NATION AS (IS) A BRAND. PART 3

Huntley & Palmers Biscuits and Pears’ Soap. Crispy military might and the bleaching purity of civilization

 

COMMODITIES AND NATIONAL NARRATIVES

The global cultural economy marks in many aspects the intensification of flows and exchanges. In fact, its trajectory started centuries ago with warfare and the dissemination of religions of conversion (Appadurai 1991) followed by commercial maritime expeditions that made the circulation of capital, commodities, individuals, and information transcend territorial frontiers.

The new technologies of transport and communication, according to David Harvey (1996), have been increasingly compressing the spatio-temporal dimensions with a direct impact on the life-experience of the social body. They facilitated the flows at transnational level to the extent that the original identities (of capital, commodities, individuals, information, etc) have become more complex and multilayered, thus asking for a new politics of representation in order to secure the continuity of the nation as a symbolic platform for the politico-capitalist project of modern states.

A useful example is provided in the book ‘Imperial Leather’ by Anne McClintock (1995). From her studies of commodity circulation during the Victorian period emerges an intricate politics of representation of nation – in this case Great Britain – utilizing manufactured commodities as a medium platform whereby narratives of the then British Empire were displayed and its ideology disseminated in a kind of propaganda exercise.
“More than a mere symbol of imperial progress, the domestic commodity becomes the agent of history itself.” (McClintock, 1995: 220)

The collective national identity of Britain supposed a technological (and moral) superiority implicit in the Empire’s relation to the colonized world – with a strong element of binary opposition in the construction of meaning and identity predicated on difference (Hall, 1997). That collective sentiment was tacitly embedded in the manufactured objects at the time: civilized/primitive, rational/instinctive, modern/backward, white/black and so on. I would suggest that the power of such discourses reproduced in manufactured goods contributed to the assimilation and reproduction of a shared collective identity – or ‘imagined community’ as we have seen – and as a result it reinforced a system of Eurocentric, protestant-capitalist moral values both at homeland and in the extended national territories of the colonies. Furthermore, the transport technologies and logistics involved in the commodity flows increased the scope and frequency with which this plethora of goods and messages were being delivered to their consumers. Finally, the fetishization of commodities, as Marx put it, transformed commodities from mere use-values into a powerful mechanism of ideological dissemination, primarily driven by capital but quietly functioning in the interest of political powers too as the impetus for consumption started to see an upward trajectory among both the working classes and the bourgeoisie.

Next week I am going to talk about the different dimensions of the nation beyond the territorial landscape. Thank you and stay tuned!

NATION AS (IS) A BRAND. PART 2

movable type as created by Johannes Gutenberg around 1439 in Mainz, Germany

 

The previous blog post raised some of the questions that often emerge when we speak about the nation. More than a geo-political project the nation is an immanent process that needs to be collectively sanctioned in order to come into being. But to make this complex structure of feelings move as a single body on a pre-determined direction it is necessary to have an entire discursive apparatus in place, some of which are the natural manifestations of the folk, some a pure symbolic construct on a political level.

TOWARD A TAXONOMY OF THE NATION

Nation can often be seen as a self-evident idea. One bound to become an ‘easy-access category’ (Roosval, Salovaara-Moring, Inka 2010), rather deterministic in nature. But it can also be understood as an open-ended object, constantly redefined in its constitutive elements and purposes. As such, the nation still needs to be explicated (Ibid: 2010, with my emphasis).

In this interrogation of the discursive strategies that form the nation and nationhood I am going to review some key theories for a better understanding of the processes and contexts in which the grand narratives of nations come into being. We start by establishing what actors are at play in these processes and the power relations thereby produced in what Appadurai describes as ‘the will to nation’, or the ‘identity politics on the level of Nation-State’.

NATION AS A LINGUISTIC CONSTRUCT

One recurring idea about forms of national organization on political and social levels is that of the ‘imagined community’, proposed by Benedict Anderson (1991). This imagined community is one in which its constitutive elements are often too dispersed and fragmented to form an organically cohesive group. The earlier forms of political and social organization in the European continent, for example, were articulated on a community-level, gemeinschaftlich (Lash, 2002). They were multiple and heterogeneous, usually functioning within region or even village borders. Anderson proposes that these forms of socio-political organization were fundamentally transformed by technological and economic factors.

“… the convergence of capitalism and print technology on the fatal diversity of human language created the possibility of a new form of imagined community, which in its basic morphology set the stage for the modern nation.”

The technological revolution triggered by Johannes Gutenberg’s movable type meant that the mechanical reproduction of books made large-scale distribution and circulation possible. For example, by 1600 as many as 200,000,000 volumes had been manufactured and distributed (Febvre and Martin: 37, in Anderson 1991).

Interestingly, Anderson maintains that the decision to publish in vernacular languages had an ideological motivation – Martin Luther explored the potential of using a common languages (German) other than Latin to reach as wide an audience as possible for the benefit of the politico-religious project of Reformation – In the period of 1518 and 1525 Luther’s works accounted for one-third of all German language books sold (Ibid.: 1991) – but it was also driven by a capitalist imperative: once the market of literate readers, who could speak and read in Latin, had saturated new ones had to be found, thus publishers had to find another niche amongst less cultivated readers who, by contrast, were often monoglot.

Therefore, the elementary constituents of what was soon to delineate the model of modern nation-states in Europe were, according to Anderson’s studies, defined by the rise of a national consciousness through [vernacular] print-languages. It enabled cross-cultural dialogues and discernment between different groups based on their particular languages (e.g. Anglophones, Francophones, Lusophones and etc.). Also, the fixity attributed to language through print-capitalism enabled it to develop a historical dimension over time and created ‘languages-of-power’ that in their own right conferred social status and authority to certain individuals and social groups and their associated linguistic forms– dialects which failed to establish themselves in any valued print form were invariably rejected in the high political-cultural circles, meaning that language not only provided the mechanism to create distinctive national identity narratives but it also contributed to creating intra-national class divisions.

Next, we will see the roles of commodities in the production of narratives of the nation.

Cheers.