What are Nations? Essay by Gregory Lobo

About the Author

Click the image below to view a video of Dr. Lobo’s presentation “Charismatic Nation: The success of Uribismo in recent Colombian politics” at Northern Michigan University.

Gregory Lobo is professor of Languages and Sociocultural Studies at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. Recent publications include Colombia: algo diferente de una nación (Bogotá: Uniandes, 2009), as well as articles on the discourse of the nation in Colombia. In the present essay, he presents and develops his concept of nationism.

Gregory Lobo: “The thing about the nation is that while we’ve had a certain progress demystifying other essential ideas, like race and sex/gender, and even (dis)ability, we don’t seem to have affected the national mind in any way whatsoever. Both left and right — and center — cannot stop dreaming of the nation.”

Gregory Lobo’s complete essay appears on our website.

Lobo presents his concept of nationism, which he distinguishes from nationalism. Nationalism is a “superficial at most reflexive affirmation of national identity and pride.” Whereas nationism, Lobo says, should be understood as a “deeper, fundamental belief in the nation as such;” as a “historical force and entity in its own right.”

Nations are the mother of us all. Like fish, we are immersed in oceans called nations, barely noticing them. In most countries, the idea of the nation is taken for granted. In Colombia, however, according to Lobo, the image of a national community is “for the most part absent,” and needs to be constructed.

Lobo’s essay focuses on a concerted, spectacular public relations campaign that occurred in Colombia. He discusses three television commercials, part of the “Heroes really do exist in Colombia” campaign (a video appears here), which also included billboards and print media. These commercials sought to “conjure up the image of the nation out of (almost) nothing.”

Examining the relationship between the idea of the nation and the soldier’s willingness to kill and die, Lobo critiques Benedict Anderson’s idea of imagined communities (1983/1996). While theoretically speaking, nations might be imagined, “no one who actually thinks of himself as a national thinks he is merely imagining it.” Rather, nations are recognized simply as “brute facts.”

Why would so many millions kill and die for such an idea? Lobo recalls the Battle of Valmy of 1792, which saw a large but disorderly force of French national conscripts and professional soldiers send their formidable Prussian adversaries packing, with a conviction embodied in the battle cry, “Vive la nation!”

But to what were they referring? These soldiers may well have been inspired by Abbé de Sieyès’ “What is the Third Estate?” (1789):

The Nation exists before all things and is the origin of all. Its will is always legal, it is the law itself…Nations on earth must be conceived as individuals outside the social bond, or as is said, in the state of nature. The exercise of their will is free and independent of all civil forms. Existing only in the natural order, their will, to have its full effect, only needs to possess the natural characteristics of a will. In whatever manner a nation wills, it suffices that it does will; all forms are valid and its will is always the supreme law.

This description of the nation, Lobo says, is “redolent with grandeur,” and might—did—inspire some people to embrace homicide and self-sacrifice, believing that “such a marvel, such a monstrosity, actually existed,” and that they were a “constituent and in some sense equal part of it.”

It may be well and good for a social scientist to understand the nation as an imagined community, but “how many people would kill and die for such a thing?” Lobo suggests that by reflecting on the words of Sieyès, as well as those of Ernst Renan (in “What is a Nation?” 1882) and Thucydides (in his “Funeral Oration”), we will begin to get a sense of what women and men think about when they think about the nation. It is “something glorious, something great, and therefore something compelling.”

Yes—without saying precisely what a nation is—certainly an essential element is that it is conceived as something “great and glorious.” Everyone wants to link themselves to these grand entities: partake of their greatness and glory. Each national tends to believe that the entity with which he or she identifies is the “greatest country in the world.”

However, what if one’s country isn’t great? Of course, Lobo says, Colombia is recognized as a nation, and Colombians are quick to invoke their national pride. But in fact there is little social solidarity in Colombia. “A heroic past, great men, glory,” is the social capital, according to Renan, upon which one bases a national idea. Yet in Colombia “these things are lacking.” Though Spanish rule ended almost two centuries ago, independence has “less consisted in heroism, greatness and glory than in more or less endless civil wars, territorial loss, and oligarchic domination, right up to the present day.”

