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«Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas, Volume 10, Number 2, June 2012, pp. 241-250 (Article) Published by The Johns Hopkins ...»

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Bildung and the State in the Long Nineteenth Century

Pieter Vermeulen

Ortwin de Graef

Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas, Volume

10, Number 2, June 2012, pp. 241-250 (Article)

Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press

DOI: 10.1353/pan.2012.0026

For additional information about this article


Access Provided by K.U. Leuven at 07/09/12 1:46PM GMT

Forum: Bildung and the State

Guest Editors: Pieter Vermeulen and Ortwin de Graef Bildung and the State in the Long Nineteenth Century Pieter Vermeulen and Ortwin de Graef Stockholm University and University of Leuven

1. Nation and Narration Once More In the last few decades, the study of the relations between literary forms and political formations has figured prominently on research agendas in the humanities. These investigations focus almost exclusively on the quintessentially modern form of community: the nation. Emerging in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the nation conjures up the simultaneously rousing and soothing image of a human collective connected by common descent, language, and history. The nation claims to ground the contingency of contiguity in the biological fact of commonality, and to contain the experience of historical change in the observation of natural continuity. The key insight propelling research into the relation between the nation and literature is that literature not merely celebrates this continuity but actively constructs, invents, and imagines it.

The titles of two agenda-setting books published in 1983, both of which have survived as powerful intellectual idioms, capture the extent of this construction work. Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, his study of the emergence and consolidation of the nation as the dominant modern form of community, underlines that emerging technologies such as the newspaper and the novel provided the means “for ‘re-presenting’ the kind of imagined community that is the nation” (25). They make it possible for their audiences to apprehend their simultaneity with people whom they will never meet face-to-face, and to think of that simultaneity as a condition for co-belonging to the same nation, “conceived as a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history” (26). The title of the second book fulfills the need to add an imagining of historical continuity to this apprehension of co-belonging and simultaneity: in their introduction to The Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger note that practices that seem historically established and self-evident in fact use “ancient materials Partial answers 10/2: 241–250 © 2012 The Johns Hopkins University Press 242 Partial answers to construct invented traditions of a novel type for quite novel purposes,” one of those purposes being the consolidation of a sense of shared nationality (6).

Invented traditions, they write, “seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past,” and more specifically with “a suitable historical past” (1).

There are at least two reasons why literature has historically played a privileged role in the imagining of community and historical continuity: first, and trivially, its ability to target the affects, anxieties, and desires of its readership, which is a vital asset in the project of inculcating values and norms and in transcribing readers into citizens; second, and almost equally trivially, literature almost always takes a narrative form, and the narrative concatenation of multiple events is an obvious way of forging a connection between the present and a suitable historical past, and of convincingly conveying the natural necessity — rather than the historical contingency — of that connection. Narrative, that is, helps the citizens of the nation to recognize the past events to which it connects them as the historical roots that bind them together. The nation relies on a narrative that aims to dissemble its reliance on the human, and always to some extent arbitrary, performance of narration and to pass itself off as a natural growth to which narrative deferentially refers. This is how Etienne Balibar, in his seminal analysis of

the nation form, renders the nation’s reliance on fictions of continuity:

The history of nations... is always already presented to us in the form of a narrative which attributes to these entities the continuity of a subject.

The formation of the nation thus appears as the fulfilment of a “project” stretching over centuries, in which there are different stages and moments of coming to self-awareness [which] all fit into an identical pattern: that of the self-manifestation of the national personality. (86) Balibar makes clear that the imagining of the nation requires a particular fiction of continuity, in two respects. First, the nation posits itself as the fulfillment of a project, and as such it functions as the last stage of a purposive scheme, even if this sense of direction is merely “a retrospective illusion” (86). And second, what the nation realizes is nothing but itself: it is a process of “self-manifestation,” in which what is retrospectively revealed to have been a potential community actualizes itself as a historical formation. Thus the well-known story: through narratives that naturalize patterns of self-regulation and purposive development, the nation legitimizes itself as a natural fact rather than an unnatural imposition.

It has been the job of much literary criticism in the last few decades to worry about this displacement.

2. Bildung and the State: The Interface In the field of literary studies, this unavoidable moment of disavowal — variously named “aestheticization,” “aesthetic ideology,” or simply “ideology” — Forum: Bildung and the state 243 has become an important target of critique. The present forum contributes to this research program by exploring the interface of two notions deeply implicated in the articulation of nation and narration in the long nineteenth century; yet because they do not exactly correspond to the two terms of that fateful meeting — terms that, in their turn, as we saw, never perfectly map onto one another — a critical investigation of this imperfect overlap turns these notions into powerful tools for a novel interrogation of the interface of modern political and literary history.

