Englishness and National Culture

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National characteristics, English. No I never touch goldfish!

New Formations

Since then, analysis which began by thinking about social groups in terms of class developed to consider gender and ethnicity among others ; it now needs to be directed at the most powerful collective identity to emerge with modernity: nation. My argument begins by justifying an understanding of nation in terms of collective identification; in conclusion I return to some of the unwelcome but ineluctable implications of recognising that human groups are organised on a basis which is unconscious as well as conscious. National collectivities identify with the overt symbols of nationhood flags, presidents but my proposal is that a much deeper effect is achieved through identification with a discursive formation specific to a particular nation.

If two strangers from the same nation meet and talk casually for half an hour, there would be a number of ways to analyse their exchange. I shall address the level at which the conversation would enact national identity, not just in what was said but in how it was said typical tropes, shifts of tone, jokes employed, the conception of truth appealed to.

The Idea of Englishness

To support this I shall take Englishness as my example. From the New Left of the s I have retrieved the proposal that the English tradition is essentially empiricist. It would have been possible to justify that argument by tracing a history of empiricism in English writing from my approach has been to establish a sense of the empiricist tradition from the seventeenth century and then look in detail at four examples of contemporary discursive forms.

Englishness and National Culture aims to demonstrate a profound and hardly acknowledged continuity between the seventeenth century and today. This means that often when English people journalists, historians, novelists, poets, comic writers and others think they are speaking in their own voices, in fact the discourse of an empiricist tradition is speaking for them.

I must also express my keen admiration for the anonymous reader for Routledge who understood what the book was trying to do better than I did. I am very pleased to thank Talia Rodgers for keeping faith with the project throughout. Finally, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Eric Lupton, without whom this book could not have been written. While every attempt has been made where appropriate to trace the copyright holders of the above material, the author and publisher would be pleased to hear from any interested parties.

Fernand Braudel , l, p. Gregory Elliott , p. It is therefore comparable to another exemplary version of the modern experience though one that rarely gets serious attention: driving a car.

Englishness and National Culture - CRC Press Book

You know how to drive when it has become a habit, a pre-conscious integration of perception and movement. Driving is a matter of submitting to rules, something you are reminded of every time you approach a crossroads are the lights red or green? Driving offers us two radically different positions. In one I have exceptional individual mastery. I see the world with almost all-round vision through a wide-screen windscreen as well as via two side-view mirrors and one rear-view mirror.

Besides physical controls operated with minimum physical exertion I have ready access to a display of dials, gauges and one-touch switches. To drive means that every micro-second I consign my life to the rationality, competence and good intentions of the Other. I have to trust that they will read the signs, obey the rules and observe the conventions as much as they trust I will do the same, checking the mirror before pulling out, stopping at red lights, and so on. A car driver, then, has a self he or she knows about yet that depends on another identity in which they are situated and positioned in ways they know little about.

This book will explore national identity not as a set of images, figures and practices of which we are more or less conscious but rather as an unconscious structure. It is, in a sense, a postcolonial study of Englishness. While various Brits have been happy to write about other countries and cultures in the context of post-colonial theory, few such dispassionate eyes have been turned on the motherland. I shall try to write about English culture as if it were foreign to me.

The effect of the proposal to define Englishness like this was sardonically exposed by a cartoon published in the Guardian on 16 January. Thy Gradgrind come. Thy Smiles be done in Kent as it is in Surrey.

For Scotland, independence day has already dawned | Neal Ascherson

Give us this day our Daily Mail, And forgive us our Socialists, as we forgive them that organise against us Not! And lead us not into Trade Unionism, but deliver us from Scargill. But I want to explore the conjecture that national identity also works at deeper strata than simply the content of the various overtly national practices, narratives, discourses, symbols and tropes through which national identity is conventionally presented and where it always appears one-sided and in dispute.

I am interested in nation as an identity that can speak us even when we may think we are speaking for ourselves. Consider the following case. Two people from the same country meet abroad and talk for half an hour. They might be of the same class, gender, religious affiliation, ethnic background or they might be alike in none of these.

