THIS IS THE FIRST PART of a conversation that will be published as a foreword to the Serbian translation of Stathis Gourgouris’s Does Literature Think?: Literature as Theory for an Antimythical Era, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2003.
OBRAD SAVIC: I suggest we begin our discussion with your first book, Dream Nation: Enlightenment, Colonization, and the Institution of Modern Greece (1996), because you marked one problem there that needs to be resolved in principle. In the new preface to the Serbian translation of the book, you insist on the importance of the psychical moment for an appropriate reading of the nation as dream:
In many ways, the epistemological primacy this book gave to the psychical elements of nationalism seems, unfortunately, to be historically confirmed. My tendency is to think against the grain, so I take this to be the proper occasion to put the association of nation with dream into question — if not the mere association, then the mode in which this association might usually be made.
Could you summarize a dominant mode of dream nation today (for example, disciplinary names such as a “film nation” or “music nation”), as well as the contemporary structure of imaginary framing of national identity, already in deep crisis, even disaster, especially in what some perceive to be a postnational constellation?
STATHIS GOURGOURIS: You are sending me back to some old material, which is forcing me to rethink, but I can’t remember specific contexts very well. Much of the material in Dream Nation was written as early as 1989–90 — indeed, very much as the Soviet world was collapsing, which in retrospect makes for an interesting component or perspective on the project that would need to be discussed separately at some point.
But it’s certainly true that ever since I wrote all that I have been mindful of rethinking it, and the preface to the Serbian translation of Dream Nation reveals that tendency, plus a certain crisis of mind I had at the time in discovering how immediately relevant my theoretical view of “national fantasy” was to a people traumatized by it, in actual terms, in the aftermath of the bloody civil war in Yugoslavia. Being in Belgrade on the occasion of this publication (2004) made this impression indelible. So, the impetus — which I still stand by — is to rethink the notion of the nation as a dream-form according to the historical demands that arise continuously different and differential in scope and terrain. I am not sure, in other words, that “dream nation” can stand alone as an epistemological notion. It’s not a philosophical concept. Or, whatever about it might have philosophical meaning can only make sense — I mean this also poetically: “create sense” — in some specific historical situation.
Having said that, I also don’t believe that the figure “dream nation” can be equated with what are, as you say, disciplinary names — “film nation” or “music nation,” or even “queer nation” — because the nation’s dream-work, as I discuss it, takes place within these disciplinary parameters as well. There is no national community — and even more, there is no communal identity that wants to claim or borrow the power of the nation in order to define itself — that can evade engaging in dream-work. What this dream-work is specifically I cannot easily say, but I would risk the provocative generalization that no so-called postnational formation has managed to escape the imaginary of the nation.
A simple thing one can add, which of course you know very well, is that all nations are created — there is no natural nation, or there are no people who naturally belong to a nation. Every nation is a fiction — a profound, powerful, and even genuine fiction, in the sense that the people who come together to create it are altogether genuinely (that is to say, existentially) committed to this creation as their reality, even as their nature. So, there’s a lot of dream-work going on!
It seems that in Dream Nation you are focused on the “operative framework of the nation-form” in terms of a peculiar dream-work:
The original impetus was to find a language that would account for those intangible dimensions in the formation and sustenance of national identity beyond the obvious elements that we could identify as social, ethnic, historical, geographical, cultural, linguistic, etc. Not that I consider such elements secondary or substitutable in any way, but I do argue that they cannot account, in themselves, for the profoundly affective adherence to nationalist ideals, to a whole imaginary universe that so often registers with overwhelming and altogether tangible, real, violence.
Can we conclude beyond any political dramatization that every nation comes into being with phantasmatic, symbolic violence, as well as with real, political violence, always already present in the form of founding crime? In other words, could we speak about the birth of a nation from the spirit of crime? By the way, in Does Literature Think? (2003), specifically the chapter “Enlightenment and Paranomia,” you are more than clear in this regard: “Revolution is consubstantial with violence, at least since the foundations of the French republic were laid on a veritable river of blood.”
