Rough Draft: Gellner and National Navels

Gellner, Ernest. “Nationalism and Modernity.” In Nations and Nationalism: A Reader, edited by Philip Spence and Howard Wollman, 40-47. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005.

Ernest Gellner has written an interesting and concise essay on the arguments within nationalist thought as well as the connections between nationalism and modern society. He divides his work into two sections, “Do Nations Have Navels?” and “Industrial and Industrialising World.”
Gellner comically poses the question of nationalism’s origin in terms of whether nations have navels. Although his question seems absurd in its phrasing, he strikes at the heart of a major issue for those studying nationalism, the historical period in which it emerged. He notes that a central question is the nature of the past. When he discusses the differences between creationism and evolution, he believes that nations, like the creation story, has a past built into its origins (41). Regardless of how young the nation truly is, its citizens try to point to antiquity for self validation, yet in Gellner’s view they simply create or imagine this past. He attempts to demonstrate both sides of the argument concerning nationalism, yet I believe his attempt is largely ineffective as he simultaneously creates and tears down the argument of primordialists, those who oppose the modernist viewpoint. He does nevertheless clearly outline the issues that are central to nationalism, continuity and culture. Cultures “persist and change” (42), and their persistence could indicate that some nations have always existed, which essentially is a conflation of ethnic groups and nations. Gellner believes that anthropology’s vogue concepts of culture distracts from the real question of organizational issues that shape nationalism. He states the problem as “the exclusive culturalism or hermeneuticism or interpretivism…makes it hard or impossible even to ask the most important question” (43). To Gellner, that question is the organizational make up of nations and factors creating it, not the supposed cultural origins. He essentially divides the issue between a cultural argument and an organizational one. From the modernist standpoint, nationalism is a matter of political groupings and institutions. At the end of his section on arguments within nationalism, Gellner makes general observations of factors in the emergence of nations and the types of “navels” nations may or may not have.
Gellner’s essay contains a second section entitled “The Industrial and Industrialising World.” He details the mechanics of a modern society and its necessary components. As he has already linked nationalism to institutions and political systems, he continues his argument by showing how institutions work within a modern society. He does not state the direct connection of modern society and nationalism, but the link between these two concepts is implicit when he writes, “One of the industrial world’s two main principles of political legitimacy-of the assessment of the acceptability of regimes-is indeed economics growth. (The other principle is nationalism, which is our theme.)” (44). Gellner’s equating of modern society and industrialism with nationalism has produced two questions in nationalist debates: does the emergence of nationalism require industrialization and is nationalist theory only written from a Western perspective? Partha Chatterjee works heavily with these two issues in his work, Nationalism and the Colonial World: a Derivative Discourse?.
While Gellner states that his view “does not prevent [his work], one hopes, from presenting the issues in a clear and unprejudicial manner” (40), he seemingly works to convince the reader that the primordialist argument cannot withstand the rational approach of modernists. Still, the reader will find that Ernest Gellner summarizes the main points of contention between modernists and primordialists and modern society’s makeup with great clarity.

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