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Crises of nationalism

Escrito por Monica Heller . Publicado en En voz alta



By Monica Heller
Professor, OISE and Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto


I am writing this in an airplane somewhere over the Canadian Prairies. I just spent three days in a wood-and-stone conference centre in the Canadian Rockies, surrounded by yellowing aspens and dark firs, with the obligatory elk encounter thrown in (no grizzlies, except maybe for academic ones). I was there with a dozen or so colleagues to exchange with Gérard Bouchard, a well-known historian, sociologist and public intellectual, the latter part of whose career has been spent trying to get Quebec to figure out cultural diversity in a way which preserves the idea of a francophone «Québec» without going down the road to ethnonational discrimination. Personally, I think this is an impossible act of contortionism which even the Cirque du Soleil could not manage, so this is where Bouchard and I diverge, despite my deep admiration for his intellectual rigour and commitment to social justice and public engagement.

Bouchard has written extensively on «interculturalism», and a few years ago was co-chair (with the political philosopher Charles Taylor) of the Quebec Commission sur les accommodements raisonnables. This Commission was struck after some doubtful incidents, notably a vote in the municipal council of a small town called Hérouxville (immigrant population: 0) regarding the admissibility of female lapidation and other imagined social ills thought to be the inevitable result of accepting immigrants, especially Muslim ones. (He and Taylor were, of course, rewarded for their commitment and service, including hours spent listening to nice old ladies beg them to save their granddaughters from having to wear burqas, with distorted media coverage and hate mail.) «Accommodements raisonnables» is short-hand for asking what is expected of the majority, white, francophone, once-upon-a-time Catholic population of Quebec when they interact with people coming to live in Quebec from elsewhere. It is never put in quite those terms: the question is what the «société d’accueil» should be prepared to do in the name of social cohesion in a liberal democratic society. But this raises two issues which were the subject of much debate these past few days and to which I will return later: what, and who, the société d’accueil is; and whether we should be asking the question in those terms at all.

Bouchard’s services are much in demand these days: a few weeks ago, the Parti Québécois, the governing party in Quebec, announced a projet de loi called La Charte des valeurs québécoises. This Charter proposes to ensure the state is understood to be secular by prohibiting its employees from wearing highly visible religious symbols (it’s more complicated than that, of course, but that is the core issue at hand.) Not surprisingly, the proposed charter has been terribly divisive, including, importantly, among white, francophone, once-upon-a-time Catholic Quebec nationalists and supporters of political independence. Exactly a week ago, Bouchard was invited to the popular television interview show, Tout le monde en parle, to debate the Charter's principal government sponsor, Bernard Drainville. Bouchard (as well as his Commission colleague, Taylor) argues that this vision of «valeurs québécoises» contradicts what he sees as the universal values of liberty and equality, if only because it makes it impossible for some citizens to apply for (or keep) their civil service jobs while acting according to their most profound beliefs. (Not to mention the hypocrisy whereby the crucifix in the National Assembly would be allowed to stay on the grounds that it is cultural heritage, not religious symbolism.)

Nonetheless, Bouchard argued this weekend, a «société d’accueil» should be allowed to set rules of the game for newcomers — as long as those rules remain within universal values and respect universal definitions of human rights. Part of his reasoning is that societies need common codes, or risk descending into chaos. A great deal of our conversation was devoted to pondering whether there was any difference between those of «Québec» and those of «English Canada», beyond the obvious one that Quebec’s discourse is framed within the notion that Quebec as a nation has to protect itself not just against English Canada, but English North America, and English globalization, while «English Canada» remains comfortably dominant. As that conversation evolved, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable. Claude Couture, a co-organizer (with Srilata Ravi) of the event, suggested that perhaps it might be necessary to place the whole conversation within an entirely different frame, one in which all that stuff needed to be understood as part of long-standing and on-going processes of what he calls colonialism, but which we can also think of as imperialism. Paulin Mulatris pointed out that the Congolese in Edmonton with whom he works think of themselves as located in an African diaspora which would not exist without colonialism at all, a colonialism which certainly helps account for how it comes to pass that those people now live where they do (at least some of the time). Which led me to ask two questions.

