Who’s Afraid of the “Nation-State”?
Book Review

Zones of Instability: Literature, Postcolonialism, and the Nation
Imre Szeman
Johns Hopkins UP, 2003

Reviewed by Don Moore, McMaster University (Canada)

If recent postcolonial criticism is more and more preoccupied with transnational and global cultural movements as the privileged sites of contemporary colonial and neo-colonial struggles and contestations, then who’s afraid of the imaginary, modernist, seemingly now irrelevant question of the “nation”? Certainly not Imre Szeman! Thus, while current debates in postcolonial studies seem to be zigging, (broadly) focusing on the ways in which cultural representations, commodities, and identities are circulated and managed in and through an expanding range of colonial and neo-colonial discourses, disciplines, globalizations, and diasporic imaginaries, Szeman’s recent book Zones of Instability: Literature, Postcolonialism, and the Nation (Johns Hopkins, 2003) zags, rethinking the ways in which postcolonial cultural studies is still haunted by the spatial questions of the nation and nationalist literature. What is special (as opposed to homogenously global) about being here as opposed to somewhere else? And how is that sense of here-ness which the nation idealizes expressed (complexly, problematically) in nationalist literature? Szeman takes up these questions in order to re-historicize the persistence of the problematic of nationhood in the contemporary context of globalization and the nation’s continued importance and usefulness for conceptualizing totalizing political strategy. To these ends, he recuperates what he calls Fredric Jameson’s much maligned, badly misunderstood concept of “national allegory” as a way of thinking historically and spatially specific collectivities of “the nation” through “postcolonial” literary production. Szeman, however, reformulates what he sees as the quasi-utopic aspects of Jameson’s project as his own concept of zones of instability.

What this review will examine in particular are the ways in which Szeman’s “totalizing” political project risks (yet arguably avoids) slipping into ethnocentrism or essentialist historicism. A number of recent “utopic” projects that take on the possibility of mass political activism, such as Laclau’s and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) and Hardt’s and Negri’s Empire (2000), have been well received in spite of (or because of) a general despair on the Left about doing politics in the face of transnational capitalism’s (neo-colonialist) global hegemony. These projects, however, have been (perhaps unfairly) accused of western-centrism and of trying to “talk for everyone” from abstract, “high theoretical” positions of academic privilege. Fredric Jameson is no stranger to such criticisms.

Szeman’s book, while in dialogue with these “utopic” projects, carefully avoids universalizing tendencies, even while it takes up the language and strategy of “totality.” The point of totality, for Szeman, I think, is that it works. For him, doing collective politics on a totalizing scale means imagining a kind of reified collective “ground” to fight on (just like capitalism[s]), even if such a ground is seen to be without origins and ever-evolving (unlike capitalism[s]). Despite its self-reflexively totalizing or positivist traits, Szeman’s Zones of Instability refuses origins, essences, and takes what I (if not Szeman) might call a quite “différantial” approach to conceptual and/or national totality.

In order to theorize in the broadest possible way a “totalizing” concept of national zones of instability through which postcolonial literatures must enunciate themselves, which is nonetheless attentive to historical specificities and contextual particularities, Szeman’s book examines a representative cross-section of authors from three distinct geographical regions: The Caribbean during its struggle for Federation, Nigeria after Biafra, and Canada in the years after the Massey report. All of Szeman’s examples take place roughly in the two decades after WWII when these individual questions of the nation are at critical junctures. Szeman says that his case studies represent three very different scenarios and conditions under which the nation is formed, but “if there is one strand of agreement among these competing models, it is an awareness of the artificiality of the nation, an artificiality that nationalisms manage to transform into ‘facts of nature’” (13). Furthermore, Szeman says, this view of the nation as artificial is seen in these three scenarios “not as something to be overcome, but as the starting point for the new nation” (14). The problematic of utopic, totalizing national imagination, in other words, is almost universally viewed in Szeman’s case studies as both the problem and the potential (in fact almost unconsciously desired) solution for imagining and implementing decolonizing politics. Indeed, a central presupposition of Szeman’s book (which he himself identifies as yet another “zone”) is an obligation not to simply dismiss and forget “bad old” concepts like “the nation,” but to better understand their limits and aporias in order to find their radical potential for resistant politics.

Szeman’s concept of zones of instability both takes up Jameson’s “national allegory” and extends it in light of contemporary globalization theory. Globalization, if such a thing exists, Szeman explains, hasn’t “changed” things so much as transformed them ideologically and structurally. A case in point, he argues, is the problematic of the nation (with its multiple, heterogeneous discourses, spatialities, ideologies, and collective consensual hallucinations) which cannot simply be dismissed as irrelevant after globalization. Instead, he argues, it has transformed into a number of multiple, shifting questions of political, biopolitical, and economic collectivity that operate in and through the network structures of the contemporary global sphere. In Szeman’s words, “far from rendering national allegory useless, globalization makes it an increasingly important interpretive mode or problematic” (103).