The first of these terms is the notoriously untranslatable notion of Bildung (in English, “formation” and “cultivation” probably come closest, though it is worth recalling that Matthew Arnold transcribed it as “culture”). Around the turn of the eighteenth century, discourses of Bildung, which had been circulating in the life sciences since the middle of the century when the term had begun to complicate (without fully abandoning) its religious provenance (Kontje 7–9), began to migrate between the domains of, most notably, the life sciences, aesthetics, pedagogy, and cultural philosophy. The notion of Bildung conjures tropes of organic flourishing — patterns of development that actualize their own potential in a self-regulating process. Such movements of ontogenetic and phylogenetic self-actualization only depend on foreign input to the extent that this input furnishes opportunities for recognizing and appropriating previously unrecognized dimensions of reality as, in the last analysis, one’s own. Apart from presenting a definite sense of direction and an assured sense of self-regulation, the main selling point of Bildung is that it offers a developmental pattern in which increased self-reflexivity does not come at the expense of self-identity; instead of leading to abysmal alienation, moments of reflexivity are continuously naturalized as part of a plan of self-actualization. In an authoritative exposition of the concept, HansGeorg Gadamer notes that “[i]n Bildung... that by which and through which one is formed becomes completely one’s own... in acquired Bildung nothing disappears, but everything is preserved” (qt. Redfield 1996: 47). The appeal of Bildung is that it provides the outlines of a process — that is, a narrative pattern — that consists in the “fusion of process, telos, and self-presentation” (48).

The combination of orientation and self-manifestation explains the flourishing of the narrative schema of Bildung at a historical threshold where order and direction were no longer self-evidently provided by a divine transcendence — a threshold that also saw the rise of the nation form as a compensatory frame of reference (Anderson 9–12). The idea of Bildung makes it possible to derive norm and necessity from developmental processes themselves, without recourse to a divine instigator of such processes. It furnishes a systemic rather than an intentional model of rationality; it conveys “a type of purposive causality that outstrips mere artifice” (Cheah 48). The magic of Bildung is that it transforms the “inventory of discrete, dissimilar, and ephemeral objects and interests” that we call the world into a totality reflecting “an order and goal-directedness that positively transcends human intelligence” (Pfau 2010: 581). By providing a patPartial answers tern to present the development of the modern subject or the modern nation as a continuous campaign, it couches the foundational (symbolic as well as historical) violence of the modern nation-state in patterns of organic growth, and thus allows it to misrecognize its own contingency.

We propose that one name for the limit of this naturalization of the political fiction of the nation-state is, surprisingly perhaps, “the state.” Even if Romantic nationalists like Fichte, Herder, and Humboldt worked hard to theorize the state as just one more stage in a process of Bildung to which it naturally belonged, and to embed it “within the warm embrace of vernacular language and literature” (Hart and Hansen 505), the intellectual afterlife of this project has failed to cement the wishful linkage of nation and state. While this afterlife has quite consistently reserved the name of the nation for the fiction of a people unified by birth, customs, or language, it has used the name of the state to acknowledge the reality of less comforting aspects of social and politica life: in Nietzsche’s (Zarathustra’s) unforgettable phrase, the modern state is “the coldest of cold monsters” — cold enough, at the very least, to withstand the warmth of national custom and habit; for Nietzsche, the state signals “the death of peoples” (34).

The state in nation-state, that is, serves as a reminder of the difference between “‘spontaneous’ and ‘concrete’ bonds” on the one hand (the things we normally attribute to the nation or to civil society), and the reality of “an outside coercion” on the other (Moretti 53). More often than not, the state represents “a ‘mechanical’ and ‘abstract’ form of social cohesion, intrinsically remote and foreign to the countless articulations of everyday life” (53). The dysphoric affect that the signifier “state” tends to evoke pries open the things that discourses of Bildung so self-evidently seem to link.

As is well known, antistatism has become a widespread critical disposition

across the political spectrum in the last two centuries. Yet even in the early nineteenth century, the state figured only as a necessary evil in theories of Bildung:

“[i]n the ideology of Bildung descended from Humboldt, the state fundamentally remains a necessary transitional arrangement dedicated to its own dissolution once the universal Bildung of all is achieved in a second innocence saving humankind from the alienations of artifice” (de Graef and Gilleir 7). The state is always only a means to an end, a dispensation that is difficult enough to accommodate for an ideology that thrives on the ultimate indistinguishability of means and ends in a continuous process of auto-generation. The state does not readily lend itself to the patterns and the rhythms of Bildung. Indeed, as Ian Baucom has remarked, it seems to resist narrativization altogether: while “we are accustomed to thinking of the nation, and to posing questions regarding the relation between literature and nation, in temporal terms,” the state “has yielded a thinner grammar of time, in significant part because it has seemed to succeed in putting the question of time outside itself or, at most, in producing a simple binary code of before and after” (713).

Forum: Bildung and the state 245 The mismatch between Bildung and the state testifies to the impossibility of subsuming the political under the rubric of culture. In spite of Matthew Arnold’s wishful apposition “the State — the nation in its collective and corporate character” (qt. Redfield 2003: 13), the state is not the nation, and very few have been fooled into believing it was. Arnold’s qualified defense of the state is uncommon enough in a British intellectual context, where the state was, in the nineteenth century, often dismissed as a mere continental freak. Franco Moretti has remarked that “[h]ostility toward the state — or at least indifference” is also endemic in the Bildungsideal, which combines a commitment to spontaneous and solid forms of authority with “the conviction that the State must confine itself to punishing crimes and conducting wars” (52). Among many other things, the state functions as a placeholder for all that interrupts the continuity that patterns of Bildung plot for the nation. Nor is “state” the only name that the critical tradition has coined for this interruption: we can also think of materiality, gender, time, difference, techne, and class — all faces of the self-difference that spoils the nation’s fiction of self-evident purposiveness, and ruins the solidity and unity of the nation-state.

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