The methods of partitioning land have undergone tremendous change since the thirteenth century. During medieval and renaissance times, royal dynasties and religious organizations formed the foundations of political and geographical divisions. As the modern era approached, people began to question the Divine Right of Kings and the dynastic apportioning of their land.  The following are the most influential theorists of nationalism: Ernest Gellner, Miroslav Hroch, Eric Hobsbawm, Ernest Renan and Benedict Anderson. Gellner, Hroch and Hobsbawm propose general models for the rise of nations, while Renan and Anderson define nationalism and examine its ideological and conceptual mechanisms.

Ernest Gellner

In his essay, “The Coming of Nationalism and Its Interpretations: The Myths of Nation and Class,” Gellner creates a model for micro-units evolving into “nations.” There are five stages in the transition:

  1. Baseline: “A world exists where ethnicity is still not yet self-evidently present, and where the idea of any link between it and political legitimacy is almost entirely absent.”
  2. Nationalist Irredentism: “A world which has inherited and retained most of its political boundaries and structures from the previous stage, but within which ethnicity as a political principle — in other words, nationalism — is beginning to operate … The old borders and polities are under pressure from nationalist agitation.”
  3. Emergence of Nationalist States: “National Irredentism triumphant and self-defeating. Plural empires collapse, and with them the entire dynastic-religious style of political legitimation, and it is replaced by nationalism as the main effective principle. A set of smaller states emerge, purporting to fulfill the national destiny of the ethnic group with which they are identified. This condition is self-defeating, in so far as these new units are just as minority-haunted as the larger ones which had preceded them. The new units are haunted by all the weaknesses of their precursors, plus some additional ones of their own. “
  4. Nacht and Nebel. “This is a term employed by the Nazis for some of their operations in the course of the Second World War. Under cover of wartime secrecy, or in the heat of conflict and passion, or during the period of retaliatory indignation, moral standards are suspended, and the principle of nationalism, demanding compact homogenous ethnic groups within given political-territorial units, is implemented with a new ruthlessness. It is no longer done by the older and benign method of assimilation, but by mass murder or forcible transplantation of populations.”
  5. Cultural Convergence: “High level of satiation of the nationalist requirement, plus generalized affluence, plus cultural convergence, leads to a diminution, though not the disappearance, of the virulence of nationalist revindication.”

Gellner grounds each stage historically. It is interesting to note that he considers the world on eve of the French Revolution in 1789 as the “baseline” society, although it bears very little resemblance to either one of the two societies Gellner describes as “baseline.” Prior to the French Revolution, dynastic monarchies invoked the Divine Right of Kings to apportion land and to govern the people.

Miroslav Hroch

In his essay “From National Movement to the Fully-Formed Nation: The Nation-Building Process in Europe,” Hroch classifies a nation as “a large social group integrated not by one but by a combination of several kinds of objective relationships (economic, political, linguistic, cultural, religious, geographical, historical) and their subjective reflection in collective consciousness.” Hroch identifies three keys to creating a nation: “a ‘memory’ of a common past, treated as a ‘destiny’ of the group; a density of linguistic or cultural ties enabling a higher degree of social communication within the group or beyond it; a conception of the equality of all members of the group organized as a civil society.” These three keys to creating a national identity generally occur in Phase A of Hroch’s three phases:

Phase A: Activists strive to lay the foundation for a national identity. They research the cultural, linguistic, social and sometimes historical attributes of a non-dominant group in order to raise awareness of the common traits — but they do this “without pressing specifically national demands to remedy deficits.”
Phase B: “A new range of activists emerged, who sought to win over as many of their ethnic group as possible to the project of creating a future nation.”
Phase C: The majority of the population forms a mass movement. “In this phase, a full social movement comes into being and movement branches into conservative-clerical, liberal and democratic wings, each with its own program.”

