The element which holds together a given community cannot be reduced to the point of symbolic identification: the bond linking together its members always implies a shared relationship toward the Thing ... This relationship toward the Thing ... is what is at stake when we speak of the menace to our ‘way of life’ presented by the Other: it is what is threatened when, for example, a white Englishman is panicked because of the growing presence of ‘aliens’. What he wants to defend is not reducible to the so-called set of values that offer support to national identity. National identification is by definition sustained by a relationship toward the Nation qua Thing.[i]
The study of nation formation and nationalism, has become inexorably bound up with the liberal consensus of the Anglophone academy around the problematic nature of national adherence, allegiance or attachment. As Benedict Anderson has shown, nations, nation-states and nationalisms are relatively recent creations that belong to the later phases of the longue durée of modernity and are ‘cultural artefacts’.[ii] As a critical-discursive field within the academy, nationalism (and its attendant ‘artefacts’ of the nation-state, the nation and whatAnderson calls ‘nation-ness’[iii]) is only located in those territories that have a particular story to tell. The ingredients of that story are well known and invariably emphasise the contested relation of state and nation-ideal: nationalism is born, so the story goes, of a mismatch, a misfire or a hitch in the flow of political power; it is a kind of blockage that needs to be cleared, a crisis to be overcome.
In this hegemonic liberal academic discourse, then, nationalism flourishes,
1. where public political discourse and the operation of statehood are perceived to be in radical discontinuity with each other;
2. where political power is perceived as being exercised by agents external to the national, from outside of the ‘people’;
3. where there is thus a strong martyrological discourse attending the ‘nation’ and its ‘culture’ (often linked to tensions between administrative language and the people’s language);
4. where there is a vibrant vernacular culture (or the perception of it);
5. where there is clear evidence of what Anderson calls ‘unisonality’;[iv]
This story of nationalisms is also a story counter-narrated against a much older and far less ambivalent story, with its origins in the European Enlightenment and in radical liberalism. That older story, narrated endlessly until the middle of the twentieth century, is a story forged in the heat of political attachment to the nation-ideal, the Kulturnation, and invariably imagines the rise of the nation state as the rise of the people: Herder’s declaration, ‘Denn jedes Volk ist Volk; es hat seine National-Bildung wie eine Sprache’[v] points, in this older-liberal imagination of the nation, to a logic of self-ownership, of sovereignty and autonomy and to an internally-facing imagination of the people as constituted among themselves as an ideal unit. What the later, more agnostic liberal stories share, especially after the second world war, is a desire to debunk the dewy-eyed optimism of that originary radical-liberal story: for the later scholar, that story, the story of the great collective rising up and overthrowing its masters, is one which has duped, radicalized and ultimately betrayed the people, led them to mass madness and driven them to a blood-thirsty frenzy with promises of the Sonderweg or blessed path to freedom. This is thus the mainstay of the contemporary critical discourse on nationalism (and in this, Anderson and Gellner can serve as exemplars): the nation state is a fantasy born of a seduction born of a blockage and leads to mass psychosis.
There are, within this pervasive critique of the nation state, also a number of loci classici at which, traditionally, nations and nationalisms have been seen to form themselves. These, inevitably, have tended to be located east, north or south of the old imperial seats of Britain, France,Germany and Austria-Hungary. Hence, much of Ernest Gellner’s discourse on nationalism, for example, focussed on Eastern Europe and theorisations since then have tended to imagine nation states outside Europe as following the same logics, the same pathways as those taken by European nations of the nineteenth century (the same routes to fruition and the same inevitable declines into disenchantment).[vi] That pervasive Eurocentrism has recently come under fire from scholars who, whilst attaching themselves to a similarly agnostic theory of the nation-state, nonetheless also seek to emphasize the rich diversity and complexity of nation states both within and outside the traditional European purview. These more recent theorists have also sought to distinguish, for example, between ‘civic’ and ‘ethnic’, ‘liberal’ and ‘organic’, and ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ nationalisms, whilst also sketching out the existence of ‘transnations’, ‘internations’, ‘counternations’ and other cognates of the nation-state that occupy the space between the local on the one hand and the global on the other.[vii]
