Summer 2005

Hating Your Country

Instead of pretending you don’t live there

Cecilia Sjöholm

A work of art such as Leif Elggren’s and Michael von Hausswolff’s Royal Kingdom of Elgaland-Vargaland plays on the allegorical and fictional character of the modern state, working with seemingly arbitrarily implemented systems that make up its machinery and creating fictional techniques for approval of citizenship, laws, money, institutions, and so on.[1] Revealing the modern, democratic state as a mere formality surrounded by the functioning machinery of such techniques, independent of any territorial weight, a work of art such as this shows the kernel of the community as an empty space, lacking in substance and flesh. The modern nation-state appears to be a fictional creation, rather than a community of substance, in terms of its territory, language, and culture. The reason for this is that territorial concerns and the religious, ethnic, and historical issues they tend to carry are never raised in the context of a project like Elgaland-Vargaland. One may, perhaps, interpret this imaginary state as a commentary on the dispassionate machinery of a Scandinavian, bureaucratic, social democratic state, appointing its citizens through formal application rather than hearty allegiance.

It is difficult, however, to relate the comic relevance of such fictions to more passionate manifestations of the nation-state where territory is at stake—in war, in the face of destruction by a foreign power, or perhaps in the promise of independence from former occupants. The territorial conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians would refute any allegorical modeling of the state as empty of substance. Rather than allow its citizens to be appointed through application to a state that already exists in a finite form, Israel has tried to expand its borders according to the placement of its citizens. The territorial claims of the conflict have their background in diverse considerations —ethnic, religious, historical, or simply strategic. This is, naturally, typical in cases of disputes: when former Yugoslavia disintegrated, one of the main problems was the entangled web of considerations motivating those that pulled the strings in the conflict. What either side will have in common in such conflicts, however, is a passionate investment that appears to refuse the dismantling of the nation-state or its representation as empty or allegorical. Such passionate investment can be called nationalism. The passionate investment will be spiritual rather than territorial, but the two cannot be separated. Only in a fully settled national context will issues of territory evaporate and be made invisible, allowing for national substance to disintegrate or reveal itself as technique, ideology, and symbolism. In cases where borders are in dispute, however, the fictional character of the nation-state has yet to emerge in a finite form: the state will claim its identity through territory rather than rely on symbols. In other words, the symbols of the state will be identified with territorial claims and little else. This means, of course, that critique of national technique, ideology, and symbolism will appear to threaten the existence of the state itself. It also means that artists and intellectuals will be unable to criticize the idea of the nation-state in order not to appear as traitors.

Does this mean, then, that “safe” states, where border disputes have been resolved, will enjoy a higher level of sophistication when it comes to artistic and intellectual critique of their identities? Does it mean that passionate investment in the state as a religious, historical, or ethnic idea is the fanatic and barbaric consequence of states of war and repression, whereas the artistic and intellectual critique of nationalism is the outcome of peace and democracy? Ever since the Enlightenment, progressive European intellectuals have been raised in a spirit of cosmopolitanism. The contemporary inheritors of Montesquieu are numerous—Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, and Giorgio Agamben have all adhered to this tradition, to mention only a few. And since the disintegration of the Third Reich, it is not only intellectuals who have learnt to shun political nationalism as an exaggerated love for the homeland, as a perverted form of fixation to which only extreme groups on the right will be dedicated. While cherished in the United States, the political value of “patriotism” is very low in Europe and never brought into election campaigns.

Strangely, however, only a loving relation to the nation-state has been made taboo. Love, however, is rarely isolated from its counterpart, hatred, and intense investments such as love or hatred are never far apart when it comes to the nation-state. Overall, the powerful effect of a negative investment in one’s homeland is an underestimated force in the life of intellectuals. There is a fine tradition of hating one’s country in European cultural life; where loving your country is considered chauvinist, hating it has been regarded a healthy critical force in progressive circles. However, both the political left and right have shown tendencies to rationalize affective investments, and looked at more closely, such investments bring them closer to one another than they may like to think. Emotional investments in a nation, whether loving or hateful, are simply too excessive to be rationalized as critique, however much leftist intellectuals wish to cover their abjection as political criticism. The hatred of a nation may be as powerful as love, and as confused about its motives and sources. The nation is an object of identification releasing an array of desires and drives. Never a neutral concept, it is a symbolic body that is as politically and culturally charged in rejection as in adulation. When the nation becomes an object of exaggerated investment, whether the terms of that identification are positive or negative, the relation to the nation-state becomes based on an economy of what psychoanalysis calls the drive. The nation becomes a fleeting, imaginary object through which narcissistic forces of introjection and projection are released. Neither an object in the proper sense of the term, nor a fantasy, the nation becomes that non-objectal entity that may catapult the full power of the drive.