Eric Hobsbawm

In Nations and Nationalism, Hobsbawm incorporates Hroch’s three phases into his model for the development of nations and adds to them:

National Consciousness: Hobsbawm’s first stage describes how national consciousness develops “unevenly among the social groupings and regions of a country … the popular masses – workers, servants, peasants — are the last to be affected by it” (12).

Phase A: Hobsbawm adopts Hroch’s terminology, describing Phase A as the emergence of cultural, literary and folkloric identity for a particular social group or region (12). Within this phase, Hobsbawm cites three criteria for making claims of nationality:

1.”Its historic association with a current state or one with a fairly lengthy and recent past” (37).
2.”The existence of a long-established cultural elite, possessing a written national literary and administrative vernacular” (37).
3.”A proven capacity for conquest” (38).

Phase B/Popular Proto-Nationalism: A body emerges, which consists of pioneers and militants of “the national idea.” They begin to campaign for this idea of “nationality” (12). He gives four main criteria for the development of “popular proto-nationalism”:

1. Language
2. Ethnicity
3. Religion
4. “The consciousness of belonging or having belonged to a lasting political entity — the most decisive criterion of proto-nationalism” (73).

Phase C: “Nationalist programmes acquire mass support, or at least some of the the mass support that nationalists always claim they represent” (12).

Hobsbawm demonstrates the historical relevancy of this stage, dividing the nationalist movement into three periods:

1. The transformation of nationalism (1870-1918): In this period, the world witnessed the completion of German and Italian unifications during the “Mazzinian phase” (1870-1880), as well as the collapse of multinational empires (the Hapsburg empire, the Ottoman empire, Russia) from 1880-1918 (101-130)
2. The apogee of nationalism (1918-1950): he describes this period as the triumph of the nineteenth century “principle of nationality” (131).
3. Nationalism in the late twentieth century: the rise of “internationalism”(163-183).

Ernest Renan

In his essay “What is a Nation?” Renan argues that:

a nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things constitute this soul or spiritual principle…One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is a present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form” (19).

Sacrifices constitute the foundation of nations: “a nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future” (19). Renan disregards conventional proposals that race, religion and language generate nationalism. However, he does cite geography as a significant factor. Historically, as Anderson also emphasized, most nations began as dynasties. According to Renan, dynastic territories progress to nations in one of three ways: dynastic unions, general popular consciousness and direct will of provinces (12).

Benedict Anderson

Imagined Communities, 1983.
Imagined Communities, 1983.

In his book, Imagined Communities, Anderson proposed that nationalism filled the void left by the decline of religious and dynastic territorial control. He writes that “through the general principle of verticality, dynastic marriages brought together diverse populations under new auspices” (20). The power of dynastic unions emerged most clearly through the Hapsburg family. Monarchs invoked the Divine Right of Kings to manipulate their subjects (as opposed to their citizens), and the Hapsburg family embodies that potent combination of religion and monarchy. In 1452, the Archduke of Austria (a Hapsburg) was elected Holy Roman Emperor, marking the beginning of a dynastic superpower that would endure until the First World War. However, as the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment approached, such blind faith in the monarchy diminished, and people beganto consider the concept of becoming a nation. The First World War saw the demise of many dynastic realms: “by 1922, Hapsburgs, Hohenzollerns, Romanovs and Ottomans were gone … From this time on, the legitimate international norm was the nation-state, so that in the League [of Nations] even the surviving imperial powers came dressed in national costume rather than imperial uniform” (113).