Nonetheless, a pervasive agnosticism vis-à-vis the nation-state and nationalism in particular persists. What this pervasive agnosticism has consistently missed is the stubborn persistence of the nation (and of nationalism) in political contexts that display few, if any, of the ingredients listed above. The rise of ‘English nationalism’, for example, is a good case in point in which, far from representing a minority state, or even a state in any sense linguistically, culturally or politically ‘disadvantaged’, England is pointedly and poignantly re-framed within a new martyrological discourse around notions of ‘Englishness’ as ‘silenced’ or under some malign threat:
What is curious … is the fact that England has been forbidden. Venerable customs and wise institutions are under threat or already abolished: the grammar schools, the old House of Lords, the Prayer Book [sic] and the English Bible, English weights and measure, English currency, local regiments, the Royal Tournament – every practice in which the spirit of England can be discerned seems fated now to arouse contempt, not in the world at large, but in the English.[viii]
Here there is no threat to the linguistic autonomy of the English, no immanent invasion, no deadly crisis round the corner, no threat to their political hegemony, but, rather, a strongly stated sense of imminent and, crucially, self-inflicted decline. How can this be nationalism? And yet nationalism it certainly is in that it maps out a consistent story of the mismatch of the political reality and the imagined community of England. Notice, also, that Scruton fetishizes the markers of this imagined community: grammar schools, House of Lords, Common Prayer Book, the St. James’s Bible, imperial measures, sterling, and so on; they are all somehow connected, as if there were something, to put it in Alan Finlayson’s terms, that, ‘[gave] them cohesion’.[ix] For Scruton, then, the fetishes all stack up and point in one direction toward some thing, as yet (indeed always) unnamed, but imputed, suggested, imagined and produced in the obsessive-compulsive ordering of the fetishes of the nation. That Thing is the call to order, the call to connect, the call to desire.
Slavoj Žižek has shown how the persistence of nationalism in the European imagination in particular (but also in other contexts) cannot be sufficiently thought in the context of the liberal-agnostic thesis. What is striking in Žižek’s analysis is precisely this: that so-called ‘deconstructionist’ theories of the nation (what we have been terming liberal-agnostic theories here) have too readily ‘reduced’ the nation to mere symptom of an ideology, the ‘product’ of a certain Weltanschauung. As Žižek puts it:
A nation exists only as long as its specific enjoyment continues to be materialized in a set of social practices and transmitted through national myths that structure those practices. To emphasize in a ‘deconstructionist’ mode that Nation is not biological or transhistorical fact but a contingent discursive construction, an overdeteremined result of textual practices, is thus misleading: such an emphasis overlooks he remainder of some real, nondiscursive kernel of enjoyment which must be present for the Nation qua discursive entity-effect to achieve its ontological consistency.[x]
In other words, the liberal-agnostic discourse misses precisely that element of national consciousness that enables its continued persistence, despite the widespread discrediting of its ideology: outside of discourse, outside of symbolisation, there must be some thing that allows subjects to constitute themselves as subjects, to conceive of themselves not merely as symptoms of the flow of semiosis, but also as corporeal fleshy beings, as instances, and it is precisely this that makes nationalism ‘sticky’. For Žižek, then, the kernel of enjoyment that sustains nationalism is bound up precisely with something that cannot be held in discourse, but which falls outside of it, as a nugget of jouissance. The ‘Thing’ that sustains that jouissance is thus something that sustains desire – the desire to adhere, the desire to believe, the desire to demonize the Other.
We are in a position now to inflect the liberal-agnostic thesis of nationalism thus: whilst it is true that nationalism constitutes a fetishization of ritual, behaviour, objects and images around an ‘imagined community’ (for Scruton, grammar schools, the House of Lords, the Common Prayer Book, the St. James’s Bible, imperial measures, sterling and so on), the key to understanding the ideological structure that holds these different fetishes together is not the upper level of that structure (its ‘superstructural’ effects), but the enjoyment that that ordering delivers. In this sense, then, it is a matter of thinking attachment to nation as to something that promises to fill the lack in the Other. And here is something quite profound in Žižek’s theory not merely of nationalism but of the political field in general: the political is, to be sure, always constituted around fantasy, but that fantasy is not the ground, but itself a superstructural effect of what lies beneath, a huge dark and arbitrary (and therefore ‘empty’) structure that casts about for fantasies and which is never satisfied by them. That ‘undergrowth of enjoyment’,[xi] is a space that allows ideology to stitch itself into the Real. To understand nationalism, then, one must not seek to uncover the fantasy that lies beneath, but one must seek, instead, to uncover attempts to cover over the empty and arbitrary constitution of its ground and the erotic investments it makes in that undergrowth.
