On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future


Time, Nation, and the MLA Report on Doctoral Study (May 30, 2014)

Many in my profession—more precisely, literary scholars working or training in English (or other literary language) departments—are currently responding with both nervousness and excitement about the Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature. Although I, as a medievalist, was slightly disoriented by the inclusion of “Modern” in the title (wait, does that include me?), I was soon set at ease that, yes, I am still within the purview of this association (it is, after all, the central professional organization in my field, the Modern Language Association, with the “modern” here clearly meaning post-Classical).

            But perhaps my immediate recourse to questions of literary historical time is already exposing my need to jettison, or at least qualify, my usual way of approaching literary issues. It is striking how much of the life of literary scholars in the Modern Language Association of America’s institutional territory is conditioned by temporal categories: we refer, for example, to colleagues as “eighteenth-century” people or as “medievalists” (perhaps with a qualification of “early” or “late”), and if we refer to one as an Americanist, we would usually qualify that with a temporal marker like “antebellum” or “post-War,” assuming fully that our interlocutors would understand to which wars we are currently referring. Scholarly self-identification by a literary style, such as Romanticist or Modernist, usually clearly indicates a specialized time-frame (often qualified by a geographical marker). And even when scholars have become largely unmoored from time and are primarily identified by their attachment to a theoretical methodology, we are often still drawn to temporal origins that help us anchor ourselves in professional expectations (as in, would you believe that ecocritic is actually a medievalist, or that that psychoanalyst trained as a medievalist?).

            (Of course, I already notice how my in-built bias as a literary critic—namely, to judge according to time and, as I shall soon explain, simultaneously to geographic region—has colored my introduction: I have already ignored a sizable portion of the field. Scholars working in rhetoric and composition often do not self-identify by temporal period—though I wonder if this is because the default mode of these specialties is usually, due to focus on writing and speech, essentially contemporary…)

            While the report is complex, and surely is already doing excellent work in informing the ongoing work of improving graduate education, I was immediately drawn to suggestions of building a fundamentally interdisciplinary discipline that is not governed by time—and by the nationalisms that have colonized temporal slots in Western literary academies. Much of the report has to do with speeding up professional development, while better preparing students for the job market, with relevant suggestions including, among other concerns, increased attention to technology, a re-tooling of the dissertation requirement, and more professional development. The latter element intrigued me the most, since it suggests discomfort with course requirements that would offer some semblance of the “coverage” of what Professor Russell A. Berman of Stanford, who chaired the relevant MLA committee, calls the “national literary-historical paradigm” to which many scholars (if not students) remain “commit[ed]”  (and here I must thank Julie Orlemanski for drawing my attention to the Colleen Flaherty’s Inside Higher Ed analysis and, specifically, its analytical foregrounding of literary-historical paradigms as colliding with revisionary desires to cultivate more inter-disciplinarity, technology, and general professional development). The MLA Report seems to me to represent a major salvo against periodization as the primary organizing principle in the discipline—and this trend seems to be gathering in strength, as more and more scholars become associated with methodologies (such as ecocriticism or disability studies or digital humanities) rather than period. Referring to inspiration from the crisis of “contraction in the academic job market,” the MLA report states that it is not in any way seeking “a retreat designed to preserve a traditional paradigm,” but rather that it is working towards “transforming the paradigm by broadening professional horizons in the interest of preserving accessibility to a humanities Ph.D.” (p.11).

            It seems to me that it would not be a bad development if literary period—which always, in my view, is a distinctly modern concept that fuses both time and nation—became a, rather than the primary category for literary study. While the most obvious problem with professional self-identification by time and place is that it can Balkanize the discipline, allowing scholars to always invoke the logic of specialization as a safety word for avoiding uncomfortable (or simply unfamiliar) subjects or conversations, even as it can overemphasize certain subjects that simply happen to be currently circulating within an epochal specialty, there also seems to be a more substantive problem with prioritizing periodization. The silent fusion of place and time can be quite nefarious. Every time we refer to (with however much qualification) sixteenth-century Britain or France as “early modern,” while referring, say, to eighteenth-century India or Pakistan as still “medieval” (and here I tip my hat to my colleague Walter Hakala, who pointed out this latter use of the term medieval to me), we institutionally consolidate Western privilege (many, of course, have written on such politics of time; Johannes Fabian’s Time and the Other or Gayatri Spivak’s In Other Worlds come to mind as key relevant studies).

