Duncan S. A.


Mythscapes: memory, mythology, and national identity

ABSTRACT In this paper I seek to challenge the dominant modes of conceiving the relationship between memory and national identity, and in so doing offer analysts of nationalism an improved understanding of the dynamics of national identity formation. The concept of collective memory is invoked regularly in attempts to explain the pervasiveness and power of nationalism. I argue that the concept is misused routinely in this context, and instead I employ a ‘social agency’ approach to theorizing, whereby memory is conceived in a more limited and cogent manner. I argue that it is important to distinguish clearly between memory and mythology, both of which are essential to understanding national identity, for not only are the two concepts distinct, they can also act in opposition to each other. Following from this I introduce the notion of a ‘mythscape’, the temporally and spatially extended discursive realm in which the myths of the nation are forged, transmitted, negotiated, and reconstructed constantly. Through employing the idea of a mythscape we can relate memory and mythology to each other in a theoretically profitable way.

KEYWORDS: history

Memory; mythology; nationalism; national identity; mythscape;


The sacralization of the past is not the best possible way of making it live in the present. Nowadays we need something besides pious images. When commemoration freezes into permanent forms that cannot be changed without cries of sacrilege, we can be certain that it serves the particular interests of its defenders and not their moral edification. Tzvetan Todorov (2001: 21) Nationalism, as Jean Bethke Elshtain has observed recently, is the ‘great political passion of our time’ (1998: 25). Whether it is the greatest passion is perhaps debateable, but the bewitching power of nationalism, and its
British Journal of Sociology Vol. No. 54 Issue No. 1 (March 2003) pp. 63–81 © 2003 London School of Economics and Political Science ISSN 0007-1315 print/1468-4446 online Published by Routledge Journals, Taylor & Francis Ltd on behalf of the LSE DOI: 10.1080/0007131032000045905


Duncan S. A. Bell

social, cultural and political dynamics continues to help sculpt the contours of global power relations at the dawn of the twenty-first century. It is not therefore surprising that the study of nationalism, once consigned to the unobtrusive margins of academic discourse, has undergone a belated renaissance in recent years, catalyzed and sustained by the proliferation of highly visible and intensely bitter ethnic conflicts spanning the globe, as well as the rise to prominence of secessionist tendencies within a number of Western countries. The appalling, evocative images painting the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, the killing fields of Rwanda, East Timor, Chechnya and a bleak host of others, have etched themselves into the contemporary imagination and generated both public and academic interest in the subject; the analysis of nationalism has finally ‘joined the ranks of the Undead’ (McCrone 1998: 2). Nevertheless, this most opaque yet urgent of subjects remains beset by incomprehension, and little consensus exists on the origins, functioning or future trajectory of nationalism(s). Fierce debates concerning these fundamental issues continue to reverberate around departments of politics, sociology, history, anthropology and literature (see Poole 1999: 194–205; Hutchinson and Smith 1994). Indeed it is not even agreed upon whether nationalism can be traced to the antediluvian dawn of humanity, its potential lying dormant in our genetic structure, or whether it is instead a product of the modern capitalist political-economic system (compare Thayer 2000 with Fearon and Laitin 2000). What is clear, however, is that questions of personal and collective identity are fundamental in any attempt to grasp the dynamics of nationalism. To recognize oneself as a member of a particular nation – indeed to feel a powerful sense of belonging – and to be recognized by others as such, is a perquisite for the formation of the inside/outside, self/other, us/them boundaries that define the topography of nationalist sentiment and rhetoric. However, as David McCrone (1998: 40) has argued, the study of ‘national identity’ is more often concerned with elucidating and debating the concept of the ‘nation’, with the sketching of its limits and limitations, than it is of identity per se, and when ‘national identity’ is employed as an analytic category by theorists of nationalism there is often little discussion of the manner in which identities are forged and reproduced across time and space. It is the purpose of this essay to probe this lacuna through illuminating tentatively a specific dimension of national identity constitution, namely memory. In what follows, then, I do not proffer a new theory of nationalism, or concentrate explicitly on critiquing, extending or developing any existing ones. Nor do I attempt to castigate or defend nationalistic impulses, as has become increasingly popular in an expanding area of political theory (see Miller 1995; Canovan 1996). My intention is rather to probe the commonly employed notion of ‘collective memory’, and the role that such ‘memories’ play in framing national identity, and instead offer a more delimited and cogent way to theorize memory and its complex relationship with nationalism. Although the discussion is of relevance to



