Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Transnational Movements and the Limits of Citizenship: Redefinitions of National Belonging in Joseph O'Neill's Netherland

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Transnational Movements and the Limits of Citizenship: Redefinitions of National Belonging in Joseph O'Neill's Netherland

Article excerpt

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into that past.1

Londoners remain in the business of rowing their boats gently down the stream.2

In the last two decades there has been an abundance of studies, especially in the fields of political science and sociology, on current redefinitions of citizenship, belonging, sovereignty, and the nation-state.3 As various critics note, there is a dominant belief, despite voices to the contrary, that the role of the liberal nation-state is increasingly diminished, on the one hand, by the forces of globalization which contribute to a shift in power from the national to the supranational, and, on the other, by the increasing pluralization of society owing to intensified migration flows.4 These factors are regarded as crucial in originating a 'crisis of national identity' and the rise of a conservative turn in definitions of national belonging, which is often expressed in what Gerard Delanty, in the context of 1990s Europe, identifies as a new nationalism that "feeds off social insecurity."5 In the American context, this sense of social insecurity characterized the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, which in turn promoted a conservative shift in definitions of communal belonging, and made issues of national identity one of the central themes not only of political and sociological studies6 but also of post-9/11 fiction.7 In this context, Joseph O'Neill's novel Netherland (2008) offers a timely reflection on identity and communal belonging which provides an alternative to the conservative tone of post-9/11 American political discourse. This conservative political discourse was not new, however; it echoed tiie ethnocultural americanism of the socio-political context of 1920s and 1930s America. O'Neill's Netherland points to the connection between these two time periods in his re-accentuation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925), a classic novel that recent literary criticism has analysed in the context of the ethnocultural americanism that figures in the setting of Fitzgerald's fictional text.

The Great Gatsby is the swan song of the American dream. Narrated as a first-person recollection by Nick Carraway, an observer of the rise and fall of the archetypal self-made man, Jay Gatsby, the novel is generally regarded as "a dramatization of the betrayal of the naïve American dream in a corrupt society,"8 or, more generally, as "the unending quest of the romantic dream, which is betrayed in fact and yet redeemed in men's minds."9 However, literary criticism produced in the last fifteen years has highlighted evidence of ethnocultural americanism10 in this narrative, particularly as represented by Tom Buchanan and in a veiled suggestion of Gatsby's Jewish origins and associations.11 The nativism underlying the novel, which goes against the tradi- tionally liberal democratic values of the 'American Creed', is understood as a literary representation of the fears experienced in some privileged conservative sectors of American society in the 1920s, where it was felt that the crucial economic and social changes of those years posed a menace to their sense of identity.12 In his study of the limits of liberal citizenship as reflected in legislation passed at the end of the nineteenth century, Rogers M. Smith claims that in times of "great economic and social change, the most influential segments of the American populace [do not feel that they can] meet their longthat ings for a secure sense of civic identity and for protection of the existing social order by uniting around the 'American Creed'," and, consequently, they tend to adopt non-liberal ideals in defence of their privileges, which they, in turn, incorporate into their discourse of American national identity.13

Smith's explanation for the origins of this conservative tum in constructs of national identity and, consequently, of national belonging in the form of formal citizenship, generally defined as membership in a nation-state as regulated by laws and policies,14 also accounts for the new conservative turn that is manifest in some current cultural analyses of American national identity. …

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