Well, I don’t know if it is indeed an act of crime — I’ll come back to that — but without a doubt no nation can come to be without some sort of foundational violence. Mind you, this does not necessarily need to coincide with a nation’s alleged moment of foundation — which, after all, nationalism would prefer to locate in some immemorial ancestral past where time is nonexistent! From what I remember off hand, Benedict Anderson argues that civil war violence is necessary to national formation, and it may occur not at the “origin” but in the “middle.” In other words, the foundation narrative requires violence no matter when this occurs, even if — or precisely because — it then goes on to absorb this violence in the national narrative, to sacralize it, assimilate it, and efface it.
But what does it mean to call this violence a “founding crime”? A beautiful idea, I must say. Permit me to be juridical for a moment, since the phrase demands it. The notion of crime presupposes transgression of a legal status quo. Surely, the birth of a nation may defy such juridical boundaries — colonial law, even international law. But who judges this as a crime? Only those (enemies) who deny the legitimacy of this birth. So, even if the birth of a nation is the outcome of some revolutionary transgression, as it often is, it does not help us to criminalize it.
Having said that, yes, national foundation entails, if nothing else, violent rupture in the established field of political organization. This is the minimum. What is really more important is to account for the ways in which this foundational violence haunts the presumed normality of national sovereignty, how it is repressed but also repeated, oftentimes as preemptive violence against an other, a neighbor or an adversary — the neighbor is often the enemy, these new theories about this notion forget that — but also an internal minority, and so on. It is the embedded violence that exists silently within national normality that matters most.
It is more than self-evident that “effective nationalization” of any given society demands, as a necessary precondition, effective expansion of the exclusionary figuration of the other, the extension of the logic of exclusion. As you write in Dream Nation:
In this sense, there can never be a nationalism that is not polemical, that does not defend an entity against a designated adversary, that does not create an enemy, to put it bluntly. Although the terms and range of enmity can vary a great deal, some sort of object of exclusion is always present.
Is it possible to offer additional explanation for that explicit and very radical thesis, according to which the Enlightenment imaginary of self-determination — “A people’s self-determination is self-territorialization in all the necessary registers: geographical, political, symbolic” (Dream Nation) — has been instituted simultaneously with a logic of exclusion? What is the role of the logic of exclusion in modern forms of separation understood as nationalization?
Well, the earliest formation of my thinking when I was 20 years old, in addition to the requisite general Marxist framework of those days, came from Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. And whatever may be my subsequent disagreement with some of the aspects of this book (mainly their understanding of myth), what I learned from it about the Enlightenment as a contradictory and contentious formation has proved invaluable.
Yes, there cannot be self-determination without self-territorialization and therefore without instituting boundaries of exclusion. But this is so elemental it doesn’t say much at all. I mean, it’s a basic psychoanalytic idea, if nothing else. What self can come to be without creating boundaries that differentiate this self from an other? In this specific sense, there is nothing negative in the idea. It is a necessary condition of sociality. Only a kind of delusional liberalism envisions the coexistence of peoples without exclusionary boundaries. This is, of course, a fantasy, a dangerous phantasmatic presumption because it precipitates its own modes of exclusion which it never acknowledges.
Again, most important, from my standpoint, is to understand the specific politics of exclusion. Who is excluded, how, and why? Is exclusion explicit and what are its institutional parameters? Is it legalized or clandestine, unacknowledged? Is exclusion internal or external to the community? If exclusion is constitutive of a community, is it irreversible? All these questions and many more provoke an encounter that precipitates political choices, decisions.
The specific politics of encountering exclusion is what matters, because I really don’t think exclusion can be eradicated. I don’t share the fantasy of an all-inclusive community. Or, let’s put it this way: even if we can imagine a condition of total inclusion, this does not mean that such a community will be without contention, without internal ruptures, whereby new posibilities for exclusion may continuously arise.
I always read Dream Nation as a kind of a “Ghost Science,” a literary hauntology of the spectral nation that haunts us. This is a proper moment to invoke our common mentor and friend Jacques Derrida, who inspired us, especially through his book Specters of Marx (1993), to start to think about history as a battlefield of phantoms, as the fight among the ghosts “who are neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive.” Following this line of thinking, you are arguing that dream nation as such is founded on hauntological ground:
However, this national “will to life” hardly pertains to the history of the living. It is indeed the destruction of the history of the living in favor of reanimating, making alive, the history of the dead. […] In simple words, it is an idiom of resurrection of past phantoms, whose reanimation will essentially redraw the terms and boundaries of the map of the living.