Timeline of the Major Events in the History of Nations

1450- Invention of the printing press (Gutenberg)
1452- The Archduke of Austria selected as Holy Roman Emperor, marking the beginning of the Hapsburg Dynasty (1452-1918)
1492- The Unification of Spain
1618-1648- The Thirty Years’ War
1648- Peace of Westphalia
1702-1713- War of Spanish Succession
1713-1714- Treaties of Utrecht and Rastadt
1776-1783- The War for American Independence
1789- French Revolution
1792-1815- Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars
1815- Congress of Vienna
1848- Revolutions of 1848
1859- The Italian War
1864- The Danish War
1866- The Austro-Prussian War
1870- The Franco-Prussian War
1871- Italian and German Unification completed
1914-1918- World War I
1917- Russian Revolution
1919- Treaty of Versailles
1933-1945- Germany’s Third Reich: Hitler comes to power
1938- Munich crisis; Germany annexes Austria
1939-1945- Second World War
1945- United Nations established (51 members); Cold War begins
1947- India and Pakistan independent
1948- Burma independent, Israel established
1949- People’s Republic of China established; Dutch leave Indonesia
1950s- Japan regains sovereignty; various African independence movements
1960s- More African independence movements; Vietnam War begins

Works Cited

  • Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. New York: New Left Books, 1991.
  • Gellner, Ernest. “The Coming of Nationalism and Its Interpretation: The Myths  of Nation and Class.” Mapping the Nation. New York: New Left Books, 1996.
  • Hobsbawm, Eric J. Nations and Nationalism since 1780. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Hroch, Miroslav. “From National Movement to the Fully-formed Nation: The Nation-Building Process in Europe.” Mapping the Nation. New York: New Left Books, 1996.
  • Palmer, R.R. and Joel Colton. A History of the Modern World. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1995.
  • Renan, Ernest. “What is a Nation?” Nation and Narration. edited by Homi Bhabha. New York: Routledge Books, 1990.

Selected Bibliography

  • Bauer, Otto. “The Nation.” Mapping the Nation, edited by Gopal Balakrishnan. New York: New Left Books, 1996.
  • Gellner, Ernest. Encounters with Nationalism. Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Blackwell Publishing, 1994.
  • Hobsbawm, Eric. “Ethnicity and Nationalism in Europe Today.” Mapping the Nation. New York: New Left Books, 1996.
  • Notions of Nationalism. A collection of essays, edited by Sukumar Periwal. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Smith, Anthony D. “Nationalism and the Historians.” Mapping the Nation. New York: New Left Books, 1996.

Section Author:  Jessica Whitehead, Fall 2001

Last edited June 2012

Slavoj Zizek and Renata Salecl on Nation and Nationalism

Slavoj Žižek, Warsaw, 2009 (by Mariusz Kubik)/CC Licensed
Slavoj Žižek, Warsaw, 2009 (by Mariusz Kubik)/CC Licensed

Slavoj Zizek is Senior Researcher at the Institute for Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia and is a Professor at the European Graduate School. He is the author of numerous books, including Cogito and the Unconscious (1998), The Plague of Fantasies (1997), Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (1992), For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (1991), Welcome to the Desert of the Real (2002) The Parallax View (2006), Terrorism and Communism (2007). In his work Zizek engages political theory, psychoanalysis and philosophy.

Renata Salecl is a philosopher and sociologist. She works as a researcher in the Institute of Criminology at the Faculty of Law, Ljubljana, Slovenia, and has been a visiting scholar at several institutions including the New School for Social Research, London School of Economics and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Her books include Gaze and Voice as Love Objects (1996), Sexuation (2000), On Anxiety (2004), Choice (2010).

“Enjoy Your Nation as Yourself!” is the last chapter of Tarrying with the Negative, in which Slavoj Zizek brilliantly expounds on the notions of nation and nationalism as they are reflected in Eastern Europe today. He starts by pointing to the fact that the disintegration of communism in this part of the world was paradoxically followed by a distorted image of a what he calls “reinvented democracy”: “The reality emerging now in Eastern Europe [shows] the gradual retreat of the liberal-democratic tendency in the face of the growth of corporate national populism which includes all its usual elements, from xenophobia to anti-Semitism” (200). Zizek explains this shift by rethinking the notion of national identification from a Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective. He argues that “national identification is by definition sustained by a relationship toward the Nation qua Thing” (201), which carries contradictory properties. On the one hand, it is something that belongs to one particular group or community of people and not to others. It is “our Thing,” and therefore inaccessible and denied to the Other. On the other hand, however, it is that which is under constant threat by the Other, even though at times only under a symbolic menace. When the latter is the case, it resembles Freud’s notion of castration. Practically, it cannot happen, but theoretically, the possibility of it happening is ever present, and because of this there is no escape from its looming threat.

