Outline of main ideas in Balibar's “The Nation Form: History and Ideology”

The project: to explain that nations tell stories (narratives)  about themselves that make them seem to be natural and inevitable political forms populated by natural national citizens who are not only in some essential sense the same as previous and future generations but are also essentially different from the citizens of other nation states. He also presents a theory of how national institutions like the school, the state (welfare, public health, the law) participates in producing this sense of nation-ness.   He ends his essay by giving two examples, the US and France, of how the history of the nation directly contradicts the national narrative.

Paragraph #1

“The history of nations, beginning with our own, is always already presented to us in the form of a narrative which attributes to these entities the continuity of a subject.”

  Two important points in this first sentence:
   (1) Histories of nations are always presented in the form of a narrative
    – nation histories are always articulated as stories which are parallel of course to literature which also is composed of narratives and thus we can see that literary narratives might lend themselves to and are certainly capable of telling the national history.

  (2) That this story/narrative claims for the nation a “continuity of a subject”
  .  By continuity of a subject Balibar means that the narrative presents the nation as being a subject with continuity throughout history – containing the same national “personality,” characteristics, or essence throughout its history.

  (3) That the present national personality and state was the destiny of the nation:
   “The only one [political form and history]  possible”

  Balibar argues that these last two characteristics are “illusions.”


 This does not mean, he cautions us, that myths of national origin are not important.  To the contrary, the new nations formed in the process of post WWII  decolonization and the older European nations all have myths of national origin:
  * that attest to the continuity of the nation throughout its history
  * and to claims  singular/unique national personality for each nation

From the “Pre-National’ State to the Nation-State

 Some elements necessary to the modern nation developed before the nation state evolved:

  A. State languages
     – as distinct from sacred languages(English and French e.g. as opposed to Latin) developed for administrative reasons and became aristocratic languages

  B. Absolute Monarchy produced a number of elements necessary to the nation
    1.monetary monopoly – centralized control of money
    2.centralization of financial and other administration
    3. standardization of legal system
    4. pacification of internal dissent/resistance (87)
  C. Shift from a rivalry between state and church to a working together of church and state.
 These form part of the “pre-history” of nation states and these elements made the present nation states possible.  However, these pre-histories are different from the national myths of origin; they are a series of distinct events, none of which determined the next or the ultimate evolution of the state.  This what he means when he says that this pre-history and national history were not linear  – “not a line of necessary evolution but a series of conjunctural relations” (88).Balibar argues these elements contributed to the formation of a nation state and there is a historical point when enough of these elements are present and developed that the formation of a nation state becomes inevitable. This Balibar calls the “threshold of irreversibility”

 Balibar now argues against a Marxist economic understanding of the development of modern nation states as the inevitable result of the development of capital and the bourgeoisie. This is not critical to our project, so I am skipping it.  But it is important to note that Balibar sees the nation state as the product of colonization and of the development of a core and periphery in a world economy in which european nation states emerged through the competition to dominate the periphery 89. Braudel and Wallerstein, there emerged a number of different bourgeois state forms and the nation state won out, Balibar suggests because they had to use their armies both internally against a peasantry and externally against the periphery. 90

  Producing the People

“A social formation only reproduces itself as a nation to the extent that, through a network of apparatuses and daily practices, the individual is instituted as homo nationalis from cradle to grave, at the same time as he or she is instituted as homo oeconomicus, politicus, religiosus... (93)

This means that in order for the nation state to exist, it must “produce” citizens, it must transform its citizens from people who happen to be born within their boundaries (or to national citizens) into people who conceive of themselves and behave in the domains of economics, politics and religion as citizens of a nation.

Every social community reproduced by the functioning of institutions is imaginary, that is to say, it is based on the projection of individual existence into the weft of a collective narrative, on the recognition of a common name and on traditions lived as the trace of an immemorial past (93).  Balibar concludes that “only imaginary communities are real”

   This means that for a nation to function, its citizens need to conceive of themselves as part of a nation, as acting in national practices, as belonging to a national community. This community depends entirely upon a collective imagination of national belonging and conforming and without this individual and collective imagination of the national community the national community would not exist.  That is, as Balibar, puts it, the community “recognizes itself in advance in the institution of the state” (93).
What produces this sense of unity?  An ideology.
  Called either patriotism or nationalism. For the past three centuries, scholars have seen nationalism/patriotism as analogous to religion; in fact, it might be called “the religion — of modern times” (95).  The state may not provide a religion for a universal religion but it relies on “ideal signifiers” like “the fatherland” and asks that sacred and eternal emotions be felt towards this “fatherland,” e.g. love, loyalty, sacifice, respect, fear.

Fictive Ethnicity and Ideal Nation

“ No nation possesses an ethnic base naturally, but as social formations are nationalized, the populations included within them, divided up among them or dominated by them are ethnicized – that is, represented in the past or in the future as if they formed a natural community, possessing of itself an identity of origins, culture and interests which transcends individuals and social conditions” (96)

How is fictive ethnicity produced?
  Through language and race.  “Both express the idea that the national character (which might be called its soul or spirit) is immanent in the people.”  Immanent – inherently part of  – that the national character is manifest in race and language

   Language is a concrete means of creating national unity on a daily basis because people use the language everyday.  In a modern nation state, the school produces a citizenry that speaks the national language – class, regional, etc. differences are then expressed in the different ways in which one speaks the national language.