            As someone who is professionally interested, perhaps above all else, in nationalism and the way it shapes discursive realms, I am certainly not arguing against studying the heretofore always nationally inflected fields of literary history. Far from it. However, I do think that the trends that we see towards interdisciplinarity are both significant and salutary. Advances in technology do seem to have produced a sea-change, of late, and it does not seem out of order to suggest that our largely nineteenth-century generated literary historical paradigms be adjusted, particularly out of deference to current and future generations of scholars. I also very much think that the issue of better training graduate students should be linked with discussions of how we hire—and also with a commitment to get to the true root of the problem, which is that we are not hiring enough tenure-track faculty to serve the undergraduates at the heart of our institutions. I like the idea of more hires being made according to methodology rather than by period—cluster hires in broad methodological fields, run by trans-period committees who will simply have to trust each other that the desire for the best and most exciting scholarship will take precedence in hiring decisions, rather than perceived temporal or geographical needs (and I think the very process of choosing such valued fields would itself be valuable training for graduate students. Moreover, moving away from period and nation as the primary categories through which we shape the field would help us revise many of those very same national and temporal categories, forcing scholars who do specialize in those areas to make clear why such specializations are still vital for the field. From my perspective, I think that this MLA Report is already doing excellent work in inspiring re-imagination of the organizing principles of our profession.


Citizens, Residents, Mercenaries, Monarchs: World Cup Identity Play (May 27, 2014)

Like many, I find myself fascinated by World Cup championship soccer every two years (thanks to the staggered schedules of the men’s and women’s tournaments, I can get my fix in half the time)—though, unlike many, I find myself spending an inordinate amount of my anticipatory time considering how World Cup activities intersect with issues related to nationalism. First and foremost, the spectacular staging of clashes between national teams always strikes me as an uncanny means of channeling the often ferocious energies of national pride—and whether this is a brilliant transnational strategy of using athletic ritual for cathartic purposes, or an insidious mechanism for sustaining nationalist pride and loathing, I honestly cannot say. And this greatest of global gaming venues is infectious, indeed compelling. As critical as I would like to be about all forms of nationalism, and however much I see such partisanship as a hindrance to human progress towards a higher, more cosmopolitan world, I invariably find myself rooting enthusiastically for my favorite team, who also just happen to be the ones who issue my passport (the USA), and also cheering on my second favorite team (Mexico) in all matches save for when they go head to head with my own. And just about any World Cup matchup offers excitement both as a game and as a study in international relations.

I am currently quite intrigued by one of the oddities of World Cup rules (which are administered by FIFA, that massive institution for passing laws upon play): although the rules are so complicated as to require frequent revisions such as this and this, the World Cup limits national teams to those who qualify as sufficiently connected to that particular nation (whether by birth or citizenship or residency), whereas coaches are mercenaries who can come from absolutely anywhere. It fascinates me that coaches are so clearly excepted from the dizzying history of deciding how to determine whether players should qualify for a national team—which only began to become seriously revised, as this fine Wikipedia article shows, when serious recruitment of players forced FIFA to act: coaches are not just on the sidelines, but stand fundamentally outside of this legal playing field.

This strange coincidence of a nationalist logic for player selection and a purely pragmatic, non-national market for capable coaches, is particularly apparent for the United States (and it seems to be going quite well, judging from the team’s winning performance in the CONCACAF Gold Cup qualifiers): the United States team is currently being coached by former German striker legend (and also successful coach) Jürgen Klinsmann.

I am not going to dwell on the most tantalizing, but clearly unknowable, and in fact unseemly question—whether Klinsmann, who will be coaching the USA against the German national team in the opening round, will in any way be torn between his professional and his national loyalties. Surely much ink will be spilled on this subject—but I am more intrigued by the way in which such a conflict is built into FIFA’s incorporation of both national and non-national principles into the construction of its teams. And, as you might imagine if you are readers of this blog or my other work, I am quite intrigued by how this curious fusion of nationally defined players and free-market selected coaches both works against the nationalist essence of World Cup activities, and hearkens back to pre-modern, pre-national modes of managing associations.

