The nation as a human being – a metaphor in a mid-life crisis?
Thomas Hylland Eriksen
In Kirsten Hastrup and Karen Fog Olwig, eds.: Siting Culture. London: Routledge 1997.
This text, which began as a conference paper in December 1993, has led to various reactions, including a critical one from my colleague Marianne Gullestad, herself a leading authority on the ethnography of Norway, who argued that it exemplifies some characteristic problems and predicaments associated with writing about one's own society as an anthropologist. While I sympathise with her criticism about the article being empirically loose, I remain committed to its theoretical argument. In my response to Gullestad, published in Morgenbladet (December 1998) I argue that the context of presentation determines the reception of texts; to the extent that this article is considered an ethnographic contribution to the study of Norway, it is execrable -- however, its main thrust is theoretical, and Norway is invoked merely as an example. Well, enough of this -- Marianne Gullestad has some good points, and I am pleased with her critical intervention. Readers of Norwegian can access a short version of her critique here. Judge for yourselves!
A related discovery is nowadays being made in the comparative study of culture, especially regarding its use in the definite and plural form (a culture; cultures). The anthropological concept of culture is, in other words, shown to have the same origin as the concept of nationhood, and suffers from the same analytical shortcomings: "Cultures" are, at bottom, neither clearly bounded, essentially unchanging nor traditionally conceptualised as "cultures" in "native" representations. Today, however, reifying notions of culture are today increasingly common among the world's peoples, and this fact (like analogous facts concerning nationhood and ethnicity) has doubtless contributed to the present anthropological impasse concerning the concept of culture.
It may be the case, in other words, that the current attempts at refashioning traditional concepts of culture are more or less directly caused by the uncomfortable and intellectually difficult fact that "culture is loose on the streets" -- I refer to the politically motivated appropriation of anthropological concepts of culture by a variety of social movements. Not only have these movements -- most of them ethnonationalistic -- compromised and parodied classic concepts of culture; they have also made it difficult for outsiders to describe themselves in terms of anthropological concepts of culture since they employ the very same concepts as native terms. As Hviding remarks in a paper dealing with "indigenous essentialism" in Melanesia (Hviding 1993), his Solomon Islander informants claim, implicitly referring to ethnographic sources, that nothing would have distinguished them from other peoples in the world if it hadn't been for the fact that they had their kastom (cf. also Sahlins 1994). In a remarkably short time, reified and reifying ideas of historically and socially continuous cultures have moved, from being among the most central defining concepts of anthropology, to forming part of the defined space (cf. Ardener 1989) - to be accounted for, necessarily, by other defining concepts.
However, there may also be other important reasons for the presently widespread attempts to discard classic conceptualisations of culture, and they may be viewed both in relation to contemporary trends in social theory (notably the interest in semantics and deconstruction), and in relation to changes in the immediate social world itself. Could it simply be the case these days that the daily experience of anthropologists (as well as, possibly, their informants) fails to confirm the traditional notions of culture seen as a system of symbolic meaning shared by the members of a community? This is the horizon I wish to explore with direct reference to Norwegian nationhood.
The case has not been chosen arbitrarily: Norway is widely considered one of the most nationalist countries in Europe, one where the processes of cultural homogenisation and legitimation of the state through invented national symbols are generally perceived, locally and among comparativist scholars, as a unanimous success. Words referring to Norway (Norge and norsk, meaning "Norway" and "Norwegian") are, if added together, only preceded by the words "and" and "in" in the Norwegian frequency dictionary, which is based on newspaper language (Heggestad 1982). If, therefore, I succeed in arguing that Norwegian nationhood may be on the verge of collapse, there is a strong probability that this too would be true of other nations.