The “Nation-Thing” is connected to a community’s way of life, their traditions and social practices, their rituals and myths. Nonetheless, besides being a way of life, the “Nation-Thing” is also something in which members of the community have a propensity to believe. This belief, and the belief that others share it, sanctions the “Nation-Thing.” The nation is therefore not only a product constructed by specific discursive practices but it also consists of a certain underlying “substance,” which according to Lacan would be “jouissance” or “the remainder of some real” (Zizek translates jouissance as enjoyment). It is this non-discursive entity “which must be present for the Nation qua discursive entity — effect to achieve its ontological consistency” (202). The national Thing resists universalization, but functions, nevertheless, as a “particular Absolute.” It is the particular way in which an ethnic community organizes its enjoyment through national myths and traditions.

Ethnic tensions ensue in the clash between different modes of ethnic enjoyment, between different modalities that structure one’s relationship to enjoyment. The Other’s excess of enjoyment is always bothersome and often regarded as a threat, precisely because it also signifies a theft of enjoyment. In her book The Spoils of Freedom: Psychoanalysis and Feminism After the Fall of Socialism, Renata Salecl provides a clear example of this theft of enjoyment when she suggest the ways in which:

… Serbian authoritarian populism … has produced an entire mythology about the struggle against internal and external enemies. The primary enemies are Albanians, who are perceived as threatening to cut off the Serbian autonomous province of Kosovo and thereby stealing Serbian land and culture. The secondary enemy is an alienated bureaucracy which threatens the power of the people: alienated from the nation, it is said to be devouring the Serbian national identity from within. And the third enemy has become the Croats, who with their politics of ‘genocide’ are outlawing the Serbian population from ‘historically’ Serbian territories in Croatia. Nowadays the enemies are primarily Muslims who are pictured as Islamic fundamentalists threatening the Serbs living in Bosnia and Herzegovina. (22)

The attitude towards the Other’s enjoyment is always ambivalent. On the one hand, the Other’s enjoyment presents a threat to our enjoyment, whereas on the other hand, we are fascinated by the Other’s enjoyment because there is something of it in ourselves. It is that which is “‘in us more than ourselves,” and thus prevents us from achieving full identity with ourselves. “The hatred of the other is the hatred of our own excess of enjoyment” (206). The national enemy thus always assumes the form of an excess or destructive imbalance. Referring to the hatred of the Other’s enjoyment, Salecl quotes Jacques-Alain Miller who suggests that:

I am willing to see my neighbour in the Other but only on condition that he is not my neighbour. I am prepared to love him as myself only if he is far away, if he is removed. … When the Other comes too near, when it mingles with you, as Lacan says, new fantasies emerge which concern above all the surplus of enjoyment of the Other…What is at stake is of course the imputation of an excessive enjoyment…The question of tolerance or intolerance is not at all concerned with the subject of science and its human rights. It is located on the level of tolerance or intolerance toward the enjoyment of the Other, the Other as he who essentially steals my own enjoyment. (21)

Salecl analyzes the Other’s relationship to “us” thusly:

…the Other who outrages ‘our’ sense of the kind of nation ours should be, the Other who steals our enjoyment is always the Other in our own interior; i.e. our hatred of the Other is really the hatred of the part (the surplus) of our own enjoyment which we find unbearable and cannot acknowledge, and which we transpose (‘project’) onto the Other via a fantasy of the ‘Other’s enjoyment.’ Therefore hatred of the Other, in the final analysis, is hatred of one’s own enjoyment. (21-22)