other aspects of social and cultural analysis, the focus will be exclusively on questions of national identity. Moreover, I will be focusing on generic aspects of national identity formation, rather than explicating specific manifestations of these dynamics. I argue that a number of different though interpenetrating social and cognitive processes are conflated when painted with the broad brushstrokes of ‘collective memor y’. This leads not only to semantic confusion, but serves also to conceal an important political phenomenon – the role that collective remembrance can play in challenging what will be termed the ‘governing myth’ of the nation. Such confusion is widespread in attempts to theorize nationalism, and in particular I will highlight this tendency in the work of Anthony D. Smith. In tr ying to disentangle some of this conceptual confusion, it is fruitful to employ a ‘social agency’ approach to memor y (as outlined in Sivan and Winter 1999a and b). This approach understands memor y to be a socially-framed property of individual minds, and (following from this) collective memor y – or what is more accurately referred to as collective remembrance – to be the product of individuals (or groups of individuals) coming together to share memories of particular events, of time past. As such, memor y can be externalized only through multiple acts of remembrance, through social interaction. Moreover, memor y can be shared only by those who were present at the event that is being remembered: memor y is thus anchored in common experience. Collective memor y is therefore an experientially formatted inter-subjective phenomenon. This is not to say that our shared understanding(s), conceptualization(s), or representation(s) of past events generally considered to be vital in the forging of group identity – the sense in which ‘collective memor y’ is employed usually ( Jedlowski 2001: 33–4) – are unimportant, but rather that they should not be classified as truly mnemonic. Instead, they should be conceived of as mythical. The aim of this paper is therefore partly to question the underlying assumptions of the recent ‘memory boom’, a boom which has played a significant and capricious role in the disciplines of history and sociology, and which has claimed centre stage in the harrowing, emotionally charged debate(s) over the Holocaust. The utility, and the potentially unintended political consequences, of much of the recent literature concerning the ‘contemporary fascination’ (Ram 2000: 67) with collective memory needs to be challenged. ‘Memory’, it appears, has today assumed the role of a meta-theoretical trope and also, perhaps, a sentimental yearning; as the idea of an Archimedean Truth has slowly and painfully withered under the assault of various anti-foundational epistemologies, memory seems to have claimed Truth’s valorized position as a site of authenticity, as a point of anchorage – albeit an unsteady one – in a turbulent world stripped of much of its previous meaning. In memory we trust. Indeed Kerwin Lee Klein, highlighting the metaphysical and theological overtones of much contemporary mnemonic debate, argues that ‘memory’ now serves as a


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‘therapeutic alternative to historical discourse’ (2000: 45). We must remain alert to the cathartic dangers that this conviction embodies. The structure of the essay is as follows. In the first section I highlight the formative role that the narrative construction of past events and the discursive representation of history (often construed in terms of ‘memory’) plays in all of the variegated approaches to theorizing nationalism, however different their claims regarding its origins. Thus, although there are significant differences in the widely accepted approaches to the theorization of nationalism, there are also a number of vital areas of overlap, and this has important repercussions in terms of elucidating the dynamics of identity formation. In particular, it will be argued that all the different modes of theorizing rely on the centrality of nationalist story-telling, on the evocative narration of the links between past, present and future. It is in this space that many theorists of nationalism fall back on discussions of ‘memory’; and it is here also that the centrality of myth-making in the explanatory schemas of the otherwise poly-vocal theorists of nationalism is demonstrated clearly. Following this, the social agency approach to memory is introduced, its fundamental features outlined and the significance of this understanding for students of national identity indicated. It is argued, moreover, that the careless employment of the term ‘memory’ results not only in conceptual confusion, but serves also to obscure an important political phenomenon, whereby ‘organic’ forms of collective remembrance can actually run against the grain of the dominant narrative (or ‘governing mythology’) of the nation, the alleged repository of national collective ‘memory’. Memory can thus function as a counter-hegemonic site of resistance, a space of political opposition. An adequate understanding of its potential is essential for those engaged in the project of critique (on which see Bell 2002). In order to avoid losing sight of this potential, I argue that we need to separate out the concepts of memory and myth rather than subsuming them under the monolithic notion of collective memory. I consequently introduce the notion of a mythscape, the temporally and spatially extended discursive realm wherein the struggle for control of peoples memories and the formation of nationalist myths is debated, contested and subverted incessantly. The mythscape is the page upon which the multiple and often conflicting nationalist narratives are (re)written; it is the perpetually mutating repository for the representation of the past for the purposes of the present.


Representational Strategies: The Nation and Narration As Montserrat Guibernau has observed, ‘[t]he strength of nationalism derives above all from its ability to create a sense of identity’ (1996: 142).1



But how has nationalism come to be understood as the most privileged mode of identity in the modern world, and how is such an identity constructed? And in what way does a national identity maintain temporal continuity, exerting its fierce gravitational pull from generation to generation? These questions play into the wider debate over the origins of nationalism, and they have spawned a wide variety of ripostes. Anthony Smith has provided a useful typology of theoretical approaches, fitting them into four distinct categories: primordialists, perennialists, modernists and historical ethno-symbolists (1999: 1–19). Each of these approaches seeks to provide definite answers to the above questions. However, they are all united in the centrality of historical representation and hence narration within their explanatory schemas, of the need for nationalists to be able to tell a particular type of story about the nation and its importance, a story that resonates emotively with people, that glorifies the nation, that is easily transmitted and absorbed. Hence the distinction is not perhaps as clear as Smith’s typology might initially connote. In Kantian terms, the ability to represent history in an extremely partial and easily digestible manner is a necessary condition of the very possibility of nationalism. And historical representation is built into the formation and constant re-negotiation of identity, for this never-ending process requires the location and embedding of the self or group within a matrix of other fluid identities, all of which are likewise partially framed by and constituted through temporally extended representations of themselves in relation to others. In other words, representation and recognition – of us and them – act as the mutually supporting scaffolds upon which national identity is constructed. Primordialists argue that the nation (usually construed in ethnic terms) is rooted in kinship ties, and sometimes in genetic similarities. They tend therefore to deploy either sociobiological arguments (Van Den Berghe 1990; cf. Bell and MacDonald 2001), where allegiance to the nation is as much a function of blood, of nature, as it is of history, or, as with Clifford Geertz (1972), to speak in cultural terms of the overwhelming strength of the ‘primordial tie’ which is centred on supposedly age old customs, language, religious beliefs and so forth. The former is the type of argument deployed most frequently by nationalist movements, the powerful and evocative stories recycled endlessly in order to catalyze the national ‘rebirth’, to mobilize and energize the emotions of people, although it is today encountered only rarely in academic debates (Fearon and Laitin 2000). Perennialists claim that nations have been a constant feature of human history, from ancient Egypt and onwards into the present. However, their arguments tend not to rely on ethnicity and biological indicators; rather humans, as Aristotelian zoon politikon, have always been aligned in national communities and human history can and indeed should be seen as the procession of periods of conflict and co-operation between these various tribes (see Smith 1999: 203–25). Again, despite the inherent naturalization of the concept of the nation, this approach


