Ghosts of the Nation: A Hauntological Critique of the Imagined Communion

by | 7 Jun 2023

The Imagined Communion

As elaborated in Mikkel Flohr’s recent article for Critical Legal Thinking, for Benedict Anderson (1991), the nation and nationalism function in reference to an “imagined political community”. As Anderson elaborates, the nation is an imagined community because:

The members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their imaginary communion (1991, p.6).

Despite this, members of the community feel they are bound to each other via “a deep, horizontal comradeship” (Anderson 1991, p.7). This feeling of comradery is supported by the apparent materiality of the nation: the rituals, symbols, institutions, and coded meanings that circulate within its spatial and symbolic domains. Among such manifestations could be included national newspapers, national landmarks and monuments, national holidays, national anthems, national cuisines, and the national sports team, to name but a few. Through these material manifestations of the nation, members of the communion are “continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life” (1991, p.35-36). Put simply, members of the nation see the nation enacted tangibly around them, such that as they move through the material world, they imagine they can see, hear, smell, taste and touch the nation all around them. Because the nation seems to be so palpably real, so too, the image of the “imaginary communion”—the connection between the nation and its subjects—seems real. Indeed for Anderson, the nation is so viscerally real that nationalists are not only willing to kill for their nation, but to die for it as well.

Through its apparent materiality, the nation seems to exist not only in the present, but over time as well. This is because the qualities and features of the nation—sometimes called the ‘national spirit’ or the ‘national story’—are produced and reproduced, and curated over time. The nation thus seems to persist through the telling and re-telling of its ‘history’ (or versions thereof). Moreover for Anderson, the “essence” of the nation—its supposedly enduring features and qualities—are reified because they are attached to the artefacts, monuments, architectures, institutions, and even landscapes, which then function as emblems of the national story. To this end, the imagined communion both sustains and is sustained by the national story, which seems to endure over time, and to be continually brought to life for members of the communion in the present via aspects of the physical world that are invested with national significance. Members of the imagined community are therefore not only able to imagine themselves as connected to contemporary members of the nation, but to those that have come before as well.

Anderson’s analysis of the nation and nationalism emphasises the way the imagined community is materially produced in the present. It emphasises, for example, the way the rituals, symbols, and coded meanings that sustain the nation are projected upon artefacts, institutions, architectures, monuments, and landscapes. It is on this point, however, that a hauntological critique of Anderson’s formulation can emerge, which highlights not only that which must be made present to produce the nation, but so too, that which equally must be rendered absent for the nation to endure.

Hauntology

Jacques Derrida’s concept of ‘hauntology’ stems from his critique of Western ontology, which he argues is predicated on a binary of presence and absence. More than this however, for Derrida, Western ontology also imposes a hierarchy on this binary, which values that which is present over that which is deemed absent, and subordinate. As outlined above, this binary and hierarchy can be seen in Anderson’s account of the nation. This is because the concept of the imagined community draws attention to that which must be made material in the present to create and sustain the image of the nation and its ‘story’.

Understood through a Derridean lens, however, paying fidelity to the presence/absence binary and its latent hierarchy is a mistake. This is because who or what is (made) absent from something—be it a place or space; a story or history; or indeed, a community or nation—can also tell us much about it. With respect to the imagined community, we might ask, for example, which populations, cultures, and languages must be displaced and/or marginalised—that is, made absent—so that the dominant national population, culture, and language can emerge? Which ‘moments’ in the nation’s history need to be forgotten, or repressed, so that the national story—the one that produces an image of the nation’s ‘good’ qualities—can continue?

Derrida doesn’t merely problematise the presence/absence binary by reversing its hierarchy and drawing our attention to the importance of absence. Instead, he seeks to deconstruct the binary of presence and absence altogether. This is because, for Derrida, if something is deemed absent in the present, then it is never truly absent insofar as its absence is recognised. Insofar as absence is recognised in the present, it therefore ‘haunts’ the present through its need to be continually repressed. To respond to this tension, Derrida employs the concept of hauntology. Where ‘ontology’ is the study of what is said to exist—i.e., that which is deemed present—for Derrida, the near-homonym ‘hauntology’ names an approach to paying attention to that which must be rendered absent in the present for presence to ‘emerge’. Indeed, a hauntological approach seeks to problematise the comprehensibility of the binary of presence and absence itself, showing them always to be mutually bound to and implicated with one another. After all, how can something occupy a space—be it spatially or symbolically—without excluding something other? And how can something be thought or felt to be absent, without simultaneously being summoned to the present in its very absence? For Derrida, the ghost is a metaphor for this paradox. It’s ‘there’ without really being there; at once present and absent; alive and dead; visible and invisible; material and immaterial; and embodied and disembodied.  