The World Cup team’s pairing of exceptional leaders with a team at least nominally defined by a uniform object of loyalty (here, the nation) reminds me of how often discontinuous seem the worlds of Western medieval (and modern) monarchs and their subjects. If Jacques Le Goff is right in stating that the fundamental unit of the Western medieval world was the “family” (Medieval Civilization, 280), then we can see why the elites who tended to provide rulers often seem utterly detached from their subjects. Whether it be the French-speaking kings of the Norman or Plantagenet dynasties who ruled over populations who were largely English-speaking, or the German-based Hanover House of the eighteenth century, or even today’s Windsor House that disguises the family name of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha that was changed in 1917 due to anti-German feelings generated by World War I, monarchs in Britain have often been, based on their familial qualifications, quite other to the majority of their subjects. In all these cases, of course, there are connections with significant swathes of the population, but these seem essentially irrelevant, since it is a familial connection alone, as attached to the quasi-sacred notion of sovereignty that sustains Western monarchies, that brings a subject to kingship. In some respects, the FIFA view that a general communal cohesion could coincide with a leadership role that is of an entirely other order seems to have much continuity with medieval societies that, clearly capable of self-awareness as communities, could be ruled by those who seemed to stand not just quantitatively, but essentially apart from them—in majesty, as it were.

As you can see, the World Cup always seems to me to offer both the prospect of exciting games and of ample material for pondering the history and meaning of national identity. And, of course, there’s always those Olympics…


Air-Defense Identification Zones and the Time of Territory (May 27, 2014)

Since I spend a lot of time thinking about the different ways in which communities conceive of territories throughout history, I have been especially intrigued by one, ongoing story that occasionally darts in and out of journalistic air-space—the dramatic tensions surrounding efforts by China and Japan to consolidate claims to the islands currently (sometimes) identified as either the Senkaku Islands (the Japanese view) or the Diaoyu or Diaoyutai Islands (the Chinese and Taiwanese names, respectively). The dispute over the islands themselves is, as with so many complex transnational disputes, simply a focal point for much broader issues about claims to fishing rights, off-shore drilling rights, and regional dominance in the East China sea. And ever since China asserted extended its claim to territorial rights in the region, establishing an East China Sea “air-defense identification zone” that (as is the nature of such zones) extends well beyond recognized sovereignty limits in asserting that foreign aircraft within the area must agree to follow Chinese identification protocols, other players have become embroiled in a broader dispute, including Malaysia, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and, most notably—for sending two B-52 Bombers into the area to almost immediately challenge such a territorial assertion clearly stands out as notable— the United States. For excellent overviews of the conflicting claims to the islands and the cause for regional tensions, see this and this other fine BBC article.

The issue came to my mind today because of Sino-Japanese tensions produced, as Martin Fackler’s reports it, by “flybys” in “overlapping airspace.” In a dance performed by various military aircraft (in this instance, Chinese Su-27s and Japanese YS-11s), these nations use the adrenaline and anxiety generated by hostile close contact to test out the limits of each nation’s claim to control of space. As this excellent Wikipedia overview details, each nation has longstanding historical claims: the Japanese claim derives from its 1879 annexation of the formerly powerful maritime kingdom of Ryukyu, followed by its absorption of related territories into the Okinawa Prefecture, coupled with 1880s surveys that determined the islands were terra nullius (uninhabited and un-administered lands), followed by the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the First Sino-Japanese War; the Chinese, who dispute that the islands in question were covered by the 1895 treaty, claim that the islands were used for navigation by Chinese vessels since at least the fifteenth century, and cite such instances as an eighteenth-century map in showing that the Japanese control over the islands throughout most of the twentieth century was unwarranted. While various politicians, lawyers, and government officials dispute who should control these islands (and the fishing, drilling, and airspace rights that are attached to them due to modern conventions and international laws concerning sovereignty), Chinese and Japanese fighter jets play their ongoing games of chicken: as Fackler reports, Japanese jets have been sent out to encounter perceived Chinese air-threats 409 times between March 2013 and March 2014.

Since I have for quite some time suspected that medieval notions of territorial space differ strikingly from modern, national notions of sovereignty (I tend to follow scholars such as Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson in seeing national identity as a distinctly modern phenomenon, convinced as I am by Gellner’s argument in Nations and Nationalism that trans-class national identity is a product of industrial capitalism and Anderson’s contention that the notion of nations as static, strictly bordered entities post-dates eighteenth-century developments in cartography as modified by developments in print culture and Western imperial development), I am particularly intrigued by the question of whether the actions of the Chinese and Japanese governments are in any way comparable to strategic actions taken during the period in which I specialize, the Western Middle Ages. The Senkaku Islands dispute seems to me to be rather instructively a creature of our current time.

