Nationalism is an Emotion

In 26 years of living in Barcelona all year round I have never once, not for an hour, not for a second, ever had the feeling, the perception, the personal sensation, that I have been living in Spain. Now when I say Spain I mean spain as most people are taught to know it, as that cliche of Spain that exists in most people’s heads even if they have never been anywhere near Spain at all. I certainly have never had the sensation that I have been living in Spain in all these 26 years of living in Catalonia

The words quoted above were spoken by Catalan and English writer Matthew Tree in a 2011 lecture he gave entitled Catalonia: the Future is Another Country. I must state at the outset that I am not an expert on Catalonian or Spanish politics. I do not quote Tree’s words to support any personal opinion I have regarding Catalonian independence. Indeed, I don’t feel educated enough to take a stance on the issue, and I will let the relative merits and drawbacks of independence for Catalonia be debated by people far more knowledgeable than myself.

I quote Tree because I feel his words are a particularly perfect distillation of something I’ve been giving much thought to lately. Simply put, I want to argue that nationalism is, above all, an emotion. And I am not really sure it is much more than that.

There have, of course, been libraries worth of books written about nationalism and its historic origins, its material foundations, and its development across the modern world. Certainly, some readers of this blog will claim that nationalism is a complex and diverse phenomenon, one that certainly can’t be reduced to the definition I have given above. Certainly, they will say, nationalism is much more than just an emotion, and its complexity can’t be exhausted by my simple formulation.

Yet let us stop for a moment and look at Tree’s words again. He begins by telling us that, for him, Catalonia is a separate country. How does he know this? His understanding of Catalonia’s identity can only be articulated by resorting to a discussion of his feelings regarding the place: “In 26 years of living in Barcelona all year round I have never once, not for an hour, not for a second, ever had the feeling, the perception, the personal sensation, that I have been living in Spain.”  It is on the basis of these feelings, which have been developed after an extended period of contact and immersion within Catalonian society, that he can make a claim regarding Catalonia’s essential character.

Tree then goes on to, somewhat paradoxically, tell us that he is not a nationalist, for he associates the term with the jingoistic championing of one’s own birth country, a process that can often lead to violent and irrational behavior:

I am not and never have been a nationalist…It’s a negative word that I identify myself personally with exaggerated and potentially violent exaltation of the country you just happen to be born in…I make only one concession to nationalist thinking, and I know I’m stating what British journalists like to call the bleeding obvious: countries exist, countries do exist.

While Tree frames his “concession” to nationalism as a minor point of agreement with a body of thinking that he otherwise disagrees vehemently with, it is in fact anything but. Indeed, in my opinion, his “concession” is the one axiom that is the absolute core of nationalist thought itself: “countries exist, countries do exist.”

Personally, I’m not so sure they do. Certainly, in the context of the world’s entire recorded history, nations have not existed for very long at all: throughout the vast majority of world history people have lived in self-governing tribal and kinship communities, often hierarchical, which were gradually incorporated into multi-ethnic (often monarchical) empires. The idea of the pure and unified national body, with full participatory citizenship for its members and a sovereign claim over a land mass, existing in a global order of other nation-states, is a phenomenon of roughly only the last 300 years.

Let’s step back and ask ourselves: how do we know that any nation really does “exist”? If history teaches us how routinely (and often brutally) communities have been formed and re-formed, severed and united, mixed in ethnic and linguistic terms, how can we really posit the “existence” of a nation as a discrete, unified, and sovereign entity?

How do we know Catalonia exists as a nation?
How do we know Catalonia exists as a nation?