How can we understand this national obsession with the violent death, the nation’s thanatological fascination with its own end? Why is eternal national torment always connected not only with the pain of unexpected death and irrevocable loss, but also with the strange, irrational, phantasmatic expectation of recovery, or return of the dead to the world of the living?
One of the crucial elements of the nation as a dream-form is that it presumes, on a basis that is entirely nonsensical (in terms of logic) but altogether sensical/sensuous (in terms of affect), that a given nation has existed since time immemorial and will continue to exist into the endless future. The lifting out of the nation — this profound historical form, this artifice of human creation — from the order of time creates indeed this powerful ghostly existence.
But the ghost requires actualization in real time and space in order to be substantiated: the daily affirmation of the ground of its existence, literally speaking, terra patria or motherland. It’s funny. Both genders are required here because the primal imaginary order of the nation is the family, a certain kind of natural ancestry, if I may put it this way. In any case, the ghostly presence requires a ground (land) and a body (the people) in real time (history). Recalling the dead, or bringing the dead back into the realm of the living, as you say, seems unavoidable in a situation that privileges memory over reality, the roots over the process (of growth and decay), and surely immortality over finitude. The tyranny of memorialization is rampant in the national imagination — Nietzsche explained this to us very well.
So, I have been criticizing this obsession with memorialization for a long time. I see it as a sort of thanatomania — let’s also call it thanatomnesia — which resides at the crux of every discourse of identity. In contrast, I’ve been arguing in favor of the sort of thinking that privileges the living, the politics of (and for) the living. Mind you, I know well not to suggest that by virtue of enacting a politics of the living we eradicate the ghosts that inhabit all societies. Ghosts are fine. It’s the real politics enacted on the basis of ghosts that needs to be interrogated.
I would like to finish our discussion of Dream Nation with a comment on Fichte’s celebrated Addresses to the German Nation (1808), specifically his philosophical building of the fictive nation that at the moment of his delivery did not actually exist. As a prophet of a “völkisch” German nation, Fichte came in front of a French-occupied Berlin and gave 14 patriotic lectures in favor of a coming German culture nation. Peter Sloterdijk argues that,
in order for the nation to come to itself, according to Fichte, two things are necessary: a forceful enthusiasm of the masses and strengthening of this fervor through inspirational invoking of the dead, by means of which we shall invite the ancestors, so to speak, to reincarnate themselves among the living. In this way Fichte prescribed to non-existing Germans a special kind of political solemnity — a Feast of All Saints — when all graves and books are opened, so the living recipients could be seized. (Der starke Grund zusammen zu sein, 1998)
This short excursus to Fichte’s Addresses is primarily motivated by your stimulating insight into the role of death in the life of the nation:
Assuming that being concerned with the significance of the dead in the world of the living is an unavoidable element in the unconscious of every nation, the impetus of resistance to nationalist logic must be the enrichment of the world of the living through the inscribed memory of the no longer living, not the other way around. […] Memorialization must be executed without the least intention, the least desire, for rendering the dead sacred, if we are to do justice to their history, that is, to the fact that they were once living in the world, a world alas no longer in existence, but whose significance as a world, as historical secular world, is and must be the worldly work of the living (Dream Nation).
If we agree with Sloterdijk’s ironic comment on Fichte’s text, then we can read the Addresses as a document written from inside of the “autogenic resonance of the German national memory.” Can we accept the very seductive idea that self-impressed affirmation of any singular nation depends on the secularized memorialization of its own past? Or, how we can accept a coming construction of the unified European memory created on the collapse of an antagonistic national memory, unprepared for any universalization understood as cosmopolitanization?
It’s quite remarkable for me to see that I had written this back then — I had forgotten, until you reminded me — because I have been especially concerned with it in my current work in the book Nothing Sacred and I never made the connection. In my long essay “Democracy’s Anarchy,” which forms half of the project of Nothing Sacred, I devote an entire section to the significance of Thomas Paine’s idea that only the government of (and for) the living has any legitimate claims to the politics of autonomy, to freedom. Permit me to quote for a moment from Paine’s famous revolutionary pamphlet Rights of Man (1791):
Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave, is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. […] I am contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away, and controlled and contracted for, by the manuscript assumed authority of the dead.