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presupposes the ability of nationalists to generate a form of communal identity and to be able to clearly differentiate one nation from another. As such, the interplay between historical representation and identity is fundamental. In contradistinction, modernist arguments such as those propounded by Ernest Gellner (1983), Eric Hobsbawm (1990) and Tom Nairn (1997) envision the nation as a product of the modern world, of the multi-valent processes of modernity itself. They concentrate in particular on the industrial revolution, the spread of capitalism and the role of economic and political elites in the construction of the artificial social bonds necessary to instil a sense of national purpose and unity through the construction of particular historical narratives, embodied most obviously in the ‘invention of tradition’ (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). Nationalism is thus an intrinsically political project, coterminous with the development of the modern state. This form of argument dominates the current debate. Ethno-symbolists, the most prolific and influential of whom is Smith himself, try to synthesize the arguments of the cultural primordialists and the modernists, claiming that although nationalism is an ideational product of modernity, and that most nations are indeed modern constructs, the strength of their claims for allegiance result from their being rooted in the ‘myths and memories’ of actually existing (and far older) ethnic communities, or ethnies (Smith 1999: 1–19; Smith 1986). Again, the role of representation should here be apparent, for without the attempted development and imposition of a particular interpretation of past events (real or imaginary) this type of argument would be impossible. In other words, even if such ethnies did exert this persistent influence on the present, it would still be necessary to provide a convincing narrative reconstruction of their formation, evolution and contemporary significance, for present ideological purposes. Such representational discourses, in order to function adequately, must be coherent, intelligible and transmittable. Smith notes (1999: 22) that post-modernism – represented by the pioneering work of Benedict Anderson (1990) and Homi Bhaba (1990) – does not characterize a distinct explanatory category, but rather a set of approaches that generally employ a constructivist mode of theorizing (as opposed to largely materialist economic arguments) to support the modernist case. Nevertheless, we can see from the above survey that representation and narration, both central to postmodernist accounts, are likewise necessary in all modes of theorizing nationalism, including (and indeed especially) Smith’s ethno-symbolism. For postmodernists, what is important is the manner in which particular stories are shaped and circulated; nations are here perceived as cultural artefacts, ‘imagined’ by those they encompass. In Anderson’s well-known formulation, ‘societies are to be distinguished not by their falsity–genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined’ (1991: 6). As such, postmodernism is not so much an alternative account of origins but of processes. Rather than trying to trace the beginnings of nationalism back into the mists of time or, more



recently, to the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution, it emphasizes and consequently focuses on the necessity for the discursive construction of political (and national) communities. What follows from this is an interest in the modes and mediums in which such narratives operate and through which linguistically and symbolically mediated communities are formed and dissolve. Hence the concern with the spread of communications technologies (such as the printing press) and vernacular languages, as well as the pivotal role of film, literature, folk rituals and the media. In summary, despite their wildly different interpretations of the genesis of nationalism, the four main approaches can be seen to interweave questions of narrativity and representation. The construction of stories about identity, origins, history and community is crucial in all of them. Representational practices are thus inherently bound up in the process of national identity formation: to mould a national identity – a sense of unity with others belonging to the same nation – it is necessary to have an understanding of oneself as located in a temporally extended narrative, and in order to be able to locate one as such, nationalist discourse must be able to represent the unfolding of time in such a way that the nation assumes a privileged and valorized role.2 Representation and discourse should therefore be seen as a constitutive feature of nationalism. We are all constructivists in this sense. Memory and Representation Thus nationalist sentiments and national identity are structured and reproduced through variegated and temporally extended representational strategies. The differing modes of identifying with a nation that follow from this complex interdependence should be the basis of all approaches to studying the subject. For without a decent conception both of the nature of a particular identity, and often more importantly, the way in which identities are constructed and reproduced in different historical contexts, the student of nationalism cannot come close to understanding the bewitching power that this ideology continues to exert, despite Hobsbawm’s premature claim to the contrary (1990). The key question, then, is not about the general origins of nationalism, as much of the literature indicates, but rather how national identities emerge in specific instances and are then translated over time, and about their everyday actualization and propagation (see for example Billig 1995). In other words, what are the key discursive elements that help to bind together the idea of a collective national identity? How is history, indeed time, represented? A recurrent theme in attempts to answer these fundamental questions is that nations display a form of collective memory, a memory that is somehow to be found in and shared between many, perhaps most, of the members of any given national community. It is partly through this ‘memory’, so the argument goes, that the nation is constituted. The notion of shared ideas, values and interpretations concerning either real events