What is striking in this context, then, is the extent to which the political rituals of nationalism consistently relied on the appropriation and redistribution of regional, vernacular and interior ‘exotic’ musical traditions. Music, therefore, is taken up as fetish, reordered, brought under the logic of the Thing that holds nationalism together and made to project an underlying cohesion which cannot be named: our music tells us who we are, but that is not all that we are – there is something else we cannot get at, an excess that music can only vaguely point to. Invariably, the music fetish is sustained where the threat of the Other seems most intense. Where, conversely, there seems to have been little or no contestation vis-à-vis the status of, for example, bourgeois music, where, that is, there seems to have been a clearly articulated and unproblematic match of a fully-fledged art music tradition with the national ideal, musical nationalism is infrequently in evidence. Where, conversely, the status of the national ideal is in stark contrast to a diagnosed political crisis (where, for example, one language territory is cruelly ruled by another), and where bourgeois art musics are aligned with internationalising tendencies or with cultures occupying the position of interloper or occupier (the Master, the malign Other), musical nationalisms tend to proliferate. There are, of course, some interesting exceptions, where the call of the Master seems to make itself felt even when the nation’s musical cultures are far from under threat. The case of Germany both before (as a Kulturnation or ‘cultural nation’) and after (as the Wilhelmine Second Reich) unification, is a striking case in point.
[i] Slavoj Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative (Durham N. C.: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 201, quoted in Alan Finlayson, ‘Psychology, Psychoanalysis and Theories of Nationalism’, Nations and Nationalism, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1998), 145–62: 154.
[ii] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London & New York, 2nd edn 1991), p. 4.
[iii] Ibid., p. 3.
[iv] Ibid., p. 145.
[v] Johann Gottfried Herder, Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (Riga and Leipzig: Hartknoch, 1785), p. 245. Misquoted in Anderson (67-8), this is quite difficult to translate precisely because the German contains an ambiguity that the English does not. The translation depends on the context (the ‘Denn’ refers back o what comes before). The context is as follows: ‘Endlich wünschte ich auch die Unterscheidungen, die man aus rühmlichem Eifer für die überschauende Wissenschaft dem Menschengeschlecht zwischengeschoben hat, nicht über die Grenzen erweitert. So haben einige z. B. vier oder fünf Abteilungen desselben, die ursprünglich nach Gegenden oder gar nach Farben gemacht waren, Rassen zu nennen gewaget; ich sehe keine Ursache dieser Benennung. Rasse leitet auf eine Verschiedenheit der Abstammung, die hier entweder gar nicht stattfindet oder in jedem dieser Weltstriche unter jeder dieser Farben die verschiedensten Rassen begreift. Denn jedes Volk ist Volk: es hat seine Nationalbildung wie seine Sprache.’ The complexity in rendering this into good English stems from at least three problems : first on the repeated term Volk because the second would be rendered differently in English than the first, thus losing the emphatic repetition of the German; second, the force of ‘wie’ here is difficult to translate since it could mean both ‘like’ or ‘as if’ in English; third, the term Nationalbildung (hyphenated in the original Herder but now usually given as a single word) has an ambiguity in German that is difficult to render accurately into English – the second element Bildung has a complex history and refers to he notion of a ‘formation through culture’ or ‘culture as process’ and therefore the full term Nationalbildung could mean something like ‘national becoming’, ‘national culture’ or ‘national formation’. ‘Denn’ here is clearly a conjunction that expands the preceding sentence ‘Race leads to a differentiation of origin (lit. racial extraction), which here is either not the case or one [will] encounter a huge diversity of races in every small corner of the world under each flag.’ In other words, race is too crude a marker of nation since it leads either to a false splitting of the origins of a nation or will cause a multitude of peoples to crawl out from under each flag. We might thus render the final key sentence here as something like ‘Because every people is a people (i.e. a nation): each has its national culture (or formation) like [a] language’.
[vi] Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (New York, 1983).
[vii] Ian Biddle and Vanessa Knights, ‘Introduction’, Music, National Identity and the Politics of Location: Between the Global and the Local (London: Ashgate, 2007), pp. 1–18.
[viii] Roger Scruton, England: An Elegy (London and New York: Continuum,  2006), p. 247.
[ix] Finlayson, ‘Psychology’, p. 154.
[x] Žižek, Tarrying, p. 202.
[xi] Slavoj Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (London and New York: Verso, 1991), p. 237.