There is some powerful phrasing here: “the vanity of governing beyond the grave” and “the manuscript authority of the dead” which literally refers to the handwritten textuality (manuscript) of any constitution that has come to claim timeless and infallible (therefore, divine) authority. And there is no nation without some sort of constitutional manuscript, even beyond the obvious and literal sense. “Manuscript” — handwritten, or indeed handmade — here extends metaphorically into the full range of rituals, performative discourses, and symbolic structures, not to mention explicit nationalist ideologies that reiterate, in tacit and implicit but very formative ways, the national imaginary. And Paine’s argument is that this permeating constitutional manuscript is engineered by the conjured authority of the dead and, consequently, rendered sacred, since the dead are quintessentially sacred in the nationalist apotheosis of ancestry that every nation needs. It’s national heteronomy, pure and simple.
Paine is the enemy of Fichte — historically speaking it’s the reverse, of course, since Fichte, coming second chronologically, is proposing a populist politics of ancestry against the anarchist politics of the living dēmos that the revolutionary Enlightenment (Paine, but also Jefferson and others) put into practice. Paine does not stand in front of the French people (or American people — he is an American participant in the French Revolution), like Fichte does with the German people. He stands in front of living people who are making history right at that moment and no other, for themselves and no other, for this world right here and now, not another world in some other time, in the time of the other. That’s the radical Enlightenment project at its best. It’s profoundly anti-nationalist, despite its eventual complicity in the history of national formation. We must understand this contradiction and not seek to alleviate it, resolve it, or cure it.
As a parenthesis, let me return for a minute to your earlier point. It doesn’t matter that this revolutionary Enlightenment politics may have had dimensions or conclusions that we reject — unless we become like François Furet and his ilk and reduce the French Revolution to the Reign of Terror. Everything in history has aspects that we might reject. Everything. Aspects that may be reprehensible, abhorrent, aspects that we must avoid, that we must not repeat, and so on. What matters are things in history that leave behind footprints of emancipation, of autonomy. Those are the ones I choose to study and interrogate because I am interested in what enables people to overthrow the chains they have brought upon themselves. Even if such a process is partial or fraught with problems or with setbacks, or with self-delusions, it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t seek perfectibility.
Anyway, to return: nationalism is profoundly endowed with the adoration of the dead; that’s memorialization in plain language. Every nation feeds on the discourse of sacrifice — self-sacrifice first and foremost, which in turn determines the murderous desire to sacrifice others, to eliminate whoever and whatever is perceived to be a threat to the nation. Nationalism is not a politics of the living, as Paine means it. It is a politics of the dead — a politics of death. It precipitates death and celebrates death. And at the most extreme, it turns its own people into the living dead.
There is nothing secular here, by the way — despite appearances. Memorialization is sacralization. I don’t care if it is done in the language of reason, or if it involves extensive media technologies or it serves the needs of the state. It is not secular. The secular — that is, the worldly, in the way that Edward Said configured it — resists memorialization. And what you call “unified European memory” — I am not sure that such a thing really exists — is nothing but plain national(ist) memory. The project of Europeanization is yet another project of sacralization.
In light of this, before we turn to another set of questions dedicated to world literature, I would like to ask you something about your unusual framing of the concept of Europe. Your frequent reflections on Europe are very inspiring, but it is also very suprising that your articulation of the concept of Europe is based on the national frame as a moment of capitalistic paradigm:
In short, Europe may be merely reinstituting itself as a nation. Or, one might also say, more precisely, that Europe is reinstituting the elements characteristic of a national imaginary on a transnational scale. […] [S]ince the new Europe advances the equal possibility of either extending the authority of the nation as a significational matrix onto a wider transcultural terrain or breaking up this authority precisely by streching it too thin. […] Chatterjee is right when he situates in the narrative of capital not only the internal problematic of the nation but the key to “Europe’s” monopoly of the Universal. […] Still, the Nation as a form would not have become so unassailable if it had not sat so comfortably with the social imaginary that made capitalism possible. (Dream Nation)
However, we have to ask about the condition under which such a frame of national Europe becomes possible, less possible, or indeed impossible. We have to know that the new frame of national Europe, Europe of nations, does not simply include exhibition of the reality, but actively participates in a strategy of containment, selectively producing and enforcing what will count as European reality. This means that the national frame of Europe is always throwing something away, always keeping something out, always de-realizing and de-legitimating alternative, very different, versions of European reality. Although framing cannot always contain what it seeks to make visible or readable, it must, in some degree, remain structured by the aim of instrumentalizing certain versions of European reality but not necessary as national reality!