Postmodernism is often described as the age of fragmentation and the unlimited inflation or plurality of subject positions. In this respect, postmodernism follows the logic of rampant capitalism; the more production grows, the more the need to produce grows and satisfaction is never achieved. Similarly in Freudian terms, the greater the repentance stimulated by the transgression of the Law, the greater the guilt. Opposite to the logic of capitalism of superfluous overproduction and of the postmodern dispersion of subject positions, nationalism assumes excessive identification with one particular ethnic position, at the expense of all other possible subject positions. Zizek emphasizes that, “the more the logic of Capital becomes universal, the more its opposite will assume features of ‘irrational fundamentalism’” (220).

In their discussions on national identity, both Zizek and Salecl bring up the issue of a postmodern type of racism, which Etienne Balibar has called “meta-racism.” If the old type of racism was based on the idea that racial differences were biologically determined, “meta-racism,” makes these differences culturally and historically contingent. Meta-racism is identified as even more dangerous than racism, because it employs racist measures while pretending to oppose racism, thus falsely posing as its opposite. Salecl further explains that “culture itself functions as a ‘natural’ determinative force: it locks individuals and groups a priori into their cultural genealogy. ‘Meta-racism’ perceives cultures as fixed entities and tries desperately to maintain ‘cultural distances’” (12).

Salecl analyzes the major political and social events after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the upsurge of ethnic tensions in the former Yugoslavia using Lacanian psychoanalysis and its notion of fantasy. Claiming that “the structure of power is inherently fantasmatic” (7) and that ideology reflects “the way society deals with the fundamental impossibility of it being a closed harmonious totality,” Salecl argues that:

Behind every ideology lies a kernel of enjoyment (jouissance) that resists being fully integrated into the ideological universe. Here is where fantasy comes into play: fantasy stages a scenario to conceal this kernel…when we identify with a certain political discourse, when we ‘obey the power’, what we relate to is precisely this fantasy structure behind the ideological meaning of the discourse. (6)

Fantasy fills out an empty place, a void, that cannot be fully symbolized. Like Zizek, Salecl emphasizes the fantasy structure of the nation and of national identification pointing to the imaginary surplus that refuses symbolization. The nation always presents us with the impossibility to define that which in us is “more than ourselves.” In this respect, the nation is connected to the Lacanian real, the always missing link, that dimension which can never be incorporated into the symbolic realm. In order to deal with the impossibility of managing its own excess, a society appeals to a fantasy structure or “scenario, through which [it] perceives itself as a homogeneous entity” (15). Fantasy always organizes itself around the traumatic element that refuses symbolization: in this case, the nation.

Homi K. Bhabha also points to the ambivalence of the nation when in the introduction to Nation and Narration he refers to “the impossible unity of the nation as a symbolic force [in spite of] the attempt by nationalist discourses persistently to produce the idea of the nation as a continuous narrative of national progress, the narcissism of self-generation, the primeval present of the Volk” (1). What Salecl calls “fantasy” Bhabha calls “the act of narration” which fills out the empty space of the nation. However, the ambivalence of narration lies in the “instability of knowledge,” or its “conceptual indeterminacy, its wavering between vocabularies” (2).  Bhabha describes this narration as giving citizens “the heimlich pleasures of the hearth, the unheimlich terror of the space or race of the Other; the comfort of social belonging, the hidden injuries of class; the customs of taste, the powers of political affiliation” (2).

Works Cited

  • Bhabha, Homi K. “Introduction: Narrating the Nation.” Nation and Narration. London: Routledge, 1990. 1-7.
  • Salecl, Renata. The Spoils of Freedom: Psychoanalysis and Feminism after the Fall of Socialism. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • Zizek, Slavoj. “Enjoy Your Nation As Yourself!” Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

Section Author:  Ruxandra Mandoiu, Fall 1998

Last edited: June 2012

Banal Nationalism and the Internet

On the internet, no one knows you’re a blond (tee hee).

