, , , , ,

Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. 286 pp.

The categories of “nation” and “identity,” have come under much attack recently, especially after Ernest Renan’s 1983 publication, Qu’est-ce que la nation? and Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities in 1991. Most works have focussed on case studies of “imagined communities” in different regions of the world, not the least of which are Joseph Massad’s Colonial Effects, Partha Chatterjee’s The Nation and its Fragments, and Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen. Prasenjit Duara intends to challenge in his Rescuing History from the Nation, however, the category of “nation” at an entirely different level – that of its accrued power when embedded within the narrative of modernity and progress that stem from the Enlightenment.

Although ostensibly about China, Rescuing History questions the very nature of nation formation, not only sociologically, but linguistically. As Anthony Smith notes, nationalism can be construed to refer to a process, a kind of sentiment or identity, a form of political rhetoric, an ideology, a principle or set of principles, or a kind of socio-political movement.1 Oftentimes, nationalism is conflated with other movements like indigenous modernization and anti-imperialism.2 The traditional discourse on nationalism has strongly favoured a European conceptualisation of history, resulting in what Duara contends is an Andersonian emphases on centralisation, institutionalisation, and modernisation. By modernisation, not only is the capitalist mode of production and high literacy levels implied, but also the secularisation of the public. Benedict Anderson, Ernest Renan, and Ernest Gellner have all argued in a positivist vein that rational growth (socio-economic and of polities) would mean the end of traditional (read religious) systems and create a common community that will be the location of nationalism. Behind this modern versus premodern polarity lies the assumption of modern consciousness as a unified episteme marked by an epistemological break with past forms of consciousness. However, Duara argues that the modernisation paradigm gives too much credit to homogenisation while it overlooks antagonisation and heterogenisation.3 What is thoroughly unique and refreshing about Duara’s work is that he does not see, as most scholars of nationalism do, nations as a modern concept. This view arises, he explains only if self-consciousness is seen in a Hegelian and therefore teleological perspective.

As Duara argues, modern History requires a subject, and while our topics may change – monarchs, states, class, individuals, identity groups – the silent space of reference occupied by the nation is always implied. (27) As scholars have written, the nationalist project demands that we forget as much as we imagine. Therefore, provincial, religious, and other narratives are squashed that do not contribute to the unified national narrative. Regionalism, therefore, must be painted as fratricides rather than be allowed to challenge the national fabric. Particularly problematic are other discourses that have universalist aspirations. In India, for example, Hinduism posited a strong religio-cultural comity that developed conceptions of society and a cultural web but left unanswered the “need” for a political organisation. Duara also gives the example of China, where a statist vision developed without a nation, which was also undesirable for nationalists of the twentieth century.

What is different about Duara’s work is that he focuses less on the falsehoods of nationalist historical writing and more on the creation of the narrative. He advocates the study of “bifurcated history,” that displays history as transactional, where the present, by appropriating, repressing, and reconstituting the dispersed signifiers of the past also reconstitutes the past. (233)

1: Anthony Smith, National Identity (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1991), 72.
2: Nationalism, unlike anti-imperialism, is not merely an attitude of opposition, but an ideology through which the Self is created against the Other.
3: Peter van der Veer, Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1994), 15.