Duncan S. A. Bell

(slavery, the First World War, the Holocaust) or narratives of ancient origins or of prelapsarian ‘golden ages’ (the epic Finnish Kalevala, or King Arthur and the Round Table) locates the collectivity inside a shared history, a history constantly reaffirmed and reproduced through resonant rituals and symbols. This memory acts as a powerful cohesive force, binding the disparate members of a nation together: it demarcates the boundary between Them and Us, delineating the national self from the foreign, alien Other. Such binding memories can be passed from generation to generation, transmigrating across multiple historical contexts. They can (allegedly) be invented, acquired, and embellished, although more often than not they assume a life-force of their own, escaping the clutches of any individual or group and becoming embedded in the very fabric, material and psychological, of the nation. Milton Takei, for example, argues in his analysis of Cambodian national identity that ‘collective memory is the key to understanding why people retain a certain group identity. Both the distant past and more recent events can be important, since all these experiences can be part of a groups collective memory’ (1998: 59). This memory helps to explain the antagonistic Cambodian attitude towards Vietnam. Memory plays a similar function for Ross Poole, and he notes that every form of identity, collective or individual, ‘carries a conception of its past and its future’ (1999: 64). Because the acting self is temporally extended, because it exists in and acts through time, memory is therefore ‘a central force through which our identity is constructed’ and these memories are ‘embedded in institutions and in practices as well as in brain traces’. As we move within and are exposed to certain institutions and practices, we thereby ‘acquire the appropriate memories’ (1999: 65). However, it is in the prolific and important writings of Anthony Smith that this mnemonic discourse is most commonly adduced, and where the running together (and even conflation) of memory and mythology is widespread. Although he refers constantly to ‘myths and memories of the nation’ these concepts are never distinguished adequately, and are often employed without sufficient differentiation, and as such they become almost synonymous (see, for example, Smith 1999: 9, 13–14, 84–5 and 152; Smith 1998: 131 and 197–9; Smith 1991: 357–65). Smith places great weight on the role of memory, noting the vital ‘relationship of shared memories to collective cultural identities: memory, almost by definition is integral to cultural identity, and the cultivation of shared memories is essential to the survival and destiny of such collective identities’ (1999: 10). ‘[O]ne might almost say: no memory, no identity; no identity, no nation’ and this explains why it is imperative that ‘nationalists must rediscover and appropriate shared memories of the past’ (Smith 1996: 383). For example, Smith argues that one of the reasons why nationalism will not disappear in an (allegedly) globalizing world, displaced by utopian ideals of a common humanity, is the fact that cosmopolitan globalism is deracinated, lacking communal memory, and that consequently people



will remain rooted in national forms of life, embedded in historical traditions and cultures In short, a timeless global culture answers to no living needs and conjures no memories. If memory is central to identity, we can discern no global identity-in-the-making, nor aspirations for one, nor any collective amnesia to replace existing ‘deep’ cultures with a cosmopolitan ‘flat’ culture. (1995: 24) In a similar vein, he claims that although many nations are indeed creations of modernity, they only exert their power over people through being rooted in the memories of pre-existing communities, in an (often) ethnically derived past. In the case of Poland, for example, the newly forged state of 1918 was not simply an ‘invention’ but was instead ‘linked in many ways with the earlier Polish state, not least through the shared codes, rituals, memories, myths, values and symbols which bound Poles together during the long nineteenth century of their unfreedom’ (1998: 131). As these three brief examples help to illustrate, there is a widespread belief that the concept of collective memory is vital to understanding national identity. However, several pressing questions remain as to the validity of these claims, which are rarely backed up with much theoretical support. For example, how do we ‘cultivate’ and moreover ‘acquire’ memories? Is it possible to have a ‘cosmopolitan’ memory, uniting disparate people spread over the face of the earth (Levy and Sznaider 2002)? And how can institutions, practices, buildings or statues remember? What does it mean to say that today we remember both events that have occurred and those which (as far as we know) have not? As Klein has observed sardonically ‘[t]he “new materialization” of memory . . . grounds the elevation of memory to the status of a historical agent, and we thus enter a new age in which archives remember and statues forget’ (2000: 136). It is this mode of argument, represented admirably by Poole, Takei and especially Smith, which it is necessary to challenge.