During the formative stages of Norwegian nationalism in the mid-19th century, Norwegian nationalists had to compete with Scandinavianists, who regarded all of Scandinavia (or at least Norway and Denmark) as a single cultural area. (Mazzini, the great Italian nationalist, would later argue that Scandinavia was really a single nation, considering the cultural similarity of Norwegians, Danes and Swedes.) The fusion of a cultural identity with a state implied in nationalism, is not in itself "natural" either, as several recent writers on the history of nationalism have reminded us (Gellner 1983, Anderson 1991, Hobsbawm 1992 and Smith 1991 being the most frequently cited ones). Before (and indeed after) the French Revolution in 1789, few states were nation-states: they were multi-ethnic states. At the court of the Ottoman empire, to mention but one example, three different languages were spoken -- Arabic, Turkish and Farsi (Persian). At the royal court in Copenhagen -- the capital of Denmark-Norway until 1814 -- German, French and Danish were used.
Nationhood is a social fact in so far as the inhabitants of an area believe in the existence of that imagined community which is proposed by the nationalists. Accordingly, they hold that they have something profound in common -- which could be described as metaphoric kinship -- with a great number of people whom they will never know personally. It is in this sense that the nation may be spoken of as an imagined community. It is neither more nor less "imaginary" than other kinds of communities, but it is abstract and depends on ideological justification -- it must be "imagined" by its members -- in order to exist. In the case of Norway, Norwegianism would eventually win out over Scandinavianism, and by now, surely, few Norwegians claim that they belong to the same nation as Danes, or Swedes, for that matter.
Nationhood need not be strongly related to "objective cultural traits", although nationalist ideology tries to persuade people that it is. So even if it could be argued that people from southeastern Norway still, in the mid-1990s, have more in common culturally with people from western Sweden than with people from western Norway, such a similarity has little consequence in so far as people from eastern and western Norway insist that they belong to the same nation and exclude Swedes from it (cf. Eriksen 1993b).
History and experience
At this point, we should take notice of the analogy to individual biographies. The projected view of the nation as a metaphoric person developing through time (from an embryonic stage through infancy to maturity and on, perhaps, to old age and death) is perfectly analogous to the classic bourgeois view of the individual as a cultural organism unfolding through time.
The question to be posed at this point is whether the idea of the nation, imagined as "inherently limited and sovereign" (Anderson 1991: 6), still corresponds to, and helps to make sense of, the everyday experience of Norwegians. As Anderson says (1991: 5), nationalism is perhaps more appropriately likened to such phenomena as kinship and religion than to ideologies such as fascism or liberalism. In this, Anderson wishes to draw attention to the sensuous, emotional aspects of nationhood -- as does Kapferer (1988: Chap. 1), when he speaks of nationalism as a kind of ontology. What needs to be kept in mind is that such an ontology, granted that it does not form an irretrievable part of habitus, requires ideological justification. And for this to be successful, studies of ritual and social cohesion have taught us (e.g. Turner 1969), the ritual symbols (in this case symbols of nationhood) must not only have an effective ideological pole, but a sensuous or emotional one as well . In other words, their validity and thereby the political structure must continuously be affirmed through the everyday practice of the members of its target group for the ideology to retain its legitimacy.
Before considering the current pressure against the Norwegian concept of nationhood (i.e. the native idea of shared culture in a classic anthropological sense), another, related, aspect of nationhood must be mentioned. This is its postulate of continuity as well as potential conflict between individual and society -- an endemic feature of modern ideologies pre-eminently represented in the idea of the nation, which is, in Dumont's words, simultaneously conceived of as a collective individual and as a collectivity of individuals (Dumont 1980). It is, in many countries of today, the corporate metaphor par excellence -- a synonym for the societal body. When, as I shall eventually argue, the idea of the individual as "inherently limited and sovereign" collapses, the nation is doomed to follow suit, since its very conceptualisation feeds on the concept of the individual. If the individual can be shown to have several histories, so can the nation -- and the two concepts collapse simultaneously when the consequences are fully worked out.