The first was who gets to say what a «société d’accueil» is? Who counts as part of that? Who gets to define its rules of the game? It seems to me that it is not enough to say that adherence to universal values and concern for social cohesion justifies a lack of attention to the inevitable internal struggles for voice (and hence at least a crack at discursive dominance). Bouchard asked «do you mean who holds the pen?». Yes, but more than that: who gets to sit at the table, to get in the door, to even find out there is a discussion going on? I am also concerned with the ways in which that dominant voice sets the frame for everyone. Do such «societies» have nothing to learn from challenges to what they believe? Can there be no space for such challenges? But more importantly, in my view, it seems to me we have to move away from a model in which such a thing as a «société d’accueil» — or even a société — is understood self-evidently to exist. In many ways thanks to Europe — and its imperial projects — we still are bound by political structures and regulations which adhere to that form. But if anthropology and linguistics have taught us nothing else in recent years, they have shown us that for many people, that frame is only one of many that are available to them (sometimes in ways that benefit them, sometimes not), and that often that frame is not the most salient way in which their lives are organized. Most importantly, lives are often experienced as passages, mobilities with points of mooring, in which the making and deployment of social difference is more complicated than a consideration of modernist ideas of citizenship.

Bouchard understands that such neo-nationalist backlashes as the Charter are dangerous, recalling elements of coercion that fail to square with liberal democracy. He also understands that the nation-State (or the nation?; or the State?) needs to reinvent itself. And I think he also understands that acting as though diversity and mobility were new or somehow different from how they used to be in the past is not helpful, not even for Europe. There is too much evidence of continuity for that.

I suggested yesterday, and now here again, that what is different is the phase of capitalism we are in, and hence the relative status of cultural and linguistic diversity as problem to be regulated versus resource to be exploited. But I think what is also new is that the many other principles of social organization which are available to us are regaining their salience, as the nation increasingly fails to erase or police them. How we deal with that goes way beyond the reinvention of national myths, or the study of «superdiversity», or universal values. It requires us to grasp what differences remain or are becoming salient and why, and how to invent modes of organizing and conducting social relations which allow for difference in ways which help manage conflict and permit creativity. I know I live neither in «Québec» nor in «English Canada», though I pay my taxes to the Canadian Ministry of Revenue, and can complain about beavers with the best of them. In both official languages. The challenge is to articulate my life not as a «non-place», or as «diaspora» or «lack of rootedness», or even a «margin», but as something else altogether.

