Nationalism and the Limits of Inquiry

Perhaps George Orwell was right when he wrote in Notes on Nationalism (1945)—one imagines his eyelids lowered and his nostrils tightened in disgust—that “all nationalist controversy is at the debating-society level.” Certainly, much of the discourse surrounding nationalism today is bound up in an immature bellicosity. At worst, our conversations about nationalism return repeatedly to the balderdash of race-baiting and ethnocentrism—to the gibberish of making the nation “great again” through acts that, in reality, hasten its decline.

Must we always talk about nationalism this way? The answer, I think, is no. There are more expansive, more inclusive ways of conceiving nationalism and its rhetoric. As much as we suffer from Trump’s bluster these days, we also suffer from a lack of understanding of nationalism—a lack of understanding that results from a tradition in literary and cultural studies that sees nationalism as innately suspicious. Our theories of nationalism are so suspicious and so pejorative that we are unprepared to respond to its surges. When we fail to accurately depict the complexities of nationalism—or when we fail to mention it altogether—we cede room for others to take over the discussion. Our silences are particularly dangerous today when college students, as Marcia Chatelain recently noted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “are just one click away from websites and online forums that allow white nationalists to bring chaos onto campus,” often under the pretense of “learned racists.” Such sources seek to start false debates which transmute their hatred into supposed intellectual controversy.

The recent successes of extremists reflect our inability to take the manifold strains of nationalism seriously. Extremists have occupied the discursive space of the nation that critics have disregarded. With the sort of elite indifference one senses in Orwell’s description, literary and cultural critics have dismissed as banal an entire discourse that has proven far more dynamic than they estimated. To me, this says something not only about nationalism as a concept but also about the critical limitations of understanding the nation—and the limits of what constitutes critical inquiry today.

Nationalism does not seem to evoke the sort of urge to inquire that drives most scholarly curiosity. Instead, nationalism induces reflexive disdain and rote dismissal. In “American Studies Without Tears, or What Does America Want,” Liam Kennedy characterizes this disdain and dismissal as a “pathological stance” towards the nation that is “wary of sentiment…wary of nationalism.” Indeed, scholars feel the need to announce this stance in their writing in order to be seen as part of the club; they must, as Russ Castronovo writes, “willingly cloak themselves with a hair-shirt logic that makes their own penance about nationalism a prerequisite for progressive critique.” When critics use the word “nationalism,” it often glosses as aggressive and violent, and understandably so. Yet such assumptions have also led critics to limit themselves, to disregard what is in actuality a site of intellectual novelty and political boldness.

Nationalism is far richer than our rote academic critiques of it will allow. I write of this in more detail in my book Weak Nationalisms, but the gambit of my research is this: for literary and cultural critics, nationalism exposes what Rita Felski has called “the limits of critique.” Our reflexive performances, our denial of the affect that attends our subjects of study, has dulled our awareness of nationalism’s richness. When critics are unwilling or unable to engage critically with what we call the nation, they limit the relevance of their work. Our critical disdain may be a reflection of our own inward-looking academic politics, but what I think it shows most of all is that our contemporary critical toolkit has not equipped us to contribute to a discussion of the nation. Those tools merely exhaust those who use them.

Consider, for example, the career of Lionel Trilling. Early in his career, in an essay entitled “The Promise of Realism” (1930), Trilling wrote that “[t]here is only one way to accept America and that is in hate; one must be close to one’s land, passionately close in some way or other, and the only way to be close to America is to hate it; it is the only way to love America.” Trilling’s statement is at first bewildering. The intensity of his affects—acceptance, hate, love—are intertwined in such a way that they become embedded in each other. To accept the nation is to hate the nation, which is the only way to love the nation. Such affects, and the transitive way in which they are linked, reflect the complexity of closeness Trilling felt as he attempted to come to terms with America, as he came to love his hate and, ultimately, to accept his polyvalent attachment to the nation.

Yet Trilling’s attachment to America narrowed as he took on the mantles of university professor and public intellectual. He came to diagnose the nation at a distance rather than directly engage with its emotional foment. His writing evolved into displays of what Felski might call a “rhetoric of againstness.” (Trilling’s tortuous semantic work anticipates this trajectory: to convert his acceptance into hate, then into love, marks the work of a critic who feels compelled to convert one set of emotions into another more acceptable for the cause of criticism.)