Despite the historical messiness of communal formation across time, Tree at least is adamant that nations do indeed exist:

I know [countries exist] because I was born in one, I was born in England…even people who move from one country to another know that they were born in that country and that they are going to live in that other country. Now the only problem, the only time you get any kind of conflict over this perfectly common sense shared sets of concepts, is when you get large numbers of people on a given territory saying that they live in a country that is not the country on their passport…this is the situation at the present time in Catalonia and has been for quite some time…

While Tree has stated perfectly the separatist’s dilemma, believing that you “live in a country that is not the country on…[your] passport,” he still hasn’t made clear upon what grounds we can claim that Catalonia, or any other nation for that matter, exists at all. Soon, though, he will give us an important clue to solve the dilemma:

I came in direct contact with the reality [of Catalonia]… I found that Catalan not only was actually a language, not a dialect, not a hybrid between French and Spanish, as some people say it is, it was a proper language, I heard that it was used in a completely normal way by very large amounts of people…I gradually found out it was not only a language it had also, like most other important languages of any kind, generated its own cultural universe, linguistically differentiated, and completely viable, in music, in comics, in literature… it has the most extraordinary, extraordinary literature…

The key here is Tree’s invocation of an entire “cultural universe” that nations are supposed to possess, produced in and through their use of a unique language. It is language, in Tree’s view, that produces this cultural universe, one that is “completely viable” as a basis for a community to think of itself in national terms.

Thus we seem to have an answer to our question: the nation exists because it possess a unique language, used in its everyday life, expressed through its literary and performing arts, one that produces the “cultural universe” which grounds its independence and sovereignty. Of course we can experience the “cultural universe” of nations by reading their literature, watching their movies, etc. But, as Tree’s own autobiography suggests, such a universe can be experienced most thoroughly via immersion within the “national” society itself. This is an immersion that must take the form of language acquisition, as your quotidian life comes to be defined by the use of a language that moulds you to other (national) citizens around you. Only through immersion within this linguistically-based universe is one granted “the feeling, the perception, the personal sensation” of being within and apart of the nation.

Keep calm
The “cultural universe” of the nation

What I want to emphasize is how powerful this combination of language, quotidian immersion, and personal emotion is in giving people the illusion that they are actually part of something called “the nation.” For example, many economic arguments have been made both for and against keeping Catalonia part of Spain. Similar materialist arguments have been made in relation to other countries in the world whose citizens feel their full independence should be recognized by the international community: Quebec, Scotland, and Taiwan, to name but three. While people in all four of these regions debate the economic pros and cons of full independence (or in Taiwan’s case, a greater push for international recognition of their already independent state), nationalists never hesitate to add an important emotional component to their arguments. Indeed, the “cultural” rationale is often pointed to as the deciding factor in the argument. We “feel” Catalonian, or Quebecois, or Taiwanese. We are members of a “cultural universe” produced out of the independent languages that are Catalonian, Quebecois French, and Hoklo Taiwanese. And thus we should have our own nation, with full and complete sovereignty that is recognized by the entire international community.

Material effects on economies and demographies can be debated ad naseum, but it is much more difficult to deny the emotional investment people have in the “idea” of the nation, whose reality they see and feel all around them, everyday, as they use their own language, produce literature and writing in it, and live “on the ground” in a society they look upon as a sovereign community in its own right.

Thus, I return to my original thesis: nationalism is above all an emotion, felt in and through the use of a language, which allows the true and real “existence” of the nation to be internalized by each and every one of its members. This is a community that is often projected as having existed down through the ages, in grand narratives of continuity, rupture, struggle, and triumph. Indeed, the nation cannot be thought of outside of a story of origins and development. Its beginnings are often located in a founding emperor, a regional soil, a mass migration, or some other narrative of unity, dispersion, and development over time.

Of course the “emotion” that is the nation is tied to complex material factors: geography, patterns of settlement, economic structures, religious and popular practices, etc. But it is an emotional investment that allows one to read all of this social and cultural material within a national framework. For example, the story of Catalonia is either that of one autonomous region “in Spain” that has contributed to the larger overall nation’s economic and social development. Or it is the story of a unique and sovereign people who have struggled against Castilian centralization in order to protect their own, decidedly non-Spanish, culture and language. The way you narrate the history of Spain-Catalonia, indeed the very manner in which you understand these terms, will be determined by your own emotional investment: do you feel Catalonian or Spanish? Does being Catalonian necessarily exclude the embrace of an equally powerful Spanish identity? From these questions flows all the others. And much the same can be said for how we narrate the history of Quebec, Scotland, or Taiwan.