The danger of ‘memory’ lies in its very seductiveness, and consequently in the sloppy employment of the term, in the relapse into gnomic metaphor and supine idealism, tempered sometimes with a strong dose of mysticism. Memory is a concept that is readily employed to represent a whole host of different social practices, cognitive processes and representational strategies and what gets submerged, flattened out, is the nuance, texture and often-contradictory forces and tensions of history and politics. In particular it can elide the manner in which such ‘memories’ are constructed through acts of manipulation, through the atavistic play of power. We need to remain wary of the over-employment of the concept, sceptical about its generality, and aware of the political implications that


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follow from its omnipresence in debate. Adopting a more sceptical stance towards the status of memory and its role in the construction of identity, it can be seen that the proliferation of the idea of collective memory in academic discourse actually performs a totalizing function, albeit an oftenunintended one, in that the complexity and immanent contradictions of social and political life are subsumed under a naturalized, reified and yet ever-elusive category. This has detrimental consequences not only for intellectual investigation, but also for political understanding and practice. As a result of these problems, we need to move beyond the careless and highly metaphorical modes of theorizing memory that currently beset much academic work on the subject. Therefore, students of nationalism could benefit from employing the social agency approach, for it articulates a more conceptually refined account of memory and its relation to identity and history. This approach understands memory to be the socially-framed property of individual minds, the neurologically inscribed traces of past events. It is ‘the human faculty of preserving certain traces of past experience and having access to these – at least in part – through recall’ ( Jedlowski 2001: 29). This is not to claim, of course, that people have perfect and unmediated recollection of the past, for this is obviously not the case. Nor is it to claim that the mind is a hermetically-sealed entity, untouched by the social context in which it is situated; once again, this is a highly unrealistic account of human existence. Memory relies to a large degree on pre-constituted discursive elements, images, vocabularies and so forth, to help shape, filter and make sense of experience; it is not a blackbox, easily locked and untarnished by external influences. However, the social agency approach maintains that memory is nevertheless an individualistic psychological phenomenon in so far as it is a phenomenon that only individuals can posses properly. For our purposes at least, the person’s memory needs to be understood within a framework of human interaction (Halbwachs 1992), a framework that results in the formation of social groups constructed for the purpose of remembrance, the often unofficial organizations and webs of association through which those who experienced the event being remembered gather to share their memories, often in an attempt to deal with grief (Sivan and Winter 1999). Moreover, if we adopt the social agency conception of collective memory (as collective remembrance) it is necessary to view such memories as bounded by both space, in that the sharing must occur in comparatively limited groups,3 and time, as the shelf-life of the memory is only as long as the lives of the individuals who engage in the acts of remembrance. The best examples of this, of course, are commemoration rituals for the war dead, the poignant small services conducted around memorials in countless anonymous villages and towns (Winter 1995). Collective memory is, then, the result of the process whereby individuals interact socially to articulate their memories – of lost relatives, of protest and dissent, of days gone by. It is instructive to compare the social agency approach to that elucidated



by Anthony Smith, for this comparison serves to illustrate the key differences between the way in which collective memory is employed generally and the way in which I believe it is more fruitfully understood. For Smith (1999: 262), memory is ‘conceived of as an active principle of recall of earlier states of activity and experience of [a] person’. So far so good.4 He continues: ‘By analogy, collective cultural identities are based on the shared memories of experiences and activities of successive generations of a group distinguished by one or more shared cultural elements’ (emphasis added). And herein lies the problem: for Smith’s analogy to hold satisfactorily, the memory of the individual should be transmissible over and between ‘successive generations’, and yet if this is the case, memory cannot be an active ‘recall of earlier states of activity and experience’, for experience and activity are categories that the individual has been exposed to or immersed in at some earlier stage; they cannot jump from generation to generation. The problem thus lies in the temporal assumptions embedded in the concept of collective memory, the belief that such ‘memory’ can transcend the individual consciousness and enter into the public realm, outside time. If we accept the more rigorous social agency definition of memory – in both its individual and collective senses – then there are at least two major problems with the manner in which it is more commonly employed. Firstly, memory is not transferable (as memory) to those who have not experienced the events that an individual recalls, which means that it cannot be passed down from generation to generation, let alone ‘cultivated’ or constructed in the minds of those who live often hundreds of years after an event (real or imagined). Buildings, archives, poems and all the other artefacts, symbols and rituals that cultures imbue with meaning, do not remember. And neither are they necessarily spurs to us remembering. As Samuel Hynes has observed in relation to Edward Lutyen’s monumental, haunting memorial to the dead at Thiepval, ‘no pile of brick and stones can cause us to remember what we have not seen’ (1997: 206). They may well store or transmit information about the past, or act as social-psychological triggers for often very powerful images or emotions – just visualize a picture of a slave ship – but they do not embody memory, for we were not there. The other major problem with talking about national collective memory is the fact that this it often a question of perspective, that different sets of people ‘remember’ different things; in other words that a representation of the past will very much depend on a variety of factors, among which the most important are ethnicity, class, gender and age. Thus it is pertinent to ask, which nation and whose memory? The governing myth of the nation – of a fundamentally decent and moderate Britain, an eternal and heroic France – is contested continually, and it usually gains its ascendancy at the expense of other dissident voices.5 Such narratives, in other words, should always be seen in the context of relations of power and logics of dominance. There is no singular, irreducible national narrative, no essentialist ‘national identity’.6 However, the idea of ‘national identity’ is so enshrined in the theoretical imagination, so easily and so frequently employed as shorthand