The strange dance of provocative jet flights, designed to necessitate responses lest the other seem to be ceding ground—or, rather, airspace explicitly outside sovereign jurisdiction, yet within a zone within which a sovereign power cannot too unreasonably demand the rights to be able to demand others to identify themselves—seems to me quite alien to the way in which Western feudal hostilities were conducted. In the Hundred Years War between the English and French states, for example, which involved some 116 years of hostilities, with large swathes of that time quite “cold,” as it were, nothing like the Senkaku / Diaoyu dispute seems even remotely possible. Sometimes, as can be seen in the very first years of the conflict, great stretches of time occurred during which, despite very English effort to initiate battle, almost no reaction could be elicited from the French, whereas at other times full-scale battles would occur immediately upon arrival of an English invading force (see Scott Waugh on the years 1337-39, in England in the Reign of Edward III). Without standing armies ever at the ready, feudal military actions would essentially have to depend on local circumstances and thus be ad hoc, and could not sustain an all-out, inflexible sense of territorial integrity to be defended anywhere that was claimed and at all costs. The technique par excellence of the Hundred Years war, the chevauchée raiding in which Geoffrey Chaucer’s Squire is expert (the Canterbury Tales), bore within it the traces of a fundamental randomness in strategy that seems alien to modern conceptions of static, continually surveyed and defended territory: captains, many of them sub-contracting from other, greater captains seeking to profit from raiding, would sub-contract with a number of soldiers, and each would loot and plunder in particular areas, with the larger strategy being to destroy so many material resources and so undermine the sense of security that the dominant players in France would feel compelled to talk terms (see Michael Prestwich, The Three Edwards). Chevauchées could strike anywhere, and were the usual order of affairs: while some were major campaigns led by major figures, others were small operations. The relative state of affairs in the war was measured, not in territorial encroachments, but in relative loss of wealth. Even in the cold periods of the Hundred Years War, no absolute sense of border defense seems ever to have been the point, since so much profiting from raiding had made plunder a habit that seems to have gone on, with relative quiet, even in periods of truce.

As I read with great fascination about the high-stakes flybys in both the East China Sea skies and in global media outlets, I am struck by how much the Senkaku Islands dispute points to a fundamentally different conception of territorial integrity than the one that I typically assume to exist in the English and French political cultures that inform the literary works in which I specialize. Perhaps I need to look elsewhere for such excessive medieval attention to borders—borders upon borders, really, since they signal a jurisdictional space outside of the state’s actual jurisdiction. But I suspect that the current brand of territorial policing being played out in the East China Sea’s skies points to an emphatically modern sense of territorial policing. I don’t think the more punctuated, ad hoc sense of territory that I see as central to medieval sensibilities has somehow been surpassed, a detritus in time—I just know that I need to look elsewhere than over the Senkaku Islands to find it working.


Euro- and Republican Skepticism: Anti-Government Governmentality (May 25, 2014)

The BBC News is currently reporting with great excitement the significant gains made by “Euroskeptics” in elections to the European Parliament.  While centrist or center-left parties performed well in such pivotal nations as Germany and Italy, the results in the United Kingdom and France are quite eye-opening, with significant gains having apparently been made by clearly nationalist, anti-European parties (according to the BBC’s latest projections, the UK Independence Party seems headed for 28.4% of the vote, taking 22 European Parliament seats, to the Conservatives’ 16 and Labour’s 14 MEPs, while the National Front in France is projected to take 26% of France’s vote and gain 25 seats, finishing ahead of the 21% votes for the Center-Right party and the 14% for the Socialist party).

