Academic journal article Humanities Research

Closing Reflections: Confronting Contradictions in Biographies of Nations and Persons

Academic journal article Humanities Research

Closing Reflections: Confronting Contradictions in Biographies of Nations and Persons

Article excerpt

The biography of a nation is not the same as the biography of a person. That much is simple. One is about a single person's life history and the other is about the formation of a community of persons. On the other hand, analytically describing how a biographical method can be used for both persons and nations is not straightforward. The central crossover occurs in the concept of 'the social'. An individual identity, like the projection of a national identity, is a social identity. Thus, biographies, whether of persons or of nations, are specific social genealogies, social histories, social mappings - call them what you like - graphic narratives of the bios or 'ways of life' of a person or community of persons. In this understanding, 'the social' is thus not just a background context, nor is it just another dimension to be considered among others. The social does not act as the stage on which characters walk around. The social is us - as persons and communities. In this sense, the 'social context' is a complex metaphor that describes our interrelations with others and with nature, including particular spatial configurations, specific organisational contexts and distinctive self-andother understood histories, whether they be personal or national. The notion of a 'social context' can thus be a useful metaphor, but it is too often abused.

Taking this issue as its touch-point, this essay draws on the other papers presented at the Nationalism and Biography conference to explore a 'constitutive levels' approach to understanding the social biographies of both nations and persons. Based on the range of 'national' figures discussed in the present volume, two broad forms of personal-national biography can be distinguished. Both forms present us with contradictions or paradoxes. The first is the biography of a person who is at once inside a nation-state, though not necessarily a nationalist, and, at the same time, is abstracted from it through his or her intellectually driven attempt to understand the nation analytically. Here the concept of 'intellectually driven' is used broadly to encompass narrators of nations as diverse as Enoch Powell, Helmut Kohl, Richard Sulik and G. M. Trevelyan, the subjects of earlier essays in this volume. The second is the biography of a nationally framed individual who, during his or her own lifetime, was not constituted as a national person at all. Here the figures of Boudicca and King Alfred provide points of reference. In both cases, nationalists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were the ones who claimed these figures for the national canon. As Stephanie Lawson writes about Boudicca: at the time she lived, 'there were loose confederations of tribes, but beyond this there was certainly nothing resembling a "national" polity'.1

Carefully navigating the difficult relation between the personal and the general here is crucial, and this is what the contributors to this volume do so well. Positing a singular layer called 'the social context' is going to leave us with many difficulties of explanation. To understand figures as complex as those discussed in this volume, we seem to need manifold layers of the social, including layers of historical reception and canonising. The present essay is developed around a number of general propositions. These are not intended to reduce each example to an instance of the general, but they do emphasise the generality of dominant patterns.

Proposition 1

Nations are abstract communities, made up of and made by people who as a community will never all meet. Yet at the same time, nations are lived - at least in their classical form - as embodied genealogies constituted in the particularities of their time (history) and place (territoriality). This tension between the abstracted and the embodied placement of the nation is the core to understanding the formation of nations, as well as its contradictions. It helps us fathom how a narrator living in a national life-world can draw upon a figure they have never met, a person who lived long ago in a world without nations, and use them to subjectively embody a nation that objectively came into existence long after the death ofthat person. …

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