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in discussions of nationalism, that its highly problematic nature is regularly overlooked. Theorists need to employ the concept more sparingly, more carefully, and this is why it makes compelling sense to talk instead of a governing myth. Indeed it is useful to draw a parallel between the idea of a governing myth and Michael Freeden’s illuminating discussion of the concept of ideology (1996, 1998; Bell 2002). For Freeden, an ideology is an actionoriented thought-structure that, in its endeavour to stifle debate over possible political alternatives – to close down reasoned discussion over how best to live – tries instead to decontest the essentially contested concepts which structure political discourse. Thus freedom, justice, nation, and so forth are ascribed specific meanings, and definite and singular relations with one another in a mutually reinforcing conceptual constellation. However, this attempted decontestation will invariably fail, for there will always exist counter claims and alternative readings due to the intrinsic contestability of political concepts. We can view the nationalist governing mythology in a similar way, as the attempt to impose a definite meaning on the past, on the nation and its history.7 However, as with ideologies this attempt will invariably fail, there will always be dissent and the story will never be accepted consistently and universally. Of course opposition can assume many different forms, from wide-scale scepticism of and sustained opposition against the political order in modern liberal democracies, to undercover resistance against oppressive authoritarian regimes.8 The governing myth thus coexists with and is constantly contested by subaltern myths, which are capable of generating their own traditions and stories, stories as likely to be concerned with past oppression and suffering at the hands of the dominant groups as by tales of national glory. Thus ‘memories of empire’, for example, are likely to have a particular significance for British citizens of countries formerly under the dominion of the British and a very different one for sentimental conservatives who believe that the empire constituted an historical ‘golden age’.9 Nevertheless, the question remains as to how to conceptualize the distinction between these various forms of representation, and this is a task to which I now turn.


Memory, then, is an under-theorized and yet grossly over-employed term. It is therefore essential to challenge the notion of ‘national memory’, the totalizing mnemonic that forms the basis of the nationalist narrative: the alleged unified, coherent memory shared amongst all of the people concerning their national past. If we can talk of collective memory at all – call it organic memory (as remembrance) in order to highlight its bottomup development within civil society, as well as its fragile nature, its constant need of sustenance – then it is necessary to distinguish it from the nationalist attempt to impose a ‘memory’ through those representations of history



which are taught in schools, passed down in print, in art and in music (Clampin 1999; Ram 2000; Shapiro 2002). To label both memory is, as has been argued, to invite conceptual confusion, to encourage elision. Therefore it is necessary, pace Smith and a coterie of others, to draw a clearer distinction between memory and myth. Myth, as Samuel Hynes has noted in a discussion of the First World War, ‘is a term to identify the simplified, dramatized story that has evolved in our society to contain the meanings of the war’ (1999: 207). As such, myth is not synonymous with pernicious distortion or dissimulation, and as an antonym of history. However, whilst Hynes’ definition is a useful starting point for framing the notion of myth, it is too passive, too neutral. Myths do not simply evolve unguided, without active agency, in accord with the pervasive biological metaphor, although of course they may do so on occasion. We should understand a nationalist myth as a story that simplifies, dramatizes and selectively narrates the story of a nation’s past and its place in the world, its historical eschatology: a story that elucidates its contemporary meaning through (re)constructing its past. Furthermore, myths do not encompass only war; they subsume all of the various events, personalities, traditions, artefacts and social practices that (self) define the nation and its relation to the past, present and future. Myths are constructed, they are shaped, whether by deliberate manipulation and intentional action, or perhaps through the particular resonance of works of literature and art. Consider, for example, the mythical construction of the First World War in the UK, the manner in which a powerful story has been moulded through the words and images of artists and writers, and by the poets in particular – through the tortured lyrics of Rosenberg, Owen, Sassoon and their tragic, talented generation. As Paul Fussell once argued, it is their stories, their images, simultaneously evocative and terrifying, that have become ‘all-encompassing, all-pervading . . . the essential condition of consciousness in the twentieth century’ (Fussell 2000 [1975]: 321). And yet this is a narrative (of innocence lost, of passive victimhood, of the incompetence of politico-military leadership) that, although compelling in many respects, is highly selective for many soldiers came to enjoy the experience(s) of war (Bourke 1999; Hynes 1997; Bond 2002). Myth serves to flatten the complexity, the nuance, the performative contradictions of human history; it presents instead a simplistic and often uni-vocal story. The complex interpenetration of myth – in both its governing and multifarious subaltern forms – and organic memory (remembrance) can best be framed in the context of (and in relation to) a ‘national mythscape’. Such a mythscape can be conceived of as the discursive realm, constituted by and through temporal and spatial dimensions, in which the myths of the nation are forged, transmitted, reconstructed and negotiated constantly.10 The temporal dimension denotes a historical span, a narrative of the passing of years, and it is a narrative that is most likely to include inter alia a story of the origins of the nation and of subsequent momentous events and heroic figures. In the case of the USA, for example, this narrative would