            In reading about this electoral explosion of ‘Euroskeptic’ nationalism, I am reminded quite a bit of the Republican party in today’s America, which has, since the Reagan era, consistently sought to install itself as a governing power by condemning government itself. The House of Representatives, currently controlled by a far-right leadership that regularly repeats the Reaganite mantra that government is not the “solution” to our problem, but actually is the problem, has quite clearly allowed itself to be dominated by the rabid, vitriolic nationalism of Tea Party activists, who seem hell-bent on destroying all federal power (except, of course, for the military and some federal policing agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Agency and US Customs and Border Protection). The anti-government rhetoric of the far-right wing who currently dominate House Republican politics has seemed to me quite easy to contextualize within American history: it is yet another iteration of states’-rights resistance to federal power—a cyclical recurrence of demagogues who use the curiously capacious disguise of patriotism to promote a paradoxically anti-national, individualist, inherently limited vision of government. (For valuable surveys of Republican anti-government rhetoric, see this NPR post, and see John Mellow, here.)

            It is striking to see such an upsurge in nationalist resistance to the European Union, which, while it can be traced back to the 1958 foundation of the European Economic Community, has been functioning under the EU name as a legal and diplomatic framework since 1993. It has always seemed clear to me that the European Union was designed as a mechanism that could allow European nations, none of which could individually compete with such a massive power as the United States (or, with eyes more to the future, China), to transcend the limitations of national economic action, while nevertheless retaining most of the trappings of national sovereignty. It is intriguing to think why this sudden surge in anti-European representatives (and it is crucial to be even-tempered about this news, since the majorities won by just these two nations of the United Kingdom and France are fairly slim majorities within their own caucuses, and would not amount to a majority within the European Parliament itself) is occurring now, and also to wonder if these newly elected skeptical representatives will take the curiously deconstructive approach of today’s US House Republicans, who zealously seek out roles as government representatives in order to speak out against the federal government into whose personnel they have inserted themselves in leadership roles. Skeptics, after all, fundamentally deny the ability of meaning to be generated due to the vicissitudes of language; Euroskeptic MEPs and Republican Congressmen may share a profound skepticism in participating in government only to pronounce its ultimate irrationality.

            Much as the referendum on Scottish Independence illuminates strong nationalist desires to remove the nation from larger, (to the nationalist’s eyes) transnational confederations, so does this electoral signal of nationalist hostility to Europeanness seem to me to mark a very intriguing moment within the slow recalibration of our world’s political geography. If we are moving invariably to a post-national era in which transnational unions such as the EU will become the norm (or, indeed, if we have already moved beyond the era of the nation into a new political age, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri assert in Empire [Harvard University Press, 2000]), then it is incumbent upon us to try to sort out what precisely are the entities to which nationalists appeal in rejecting the legitimacy of such frameworks as the European Union and the United States federal government—even as they assume roles within the legitimate representative parliaments of such apparently invalid institutions. Is the United Kingdom for which the UK Independence Party agitates—which is an entity that already binds together at least four would-be nations, with one (Scotland) set to vote on its self-ejection on September 18—really usefully thought of as a “national” alternative to a transnational (or perhaps, international) European Union? Or do we need to make some distinction between the United Kingdom as a nation-state itself composed of internal nations? And what exactly should we call the anti-national nationalism of US House Republicans, whose consistent critique of seemingly all federal agencies not involved in military or police enforcement is typically couched in appeals to originary national ideals? Such moments as the European Parliament elections’ surprisingly nationalist reactionary results seem to me to invite intense reflection on what new forms the energies and impulses linked with nationalism will come in the near future, as our political world slowly reorganizes itself in a would-be post-national era that cannot seem to leave national desires and dismay behind.


Russian, Ukrainian, and the Perils of Linguistic Nationalism (May 25, 2014)

Nations are notoriously difficult to define—unless, that is, you stick to such a simple category as whether or not a state is accepted as a sovereign member of the United Nations. Few would be satisfied with such a limited notion of nation, however, and indeed nearly every recognized nation-state is fissured with at least one, if not numerous would-be nations straining to be recognized. We in America, of course, know this better than most, what with the almost countless indigenous nations that coincide with United States territory, each with its own relative proportion of autonomy (though with none currently meeting the standards of sovereignty that would allow its entry as a full member-state of the United Nations).