The usual markers of national identity – for example, race, dress, physical and geographical location – are easily elided on the internet. Despite this, and even in the context of multinational virtual communities, people tend to retain a strong sense of their nationality. A new set of markers has developed and been deployed both in deliberate nationalism (what Michael Billig describes as “flag-waving”) and as everyday background noise, or Billig’s “banal nationalism”.

Billig uses the term “banal nationalism” to describe “the ideological habits which enable the established nations of the West to be reproduced” (6). His primary example is the ubiquity of the American flag, with which he illustrates the methods by which “national identity in established nations is remembered because it is embedded in routines of life, which constantly remind, or ‘flag’, nationhood”(38). However, he points out, it is precisely because these reminders are not consciously noticed (and thereby opened to questioning or interpretation) that they are powerful.

On the internet, people are identified by their email addresses as much as by any name which they offer. Email addresses identify the individual in a two-part format, much like the given-name family-name convention of modern ‘real life’ names; on the internet, the convention is given-name “@” domain-name, identifying the person inextricably with the organization which puts them online. To someone capable of ‘reading’ domain-names, this offers as much information as a genealogist might obtain from a family-name. In particular, almost every domain-name indicates the country of origin in the ‘top-level’ (last) segment of the name. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) provides these “country codes” to the domain name servers (DNS) responsible for delivering email and other internet communications; each country receives a two-letter designation which should suffix the domain-name of each resident.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the United States of America is an exception to this rule. While the U.S. does have a country code (“.us”), the original internet did not extend outside of the U.S.; domain-names ended with a designation of internal boundaries: the distinctions were between commercial, non-profit, educational, military, and governmental organizations). American organizations are still grandfathered in by this precedent; thus “.edu” implicitly designates the named individual as a resident, though not necessarily a citizen, of the U.S. However, Frances Cairncross points out that:

a British company, for example, would end its name “,” and a Japanese one with “” American companies rarely put a national tag at the end of their domain names. To be registered as “,” therefore, suggests a global company, while “” marks a business as a purely British concern. As a result, a rising proportion of names in the “.com” category do not designate U.S. companies. The official Chinese news agency, for example, has registered the name of “” (to the indignation of the Taiwan government). (199-200)

Domain names are valuable; inevitably, organizations have begun to fight over them. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is trying to deal with this “sure recipe for conflict: an international naming space and multi-dimensional trademark law rooted in national law” (, but the traditional policy of InterNIC, the organization responsible for the registration of .com domain names, and of all registry services has been “first come, first serve,” a principle with an anarchist’s disrespect for trademark law rather than a lawyer’s concern for prior claims. This disputed ownership of cyberspace must be understood as a question of colonial motivations: the goal is to “raise your flag on new territory in cyberspace, put your name (or the name you choose) on the ‘land.’ But whose land is it? Is the first person there the one with the right to claim it?” (Leventhal). Increasingly, American courts (under whose jurisdiction fall most of the contested trademarks as well as InterNIC itself) are ruling in favor of ‘real world’ trademark holders over first-comers.

Works Cited

  • Billig, Michael. Banal Nationalism. London: SAGE Publications, 1995.
  • “Generic Top-Level Domain Memorandum of Understanding.” Web. 19 April 1998. <>
  • Cairncross, Frances. The Death of Distance. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. 1997.
  • Grossman, Wendy M. net.wars. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
  • Guckes, Sven, ed. “Alt.Fan.Warlord FAQ: Signatures, Alt.Fan.Warlord, and the Inner Circle.” Web. 6 April 1998. <>
  • Leventhal, Michael. “Who can stake a claim in cyberspace?” Wired Law: The Techno Culture Archive. Web. 19 April 1998. < November 1997>
  • Raymond, Eric S., ed. “The Jargon File 4.0.0.” Web. 6 April 1998. <>

Related Sites

The Nationalism Project

Author: Caitlin Shaw, Spring 1998
Last edited: June 2012


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