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# Luisa Martín Rojo 01-10-2013 00:07
I have a question Monica. Firstly, I have to say that I agree with your questioning of the view of “super-diversit y” as a recent phenomenon. Your work on the commodification of languages and authenticity shows precisely an ideological shift, linked to late capitalism and late modernity, in the way diversity is recognised and treated.
However, considering what you say at the end of your text about the challenge of articulating your life “not as a «non-place», or as «diaspora» or «lack of rootedness», or even a «margin», but as something else altogether”, I would say that I think today it would be possible within a civil society. Wondering why, I formulated my question: couldn’t be that a shift is occurring at the local level, at the trans-local level, in social movements, in multi-ethnic neighbourhoods, in the view of diversity, that could be also seen as a normalisation, and even in same cases as a vindication, and a challenge for constraining categories. This shift could be a side effect of the changes and the new discourses on diversity produced by institutions and organisations driven by power or profit as the state and market are.
# Monica Heller 01-10-2013 16:21
Yes -- these notions come from ethnographic work -- noticing something new is happening in civil society, precisely, but then linking it to shifts in state and private sector practices and processes. The question -- which I think can only be answered empirically -- is what is happening where. A bunch of my collaborators and colleagues have noticed popular culture as an important space of reimagination for "linguistic minorities"; I think you would have a lot to say about neighbourhoods and social movements, no?
# Celso Alvarez Cáccamo 01-10-2013 20:01
Hi Monica, I liked your text very much, as usual, and I think, like Luisa, that it poses an important question, one that puzzles me. Somehow, you're asking about imagining a different (type of?) social space(s) where one's life is inscribed in "late capitalism" (or other labels), and one in reference to which, consequently (?), critical research can make sense of people's lives, including one's own. If I am wrong, just correct me right away and don't let me continue! But if I am not wrong, I wonder about the nature of that space (perhaps its political-econo mic nature?). That is, somehow those "social movements" and "multi-ethnic neighbourhoods" you and Luisa talk about are not the same when viewed and/or when experienced, since what one obtains from/in them depends on positions. After all (I ask), isn't that the nature of "scalarity", or, in older but less academically productive words, of Bourdieu's "social surface"? So, perhaps your question links to the beginning of your last paragraph, to "the relative status of cultural and linguistic diversity as problem to be regulated versus resource to be exploited", and, if so, the question would be half answered. "Articulating one's life" in such spaces depends, among other things, on own's treatment of such potential resources, so we may be witnessing (or constructing) something "different" (a "something else altogether") within the same, politically-eco nomically determining logic (of fields, if I may say so), in which case a critique of nationalism would mostly amount to a corrective description of the functioning of the market. (And excuse me if this actually is as confusing as it sounds!).
# Monica Heller 01-10-2013 21:03
Not sure I am following 100% but I would say that part of what I am saying is that we actually don't understand all that well what is going on, and we need to pay closer attention (ethnography! ethnography!) to what is happening where -- and it might not be in the usual-suspect places. This is not a critique of nationalism per se; it might generate its own (need for) critique -- since what is happening in the realignment of the nation-state might not always be so wonderful either.
# Celso Alvarez Cáccamo 02-10-2013 01:16
Well, I suspected my mess would be unintelligible. I tried to say, more or less, that "the relative status of cultural and linguistic diversity as problem to be regulated versus resource to be exploited" is crucial for understanding what is going on where, but not only for the people involved, but for that "we" as well. That is, it is a question of the articulation between fields: the social field where that stuff of the (non)commodific ation of linguistic diversity happens, and the field where that (non)commodific ation is constructed. In that sense, a critique of the "failure" of nationalist statism to deal with diversity may be just a (corrective) critique of the fact that cultural recognition is not working the way it should be in order to be the alibi that the market needs in order to continue to commodify the labor force (not language) in an eufemized way, which is what the whole thing is about. The "realignment of the nation-state" is a procedure, a matter of recognition, but its driving force is to continue to appropriate value, and the whole process lends itself to new ways for "us" to experience alignments and positions in which language is recommodified, but in a different field (such as through the emphasis on "superdiversity ").
# Miguel Pérez Milans 02-10-2013 06:23
Thanks for your provocative contribution, Monica. I have never been a fan of the ‘super-diversit y’ term either, but in the course of the last years I have developed the feeling that this term is also used differently by different people/subdisci plines. Although we often find this label linked to a supposedly recent phenomenon, as it has been also mentioned by Luisa, it is also the case that some people may being using it exactly in the same direction you point out in your last paragraph: “to grasp what differences remain or are becoming salient and why, and how to invent modes of organizing and conducting social relations which allow for difference in ways which help manage conflict and permit creativity”. I think this label is sometimes been used to invite people to think of difference beyond modernist and late modernist accounts/constr ucts in which frames of mono-, bi-, multi- and/or inter- do not seem to account for what people do/feel/say - including this people the ‘researchers’, since I have always had the impression that this label came in the shape of an anthropological warning for those doing research about difference without problematizing modernist and even late modernist ideological underpinnings; that is to say, this label has also been conceptualized as a call of attention for people to be aware of the complexities of pinpointing others in space/time. On the other hand, I celebrate your emphasis on ethnography for this endeavor (with or without accompanying label!), but I wonder if we need to make more explicit what kind of ethnography are we referring to when claiming the importance of this type of work. As someone socialized with ethnographers in the Academia, I always took for granted certain types of ethnography as ‘ethnography’ but now I am struggling to understand what other people mean by ethnography when having to engage in dialogue with others from other areas (including sociolinguistic s!). Ethnography has also its own pedigree and so it has also become a commodity across different disciplines, and so the label in itself might be as confusing as ‘superdiversity ’ when making our research concerns clear. What is your position regarding the labeling of the ethnographic work you do? I have been strongly criticized by other sociolinguists when I add the term ‘critical’ to ethnography in order to describe the approach that you talk about here...
# Monica Heller 02-10-2013 16:06
Let me try to take both Celso's and Miguel's comments on at once. I understand Celso to be saying (and if he is, I agree with him) that the real issue is what political economic regimes create what kinds of diversity (social categorization) for what purpose. It seems pretty clear that capitalism (early, modern, late, whatever) does this to make inequality in the interests of labour and resource exploitation (they aren't real people, their territory is an underdeveloped wasteland, and so on). Ideally, all that will be taken for granted. At the moment -- and this is what we are noticing -- the ways we used to make difference/ineq uality "normal", or at least police it so it doesn't disturb, aren't working so well any more. In that sense, this is absolutely not a matter of sub- or ortho- or superdiversity (or even of using the term to mean something else, which just makes no sense to me at all -- if you are really talking about something else, then talk about something else, no?).
So how to figure out what is going on -- in order to figure out how we feel about it, or perhaps want to do about it? This is where I think an ethnographic approach differs from say many normative approaches in political science -- which is a conversation we need to be having.
# Celso Alvarez Cáccamo 02-10-2013 18:31
Monica, thanks again for taking your time to address my ramblings -- I speak for myself, I know that other people's comments do make sense. I agree with what you say about capitalism etc., of course, but that's just the taken for granted starting point, as you say. Let us agree that labels such a "late capitalism", "knowledge capitalism", "tertiarization ", "cognitive capitalism", etc., all emphasize the growing importance of value produced by immaterial labor, such as language work, with immaterial resources, such as language itself. In this context, I think your question is not (only) about a critical ethnography, but about a reflexive ethnography. So, what is the academic field doing about it? Well, the field is doing it right, it is doing what it is supposed to do: agents generate notions, which are contested and struggled upon, and which awaken even awe among other agents or agents-to-be (mostly younger, but not only). It has been like this ever since we know and we remember, ever since the times of "code-switching " and "diglossia" and "face" or "crosstalk", to "metapragmatic awareness" to "reflexitivy" or "indexicality", or "crossing", "commodificatio n", "scalarity" or "superdiversity ". Or "hegemony", "colonization", "capital", "power" or "governamentali ty". Or "mobilities" or "moorings". I'm sure I'm leaving some out. The field is doing its job. The difference is, in my opinion, the degree of reflexivity about language that not only the academic field, but "diverse" linguistic populations now exhibit versus the times of Crosstalk, for example.

