibility to those working in cultural nationalism outside Europe. Prison authorities, he notes, maintain discipline among the incarcerated through surveillance, normalization, and examination; the written language was essential to the influence of these techniques. The power of writing, Foucault explains, is that description and classification function not as procedures for creating heroes, but for transforming humans into objects and subjects. Taking direction from Foucault, Edward Said found coercive force exercised through those texts describing the predominately Islamic world. The radical otherness of the Islamic world need neither be praised nor condemned; once differentiation has been accomplished, an exemption has been made for universal humanism. Said's Orientalism (1979) was widely read for its ability to forge a link between the literature that described the Orient, and Europe's exercise of coercive force on overseas territories.

Barbara Harlow queried whether poststructural literary criticisms could be useful outside the cultural traditions that produced them: does "deconstruction" facilitate "decolonization"? Armed struggles for national liberation were and are no more or less crucial than the struggle for cultural productivity and historical record. In describing the literature of Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America as resistance literature, Harlow notes that such works bear the mark of national liberation movements, that the commitment to political struggle prohibits "academic objectivity" or "scientific dispassion." Postcolonial literature is always public, never private: "Resistance literature calls attention to itself, and to literature in general, as a political and politicized activity. The literature of resistance sees itself furthermore as immediately and directly involved in a struggle against ascendant or dominant forms of ideological and cultural production" (pp. 28–29).

Frederic Jameson (1987) argues that Third World literatures are distinguished by their use of allegory; in such texts, ostensibly personal issues such as libidinal investment are understood to bear public significance. However Jameson notes the incompleteness of African states' independence, in that new state structures were not matched with the reconfigured social relationships and consciousnesses formed in revolutionary struggle. Indeed reference to cultural nationalism remains indebted to the new social movements: conscious public activism against militarization and environmental abuse, against class, race, gender, and sexual oppression. As Ella Shohat notes, due to "the collapse of the Soviet communist model, the crisis of existing socialisms, the frustration of the hoped for tri-continental revolution (with Ho Chi Minh, Frantz Fanon, and Che Guevara as talismanic figures) the realization that the wretched of the earth are not unanimously revolutionary (nor necessarily allies to one another), and the recognition that international geo-politics and the global economic system have obliged even socialist regimes to make some kind of peace with transnational capitalism" (p. 100).

Benedict Anderson built on the work of Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm, and Terence Ranger. Hobsbawm most usefully noted that those practices that seek to inculcate norms through reputation, and automatically imply continuity with the past, may be of quite recent origin or even invented. Ranger noted that European militaries and administrations in Africa relied on the practice of disseminating invented traditions. While for Gellner, the word invent meant fabricate or falsify; for Anderson, nations were "created," "thought out," or even "imagined" communities. Anderson identifies the nexus of market capitalism and the print industry as the institutional space for development of modern, national languages.

In responding to Anderson, Partha Chatterjee notes that Europe's history was not that of the rest of the world: historically specific correspondences between economic change and epistemic privilege were unique to European society. Chatterjee identifies three "moments" for nationalist thought, as expressed in literature and political polemic. The first, the moment of departure, is predicated on essential differences between the West and the Rest, noting that while those not living in Europe or North America are deficient in European modernities, that lack is compensated for with spiritual gifts. The second, the moment of maneuver, described as the embrace of modernities antitheses as the national culture, may lie closest to Fanon's ideals for postcolonial intellectuals. In the third, the moment of arrival, nationalist thought is phrased in its own vocabulary of modernist order. In another work, Chatterjee notes the rhetorical significance of women's issues to national movements. The discovery of tradition by nationalist movements relegates "the women's question" to inner domains. Given the power of European modernist claims in the material sphere, colonial rule threatened the very institutions of home and family. The nationalist project justified selective appropriation of Western modernity along the lines of public/private life, specifying that women's bodies and the domestic circle would occupy a central position in cultural nationalism.

Gayatri Spivak sharpened poststructuralist thought's importance for worldwide cultural nationalism. She noted the exclusivity of Immanuel Kant's metaphor "the turning of the mind to the feeling of the sublime" in Critique of Judgment (1790). Where other poststructuralists note the presence of unbalanced power, Spivak argues that universal observations exclude entire categories. The West's knowledge hegemonies work at two levels enabling cultural imperialism to crush cultural nationalism. At one level, they define the system of concepts by which social and political reality is lived. These concepts need not be consensual or universal in order to be effective. At another level, hegemonies fragment the social order, so that divisions—along boundaries of class, race, and gender—proliferate.

One of the new locations for studies of cultural nationalism was the United States. While the United States witnessed a civil rights movement and university-based protests throughout the 1960s, such disturbances were only indirectly responsible for politicizing the movement for new forms of knowledge in academia. Rather, increasing university enrollment following general prosperity throughout the country meant that history and literature departments continued to hire scholars. The academic profession became more inclusive as international scholars and scholar-activists became tenured. While class-aware, subaltern, and feminist approaches may remain marginalized in Europe (whether shunted to Britain's new universities or parked in France's provincial institutions), they are surprisingly well represented in the most richly endowed institutions of the United States.

While discussions of cultural nationalism remain active in scholarly monographs in the early twenty-first century, interest in the subject is also widening in academic publishing. During the 1970s, editors at journals such as Comparative Studies in Society and History, the Journal of African History, the Journal of Modern African Studies, and the Journal of the History of Ideas entertained discussions of cultural nationalism. By the 1980s, literary journals such as Callaloo, MELUS, Social Text, the New German Critique, Public Culture, and Yale French Studies printed articles that mingled culture with nationalism; for example, a 1995 issue of Boundary 2 was titled "Beyond National Cultures."


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

——. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? London: Zed Books, 1986.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington, with a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: Grove Press, 1963.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.

Gellner, Ernest. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Harlow, Barbara. Resistance Literature. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, eds. The Invention of Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Jameson, Frederic. "World Literature in an Age of Multinational Capitalism." In The Current in Criticism: Essays on the Present and Future in Literary Theory, edited by Clayton Koelb and Virgil Lokke, 139–158. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1987.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1986.

Rich, Adrienne. Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974–1977. New York: Norton, 1978.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Shohat, Ella. "Notes on the Post Colonial." Social Text 31/32 (1992): 99–113.

Spivak, Gayatri. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Elizabeth Bishop

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cosine to Cyano groupCultural Nationalism - Culture And Nationalism: Separate Ideas, From Europe To A Worldview, Bibliography