For Trilling, such againstness made his critical career. Yet it also led, in the latter part of his career, to ambivalence. His refusal to take a stand on national dilemmas, such as the Vietnam War, endeared him to no one. Mark Krupnick explains that “[w]riters on both the left and the right had reason to feel let down by Trilling. His remoteness saved him from the polemical excess of intellectuals more deeply involved in the cultural debates of those years. But Trilling’s coolness was purchased at too high a price.” The critic who once saw the nation as a site of affective engagement, where hate led to love and acceptance, seemed increasingly uninterested in examining the contentious issues that continued to characterize nationalism—that one would expect to reactivate intense affects. Trilling’s abstention from the politics of Vietnam was not an acceptance of the hate and love that can bring someone closer to the nation. Trilling’s stance manifested a critical indifference towards the dynamic affects that the nation evokes.

The high price that Trilling paid was not only political, but affective as well. Againstness produces intellectual and emotional exhaustion. By the end of Trilling’s career, as Marianna Torgovnick (who briefly attended his graduate seminar at Columbia University) notes, he “had taken to reading aloud long passages from his essays and praising them as ‘elegant’ or ‘well-put’ without—and this was the curious part—ever identifying them as his own.” I would draw a parallel between Orwell’s nostril-tightened indictment of nationalism and Trilling’s eyes turned upward and away from his students: both exude disdain for what is right there in front of them. Orwell and Trilling did what many literary and cultural critics continue to do today. They sought distance from complex feelings through rote performances of a single feeling: suspicion.

The cost of such suspicion and the critique that comes with it is profound. Againstness, while positioning the critic as a supposedly superior interpreter, also limits inquiry to the point that the critic is left talking to himself, impressed by his critical prowess but speaking to no one. To Torgovnick, Trilling “had disappeared into the tradition, a tradition he felt that most of the students before him no longer respected and therefore no longer deserved. His manner was both effete and distant—and, finally, both defeated and hostile. His ‘we’ was directed at the ceiling, not toward his students, sitting there before him. We were the barbarians inside the gates; he wanted none of us.”

How does the professor at the seminar table never see the students sitting beside them? By disappearing into critical traditions that insulate the academic from the realities in front of them. How does the critic who has watched the country go asunder refuse to examine the complexity of its convulsions? By retreating into a critical tradition that too easily dismisses nationalism as unworthy of academic inquiry.

Trilling’s problem is the problem of American literary and cultural criticism. His problem continues to be a parable for anyone interested in America as a nation. Trilling’s career reveals how such an oppositional stance becomes a problem for critics not only in the way that it ultimately reduces our discourse of nationalism into dismissals, but also in the way it limits criticism’s ability to reach new audiences and remain relevant in a changing, turbulent world. Critique will not save us from the marauders at the gate. Recent history suggests that critique leaves the door open for nationalism’s most loathsome elements to come inside the academy.

What we need now is a criticism that acknowledges nationalism’s diverse range of affects. Reflecting on Felski, Diana Fuss reminds us in “But What About Love?” that positive affects offer an alternative incitements for criticism. “Transference, love and deep attachment are not mere footnotes in psychoanalysis,” Fuss maintains. Rather, “[t]hey are bedrock theories—places where conflict and connection, agon and eros, are never far apart.” To be aware of the manifold affects at work in acts of criticism would yield a criticism more aware of itself, more attuned to its affective registers and more engaged with its subject. We become better critics when we engage, rather than deny (as Trilling did), the complexity of our subjects’ affective contours.

We are too often shocked by a nationalism that our critical tools have made invisible to us. What we should remember is that the nation, by default, exceeds our grasp. Neither facts nor personal experience, nor any solitary critical approach, can capture a full portrait of the nation. Where criticism is often exclusively reliant on aloofness, againstness, suspicion and superiority in its understanding of nationalism, the wider range of affective tonalities of the nation await our inquiry. And in this regard, the nation is impatient. As Jill Lepore has recently reminded historians, “a nation born in contradiction will forever fight over the meaning of its history. But that doesn’t mean history is meaningless, or that anyone can afford to sit out the fight.”

Literary and cultural critics, I would similarly insist, must attend to the contradictory affects that drive their studies of the nation. Now, more than ever, critics must present nationalism’s diverse picture—and to do so, the enterprise of criticism must become less reliant on suspicion, opposition, and disengagement. We must attest to the tapestry of attachments that characterize our studies of the nation, lest we continue to cede nationalism to the zealots of the debating society, lest we miss that which is urgently in need of our interpretation.

Douglas Dowland is Associate Professor of English at Ohio Northern University. This essay is excerpted from his book Weak Nationalisms: Affect and Nonfiction in Postwar America, which will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in July 2019. This excerpt appears by permission of the University of Nebraska Press.

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