Researchers working in the nascent area of ‘ghost criminology’ have employed Derrida’s hauntological approach to consider what is made ostensibly absent from, or liminal to sites of violence, and yet, lingers still. Here, the possibilities for consideration are endless. Memories attached to public and private crime scenes, for example, may be invisible, but remain present for some. So too, the present remains haunted by (intergenerational) traumas; the architectures and landscapes of ‘post’ conflict societies; marked and unmarked burial sites; and the invisible presence of radiation or chemicals that linger like ghosts upon the landscape after war, environmental crimes, or corporate negligence.

This same lens can be brought to bear on any number of sites of violence that are integral to the making and maintenance of the nation as an imagined community. Among these could be included de-commissioned or repurposed institutions, such as military barracks, prisons, reservations, and asylums, which have been integral to the development of many nations, but whose histories are now frequently rendered at once both present and absent, be it through the curation of partial histories; gentrification; conversion into sites of ‘dark tourism’; or reinvention as sites of ‘care’. So too, a hauntological approach could be taken to analysing the collective forms of memorialisation and commemoration that produce and sustain valorised versions of the nation’s history—or ‘story’—such as through the creation of ‘official’ narratives; collective forms of forgetting and remembering; and the building of monuments that marginalise and (attempt to) render absent alternative histories.

What such a hauntological approach reveals, is that the imagined community—and the supposedly “enduring essence” upon which it is predicated—is not only sustained through presence, but through absence as well: namely, the omissions and elisions required to mythologise the nation’s essence and origins. The power of this observation becomes particularly clear in settler-colonial settings, where the ‘making present’ of the imagined communion frequently necessitates the attempted erasure of First Nations and Indigenous populations, whether through (attempted) genocide, or subsequently, the deliberate ‘forgetting’ and repression thereof.

To use the settler-colonial Australian context as an example, this is illustrated in the phenomenon now known as the “History Wars”, which refers to ongoing debates about the ‘version’ of history that ought to be taught in government funded schools. Commenting on this, former conservative Prime Minister John Howard claimed it would be “unpatriotic” to take a “black armband view of our history” that focuses on the violence of colonisation and genocide. As he elaborated, “I believe that the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement and that we have achieved much more as a nation of which we can be proud than of which we should be ashamed”.

Here, we see that the materialisation of an imagined communion to which current and future generations can be proud to belong both necessitates and legitimises the curation of the nation’s history, such that its colonial origins are disavowed: that is, made absent. Moreover, this deliberate production of absence makes present the nationalist’s core claim: the notion that the nation is fundamentally good, such that, to use Howard’s words, the nationalist can feel “proud” of the nation’s “heroic achievement”, rather than shame.

Ghosts of the Nation

It is no surprise that in many settler-colonial contexts, nationalists attempt to invisibilise or overwrite sites of violence, be they spatial or symbolic, so as to valorise the nation’s origins. For their project, sites of massacres or mass burials should remain unmarked, or be only selectively remembered. So too, sites of cultural significance can be bulldozed to make way for ‘development’, and cultural and linguistic practices can be suppressed in the name of ‘unity’. Here, the concept of hauntology can be employed to reveal this interplay by making possible what Jeff Ferrell calls “a politics of absence”: the idea that those working in the social sciences can “[trace] the ghosts of exclusion” by recording absence as well as presence (2016, p.227).

While Anderson’s formulation of the imagined community emphasises that which is materialised to sustain the nation, a hauntological approach calls our attention to that which must be rendered absent for this materialisation to occur. As Michael Fiddler observes: “All sites will have been touched at some point by violence” (2018, p.471). To this end, a hauntological approach can help us to decode “the encryption of trauma in space” (ibid.), calling attention to the desire, and indeed, the imperative of those who purport to belong to the nation to curate, forget, and/or ‘reconcile’ its past, such that they can move forward in the manner they desire. To understand nationalism and nationalist violence then, we must pay careful attention not only to presence, but to the absences and elisions presence itself inevitably contains and attempts to conceal. While such ghosts sustain the imagined community, so too, they inexorably haunt it.

Liam Gillespie is a Lecturer in Criminology at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. His research focuses primarily on far-right extremism and nationalism. @DrLiamGillespie

References

Anderson, B. (1991) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso: London.

Derrida, J. (2006) Specters of Marx. London, Routledge.

Ferrel, J. (2016) “Postscript: Under the slab” (in) Liquid Criminology: Doing Imaginative Criminological Research, edited by M. H. Jacobsen and S. Walklate, pp. 221–229. London: Routledge.

Fiddler, M. (2018) “Ghosts of other stories: a synthesis of hauntology, crime and space” (in) Crime, Media, Culture vol. 15, 3: pp. 463-477.

Liam Gillespie is a Lecturer in Criminology at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. His research focuses primarily on far-right extremism and nationalism.

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