The nationalisation of childhood
Rituals are also important in this sense of linking personal experience, and particularly childhood experience, with nationhood. Thus, Norwegian Christmas trees are decorated not with angels, but with small Norwegian flags; the main annual public ritual, Constitution Day, is dominated by ice-cream eating children carrying little national flags; and even cross-country skiing, which is enforced upon children through school, has an explicit national content. The activity of skiing makes the children more Norwegian, and they are told that much.
Its great emotional power, and its unabashed linking up with the intimate sphere, suggests one important sense in which nationalism has more in common with kinship or religion than with, say, liberalism or socialism. This example also indicates that the stability of national myths is dependent on the stability of childhood recollections and their connection to kin genealogy. When childhood memories become ambiguous and contestable, they are no longer able to support the objectified image of the nation. With the ongoing pluralisation of society, the shared experiences which form the foundation of the legitimacy of the nation cease to be shared. This important point will be elaborated below.
Contesting the past
Other central nationalist ideas have also been tampered with recently. The transition from the heroic age of Norwegian nationhood (notably the Viking age) to the "four-hundred years' night" under Danish rule has been rewritten by historians lacking the nationalist bias which was formerly part and parcel of the historiographical profession, and it has become possible to argue that there was no "necessary" continuity between the medieval Norwegian state and the Norwegian nation-state created in 1814, and which gained full independence in 1905. This presumed continuity, evident in the name of the king elected in 1905 (Haakon VII) suggesting that modern Norway was really the same country as the medieval kingdom, must be regarded as an ideological construction, neither more nor less. The king himself was originally a Danish prince, and spoke Danish till the day of his death.
In an important book on the doctrine of national self-determination, regrettably not available in English, the political scientist Øyvind Østerud (1984) reminds his readers that many "typical" aspects of Norwegian culture were really quite recent imports from the European continent at the time when they were discovered and fashioned as national symbols by the early nationalists. This proves true for "traditional" Norwegian handicrafts, musical instruments and folk costumes. Most of the regional bunads, an important type of national costume, were self-consciously invented in the early decades of the 20th century (many of them designed by writer and suffragette Hulda Garborg, the wife of the novelist Arne Garborg), and the patterns were openly inspired by costumes in continental Europe.
The very idea of Norwegian culture and society as a "natural" and stable entity evolving according to its internal laws for over a thousand years, is gradually becoming completely untenable to a growing number of people. Norwegian culture and society have developed through crucial, if sometimes sporadic, contact with continental Europe, and the changes have been dramatic. It could easily be argued that in terms of shared notions, contemporary Norwegians have less in common with the Wergelands of the 19th century (famous Norwegian nationalists) than with contemporary Germans or even Brazilians.
The "tradition" on which nationalism and national identity feeds has been deconstructed in this way, and the great tradition of nationhood is increasingly being fragmented into several lesser histories which point out the ambiguities involved in interpreting the past, and which reveal nationalist versions of history as compounds of fact, myth and interpretations which are open to discussion. With the increased influence of these counter-hegemonic interpretations of the past, it has become more difficult for the nationalists to expropriate the childhood recollections of the citizens: formerly doxic truths have been moved to the realm of opinion. And, it must be added, when it is shown in this way that the biography of the nation is negotiable, it becomes evident that so, too, is the biography of the individual citizen (and vice versa).
Since Norwegian history can be reinterpreted, the content of Norwegian collective identity can also be changed; indeed, some have argued that it may eventually collapse under the burden of an excessive and bewildering number of epicycles. This, some have argued, is even needed in our day and age, marked by two strong tendencies which run counter to currently held conceptions of the substance of Norwegian nationality. They are, in short, the emergence of a poly-ethnic Norwegian society and the globalisation of culture.