One of the many criteria according to which entities have claimed national status is linguistic solidarity—though it is of course crucial to recognize that linguistic unity is in no way a requirement for national status (as such multi-lingual nation-states as Switzerland, Belgium, and South Africa make clear; indeed, the lack of an official language in a country such as the United States, which, while teeming with multiple languages, is nevertheless dominated by English, suggests that linguistic cohesion is in no way essential to national unity). Arguments that shared linguistic life is a vital means of maintaining national community appeal to perhaps the most profound way in which we culturally perceive the world—our primary language. As Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o shows so powerfully in his essay, “Europhonism, Universities, and the Magic Fountain: The Future of African Literature and Scholarship” (available here in a transcription of a 1999 conference version),
one’s maternal vernacular (if singular) can alone convey the truly magical, emotional quality of language that is either only faintly reproduced, if not entirely absent, in the highly rationalized languages acquired through education, particularly those master languages learned by colonized subjects. Such magic can surely do more than just convey literary emotion; it can also serve to bind citizens together in linguistic communities that can then become nations, as happened, for example, throughout the post-Ottoman Balkans.

How such linguistic communities are defined, however, is extremely unstable—with both the extent to which linguistic solidarity should be seen as transcending borders, and the notoriously slippery distinctions between languages and dialects each being dangerously unclear. What we see being currently played out in the Ukraine and Russia seems to show both brands of volatile linguistic instability. Firstly, Vladimir Putin’s unsettling claim to be acting on behalf of Russian speakers in Ukraine (sometimes referred to in media reports as “ethnic Russians”) presents quite chilling implications, as many commentators have pointed out. While it is highly unlikely that Putin would ever claim to act on behalf of the large Russian-speaking minorities in places like the city of Los Angeles or the state of Israel, it is nevertheless crystal clear that he is asserting that linguistic bonds might trump the recognized borders of sovereign states. The acutely controversial March 16, 2014 referendum on the Crimea’s status (which resulted in claims for a 96.7% vote for dissolving ties with the Ukraine and becoming part of Russia, and the results of which have been thus far rejected by United Nations votes; see the excellent Wikipedia article) and the ongoing separatist clashes in eastern Ukraine indicate clearly how violently appeals to linguistic bonds can threaten, if not eradicate, political boundaries. Who knows where such linguistic nationalism might next arise?

But the profound similarity of Russian and Ukrainian also seems to play a powerful role in this conflict. While my knowledge of these languages is too minimal for me to effectively analyze linguistic analyses of the subject (I did take Russian 1 and Russian 2 as an undergraduate, but—alas!—gave up on Russian 3 because it met at 8 am, and I have, regretfully, not yet gone back to try to master the language), I have been fascinated by how controversial the status of Ukrainian and Russian as either separate languages or dialects seems to be. (For some fine academic discussion of the topic, with views ranging from claims of true mutual intelligibility to severe qualification of any proximity claims to assumptions of linguistic independence, of any such proximity, see here, here,  and here).

It seems clear that the consensus view among linguists is that Ukrainian is a distinct language, standing alongside Russian, Belarussian, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian in the broader Slavic language family. At least two, decades-long periods of suppression of Ukrainian in the U.S.S.R. era (1933-57 and 1973-89) have clearly indicated the material stakes of this linguistic difference: intra-Soviet competition showed that Ukrainian posed a threat to Russian preeminence as a lingua franca in the empire. However, commentators often also mention, sometimes in passing (as in this excellent Wikipedia article on Ukrainian), that Russian and Ukrainian are to a certain extent mutually intelligible. To my mind, languages that are to any appreciable extent mutually intelligible would seem to be, not separate languages, but dialects—and so it is with great wonder that I learn about the various ways in which Ukrainian and Russian difference is marked on political and cultural fronts.

Indeed, political factors are often appealed to b in the classification of languages, allowing for what would otherwise simply be dialects to be marked as separate languages. As one can learn in this excellent discussion excerpted from Michael Gasser’s How Language Works, political difference makes all the difference in choosing distinct language rather than dialect in such cases as Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish, and indeed some have sought to identify the quite obviously mutually intelligible English and Scots as separate languages (which would seem to necessitate that American, Australian, and Irish, among others, then become independent languages). While mutual intelligibility, as Gasser explains, is often quite subjective, it is hard for me, as currently informed by my rather superficial, post-Crimean-crisis-inspired survey of some readily available research on Russian-Ukrainian difference, not to assume that political (and, presumably, also cultural) difference is a major, if not indeed the primary factor sustaining this ethnonational conflict.