Of course! I agree with you entirely. When I wrote this excursus on Europe — it was in 1990! — I was trying to shed some light onto how various societies are dragged into the project of Europeanization, which I saw as a project that drew its logic and its power from nationalism. I still think this is the case. After all, no steps were ever taken in the European Union to really put into place a political federation, which by the way has facilitated what today in the EU has become a tyranny of global financial capitalism. The political will in Europeanization has always been a homogenizing will, a will of eradicating differences among those who are (to be) rendered European. It is the colonial civilizing mission internally displaced. The relation seems impossible to break, despite the actual political contradictions. Becoming European is all about coming to be in the world of nations as a unique independent culture, and it’s incredible how much it permeated all anti-colonial national independence movements. You can see that the trajectory from 19th-century European nationalism to the United Nations is very much performed in reverse in the short passage from nationalist independence in the decolonization period to the European Union idea.
But in reality, this presumed to be powerful political will is really an economic will. When I wrote this piece, none of us could have imagined the institution of the Eurozone, the regime of a coin: the Euro. This regime is an expressly capitalist mode of effecting a new nationalization of multiple societies across borders. I know, it seems like a forgotten idea, but capitalism and nationalism go well together — unlike capitalism and democracy, which, contrary to what is commonly assumed, are quintessentially incompatible. Despite the fact that capitalism recognizes no political boundaries, it nonetheless seeks — at the limit, as a sort of existential requirement almost — a total homogenization of peoples: the undifferentiated sea of workers and consumers, and in the era of information technology capitalism, a row of personless numbers, docile bodies, and digitized minds. What nationalism does within the national boundaries — the nationalization of society, as Étienne Balibar said so long ago, that is, the eradication of particular social differences under the flag — capitalism does worldwide. Same logic, different scale.
Let me once more comment your idiosyncratic frame of Europe as national Europe:
Although Europe fashions itself a postnational formation, in effect, it tends to signify itself in the social-imaginary terms that actually befit a nation. After all, the history of the notion Europe coincides with the history of European national sovereignty while the consolidation of a space of Europe emerged directly out of the fierce territorial struggle among European national states. […] To put it plainly, the crucial question that places a hurdle in the path of European hegemony is how the people of the nations that form the European community stop dreaming of themselves as “nationals” and start dreaming of themselves as Europeans? Thus, the discourse of the European community may be construed as the means by which the emerging (trans)national fantasy gets to mask precisely the fact that in an undeniable sense “Europe” is mere phantasm (Dream Nation).
As we know very well, there are many alternatives, perhaps better options to frame the concept of Europe: for example, to try to reflect on Europe from the angle of self-critical paradigm elaborated in an effective way by Rodolphe Gasché in Europe, or the Infinite Task (2009):
Undoubtedly, this unique feature of critical self-evaluation is repeatedly celebrated by all the ground discourse on Europe. Such self-criticism is something quite unique that sets Europe apart from the rest of the world.
Or there is, as for example in the work of Denis Guénoun’s Hypothèses sur l’Europe (2000), a much more demanding frame of Europe grounded in an unavoidable idea of universality: ”Europe is one of the names of the return of the universal upon itself.” It seems that the ever-expanding framing of the concept of Europe is a nothing more than self-critical affirmation of universal Europe because, as Guénoun says, the “universal was born in Greece as Europe.”