The effect of the minority presence
The Sami, that sub-Arctic ethnic group who were formerly known as the Lapps, are Norway's oldest ethnic minority. In all probability, they have lived in what is now Norway for at least as long as the Germanic-speaking tribes and their descendants, the ethnic Norwegians. Until the late 1950s, Sami identity had been strongly stigmatised, and the transhumant Sami served as a defining Other to Norwegians, who thereby could define themselves as "civilised". Many Sami living in ethnically mixed areas chose to undercommunicate their ethnic origins -- that is, they publicly pretended not to be Sami (Eidheim 1971); and to be sure, there has been considerable permanent assimilation to Norwegian identity, particularly among the coastal Sami. From the early 1960s on, but particularly since 1980, the country has seen the growth of a powerful ethnic revitalisation movement investing pride and dignity into the formerly despised Sami identity; they have taken self-conscious measures to glorify and re-codify half-forgotten Sami customs, while at the same time making certain that they receive their share of the national welfare. This ethnopolitical movement has enjoyed considerable success. The Sami language, threatened by extinction as late as the 1960s, has been revived, and it is now the main administrative language in those parts of Finnmark county which are defined as Sami core areas. Substantial government subsidies ensure that Sami literature is published, and national radio provides a certain measure of programming in Sami. In 1989, a Sami parliament with limited but real power, Sametinget, was inaugurated by the late Norwegian King Olav V.
The fact that the Sami achieved political, cultural and linguistic rights within the institutional framework of the Norwegian nation-state also indicates that there need be no serious conflict between an ethnic majority and a minority living in the same country. However, the avoidance of conflict seems to require that the minority is granted cultural self-determination in respects defined as important by its leaders. This may entail demands for religious and linguistic rights that may not be accepted by the nation-state, which for its part proclaims the essential cultural homogeneity of its inhabitants. Indeed, if we look at the more recent immigrants to Norway, it becomes evident that the rights successfully claimed by the Sami are not automatically granted by a national majority. During the election campaign of 1991, for example, leading politicians in Oslo suggested that immigrant children should be deprived of the right to be taught in their mother-tongue in primary schools, and strong political lobbies fought for years against the building of a mosque in the city, although Muslim organisations were willing to fund it themselves.
The overtly anti-immigrant groups, some of which are openly racist, are numerous but small and politically marginal in the country. However, suspicion, fear and myths abound, especially targeting Muslim immigrants (who make up around one per cent of the population). Many Norwegians exaggerate their numbers if asked; many believe that Muslim women have an average of ten children each; there is a widespread idea to the effect that all Muslims are "fundamentalists", and so on. In general, the very presence of Muslims in the country is seen as a threat against Norwegian identity by some zealous patriots, who reject that "mix of cultures" presumedly imposed by migration, and who would prefer that Norwegian society conformed firmly to nationalist doctrine; namely, that it should only comprise people "of the same kind".
In the 1990s, it is possible for a person to identify him- or herself both as a Sami and a Norwegian. It is so far much less common for a person to identify him- or herself as a Pakistani-born Muslim and at the same time as a Norwegian, even if the person in question is a Norwegian citizen. The idea of Norwegianness, as it is produced and reproduced in public discourse, appears incompatible with Islam.
Perhaps the future will see an increasing polarisation between Norwegians and immigrants; perhaps many of them will leave, or perhaps many will be assimilated. It is, however, also quite conceivable that the Asian, African and South American immigrants and refugees will succeed along the same lines as the Sami; that they will be able to assert their minority identity while simultaneously becoming integrated into Norwegian civil society. In this case, classic nationalism based on notions of cultural similarity and shared descent may have to be abandoned.
In another sense, too, Norwegian society is much less sheltered from the rest of the world than it used to be. This concerns the globalisation of culture; the spread, through modern media of mass communication, of symbols, images and messages which know of no national or cultural boundaries, and which are dislodged from the spatial dimension, or, to use Giddens's term, disembedded. Ours is the era of the jet plane and the satellite dish. The world has shrunk, and some of its internal boundaries are vanishing. The impact of globalisation on Norwegian identity -- leading as it is to an increased tension between homogenisation and fragmentation, between isolation and integration -- has been described at length in my recent collection of essays on culture in Norway (Eriksen 1993a; cf. also Eriksen 1993b). The main point here is that globalisation (and the accompanying, reflexive localisation), along with the increased visibility of cultural minorities, creates an acute crisis in the traditional depiction of the nation as historically continuous and culturally homogenous.
