Writing A History of Nationalism

NATIONALISM is acknowledged as an outcome of historical aspect of human being. In his monumental book “The Idea of Nationalism” (first published in April 1944), historian and philosopher Hans Kohn underlines that as a state of mind and an act of consciousness, nationalism is the product of the growth of social and intellectuals’ factors at certain stage of history.

In another part, Kohn states that nationalities are the product of the historical development of society, and are not identical with bodies of men bounded by actual or supposed common descent or by a common habitat such as clans, tribes, or folk groups. Moreover, even if a nationality arises, it may disappear again, absorbed into a larger or new nationality. For sure, nationality is always fluctuating, unpredictable, never rigid, and not absolute since it comes into existence only when certain objective acquaintances define a social group.

Meanwhile in his “Why is History Antitheoritical?“, Prasenjit Duara implies that once established, the (elites group of) nation-state tends to discontinue the logic and nature of history, and offers and imposes the official history and claims it, through pedagogy system, as the final or ultimate truth about its given destiny. According to Duara, one of historical pedagogy main goals is simply to inspire people about love, pride, shame, anger, or even revenge for the nation. The discourse of its historical construction intentionally will not be attached since it could be a boomerang for the nation-state existence, and situates the whole nation-state structure in jeopardy.

Duara stresses that the (official) history is the most important issue in the educational system to keep and guarantee the continuity of the nationalism notion, the identity formation, as well as the power possessiveness. Consequently this is the first cause of why history (of nationalism) is antitheoritical. Another cause is the domination of older scientific model in achieving knowledge process that prevents the specific inquiries on identity and nation-state realm. Traditional scientific approach imposes a subject-object dichotomy between scholars or historians and their study. Indeed in reality what do the scholars or historians consider as object actually contributes and constitutes them as subject. In other words, Duara seems to imply such distinction between subject and object, particularly in historiography, is unscientific or illogical since the historian or the researcher actually is a part of, or at least influenced by, the story and history.

As the space of the nation is the territorially bounded geobody moving forward in time, Duara says, unlike traditional histories, modern national histories’ directionality is linear toward the future. “This linearity is modeled on the evolution-ism of a species, and the species is a nationality with whatever principle it may be defined: race, language, common history, or something else.”

Linear evolution-ism, he adds, refers to the way historiography constructs the object of analysis, which is nation-state in the midst of particular and specific circumstances. “Just as there can be complexity and reversals in evolution-ism, so too in modern history the national species can regress, lose its unity, and receive “new blood” from elsewhere. Just as a species can find dormant organs (or unforeseen abilities), so too do historians find obscured traditions or repressed histories to show the unity or abilities of a people anew. What remains is the notion of a nationality as a unity or category as in a species.”

A theory, particularly in historiography, is useful because it can explain the obscured truth about nationalism when historians start to raise questions in his research. “New questions open new angles of inquiry and expand and transform historical configurations. Materials that were peripheral in an earlier framework acquire a new significance and push us to look for more materials in response,” Duara says.

Thus, it means that the grand narrative of one nationality, for instance, can be changed and replaced. What in previous narrative was recognized as a hero, in the next narrative can be acknowledged as an enemy. In his own words, Duara says that there are always old stories and new stories, and the relationship between those stories is another story.

In many cases, old stories are challenged by the new stories. In situation the new stories won the battle, it becomes grand narrative and will be taught across the country as an official story of how the (new) nations-state emerges, until one day the next new story comes and defeats the preceding (new) story.

Duara says in his words, “History not only conceals the difference between historiography and historical reality but also can refer to both change and continuity. The notion of “you are history” refers to what is dead and gone, and we also look for the historical in the uniqueness of a society when we look for continuity, for the past in the present. There is also another deeper conception of history that refers to the creative principle, to the appearance of the new in time.”

He admits that incorporating the notion of the future as future history and the past as the appearance of the new perhaps is the most abstract conception of history. Indeed, “the philosophy of history has approached this concept with the idea of progress whereby the present can control future appearance.” He calls for self-reflexivity in reading history, since the notions of history can be made as a tool of power, and “without thinking through the problem of how space and time are conceived and produced in history, we become passive agents of powers such as the nation-state that control the meanings of such categories.”

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Born in Medan, lives in Jakarta, loves Indonesia.

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