Writing on Nationalisms

I am working on two papers that require a rigorous conceptualisation of the ‘nation’. One is hopefully going to be a group effort from some of my colleagues here and it is about an event space in Canberra. I am constructing a draft introduction so we are have a shared reference point. The other paper develops some of my PhD research and examines a particular episode in the history of Australian modified-car culture, the 1980s “V8’s ’til ’98” media-led consumer campaign. In both cases, a concept of the ‘national’ is required that is in some ways similar.

There are a number of ways to think about the ‘national’ as a concept that can be used in these contexts. Often the ‘national’ is described as a function of identity, both collective and individual. At moments of crisis, such as war or civil unrest, the national is articulated in such a way as to produce a cohesiveness. It normally draws on discourses of the ‘nation’ circulated as an economy of signs and symbols that most members of a nation would instantly recognise. Much attention has been paid to understanding the power relations involved in this process and how the ‘imagined community’ of the nation is produced.
The process of producing the national does not only occur at moments of crisis or in better times during rituals of celebration and purification (such as national days or remembrance days) that sanctify the national imaginary through particular signs and symbols. Often this happens by excluding other signs and symbols or ‘purifying’ the representative frame through which the elements that constitute the ‘national’ are valorised and the ‘imaginary’ sanctified.

The way the national is articulated as part of everyday life is not part of a crisis or celebration. Michael Billig’s (1995) concept of “banal nationalism” is useful for understanding how the ‘national’ is articulated through the practices of everyday life. Billig argues that along with the more spectacular expression of national identity at specific times and places, nationalism is reinforced through a multitude of small and subtle ways that are so commonplace to be otherwise unremarkable. When introducing the concept, Billig remarks that “banal nationalism is not a flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building” (8). I am using Billig’s concept of ‘banal nationalism’ in two different ways in the two papers.

In the “V8’s ’til ’98” paper the historical example of the possible withdrawing of the automotive technology of the V8 engine from the consumer market produces an anxiety amongst automotive enthusiasts. A defence of the V8 is mobilised around broader anxieties relating to the globalisation of the Australian automotive industry. The ‘economic rationalisation’ of the Australian automotive industry was a policy goal of the Hawke Labor government and policies were introduced to increase the market fitness of the industry. It was known as the Button Plan after its chief architect John Button. ‘Economic rationalisation’ was the Australian version of a broader global process of neo-liberalisation in late capitalist societies.

The anxiety around the possible discontinuing of the V8 were expressed in the enthusiast media in terms of an influx of foreign-designed and foreign-manufactured automotive technologies. ‘Asian’ automotive technologies were explicitly identified as a threat and their introduction into the Australian market was discoursed as a conspiracy in some of the most flagrantly racist language I have come across in my archival research. At stake was not so much the technology in itself or the technology as a signifier of a particular identity, but the capacity of the technology to function as part of particular Australian socio-technical assemblage within the system of automobility. This socio-technical assemblage is of a particular automobilised subject of the masculine Australian driver combined with a particular automobile technology of a car powered by the ‘high-performance’ large capacity V8 engine that are used to perform upon (or, better, process) the particular space of the Australian road. The anxiety around the V8 was mobilised to defend the way automobilised Australian subjects could exist witin the dynamic system of flows and spaces of the Australian system of automobility. Other automotive technologies were dismissed in the enthusiast media on the grounds that they cannot ‘hack’ the ‘tough’ Australian conditions.

The experience of the system of automobility is part of everyday life. Members are subjectivised very early in their lives through governmental discourses that attempt to produce ‘safe’ road user subjects. For example, everyone within an automobilised society must learn how to cross the road. This is a particular competence that is designed to enable subjects to properly identify the dangers and associated risks of directly participating in the system of automobility. One consequence of this (that the road safety industry has never come to terms with) is that the space of the road is therefore potentialised in different ways depending on what Grossberg calls ‘mattering maps’ of the subjectivised individuals. The aim of governmental discourse is to produce anxiety that functions as self-surveillance for not only being aware of the dangers, but the primary risk of a subject developing a dangerously blasé attitude towards the risks. Different societies produce different systems of automobility. The cultural dimension of the system of automobility coupled with its banal everyday intimacy means that when a subject of one system of automobility is transported into another system of automobility he or she can experience the radical shock of an entirely different way of existing (within the system of automobility).

The “V8’s ’til ’98” media-led consumer campaign functioned as a moral panic about whether or not automobilised Australian subjects would be able to perform a particular Australian (and masculine) form of processual production of and engagement with automobilised time-space. A properly processual conception of the subject is essential for appreciating the capacities for action afforded by linkages with socio-technical assemblages. I am attempting to isolate the subjective dimension of part of a process of what Whitehead calls ‘appetition’. It is a way of avoiding definitions of the ‘subject’ derived from structuralist concerns with identity. Brian Massumi’s work is similarly concerned with the processual dimension of experience. His description of ‘anticipation’ captures some sense of this subjective dimension of appetition:

Orders of substitution and superposition are orders of thought defined as the reality of an excess over the actual. This is clearest in the case of anticipation, which in a real and palpable way extends the actual moment beyond itself, superposing one moment upon the next, in a way that is not just thought but also bodily felt as a yearning, tending, or tropism. […] But the definition also applies to substitution […]. Substitutions are cases in a combinatoric (a system of “either-ors” sometimes conjoined as an “and”). Not all possible actions are present as perception to the same degree. All of the permutations composing the combinatoric are not actionably present to the same degree in every perception. (original italics, 2002: 91)

Massumi is describing the relation between possible actions and the future as expressed within perception. The ‘possible’ is produced through perception as a dynamic infrastructure for immanent future action. The banal nationalism experienced on the road as part of the system of automobility is not only produced through explicit signifiers of nationhood (in Australia, this is exemplified by the Southern Cross stickers on the rear window of vehicles), but in the way the experience itself is produced as a processual relation by the socio-technical assemblage of (nominally) car, driver and road.

To invert the focus of Meaghan Morris’s analysis of the automobilised drama of Mad Max (in her “White Panic” essay, which used to be at the Sense of Cinema site, but is no longer there?), the event produced is not of the masculine violence of the car crash as a metonymic event of colonisation and the ‘white panic’ of occupying ‘the road’ as an existential horizon of national purification, rather the event produced is of a kind of mastery of ‘the road’ through the magnification of power afforded by the V8 engine. This event still demands a masculine violence, but of domination and competition articulated through a mastery of the flows of time and space within the system of automobility. The event of the crash is an exception within the differential repetition of this other far more common and banal event, which is the event of ‘traffic’. The panic around the possible withdrawal of the V8 from the Australian automotive market is a panic born of the consequential disenfranchising of Australian automotive subjects from being able to experience the processual dimension the Australian system of automobility.

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