In the face of technological change and the fact that formerly discrete societies have become intertwined, it would seem difficult to maintain the idea of a bounded, historically continuous Norwegian culture. Since processes of cultural homogenisation relativise cultural differences, and since increased geographical mobility severs the connection between territories and "cultures", one might expect the distinctiveness to vanish gradually. At a certain level, such an "implosion" of cultural difference is doubtless taking place. Like virtually every other prosperous ethnic group in the world, Norwegians nowadays watch Sylvester Stallone on FilmNet and Madonna on MTV; the pizza has become a local staple; an Oslo flat may be furnished and decorated in the same way as a flat in Milan or Berlin, and so on. In terms of consumption and lifestyle, there is less and less to distinguish Norwegians from any other Western European people.
On the other hand, as is well known from the literature on ethnicity, cultural self-consciousness and concerted delineations of boundaries may actually be a more or less direct outcome of an ongoing process of cultural homogenisation. As a general rule, it is when the self-professed carriers of an identity feel that it is threatened from the outside that it becomes most important to them. To the Norwegian farmer of the 1840s, there was no reason to define his social identity. He felt no obligation to ask questions about who he was. To people living in modern, complex societies, the situation is quite different. Their way of life is different from that of their forebears, but the feeling of a continuity with the past may still remain important. They are now constantly brought into contact with people whom they define as different (foreigners, immigrants, etc.), and are thus brought to reflect on their identity. They must be able to explain why they describe themselves as Norwegians and not as Swedes, Pakistanis, etc. Furthermore, the shrinking of the world imposed by globalisation seems to lay pressure on their identity as something distinctive: the old and familiar is replaced by the new and foreign and seems to threaten one's uniqueness. In this way, the pressure from cultural complexity and globalisation is at the root of the modern identity crisis, where ethnic identification and the concomitant politicisation of culture are often seen as solutions in the face of the disappearance of boundaries (cf. Friedman 1992). As Anglicisms enter the language, new shopping malls with enormous car parks replace the old family-run groceries, and the video machine replaces the storytelling grandmother, the individual may react by reaching towards that which seems constant and secure in a sea of accelerating change: the nation, seen as a pseudo-Gemeinschaft, a metaphoric family or a metaphoric individual, often becomes the focus of such longings. This process of cultural nation-building, I shall argue, is nonetheless soon coming to an end simply because too many everyday experiences fail to fit the model expected to account for them. However, globalisation and the minority presence do not by themselves lead to the dissolution of national identity: on the contrary, they may contribute to its revival, at least in the short term.
Changes in the mass media situation are also important and need to be mentioned, however briefly. As is well known, Anderson (1991) and several other theorists of nationalism (e.g. Karl Deutsch) have stressed the importance of mass communication in the development of shared representations and subjective nationhood. In the second edition of Imagined Communities, Anderson has added a chapter on maps, which can be seen as excellent condensed symbols of the nation. The map shows the nation as a fixed entity, as an abstraction (a product of imagination), and inhabitants are taught its contours daily through the national educational system and mass media. Every classroom has a map of Norway in front of the blackboard, which can be rolled down whenever necessary. Until recently, further, the majority of Norwegians had access to only one TV channel. The most widely seen programme was, as in many countries, the evening news. Immediately following the news, the national weather forecast served as a daily reminder of the geographical extent of the nation; most of the households were told of the weather in distant areas, but no mention was made of the weather in neighbouring countries. The weather map itself showed only Norway. Since the mid-1980s, however, cable television and the emergence of private Norwegian television channels have destroyed this hegemonic situation. No longer is everyone compelled to follow the same programmes, and different households increasingly relate to different discourses. The daily weather map is no longer seen by the majority of households. The consequences may not be dramatic, but this development fits well with the other changes mentioned, and certainly adds to the impression of cultural fragmentation. The "overarching cultural categories" of Norwegian society, accurately defined by Marianne Gullestad (1992) as "categories which are used to justify without themselves needing justification" (Gullestad 1992: 140), are, as a consequence, becoming less doxic. Popular debates about "what is typically Norwegian" reveal a growing reflexivity and analytical distance to phenomena such as "peace and quiet" (fred og ro; Gullestad's example), "going for a walk" (å gå tur), cross-country skiing (which is codified as a national activity) and other notions and practices formerly considered self-evidently shared and therefore scarcely considered at all.