 Language is however insufficient because it can’t be made to exclude others.  More than one nation can speak a language as its national language and individuals may speak more than one language (this isn’t quite getting it. (99).

 So the nation mobilizes race to supplement language in order to produce a “fictive ethnicity” for the nation.  As Balibar reminds us, all manner of visible and invisible attributes may be used to create ethnic identity and this identity will not in fact include every one in the nation. In this sense it is different and secondary in comparison to language.

The symbolic kernal of the idea of race (and of its demographic and cultural equivalents) is the schema of genealogy, that is, quite simply the idea that the filiation of individuals transmits from generation to generation a substance both biological and spiritual and thereby inscribes them in a temporal community known as ‘kinship’.  That is why, as soon as national ideology enunciates the proposition that the individuals belonging to the same people are interrelated (or, in the prescriptive mode, that they should constitute a circle of extended kinship), we are in the presence of this second mode of ethnicization. (100)

Main point: the concept of race is based on the idea that from one generation to another a group passes on both biological and spiritual characteristics.  Nationalist rhetoric tends to assert that national citizens are all related to one another and this shares with the idea of race this core concept: the passing of a defining characteristic (personality or character) from generation to generation. This similarity illustrates how national identity functions like racial identity; that is, as a means of producing a shared ethnic identity or as Balibar says a “mode of ethnicization” (100).

What distinguishes national community from racial community Balibar explains is that the unit of allegiance in the modern nation state is the nation rather than the family, clan, tribe, or ethnic group.  All citizens of a nation are willing to marry other citizens – this is the natural marriage.

The Family and the School

The nuclear family and the state’s intervention into is a defining characteristic of the nation.  The state rather than the family or church is the repository of family records, or as Balibar puts it, “the archive of filiations and alliances” (101).

 The state and family are connected on two levels:
   (1) Superficial – the level of “familial discourse”  – rhetoric that emphases the family and its necessity to the state.  E.g.  President Bush announced that measures supporting or encouraging marriage were part of welfare reform and state policies for teenagers. He also rejects the possibility of gay marriages.  Or note, the special coverage of pregnant widows after 9/11. The family is special to the nation and these women are special patriots.
   (2) deep   – the simultaneous emergence of
       a.  Private life
       b.  Intimate family life
       c.  State policy on the family

1.  The family is not autonomous; rather the state is intimately involved with the family’s sex, reproduction, medical care, finances, e.g.

2.  “These marriages and sexual practices come to have national meaning.  Homosexuality was a crime (and sodomy continues to be a crime in certain US states and in certain countries including and Jamaica) and is conceived of as a danger to the nation – not a sin against God.
3.  As a corollary to the nationalization of the family, is the conception of the nation as a family, the idea that a type of kinship exists between citizens, and that we have in common the future generations.

 “Thus, as lineal kinship, solidarity between generations and the economic functions of the extended family dissolve, what takes their place is... a nationalization of the family, which has as its counterpart the identification of the national community with a symbolic kinship, circumscribed by rules of pseudo-endogamy, and with a tendency not so much to project itself into a sense of having common antecedents as a feeling of having common descendants” (101-2).

Implications or Consequences of the nationalization of the family

1.  “...Eugenics always latent in the relation between the ‘bourgeois’ family” and the nation (102).
“Legitimate” children encouraged; illegitimate in the many senses of the word child discouraged, birth control and sterilization encouraged for certain populations within the nation.

2.  The nationalization of the family means that nationalism will be sexist because the nuclear family in nationalism is conceived in necessarily sexist terms because sex roles and conceptions of responsibility stand at the foundation of legal, education, medical, and economic policy: “...the inequality of sexual roles in conjugal love and child-rearing constitutes the anchoring point for the juridical economic, educational and medical mediation of the state”(102).

4.  The school and the family form a dyad – two interlocking   institutions that divide and share the work of producing national subjects by producing fictive ethnicity. The family and the school together are responsible for the socialization process that will make the individual conceive of himself as a national citizen, make him speak the national language, and perceive himself in relation to a fictive national ethnicity.

5.  These ideas of race and language, of fictive ethnicity as producing a unified and limited citizen body and national identity are ideal conceptions and do not actually work in practice.  In practice people immigrate and intermarry. In practice, class is the key factor in restricting or structuring marriage and it is this class-based mating/family unit system that produces castes.  The definition of national also changes.  We are seeing a shift from “Germanness” and “Frenchness” to “Europeanness” and “Westernness” e.g.   Likewise, language does not create egalitarianism or equality among national subjects.  Because national language is taught through a bourgeois school system, differences in languages are taught and supported, these correlate to differences in culture, literature, and technology that correspond to caste differences and these caste/class differences take on the significance of racial markers.  “The production of ethnicity is also the racialization of language and the verbalization of race” (104).

In the second to last paragraph, Balibar addresses the distinctions between national ideology and national history, or perhaps more accurately, the distinctions between the national ideal of national ethnicity ( language and race) and the historical processes in France and the United States that established class and racial hierarchies, (in the case of the US exterminated the aboriginal population and neatly denied the invalidity of the distinction it drew  “between ‘white’ man and ‘black’ slave ).  What he has outlined in this essay is the story nations tell about themselves that make them seem to be natural and inevitable political forms populated by natural national citizens who are not only in some essential sense the same as previous and future generations but are also essentially different from the citizens of other nation states. He has also presented a theory of how national institutions like the school, the state (welfare, public health, the law) participates in producing this sense of nation-ness.