Contrary to what most critics of Jameson — in fact nearly all critics doing postcolonial theory — have argued, Szeman says, Jameson’s “national allegory” cannot be so easily dismissed as western-centrism par excellence, because it cannot be reduced to either of its terms. Szeman recuperates what he sees as that concept’s (quasi-)utopic “totality” as a way of understanding how postcolonial nationalist literatures can utilize an allegorical model of “the nation” — an allegory with defined spatial limits but no transcendental essence or stability — as an aporetic political lever to fight for decolonization, freedom, and rights, and sometimes as a desired objective in-and-for-itself. As Szeman explains,

my argument [in Zones] should also be taken as an implicit argument on behalf of totality — not the ‘bad’ totality that legitimates theories of modernization of development, but the totality constructed by an antitranscendental and antiteleological ‘insurgent science’ that ‘is open, as open as the world of possibility, the world of potential.’ In this study, at least, totality appears in part as the possibility of metacommentary — not as a secondary step in interpretation but as a condition of interpretation per se. What national allegory names is thus the condition of possibility of a metacommentary that considers the problematic of the nation. (63)

Instead of simply dismissing nationalist identity politics, Szeman instead offers a more careful, self-reflexive, and rigorous method of reading and engaging with nationalist literary projects as the possibility of metacommentary. As such, these literatures consider the problematic of the nation as conceived of in a “fictive” literary mode as a possible vector through which to imagine totalizing nationalist and decolonizing politics.

Specifically, Szeman’s book argues that “the nation” in the case studies he deals with is indelibly linked with the very projects of nationalist literature that he takes up. In fact, Szeman argues that the “nation” in postcolonial literature must be seen as a concept or a figure that ultimately relates back to the practice of “literature” itself in these regions — its possibility, its political efficacy, and its potential ability to transcend the divisions between intellectuals and the people in order to form new polities in the decolonizing world (20).

Nationalist literature is seen here as the very imaginative, intellectual “glue” that has the potential for holding together the disparate, paradoxical zones of the nation and its people. And the writer of postcolonial literature is viewed as a kind of desiring “organic intellectual” who both destabilizes and creates the very possibility and promise of national collectivity as a direct result of his/her literary or critical work.

Szeman clarifies that his totalizing concept of zones is not meant to speak trans-geographically for all postcolonial political “spaces,” but is rather a rethinking of the question of space that postcolonial theory and literature were most instrumental in bringing to light. What Szeman’s concept of zones tries to accomplish is to leave its own “totalizing” project open to the historical, cultural, and geographical specificities of any given national imaginary. To this end, the case-studies with which Szeman deals view the nation as fundamentally “artificial,” or “fictional,” and understand this artificiality to be its very source of precariousness, power, and promise. Thus taking a similar approach as Sneja Gunew’s deconstructive concept of “multi-cultural-ism” — a term Gunew borrows from nationalist discourses of cultural pluralism and reconceptualizes to signify the nation’s multiple, dangerously supplemental discursive “centres” — Szeman rethinks the spatial concept of nationhood as a problematic “imagined community” closely related to literary production itself, illuminating the nation’s multiple, competing fictions about its own space(s), or discursive “zones.” Szeman’s concept of “zones of instability” thereby radically challenges the essential/originary dominance of any one discursive zone over the others.

Szeman’s concept of zones is thus a way of reconsidering projects of nationhood taken up by writers of postcolonial nationalist literature as open-ended attempts to negotiate what he calls the “multiple, heterogeneous, and, in many cases, contradictory discourses and practices [which] together form the ‘zones of instability’ within which writers in these regions ha[ve] to operate” (3). These zones, Szeman says, speak to unique spaces of literary, historical, discursive practices and specificities, all “bearing the traces of particular historical, social, and cultural trajectories, even though they are also related by their common link to the British Empire” (3). More specifically, the term “zone” describes, imperfectly, incompletely, the number of discourses with which [a range of writers dealing with “post-colonial” themes and aims] have to contend and work through: anti-imperialist and imperialist discourses; the discourses of nativism and Western philosophy; modernist discourses promising progress and development; the discourse of nationalism related to modernism and anti-imperialism; and discourses concerning the role and political efficacy of literature, which of necessity must deal with imperialism, modernism, and nationalism all at once (3).

Zones are highly discursive spaces, “intellectual fields” which can also be described in empirical terms as the (always becoming) reified sites of very “real” material productions of fraught, paradoxical, national and post-national (often at the same time) spaces and imaginaries. The spectral traces of these national imaginaries are, for Szeman, indelibly linked even to so-called “post-national” or global postcolonial imaginaries. The danger here (or perhaps the book’s challenge to postcolonialism), is that the demarcation of particular, indelible national “zones” risks falling into essentialist forms of historiography. Nonetheless, the nation’s hauntological persistence in contemporary globalization, and its status as an enduring object of desire in contemporary postcolonial imaginaries, speaks to the vital importance of reconsidering such (often hidden) spatial infra-structures.

Szeman’s book demonstrates that the persistence of the spectre of nationhood in the contemporary global sphere begs closer analysis in postcolonial criticism. His rethinking of the nation — not meant as a “recuperation” or “nostalgizing” of nationalism but the opposite — as multiple, heterogeneous, discursive zones illuminates their hidden power-dynamics that might otherwise go unnoticed, or escape under the postcolonial critic’s conceptual radar. If a “deterritorializing” discourse of globalization has created an “absence of ‘intermediary’ forms between the local and global [which, Szeman argues,] has led to the wholesale disappearance of the public sphere” (202), Zones of Instability, with its careful rethinking and rehistoricization of postcolonial literature’s complex relationship with nationalism, makes an important intervention in the field of postcolonial cultural studies by underlining the continued importance of the nation as a site of contestation, struggle, and potential for totalizing decolonizing politics in the contemporary context of globalization.

Works Cited

Gunew, Sneja. “Denaturalizing Cultural Nationalisms: Multicultural Readings of ‘Australia’.” Nation and Narration. Ed. Homi K. Bhabha. New York: Routledge, 1990. 99-120.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000.

Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso, 1985.

Szeman, Imre. Zones of Instability: Literature, Postcolonialism, and the Nation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2003.