The Emotion that is the Nation

It should be clear that grounding the concept of nationhood in emotional investment and linguistic uniqueness has several real constraints. For one, it means that for the nation to maintain its sense of sovereignty, one language needs to be privileged and nurtured above others, so as to maintain the uniqueness of the national group itself. Thus language laws in Catalonia, Quebec, and to a lesser extent in Taiwan promote languages that are considered essential to the national identity, without which the nation itself would perish. If nationalism is an emotion, it is one that must be reinforced, generation after generation, through linguistic and historical education.

Indeed, the great irony of nationalism is that while it projects the unity of a people backward in time, as an irreducible historical reality, it betrays its own fragility by having to constantly reinforce its existence through the state’s control of education, language laws, museums, textbooks, public spaces, holiday celebrations, etc. All of these apparatuses work to produce social subjects who really do believe they belong to an independent nation (“We are all Americans!” “We are all Catalonian!” “We know who we are and what we are apart of!”)

Grounding the reality of the nation in its possession of a unique language also presents a profound problem for those nations who do not possess a single, discrete language of their own. Anglophone Canada, for example, shares the English language with a cultural behemoth to the South (the United States) and a former colonial power across the Atlantic (the UK). There is no such thing as the “Canadian” language, like Polish, Japanese, Catalan, etc., unique and complex in its own right. When we open up the newspaper in the morning, we are faced with the same language that our neighbors use. No piece of English language literature can ever be “Canadian” from a linguistic point of view- its written script is a shared one, for better or worse, with the United States, England, and many other countries. In Anglophone Canada, we have no “Canadian language alphabet,” no written tradition that does not also share the imprint of the colonial masters who came before us and the cultural superpower that lies just to the South of us.

Barring a language of its own, it becomes very difficult for Anglophone Canada to define itself as a sovereign entity with a culture of its own. For that culture is subject to powerful English-language media, cinema, literature, and political discourse from our neighbors to the South and the Atlantic. If Anglophone Canadians had recourse to a local language of their own, one shared by no other people, cultural identification would have a far more accessible point to rally around.  Let us put the matter another way:  the great Japanese language cinema of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujioro Ozu is given a decidedly national mark because of the distinct language it uses. Nobody would mistake a Kurosawa or Ozu film as being part of American cinema, if only because they are speaking Japanese in it. The language spoken in their films marks them as “national” in a way that an Anglophone Canadian film could never be. Anglophone Canada shares a linguistic world with its neighbors to the South and the East, and thus does not have a mark of cultural signification that is based on an irreducibly unique language that it alone possesses.

What would a Canadian Alphabet Look Like?
What Would a Uniquely Canadian Language Look Like?

Yet there is an even deeper epistemological problem that nationalist thought must grapple with. For, inevitably, nationalist thinking always brushes up against its own limits. There is always an outside, an Other, a “non-us” that is required by which the “cultural universe” that is the nation defines itself. Canadians are adamant that they are not Americans, despite our shared language and popular culture. To prove this they point to America’s poor social safety net and its constant war mongering. America becomes for Canada a means to inversely project our own values: if America has unregulated free-market capitalism and small government, Canada has a mixed economic model and social democracy. If America starts wars, Canada ends them through peacekeeping. Or so the ideology of Canadian nationalism would have us believe.

In Tree’s case, for Catalonia to exist, it cannot be Spain: the two must be projected as irreducibly separate and Other. As Tree puts it, “in 26 years of living in Barcelona all year round I have never once, not for an hour, not for a second, ever had the feeling, the perception, the personal sensation, that I have been living in Spain.” Here, the nation’s inclusive “cultural universe” always has within it an exclusionary mechanism, no matter how soft or understated, by which it separates itself from other nations and proclaims its own unique identity. Indeed, without this exclusionary mechanism, the entire claim to sovereign independence would collapse. If Catalonian nationalists ever admitted how mixed Catalonia and Spain have become, linguistically, socially, and historically, their claim to discrete, unique, and unrelentingly sovereign independence would collapse. Likewise, for Canadians, America must somehow be different than Canada, despite the shared language and popular culture between the two places, lest the sovereign border between them come to seem unnecessary.

