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What It Takes To Become a Nation II: Boundaries, Census and Memory

September 4, 2012

The previous post asked why and how fellow nationals come to imagine themselves as members of the same community. The following part will built on the previous discussion and spell out other dynamics which contributed to the birth and existence of nations.

Setting the Boundaries: Copy and Paste from the Past?  The late nation building processes in Africa and Asia present one striking similarity: the physical boundaries of the new nations coincided with the boundaries of the colonial administrative unit. Why such arbitrar borders stuck in the popular imaginery and were accepted as the confines of the new nation? The answer is to a certain extent in three words: journeys, functionaries, education.

According to Anderson, the class of homines novi who was recruited by the absolutist powers to act as administrative functionaries  played a key role in creating an attachment to the colonial geographic zones. These functionaries were sent to different zones of the administrative units in an upward journey never to come back to the place of origin. As each functionary made his journey he met fellow-functionaries who were going through the same path. As Anderson puts it,

” In experiencing them as travelling-companions, a consciousness of connectedness (Why are we…here…together?) emerges, above all when all share a single language-of-state”.

The journey of the homines novi functionaries was repeated in the colonies of Africa and Asia where the increasing need for bilingual clerks swelled the rank of administrative functionaries. Such administrative journeys was paralleled and replicated by the students who went through the colonial education system. The modern style education brought into being a a  geography of schools with elementary, middle and tertiary education organized as pyramid whose apex was the colonial capital.  As they made those journeys across the country, students from different part of the country met and realized that the reason for being in the same place together was because they were part of that specific geographic space. As Anderson puts it

“their common experience, and the amiably competitive comradeship of the classroom, gave the maps of the colony which they studied a territorially specific imagined reality which was every day confirmed by the accents and physiognomies of their classmates”.

The trips of both these functionaries and students were circumscribed to the apex of the pyramid i.e. the capital where the tertiary school was located. The boundaries of the administrative unit represented the physical limits within which functionaries and students experienced a sense of connectdeness and companionship. When independence came, these people kept the boundaries of their imagining.

Census. Another mechanism which contributed to make nations reals was counting its members. Census in fact was one of the institutions of power which set the geographic boundaries of the newly imagined communities. It responded to two logics: quantification and classification. The census crystallized identities which were in reality more fluid. By so doing it counted everybody and fit them into neat boxes: everybody had a place, on paper, in the country. In this fashion the counting exercise involved in the census substantiated the concept of a community limited in space.

Memory and Forgetting. Another element essential to nation-building in Europe was History or in other words the origin of the community called nation. If the popular nationalism in the Americas was perceived as radical rupture with a continuum of history, nationalism in Europe was instead read as one step in a continuous history. Official nationalisms crafted their genealogies back to the previous ruling dynasties so that the new-born nation was to be perceived as evolution of history. The sense of novelty and rupture was erased and one turned back to the past, to look at the origin of the nation. In this way the locus of the nation became the past as much as the future. As one looked at the History of the Nation, historians focused on exhuming the dead.

The memory however had to be selective and not all-encompassing: as Renan put it in 1882 the essence of a nation is that all the individuals have many things in common but that at the same time they have forgotten many things. All french nationals, he continued, must have forgotten events such as Saint Barthelemy, the anti-Huguenot pogrom launched in 1572. In other words, only some dead were to be resumed, other were to be left in oblivion. Yet, even if remembering was to be coupled with forgetting both were essential to instill into and remind to every national his or her “family history”: events like Saint Barthelemy and the American civil war happened between fellow Fenchmen and fellow Americans, they deaths and massacre were “our own”. From this perspective, they crafted a family history and substantiated the reality of the imagined community called nation. Countries which bought into nation and nationalism after World Was II imagined themselves in this continuum of history. They were forced to remember and forget their family history.

In sum, Imagined Communities sketched out what it took to communities over the world to imagine themselves as nation. Firstly, acts such reading newspaper led to an act of imagination whereby the members of the nations did not know directly other fellow members, yet they were confident about their existence. Secondly, nation-building emerged as a trope so that countries freeing themselves of colonial powers saw themselves through the lenses of nation, nationalism and nation-ness.  For some  countries these tropes were prompted from below, for others foisted upon from above. The degree to which they adapted these tropes determined their success. Thirdly, functionaries and students of the country made journeys within those boundaries. In this way they elaborated a sense of attachment and connectedness to the geographical boundaries so that when the new nation were born they were imagined within these physical limits. Fourthly, the census, the mechanical exercise of counting how many members a nation had, substantiated the existence of a community limited in space. Lastly, remembering the dead became essential to build a family history which gave a sense of where the new imagined community was coming from. The next posts will look at how these dynamics played out in Lebanon and how fellow-nationals came to imagine themselves as members of the nation – or failed to do so.

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