Such a relationship has forced writers, artists, and intellectuals into excessively rejective modes of writing, rationalized as social criticism, ever since the beginning of the twentieth century: Friedrich Nietzsche, August Strindberg, and Knut Hamsun are examples of such excessive rejection, as are Ferdinand Céline and Ezra Pound. Nietzsche despised the incapacity of his fellow countrymen to rise above the banal discourses that defined them. Martin Heidegger, arguably, did the same as Nietzsche in his definition of das Mann, dreaming of the emergence of works of art that would truly capture the grains of Germanic being that he sowed through his philosophy. Strindberg and Hamsun both hated the social environment of their contemporaries, blaming its shortcomings on an ingrained provincialism. Céline incarnates a position where an exaggerated hatred of the nation is reversible in relation to an exaggerated love, as incarnated in the dream of a strong, potent nation. Céline’s extreme and fascist form of subversion is less interesting than the logic of his abjection: all his judgments relate to his identity being determined by an authority into which he projects the capacity to recognize him in the fullness of his being. The dream of a “mystic positivity,” as Céline has put it, that would save us from suffering is not only a symptom of fascism but an illusion that has proved common through the investment in the nation-state. It is produced by ideologies reinforcing nationalism through propagating the erroneous belief that identities may become strong through a direct identification with a strong symbolic order such as the nation. The promise made out by such beliefs, however, may easily end in disappointment and, thus, in the kind of rejective excesses that is exemplified by Céline. Hatred or love of the nation are reversible afflictions, resulting in similar symptoms: exaggerated affectations and deluded beliefs concerning the role that the nation can play in the core of one’s very being.

Hating one’s country is in no way isolated to the beginning of the last century, however. There is only one thing that makes me get up and sit down at my writing desk in the morning, the late Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard said: my intense hatred of Austria. His colleague, Elfriede Jelinek, has continued to slaughter Austria’s “culture of death” in novel after novel, play after play, as intensely disgusted by it as Bernhard ever was. Numerous writers and artists in voluntary exile will testify to a highly ambivalent relation to their home country. The other side of cosmopolitanism is that it may well be fueled by a perhaps unacknowledged hatred of one’s country. Indeed, the nation itself can be defined as a fictional space in a sense much broader than that of borders or bureaucratic machinery. The nation is also a fictional object. Although it is not an object in the full psychoanalytic sense of the word; i.e. not an object of desire, it has been fictionalized as a fantasmatic space of libidinal investment. We only need to think of the Oedipalization of national belonging that occurs when we speak of the nation as the “fatherland” or maternal soil of our being. Investment in one’s home country will be motivated not only by a sense of belonging, as the ideology of nationalism will pretend, but also by unconscious motivations of desires and drives. It is widely recognized that the nation-state is a creation of modernity. The ideology of it being a necessary creation is refuted by the many nations whose borders are mainly contingent in character, rather than the necessary product of history, religion, and the development of an ethnic and linguistic community. It is also recognized that the rise of nationalism has contributed to the spread of racism and the systematic repression of ethnic groups that lack national definition. The extent to which the nation may be part of the unconscious formations of fantasy and desire, however, are rarely brought up and discussed, not even in by intellectuals and artists who may well be feeding off such investments in their work.