Now there would be a number of ways of analysing their exchange.

Differences in National Culture

One would be to consider its particular content; another, the various class, gender and other identities which come into play for the conversants; or the aspects in which the conversation reflects international identities as European, say, or Islamic. If after their chat the couple felt that they had shared in a common national identity, it would not be so much because of what they said but because of how they said it.

My methodological principle here is close to that of the linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, when he set out to examine language not in the infinity of particular utterances parole but as an underlying system langue. How far can we understand nation as a particular discursive formation? Three difficulties in analysing nation Current debate places a number of obstacles in the path of an approach to nation; especially and significantly in an English context these are all founded in a belief that nation is somehow not material, not real.

Nation as class dominance In the first place there is a widely held belief that nation is a form of ideology, that is, a way of thinking designed to promote the interests of a particular social group. Since all nations must have a moment of origin, there is a respect in which nation derives from an exercise of force rather than democratic enactment. This emerged clearly when the new South Africa was founded, in fraught circumstances.


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In an essay on Nelson Mandela published seven years earlier Jacques Derrida had looked forward to this very moment. A particular rhetorical form suits this anticipatory mode.

Chapter 1. Englishness and the national culture

In this account the violence inhering in state power never goes away but becomes forgotten—overlooked—in so far as the unity of a nation becomes a matter of the general will, as the state becomes supported by the people. Equation of constitutional legality with the general will is never complete though it will always remain a promise as to what will have been.

On 22 May this letter from M.

As part of probably one of the smallest minorities in this vast country I am a white, suburban, thirty-something mother I have never understood, let alone had any feelings of, nationalismand 8 NATION patriotism. I have never known what it is to identify with and feel part of a larger whole. For the first time in my life I am moved when I hear our anthem being played, or see that multicoloured horizontal Y fluttering in the breeze.

I have been moved to tears more often this week than in my entire life; and those tears have been of profound joy at finally having a country to claim as my own. I would like to give a big thank you, from the bottom of my previously cynical and unpatriotic heart, to Mr Mandela, the African National Congress and all those wonderful South Africans who made it happen, for giving me a country to love. The depth and intensity of my national pride and love has taken me completely by surprise, but what a warm, wonderful, heartstirring feeling it is.

How far this is an untypical or extravagant reaction time will tell but the new country will not break up while there is a widespread identification with it as strong as that expressed in this letter. To try to understand the nation-state exclusively in terms of class power exercised through the state is simplistic and reductive. However, Anderson is not able to come up with the account of nation as collective identity which his rejection of nation as ideology had shown to be necessary.

This view of the pre-national community as real face-to-face contact contrasted with unreal national societies is embedded deep within British culture. We are born into relationships which are typically settled in a place.

Politics and Culture 1880-1920

Yet the jump from that to anything like the modern nation-state is entirely artificial. In the pre-national culture, the lost organic community where everyone knows everyone else, people are supposedly directly present to each other without mediation while in the nation they are not. But, alas, it is the case for every speaking subject that immediacy, spontaneity and direct presence are necessarily deflected and betrayed by the universalising, classificatory force of language.

Alienation of this kind is inescapable in every human culture there has ever been. Any theoretical opposition which would contrast some notion of authentic identity with the inauthenticity of national identity has to be rejected. Second, Anderson compounds his mistaken idea of nation as somehow fictional because he makes no attempt to theorise what might count as a materialist explanation of the nature and function of collective identity of which national identity is his major instance. Common sense furnishes him with no analysis of why this is so. Every social community reproduced by the functioning of institutions is imaginary, that is to say, it is based on the projection of individual existence into the weft of a collective narrative, on the recognition of a common name and on the traditions lived as the trace of an immemorial past.

Nation as real versus nation as spirit A third problem for analysing nation follows from the prevalence of a binary opposition between objective and subjective aspects of historical development. One side of that binary, widely supported among sociologists and historians, affirms that economic, social and political forces are real while discourse, culture and identity are less so; they are spiritual, subjective, and so outside serious discussion.

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One more brief but representative example.

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