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encompass the Mayflower, the heroic Revolution, the wise Founding Fathers, the formative Civil War, the hardy frontier men and westward expansion, the economic and political dominance of the twentiethcentury, Pearl Harbour and the consequent saving of the ‘free world’, the disillusionment of Vietnam, the horrors of the World Trade Centre atrocity and so forth. This dimension thus relates to what Craig Calhoun terms (1997: 5) the ‘temporal depth’ embedded in nationalist discourse, the perception of past and future in a linear historical timeline, as if the claims (often false) of age somehow imbued the nation with moral and political authenticity. And here lies the relevance of Ernest Renan’s (1882) famous dialectic of remembering and forgetting, of the need for nationalism to simultaneously have a sense of its historicity, its longevity, and also amnesia regarding the violence surrounding its (usually recent) birth (see also Billig 1995). The spatial dimension tends to be rooted in particular constructions of an often-idealized bounded territory, for example a romanticized national landscape: in pastoral English villages, rugged American frontiers or bucolic German forests.11 As such it includes a powerful narrative of place, embodying the topophilic power of a ‘here-feeling’ (Deudney 1996: 130). Richard Price, in his revolutionary A Discourse on the Love of our Country (1789) was naïve to imagine that the patria could be divorced from the landscape, that ‘by our country is meant . . . not the soil or the spot of earth on which we happen to have been born, not the forests and fields’ but rather the community of companions living under the constitution (1991: 178). Time and place combine and are encoded in nationalist representational strategies, shaping the feelings of community and the construction of an inside/outside distinction, framing national identity in terms of a story about history and (a specific, often imagined) location. However, the mythscape should not be mistaken for a reified construct, a narrative without a narrator, for it is grounded in institutions and shaped by ever-present and evolving power relations.12 It is a space in which political actors are engaged constantly, although that is another story to tell, and one that would need to be told in a different and thickly-textured manner for each national mythscape. Whilst the dynamics may be similar, the actual manifestations will vary widely. And what of the relationship between mythscape and memory? The mythscape may well subsume memories, it may even propel them centre stage – witness for example the constant stream of World Trade Centre survivors on Oprah and other popular US chat shows – but the two are certainly not synonymous or coterminous, for memory can function in opposition to myth, whether of the governing or subaltern variety(s). It represents a conceptually distinct category. The memories that are privileged in the minds of individuals (whether they like it or not) or are recalled through ceremonies of collective remembrance may not be the ones that are privileged in mythology, conceivably due to the highly personal nature of the incident being recalled, or because it happens to



conflict with the self-image embodied in the various mythical narratives. It could be a memory recounting lost battles, participation in horrific illegal events, or the daily grind of living under a despotic regime (see, for example, Merridale 1999). Or perhaps it is a memory that is just too complex, too awkward to fit into the simplifying schemas of myth: memories can and do cut across the abridging logic of mythology (of whatever form). Indeed memory can directly contradict such mythology(s), whether governing or subaltern. Memories may fall instead into the private, silenced tideways of time, or they could be employed as a site of opposition to myth. For example, a homosexual man of African–American descent will most likely have a storehouse of memories that run counter to both the governing mythology of the USA and also the predominant subaltern mythology of Black male oppression and resistance, with its explicitly heterosexual connotations; as Cornel West has remarked, ‘In their efforts to be themselves, they [homosexual African Americans] are told they are not really “black men,” not machismo-identified’ (West 1993: 89; cf. Jones and Dickerson 2002). Nor is mythology synonymous with history as a professional discipline concerned with systematic reflection on past events. Again, such history may play a decisive role in the forging of the governing mythology, in shaping the contours of the national mythscape, and indeed historians have been exceptionally important in constructing nationalist narratives. As Stefan Berger (quoted in Cameron 1999: 1) has observed, in reference to German history, ‘[t]he commitment of historians to nation-building can look back on a long tradition in German historiography, its major function being to uphold national honour and glory and create national identity’. Hegel stands here as an exemplar par excellence. This historiographic genuflection before the ideal of the nation holds in all national contexts. Nevertheless, this is not to argue that historians are concerned primarily with the generation or consecration of the national (and especially the governing) mythology. History can be regarded as separable (if not completely separate) in at least two distinct senses. Firstly, at least when pursued systematically, history is too meticulous, too intricate and too complex to be assimilated easily into national mythology, which is based on generalization and deliberate simplification and packaged into easily comprehended and reproducible narratives. As J. G. A. Pocock argues, ‘the historian’s function is to insist that there are always exceptions’ (1998: 229). Such a muddying of the water has no role in the symbolic logic of mythologizing. And secondly, there are always dissident, critical historians, who see it as their job to undermine the governing mythology, to challenge and subvert the hegemonic discourse. Eric Hobsbawm, for example, argues that the true role of the historian is to criticize the ‘politico-ideological abuse of history’ (1997: 7). It is thus imperative that the student of nationalism should remain conscious of the differences between as well as the interplay of history, myth and memory.


Duncan S. A. Bell

Wither memory? Kerwin Lee Klein (2000) has gone so far as to claim that ‘Memory is replacing old favourites – nature, culture, language – as the word most commonly paired with history, and that shift is remaking historical imagination’. This remade historical imagination has significant implications for the study of nationalism, and we ignore it at our peril. The ‘mnemonic turn’ has highlighted not only the intrinsically temporal and spatial characteristics of human ethico-political life, but also the mutability and historicity of identity formation, and as such the turn should be welcomed, and learnt from. However, it is essential to remain perpetually alert and sceptical, aware of the power of this sometimes overly metaphorical and careless mnemonic discourse to conflate and perhaps eradicate the Promethean complexity of the links between memory, mythology, identity and the national project. It is imperative, then, to engage with the analysis of memory, but simultaneously to remain at a critical distance, forever wary of its potentially comforting embrace. Contra the noble optimism of Hobsbawm (1990), Minerva’s owl has not yet flown, and we are yet to catch sight of the elusive dusk. (Date accepted: October 2002) Duncan S. A. Bell Centre of International Studies University of Cambridge


I would like to thank James Mayall, John Urry, Jay Winter, Inbali Iserles, Amanda Dickins, Zaheer Kazmi, and the editors of the BJS, for their advice and commentary on earlier drafts of this paper. All the usual disclaimers apply.