What the field is not looking at, in my humble opinion, is that which actually articulates it with other fields: value. If immaterial (linguistic, cognitive) labor produces value, this logic will operate anywhere and in any field where immaterial labor takes place, right? A given political regime may be just the armor to deal with new articulations between identities, practices, habitus, positions, and value production. It is interesting to describe those regimes, and the discourses they produce, and their effects, but this description may not explain "our" position. That's why I suggested that any ethnographic (or whatever) account of language may amount to a recommodificati on of language from particular, field-determine d positions, if disconnected from a general theory of language (or immaterial, in a broader sense) value production, circulation, and consumption. That's why I asked what sort of "something else altogether", which I understand as a space, are you asking about and looking for -- and you, as what exactly, from which position?

Much of this is contained, I believe, in Bourdieu's notion of "social surface", which I understand as the aggregate of an agent's various positions across (social) space and (social) time, which the accompanying so-called "capitals". And, if this is so and value creation through immaterial labor exists, and if we understand that "capitalism" is not only a structural armor or label denoting political systems, but also the political-econo mic (dis)order it contains, then a general understanding of the relations between identities, diversities, positions, "mobilities", languages, and values and their forms, should not start from a methodological schism between a type of agents ("us") and another one ("them", the observed, diverse populations).

Now, of course, there is an alternative uptake: discussing notions which reduce domination through language activity (or language work, or else language labor, and this is, precisely, one of the things that should be examined) to a sort of social-stylisti c variation. I, personally, find this quite uninteresting, perhaps because what I'm trying to understand is how, in the reproduction of class positions, the academic field has arrived at such a degree of fetishization of its own work to the point that its representations of the social world are no longer taken as a product, just as the "How can I help you?" that a call-center worker produces is.
# Monica Heller 02-10-2013 23:04
Well, I think there are two responses I'd like to give here. You're after a pretty all-encompassin g theory of knowledge production in late capitalism, which I admire, but which is way beyond my own humble capacities. Also I think your claim that we haven't paid attention to our position in or across fields, or the status of our knowledge production as commodity, is not entirely fair -- I'm sure there is more to say, of course.
# Celso Alvarez Cáccamo 03-10-2013 01:52
I didn't try to be that absolute or categorical. After all, what could I offer theoretically to claim or support all that? I simply don't see where value creation is being addressed in regards to, well, describing all those new phenomena. When I read stuff on that, many links related to value convertibility are missing, or at least I can't find them. And, therefore, I really don't know or don't understand how descriptions of the working of "capitals" in whatever population relate to class identities. I just can't find the links, that's why I ask.

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