Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Who is Crafting our National Identity?

by Cynthia Wallace-Casey
PhD Student, University of New Brunswick

Nationalism is modern but it invents for itself history and traditions. (Eric Hobsbawm, The Invention of Tradition, 1983)

Public institutions in Canada, particularly those with a national focus, are mandated to present a national perspective on the past. Such a mandate raises the essential questions of “Who defines nation-ness” and “What represents a nation’s true identity”.

In Les Lieux de Mémore (1989) , Pierre Nora establishes a distinction between real memory and historical memory: Memory is life, while history is the reconstruction of what is no longer; memory is a perpetual bond with the present, while history is a representation of the past; memory is selective in its information, while history calls for analysis and criticism; memory is sentimental, while history is prosaic; memory is bound to a specific group of people, while history belongs to no group in particular and is thus universal; memory takes root in concrete objects, while history is temporal; memory is absolute, while history is relative. As historians, we are taught to be suspicious of memory, for as Nora explains, the “true mission [of history] is to suppress and destroy [memory]” . With the acceleration of history, Nora argues, there has occurred in France a slippage of collective memory (authentic environments of memory). In turn, collective memory has been replaced by “lieux de mémoire” (sites of memory), which serve the people as their official keepers of memory. Thus, these sites of memory constitute France’s national memory, and can be monuments, emblems, commemorations, symbols, rituals, textbooks, documents, or mottos: the material culture of France. Ironically, having destroyed memory, history “calls out for memory because it has abandoned it”, and in its place, nations “deliberately create archives, maintain anniversaries, organize celebrations, pronounce eulogies, and notarize bills because such activities no longer occur naturally”. Such national sites of memory are problematic, in that we must question who is creating the memory site and for what purpose.

Every public institution in Canada has a Collections Management Policy and curators, as well as archivists, must be selective in what they actually collect – so in an indirect way, they are crafting our national memory, or, as Benedict Anderson would indicate, creating our imagined community. Nationality, significations, nation-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artifacts of a particular kind that are fabricated and imagined. Nationalism is not real: “it is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” Such imagined communities are perpetuated through the creation of a national consciousness - expressed through such national icons as emblems, maps, monuments, census, official languages, the arts, school instruction, and museums. As Anderson poignantly explains, “no more arresting emblems of the modern culture of nationalism exist than cenotaphs and tombs of Unknown Soldiers” . Rather than recognizing such monuments as sincere expressions of remembrance, Anderson sees them as tools to bind together our national imagination and somehow justify loss of life for a greater cause of national destiny.

Within such a gamut of national memories and imagined identities, our pursuit of “truth” in history seems ever more evasive. But, if our “national treasures” are the keystones to our national identity (no matter how fabricated this identity may be), they spark our imagination and thus selectively hold us together as a nation. This indeed is a great feat, and so the role of public historians in working with academic historians in crafting our national identity must be valued as a profession of utmost significance.

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