First of all, with all due respect — and I know that’s not your phrase — let me just say that the notion that the “universal was born in Greece as Europe” is nonsense. In a number of ways: first, the Greeks may have been one of the most anti-universalist peoples in the ancient world. Not only did they rarely manage to recognize in each other, city to city, that they belonged together, hence fighting with each other mercilessly, but they also developed a profoundly complicated way of understanding the otherness of others, the relativity of divinities, the particularities (and peculiarities) of civilizations, etc. That’s Herodotus at his best, but also the tragic poets, and so on. There is a certain presumption that the Platonic Ideal — wherefrom the Universal takes form in the modern imagination — was a basic Greek ideal. Nothing can be more misleading. Platonic philosophy is somewhat eccentric in the Greek philosophical tradition, by which I mean the range of thought from the pre-Socratics to the Stoics. Of course, it has come to be the dominant, the central strain, but that’s another story that takes place entirely outside the space of Greek thought as such, and Christianity has a lot to do with it.
Second and very much related: the idea of Europe has nothing to do with things Greek. If it has an ancient provenance at all — and this should be debated — it is a Roman idea; it derives from the structure of the Roman imperial regime, especially as this is retroactively configured after Christianization. The distance between the Greek and the Roman (not to mention the Christian) elements, especially in the sphere of the political, is of a whole other order of meaning. Speaking casually of the “Greco-Roman” is as thoughtless as speaking casually of the “Judeo-Christian” or the “Helleno-Christian.” Derrida gets that down with the idea of globalatinization.
Finally, the whole idea that (ancient) Greece signifies the birth of Europe is the very ideologeme that enables the denigration of Greece today, which we have seen expressed with a vengeance in mainstream European media in relation to the so-called (absurdly) “Greek crisis.” Namely, these “Greeks” are not real Greeks; they are not European; they are imposters, Oriental shysters. The notion that (ancient) Greece is the “cradle of Western civilization” is a profoundly Orientalist idea. That was one of the main arguments in Dream Nation, as you know. Orientalism and Philhellenism emerge from the same laboratory. They follow the same logic; they are often expressed by the very same scholars in the very same philological spaces. They employ the same techniques of the dissection of living cultures, the “vivisection” of cultures as Ernest Renan famously said. So, let’s just be done with this insidious assumption.
But more than that, seriously, “Europe” does not exist. It is a phantasm, a powerful phantasm that has come to bear a constructed — but perfectly real — history and geography. The presumption that the European is the mark of the universal belongs to the order of modernity and is a colonialist presumption. We can’t talk about it without simultaneously engaging the histories of colonialism. For this reason, Europeanization is always an enactment of colonial logic, even in the presumably postcolonial phase we are in. And it even implicates societies that had nothing to do historically with colonialist Europe — Greece surely is one of them. The uncontrollable immigration into the European Union through Greek borders, for example, is of peoples from the erstwhile colonized sphere; it is a matter of postcolonial movement — and the fact that Greece is forced to act as the EU border policeman and house the various Frontex detention camps shows how Greece has been dragged into this same colonial problematic. And all this while suffering under neocolonial conditions itself. My friend Aamir Mufti has spoken most eloquently about this configuration. For him, Europeanization is straightforward (self-) colonization.
All this, of course, is happening because of the huge trail of ruins that financial capitalism leaves behind wherever it touches ground. What I am describing regarding “Europe” may have rendered even the very condition of modernity inoperable. As Franco Berardi says of himself, I, too, belong to the last modern generation. It’s taken me a long time to understand this, but now after the onslaught of the last five to seven years I finally got it. The project of modernity has been eradicated by the algorithmic devastation of financial capitalism. Which is not to say that we exist in some postmodernity. The “postmodern” was always a lazy designation. But it’s difficult to name what we are currently undergoing because it is really unprecedented.
In my puzzlement, and because of a certain obstinacy that comes from my being born within the sensibility of modernity, I cannot imagine myself otherwise. I am clearly an anachronism — I mean it personally. It’s very unlikely that my son or my students will ever quite understand this mode of thinking about the world, even though I will continue the folly of trying to convey it to them. But it is a folly because it is so out of place. Mind you — and you will recognize this yourself — because I was born in a peripheral modernity, I even have access to concrete strains of premodernity, through family and a sense of ancestral space, very concrete strains, even actual personal early memories of grandparents, aunts and uncles, objects, modes of language now obsolete, etc. This capacity to know premodernity — which is very specifically peripheral — is one with the experience of modernity. Without modernity (let us say very abusively, “Europe”), a premodernity will not have been recognizable. But all this knowledge still does not prepare me for what exists now — it is indeed unprecedented and, at this stage at least, perfectly enigmatic.