1. Although questions of identity are fundamental in analytical discussions of nationalism, it is worth bearing in mind Michael Billig’s argument that ‘identity’ is an under-theorized concept. Consequently the term should be employed with care, remembering always that identity should be considered as embedded in various ‘forms of life’, not abstracted from its embodiment in multiple and often unconscious social practices (1995: esp. 6–7 and 65ff). It is in this more grounded sense that the term is here employed.

2. Nationalist discourse does not necessarily entail the claim that the nation has an unbroken glorious past, although this type of argument is of course common. It is just as likely that the discourse will be one of age-old oppression and bullying – for example of Serbia ( Judah 1997) – and that national unity is the only way to resist and possibly overthrow the bully. 3. There is here a useful parallel with Benedict Anderson’s ideas concerning ‘imagined communities’. He argues that the vast majority of national communities are (and must be) imagined, as it would be physically impossible for their members to

engage in face-to-face interaction (1991: 5–7). Likewise, for memories to be shared, logistical and social constraints limit the amount of social interaction that could occur, and everything beyond this remains either internalized as individual memory or shared (‘imagined’) in terms of a mythology. In an age of mass communication, the boundaries of the ‘space of sharing’ are extended tremendously by technology, and especially planetary communications systems, yet this does not refute the argument, for the more people claiming allegiance to a ‘memor y’ the more unlikely it is that they share the same experience(s), even though they may well have partaken in a broadly linked set of events. Thus whilst millions of people in the years following the Second World War could remember ‘the war’, they were often remembering different facets of a monumental series of historical events; consider, for example, the diverse experiences of a German submariner, a Chinese schoolgirl, a British coal-miner and an Indian infantryman. 4. Or almost: there remains a problem with the ‘active’ component of the definition, at least if we understand it in terms of voluntarism, for this would seem to exclude the involuntary process of posttraumatic stress and the sudden recall associated with it. 5. ‘Governing’ is thus here employed deliberately in a dualistic manner, to mean both the predominant myth of the nation, as well as that which impacts most resonantly on governance; in other words, its prominence in the practice of political aspiration and rule. For example, the mythology of American exceptionalism and ‘manifest destiny’ long dominated public discourse, and likewise played a central role in shaping the polices of that country (Stephanson 1996). 6. Note that Smith does not fall into this trap (1999: 86–8 and 186–202). 7. Herein is the link to the theorization of nationalist story-telling as outlined in Section II; what all different approaches to nationalism have in common is a constitutive narrative component, a mythologizing function. 8. The internet provides an excellent space for dissent, although as with most

technologies it is a double-edged sword, and it has played an important role in the generation and dissemination of nationalist sentiments (see Hughes 2000). 9. In this example we can see also the complexity of the (inter)relationship between subaltern and governing mythologies. Whilst it is likely that most citizens of formerly subordinated states would hold (very) critical views of empire as a site of conquest and domination, those descended from the many individuals who collaborated with and consequently benefited from the British policy of divide and rule during the imperial era, and who were obviously deeply unpopular with indigenous colonial nationalists, may well have a different set of ideas about the nature and significance of the empire and Britain’s role in it. In such cases, the standard concept of ‘collective memory’ – whose? And of what exactly? – begins to dissolve under the weight of historical particularities and contingency. 10. It is worth considering whether a mythscape, construed as such, is constitutive of all modes of identity formation. Although this may be true, there is here a problem relating to the spatial specificity of nationalist claims. I would argue instead that although ever y form of identity is necessarily temporal (requiring a past), the conjoining of history, myth and place in such a powerful web of meaning is, if not unique to nationalist narratives, certainly more common than in other social discourses. It is thus the mythologized element of place that separates nationalism from other modes of identity construction. 11. On landscape see Schama (1995). Smith also appreciates the symbolic power of landscapes, referring to the ‘territorialization of memory’ (1999: 151). However, following the argument of this paper, the topic of Schama’s book should be understood as encompassing ‘landscape and myth’, whilst Smith is actually talking about the ‘territorialization of mythology’. Note also, that the actual meanings ascribed to particular landscapes change over time, as in the diverse ideologies of the English landscape during the twentieth century (on which see Matless 1998). 12. My concept of mythscape does not

bear the specific ethnic burden of Smith’s ‘ethnoscape’, the space wherein ‘landscape is invested with ethnic kin significance’ (1999: 150). Nor should it be confused with the various ‘scapes’ (ethno, media, techno, finance, and ideo) found in the stimulating work of Appadurai (1996: 27–47), although I would concur with his claim that ‘the suffix – scape allows us to point to the fluid, irregular shapes’ which characterize the various realms of meaning and process under discussion both in his work and in mine.

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