Ultimately, nationalist thinking would have us believe that there really are separate “cultural universes,” tied to language, community, and geography, that are irreducible, whole, and independent. Nationalist thinking tells us that we can share these “cultural universes” with one another, compare them between each other, and dialogue through them. Like the hallways at the British Museum, we can flit across these universes with ease, as if they are nothing more than so many exhibits on display: the Chinese Civilization gallery on this side, the Egyptian gallery on the other, the wing for British and Irish history just down the stairs.

Ultimately, you choose which “cultural universe” you want to explore, attach yourself to, and finally believe in. Catalonia is either an autonomous community within a multi-ethnic Spain, or it is a nation oppressed by 20th century Castilian cultural imperialism. And Canada is a predominately Anglophone country that must be different, in some way, than the Anglophone behemoth to its South, although the ground of this difference has in recent years become ever more difficult to identify.

These issues of national identity all revolve, at their heart, around which public narrative, which emotional sensibility, you want to invest in. To borrow the great cultural critic Raymond William’s term, nationalism is, at its core, a “structure of feeling”: a set of shared ideas, values, sensibilities, and affective drives that people are taught to believe in and practice, often intimately linked to a language that is seen as uniquely and irreducibly theirs.

Catalonia not spain
The Nation and its Other

And yet I for one am not willing to admit that this structure of feeling is the only form of collective identity that is possible for people. Indeed, in a globalized world in which peoples cross national boundaries and state categories ever more frequently, when interlinking topolects still defines the linguistic reality of so many “national subjects” across various regions, the irreducible “us-them” thinking that nationalism fosters makes even less sense. In a world of irrefutable cultural, ethnic, and linguistic heterogeneity, why should we cling to myths of historic national cohesion? If we know nations are constructed and willed into being by hegemonic state projects, why should we feel compelled to remain trapped within that emotional idiom any longer?

By admitting that the nation is only an illusionary, if highly emotional, myth sutured together by state apparatuses, rather than an objective, true reality, we open up a perspective by which we can think beyond the nation itself. What forms of community, what ways of feeling and thinking, can get us to live beyond nationalist categories and trajectories?

We have taken the first step in showing nationalism to be nothing more than a historical construction, and a fragile one at that, which needs to be reinforced again and again, year after year, student after student, by the mechanisms of the state. By admitting that all nations are historical rather than natural, fragile rather than stable, we also admit that they are open to transformation, as they have been for their entire history.

Now that we have unmasked nationalism as an emotional ideology, the real challenge is to answer the question: how do we enact a politics and a daily life that does not conform to nationalist logic? Going back to the premodern past of ethnic tribes, monarchical empires, and self-governing local polities is impossible. Yet remaining stuck in  a contemporary moment defined by competing and exclusionary nationalist projects seems equally as problematic.

What non-national form of community can we bring into being, as a concrete and lived reality, for the future? What will this non-national “structure of feeling” look, sound, and feel like? Not a retreat to premodern tribalism, or an acceptance of a violent nationalist present, but a tumultuous launch into a collective future none of us have ever known.

That is one of the core questions for political and social thought in the 21st century. Of course, this search for a “non-national” structure of feeling must be accompanied by a sophisticated understanding of capitalism as a global mode of economic production, whose vessel of growth is found within the nation-state form. But the question of how nation-state, capital, and self relate to one another is the subject of another article.

Let us continue this conversation soon. And moving forward, let us never be blinded by the emotional myths that the nation-state presents to us. Why believe in them? Why not search out some other ground upon which to craft our communal identities?

Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.

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