For nation-building narratives

Our political disagreements reveal contrasting narratives and histories of our past. And this is partially because even academic histories are written within particular “spaces of experience” – the ways that the past is remembered in their present; and a “horizon of expectation” – the anticipation of the non-yet-known future beyond the horizon. So, imagine our partisan interlocutors’ views with their axes to grind.
A history of our present, which is what we ought to be interrogating in our discussions, demands – in the words of David Scott – that “histories of the past ought to be interventions in the present, strategic interrogations of the present’s norms as a way of helping us to glimpse the possibilities for an alternative future.” Somehow the finger-pointing narratives that are circulating at best just keep looking backwards, nursing old Cold War-generated grievances.
But our “problem space” – the threats and opportunities that confront us now in our sociohistorical conjuncture – is radically different today. We now have a demographic distribution bereft of built-in majorities, in which the two parties surviving from that era have equal possibilities of winning elections within a world order that is again polarising. What, then, should be our “horizon of expectation”?
Criticism, and implicitly even analyses, are always strategic. What is it that our interlocutors want as a consequence of their criticisms, narratives, actions and exhortations? What is their “Good”? While there will never be – for the simple reason that it just cannot be – a single horizon of ends for all of us, I am pretty sure that, among the various possibly competing ends, that of a more harmonious society would be there in common in all formulations.
I am suggesting that, with the privilege of hindsight, we should connect the past with the present in a broader narrative, that is healing rather than destructive. We cannot change the past, but we can certainly change the future. Have the strident politics and resort to arms helped our situation? I say no. Our horizon of expectation must generate strategies that speak to those normative ends of the “good”, rather than further divide us, as some seem determined to do. They must ask whether their particular narratives (of “emerging apartheid state”, for instance), or any narrative that seeks to connect our past to the present and envision a more positive future, would deliver those normative ends. A constructive narrative cannot then picture our opposing groups locked forever in mortal combat.
Crucial to the formulation of a constructive narrative would be its plot to link past, present and future. Most of the present narratives set “us” against “them” in a frenzy of nihilistic Fanonian violence – not to mention teleologically promising a future that can never be delivered. Democracy is always a work in progress, and still remains the best form of governance out there.
Leaders must remain committed to the rule of law. But we must be sympathetic to the travails of the “other”. Hegel’s famous interpretation of Antigone as the paradigmatic Greek tragedy might be particularly apt to our situation. In this narrative, both “sides” are morally right: the conflict is not between good and evil, but between “goods” on which each is making exclusive claim. Isn’t this the situation that our mutually exclusive narratives of victimhood, with their facile binary oppositions, have delivered us into?
Look at what has unfolded in Mocha. Such an emplotment within a narrative should suggest compromise, rather than a battle of one side overcoming. That would be a constructive narrative for our time, place and circumstances.
In noting the importance of narratives in the task of nation building, Benedict Anderson had identified the importance of newspapers that are read every morning in constructing what he has tellingly labelled “Imagined Communities”: “The significance of this mass ceremony – Hegel observed that newspapers serve modern man as a substitute for morning prayers – is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others, of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion.”
Today our newspapers have been joined by social media. Let us use them for nation-building, rather than nation-breaking, by discarding narratives that are fighting long-gone terrors.