As a scholar specializing in medieval Britain, I am fascinated by how the Russian-Ukrainian conflict reminds us that some of the fiercest conflicts can come from a xenophobia forged by dangerous proximity. There was certainly ample evidence of inter-linguistic hostility in Britain: Edward I’s English armies (which would, by the way, have had many of the elite members speaking French as well as English) brutally conquered Wales in the 1280s, and much of English policy in the ensuing years involved the treatment of Welsh-speaking members of the populace as emphatically second-class citizens, which bred much discontent, resulting in such flare-ups as Owain Glyndŵr’s 1401-15 rebellion. Moreover, internal conflicts within Scottish lands often appealed to actual (not perceived) linguistic difference, with the Celtic language of Gaelic spoken primarily in the Highlands and Isles emphatically not mutually intelligible with the Middle Scots spoken in southern, lowland Scotland, whose citizens increasingly saw themselves as a civilized region bordered by barbaric Highlanders.

However, it is the intense conflict between the northern English and southern Scots that, to my mind (which is perhaps biased because I have spent a very significant amount of time studying the region) seems to generate the most violent expressions of inter-ethnic conflict in late-medieval Britain. Whether during periods of war or inactivity on the Anglo-Scottish border, vicious statements of xenophobia can be found in both Scottish and English sources, whether it be the anti-English venom of a Blind Harry or the anti-Scottish xenophobia of a Laurence Minot (anyone who studies the period knows that examples of literary inter-ethnic loathing could be easily multiplied). Perhaps not despite, but because of shared language and a terrain that was not obviously divisible at any particular geographical site, medieval Scots and English turned to deep ethnic hate to sustain what were primarily politically consolidated differences.

Much as it is grimly fascinating to see ethnic and linguistic identification inflecting both the material and propaganda wars currently wracking the Ukraine, it is highly interesting to see the much cooler and more deliberate, yet possibly equally decisive deployment of such artificial differentiation in the Scottish Independence referendum set for September 18, 2014. In both Britain and in the Black Sea region. communities who are in many ways highly linguistically similar (differing, perhaps, in dialect rather than in language), and who share so much else in terms of economic, environmental, and geographic concerns, are nevertheless reaching for various criteria in order to destabilize existing political borders. The central role of an uncannily proximate yet dangerous linguistic difference continues to strike me as suggestive of a new phase in the development of nationalism (though one that is in many respects atavistic). It is hard not to wonder, judging from these roughly concurrent events, whether a new era of ethno-linguistic nationalism, not unlike that in the late-nineteenth-century tied to the prolonged collapse of the Ottoman Empire, might be upon us. Who knows where the entropic energies of linguistic nationalism might next converge?


Eyeing the Scottish Independence Vote and Its National Questions (May 24, 2014)

The upcoming referendum on Scotland’s independence from the United Kingdom (September 18. 2014) is quite clearly a landmark event—although, considering Scotland’s status as an archipelago , as well as the vital economic and legal importance of its many maritime borders (see Stuart Elden here), we might do better to call it a watershed event. On September 18, all British-, Commonwealth- and EU citizens resident in Scotland aged 16 years or older (as well as government employees and soldiers with Scottish voter registration) will answer a single question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” (See the referendum details here).You can see some variously skewed analyses on both .gov and .com sites here, here , and here.

The straightforward vote on whether Scotland will become an independent, sovereign nation is of acute geopolitical significance: the United Kingdom is a major economic, political, and military power, so its fracturing will, like that of the U.S.S.R., involve extremely high stakes). Such a territorial division invites weighty material questions, such as what will happen to the British pound sterling, what would be the place of an independent Scotland (and a diminished UK) in such organizations as the UN, the EU, and NATO, and  just who will control which nuclear weapons. Rarely does an election seem to decide so much—and, unlike the recent (March 16), hastily assembled, and deeply ambiguous referendum on Crimea’s political status, the Scottish Independence referendum is proceeding with intense deliberation.

