Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Review: Who Sings the Nation-State?

[Judith Butler and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Who Sings the Nation-State? Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2007.]

This document is clearly the edited transcript of an event at which academic luminaries Butler and Spivak spoke, but it says nothing about what or when or where. I bought it as a book in a bookstore -- I ran across it on a trip to Toronto last December and picked it up because I knew I would be doing a reading course based in critical readings on nations and nationalism in the summer term, but was so occupied by the course's actual readings that I never opened it -- but it is really more of a pamphlet.

I am, in principle, a believer in producing more kinds of texts in more ways, but much like my one previous experience of a book made from one evening of talks from academic superstars -- interestingly, Butler was also a participant in that one -- the tendency was for the speakers/writers to focus on their preoccupation of the moment without the kind of contextualization and set-up that you would expect in a monograph or even in a well-constructed scholarly article, so there was a scattering of interesting stuff but often not adequately situated in any kind of larger picture.

Butler's remarks seemed to come out of her ongoing interest in Palestine, though she referred to that context only occasionally, and out of attention to the debates about immigration in the United States. She made some useful points about states and statelessness, mostly in the context of reexamining and rethinking a number of works by Hannah Arendt (the nuances of which were mostly beyond me). She talked about the inevitability of stateless people being produced by any system of nation states, and indeed that a defining feature of the nation-state is the power to expel people from belonging. She talked about the inadequacy of the inside-outside metaphor, given that the state of statelessness in today's world is not at all a disconnection of your everyday life from the state, but rather a subjection to a new kind and intensity of state power. Sometimes this means being physically outside, but often it does not. She touched a little bit on Giorgio Agamben's idea of the "state of exception" -- the space which is defined law as being lawless, in which state power can do as it pleases -- as one way this has been talked about. But she pointed out that this is based on seeing only two kinds of power, a kind of binary between the rule-of-law and arbitrary sovereignty, when in fact attention to how power is working for both citizens and stateless people requires more willingness to admit complexity. Interestingly, she included not just stateless peoples like the Palestinians, or situationally stateless individuals such as refugees, in her use of the term, but also systematically incarcerated populations as well.

The title of the book comes, by the way, from an example that Butler takes from the massive immigration protests that occurred in 2005 or 2006 in the United States. She cites an instance in the most massive of those demonstrations in Los Angeles in which undocumented and documented Latino/a migrants sang the U.S. national anthem in Spanish, which white conservatives in that country were enraged by. She talks about this singing as a fascinating and complicated moment that is not without its potential dangers but that is a kind of breach with the United States-as-it-is, a kind of enactment of freedom in the face of its denial, of belonging in the face of being told you do not belong, while in the process making it clear that the entity to which you claim belonging will necessarily be transformed if/when that belonging is realized. (I couldn't help but think of idea of José Esteban Muñoz's idea of "disidentification".)

Unfortunately, Butler spoke too long and left Spivak too little time -- or, at least, I think that's what the relative space each takes up in the transcript means. Spivak's main focus was the idea of critical regionalism. I wish she had had more chance to explain that project, because it seems to be based on a quite different way of being critical of the nation-state than I am used to. As someone with anti-authoritarian sensibilities who tries to be in support of anti-colonial and indigenous struggles, I'm used to thinking of the state form (and the capitalist social relations of which it is a part) as the problem, while treating nations and even sometimes nationalisms as important vehicles for liberatory struggle in some contexts. Spivak, on the other hand, seems to see critical yet grounded interrelationship to one's region and among the various peoples within it as a way to work past the toxicity of nationalism while preserving the structures of the state, which she sees as essential for redistribution and constitutional redress. I want a chance to engage with that perspective much more thoroughly than this pamphlet permitted, because I think that whether or not I ended up convinced, I would learn a lot.

In any case, this is a strange little book, and probably only of interest to you if you are a compulsive reader of one or both of the speakers, or if you are seeking as broad a range as possible of critical ideas about the nation-state.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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