The adaptability of indigenous essentialism
As we have
seen, moreover, the native concepts of culture as a thing
and of the nation as a bounded community are alive and kicking more
than ever before, and indeed they sometimes seem to be inversely
related to actual cultural uniformity and stability. For this reason,
Eric Hobsbawm's suggestion to the effect that nationalism is in
the throes of death is less than convincing, given his argument.
In the second edition of his Nations and Nationalism since 1780,
published after the break-up of the USSR and Yugoslavia, Hobsbawm
(1992: Chap. 6), intriguingly, is actually even more insistent than
earlier in prophesying nationalism's imminent decline. His reasons
are purely instrumentalist: since nationalism will not do as a tool
for rational governance, it will eventually have to go. Although
the future may prove Hobsbawm right, it is at present difficult
to see his optimistic linkage of ideology with reason confirmed
in contemporary identity politics anywhere in the world.
The individual -- no longer "inherently limited and sovereign"
The collective orientation of pre-bourgeois societies once gave way to the individualism of early modernity; now, it seems appropriate to suggest, this development continues and we are left with a social space of dividuals (Strathern 1992a) who tend to conceive of themselves in relational and dynamic terms. Because of an obsolete epistemology, social research has largely failed to identify these processes. Comparing the present situation with ideas of "integrated, stable individuals in societies", conservative theorists may label the current situation as one marked by "uprootedness", "anomie", "differentiation" etc. -- using concepts firmly embedded within the parameters of the individual- society dichotomy (cf. Ingold 1989). Research on phenomena such as multi-channel television, consumption, serial monogamy, large-scale migration and youth culture in European cities nevertheless suggests (albeit usually implicitly) that the old dichotomy between individual and society, and thus the old idea of the nation as a collective individual, may be breaking down simply because the bounded and self-determining individual is being transformed into a set of potential relationalities, a chameleon, an "onion", to paraphrase Ibsen's Peer Gynt, "layer upon layer but no core". The branching out of the nation's past into several possible pasts, described above, runs parallel to the discovery that people, too, have several possible pasts. (It is never too late to acquire a happy childhood, just as it is never too late to acquire a glorious history.) A related argument is represented in Strathern's work on the new reproductive technologies (1992a, 1992b), where she argues that parenthood and notions of the family as a natural entity are threatened and that, as a consequence, both individual and society vanish. A main metaphoric source for the nation, in other words, is under threat.
What of the nation? The very fact that people discover that identities can be negotiated -- they learn to see themselves as relational -- casts doubt on its future as a cultural source of "natural emotions". The deconstruction of the nation and the dissolution of the individual are mutually reinforcing processes. And at this point, it is easy to agree with Hobsbawm that the future of the nation is really very uncertain and that current ethnonationalistic revitalisation movements -- from the Solomon Islands to Norway -- may be plausibly seen as desperate expressions of death throes. If the nation dies, this will among other things strengthen the relevance of the metaphor of the nation of the human being, since people have to die.
1991. Imagined Communities, 2nd edition. London: Verso.