Julia Kristeva, in her cosmopolitan ethics, has argued for an objectal understanding of the fiction of the nation. If the nation is to serve any function in the formation of the individual’s capacity for identification at all, then that function must be compared to that of a transitional object. Just as the transitional object paves the way for full and loving relations for the child, and prepares it for encounters with the outside world in a mode of safety and self-assurance, so the nation should prepare its citizens for a wider sense of being. Identification with the nation must, however, be brought to a point where it is lost and replaced with an acceptance of identities as split and faulty—thus the insistence on the nation as transitional rather than a final goal. The nation is, in the best-case scenario, a good image of identification only to be traversed in the same way that a loving mother must be given up as object of desire. Its reversal into a bad object can have disastrous adverse effects through that same logic. At best, the nation is an instance in a greater international context, offering its citizens a reassurance of belonging which they can use for the benefit of a contemporary cosmopolitanism: “The transitional nation … offers its identifying (therefore reassuring) space, as transitive as it is transitory (therefore open, uninhibiting, and creative), for the benefit of contemporary subjects: indomitable individuals, touchy citizens, and touchy cosmopolitans.” There is a decisive difference between a cultural nationalism advocating a universalist ideal, and a romantic nationalism which augments the drive of identification rather than offering transitory possibilities of sublimation. As a transitional object of identification, the nation is to be likened to Montesquieu’s esprit general, offering a historical identity that can serve as a foundation for wider and more generous processes of identification. A wider possibility of identification offers its embrace and inclusive welcome also to the private sphere. One is not to feel alienated for being in one’s own world, and the specific cultural, sexual, and religious differences of individuals are to be respected through the law. Such an esprit general would counteract the regressive drives of nationalism, without effacing the value of possibilities of identification.

The modern nation threatens to catapult its subject into an exaggerated discourse of love or rejection, all directed toward an imaginary object that may seem to offer everything but gives little in return. The modern democratic nation may present us with the extraordinary promise of a strong, symbolic order, but this is also what releases the possibilities of its own undermining as a space of democratic ideals. The collapse of an imaginary space of unity, the space of protection and guardianship, into an imaginary space of projective identification, may be historically contingent and require many factors to be realized, but there is no doubt that the threat of an intolerant nationalism is built into the construction of the nation-state as such. When the promise of the nation is made too strong, or may seem too weak, the threat of a freefall beyond that promise arises. When the fiction of a strong nation begins to appear transparent and faulty, it may well produce rejection and hatred by subjects who demand a powerful fiction to identify with, and with such rejection the threat of fascist tendencies that claim to rebuild the strength of the nation will begin to appear politically viable. It is therefore understandable that cosmopolitanism will appear as a solution to many intellectuals, offering a disinvestment in the anti-democratic developments of national identification. The problem is, however, that cosmopolitanism may too easily do away with that which Heidegger has told us belongs to our state of “thrownness”: our belonging to a nation (or a people, as he puts it) which will define us precisely through that which escapes identification—pointing to that which will remain foreign through any kind of “technical” definitions of belonging that we may use. Paradoxically, Heidegger in his seemingly nationalist discussions of the poeticizing of the “earth” in The Origins of the Work of Art, shows that poetry (the epitome of art, according to Heidegger) will carry with it an excess in relation to any kind of world it will unravel, an excess that will point to the foundation of a people and the history that makes the definition of a people possible. The search for foundation, however, opens a lack of ground, and the need to establish a foundation elsewhere than in the values one has become used to applying. Thus the idea of the nation as foundation of the community must give way for the realization that the nation is nothing but the history of its origin, and thus the product of a kind of creation that can be seen in a work of art: uncanny, foreign, and excessive. It is no longer the nation that defines the work of art, but the work of art that defines the nation. The nation, therefore, cannot be anything but the investment in uncanny cultural products that will define and redefine its origin. If cosmopolitanism, therefore, is useless as a remedy against nationalism because it fails to acknowledge the passionate investments in the nation that the fiction of the nation itself seems to propel—in terms of love or hatred­—then Heidegger is right at least in acknowledging that the nation will continue to haunt us because it is part of our state of thrownness. And if cosmopolitanism has failed to create a worldwide movement of solidarity, a collective sense of undoing the investment in national identity and nationalism, it may well be because the nation belongs to the conditions that will continue to determine the way we define ourselves through that which is foreign to us. Hating your country may well be better than pretending you do not live there.

  1. For more information on Elgaland-Vargaland, see

Cecilia Sjöholm is associate professor in comparative literature and teaches in the aesthetics program at Södertörn University College, Stockholm. Her books include The Antigone Complex: Ethics and the Invention of Feminine Desire (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004) and Kristeva and the Political (London: Routledge, forthcoming).

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