It is the existential and epistemological issues that most interest me, especially insofar as the Scottish independence vote calls attention to the fraught, deeply ambiguous meaning of the concept of nation. Having done quite a bit of research on medieval Scottish literature and culture (and even more on medieval England), I have a keen interest in both the continuities and discontinuities of British cultural identities. At times, an identity like Scottishness or Englishness seems to have deep roots and to involve an ongoing ethnonational identity: surely, many a self-identifying Scot feels a frisson of national pride at seeing a statue commemorating the anti-English military activities of William Wallace or at hearing the (translated) words of the Declaration of Arbroath speaking about a fight for “freedom,” while many self-conscious Englishfolk surely feel that the 1215 Magna Carta is part of their national inheritance and that the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada is part of their nation’s glorious history of exceptional skill and luck. Such traditionalist notions of nation can easily lead to the view that the United Nations has incorrectly assessed the number of sovereign states on British soil—and there is more than just sentiment to account for this. Besides such institutional markers of actual (if sub-national) regional autonomy as the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly of Wales, or the Northern Ireland Assembly, there are other, less weighty indications of British citizens acting as if they bear more than one national identity:  the World Cup validates such a viewpoint, recognizing the right of the “national” teams of Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland to compete for qualification in its championship tournament.

Such vehicles of national self-identification, however powerful, obscure the fact that, as far as the term “nation” is understood in current international law, Northern Irish, Welsh, Scots, and English individuals are all citizens of a single nation—the United Kingdom (aka Great Britain). On September 18, 2014, Scottish voters will choose whether to remove the territory of Scotland from this British nation-state. The political union of the imperial kingdoms of Scotland and England (I say imperial because each of these kingdoms involved the establishment of a centralized state through acts of conquest and consolidation throughout the Middle Ages) goes back officially to the 1707 Acts of Union, which merged the states of England (which had, since the 1280s fully absorbed Wales) and Scotland, whose crowns had already been merged in 1603.

Common Anglo-Scottish cultural and economic interests, of course, go back much further in time—particularly in the Northern English and Southern Scotland regions abutting their often hotly contested border. Despite heartfelt appeals by many to absolute differences, whether it be of traditional, pre-modern military loyalties or of such difference-markers as the Scottish Gaelic language or Highland Tartan dress, profound continuities of Scottish and English culture are quite apparent. For one thing, much of what we think of as Britain’s supremely pragmatic, industrious mindset come from Scotland: capitalist ancestral hero Adam Smith and empiricist guru David Hume are just two of the many seminal figures of the Scottish Enlightenment who shaped Britain’s eighteenth-century ascent to global imperial power, much of which British dominance was materially sustained by Scottish soldiers, such as the famous Highland Regiments.

.           Linguistic continuity is another key area (and in a future post, I would like to compare the fascinating juxtaposition of appeals to Scottish linguistic apartness to the deadly stakes connected with linguistic otherness currently playing out in and outside of the Ukraine). Although some would argue that Scots is a distinct language standing alongside English in the Germanic language family, most linguists regard Scots—not to be confused with the Celtic language of Gaelic—as a dialect of English. Indeed, since the late Middle Ages, the presence of Gaelic speakers in Scottish lands has been a minority (see the excellent Wikipedia article, which includes statistics), and the dialects spoken in southern Scotland and northern England are not just mutually intelligible, but sometimes virtually indistinguishable.

What fascinates me most about this upcoming vote is how it exposes how national self-identification involves multiple, overlapping, often conflicting identities. As much as rabid nationalists would like to portray the vote in their favored, simplistic, either-or terms, it seems clear that many Scots are deeply conflicted. Many who want an independent Scotland nevertheless see themselves as also British: competing ethnic and political ideas thus come into focus. Many would like an independent Scotland, but want to retain the pound—a clash of economic and cultural modes of pride come into view. Many other examples of conflicts between Scottish and British identities could be named, as the independence referendum forces individuals to decisively prioritize among the multiple layers that make up one’s identity. Moreover, as John Harriss has argued, the Scottish referendum is illuminating numerous conflicts and instabilities in English identity.

It is hard not to surmise that such institutions as the Scottish Parliament or the Scottish Football Association are designed to maintain British identity by serving as pressure-release mechanisms. By allowing Scots to see themselves as uniquely Scots in actual, but materially circumscribed contexts (such as educational policy or World Cup qualification), such institutions offer much of the personal satisfaction that can come with feeling part of a large, but unique and limited ethnic group. But ethnic groups do not get to vote in the United Nations, nor do they get to exert complete control over a state—nations, as we now understand them, do this. I know that I will be glued to my laptop, television, and telephone screens on September 18 (very early on that date, considering I am on US East Coast time), as this momentous, messy, and fascinating vote begins.