Renan suggests that “suffering in common” gives rise to the “spiritual family” that is the nation. Colombians have suffered, Lobo says, but the problem is that this suffering has not been in the sense used by Renan: against a unifying outsider. Rather, Colombians have suffered each other and waged war against themselves, producing a history of violence, recrimination and revenge, and centrifugal social forces, unmitigated by the opportunity to construct a political order that would “cohere the various competing interests in the country.”

How to create a nation—one worth killing and dying for? Lobo presents and discusses several television commercials, part of the “Heroes really do exist in Colombia” campaign (“Los Heroes en Colombia Si Existen,” which may be viewed here). The purpose of these commercials is to convince soldiers and civilians in Colombia that “killing and dying was for something.”

One commercial shows the face of a male soldier addressing the audience. “What’s up?” he asks. “It’s good to talk to you on nights like this.” All the while, his eyes dart from the viewer to somewhere off-screen, suggesting an attentive concern for potential intruders, enemies. A whole platoon seems to be out there, “strangers to us, yet ready to die for me, the viewer.” Dramatic music now dominates the soundtrack, and the affirmation appears on the screen: “Heroes really do exist in Colombia.” Before the fade to black, the insignia of the Colombian Army appears front and center on the screen.

In another ad, it seems as if we are creeping up on a soldier, but when he turns quickly and sees us, he is not surprised. He can clearly distinguish between “people like us—his constituency—and his targets.” He sees us, then, almost as if expecting us, and asks, “How is everything? How’s your family? How are you doing?”

“They’ve told me you’re doing well,” he says to us, as we see his comrades searching the terrain, weapons aimed, looking for the enemy. “They’re out there looking for bad guys to kill,” the soldier says. With little mirth, manifesting little enthusiasm but quite a bit of determination, he looks straight at us and declares, “I’m taking care of you guys,” like a harried parent might tell an ungrateful child.

Then, changing the emphasis, he assures me, the individual viewer, “I am carrying you, right here,” and he positions his right hand over his heart, giving his chest a couple of soft strikes. Suddenly we’re right up in his face, and he continues: “You know what? Me? I don’t know you.” He is shaking his head, his lips pull into a smile, but with eyes turned down. There’s a sadness, a sort of unrequitedness. Then, nodding, he finishes: “But I’m ready to give my life for you.”

Lobo focuses on these commercials as examples of the “spectacular attempt to conjure up the moral conscience — that nation about which Renan speaks.” He contends that these commercials are an attempt to make sense of the war in Colombia, “by producing a nation, something beyond me, that is worth all of me, and more than me.” They attempt to “transpose or transform the empirical community, one that is riven by suspicion and indifference, into a cosmic or spiritual one.” The nation must be called into existence, for “if not the nation, then what? Under what other pretext can a huge military force be recruited, financed and put into action other than the pretext of the nation?”

How do the commercials help produce the nation? The clear, unambiguous message of each is that heroes do in fact, really exist in Colombia. The need to insist on the existence of heroes stems from the “absence of the sort of history — understood as a national history — that would actually have produced them.” What’s more, the very rhetoric of the commercials produces not only heroes but, by logical necessity, “the (great) nation of which they would be heroes: if there are really heroes, there must really be a nation.”

According to this formulation, the idea of the hero must exist prior to the idea of the nation. In order for a nation to exist, there must be someone willing to die for us. The existence of human beings who are willing to die — to sacrifice their lives — gives rise to the idea of the nation (see Marvin and Ingle, 1999).

With regards,
Richard Koenigsberg, Ph.D
Director, Library of Social Science

Notes on Gregory Lobo’s lecture at Northern Michigan University, “Charismatic Nation.”
To view a video of the lecture, click here.

The nation isn’t anything in the world. It’s a signifier — a concept. It has no corresponding referent in the material world. The immaterial referent is the impossible, idealized community that can never exist in the real world. “The nation” conjures up a reality — conjures away the chaos of existence. The nation is an ideology or discourse with a job to do: the symbolic formulation of reality.

The nation is somewhere else: everywhere and nowhere at the same time: ordering reality. The nation is sovereign. Nationalism: the government of nobody. A supernatural being. The nation comes first. Nationalism: the origin of all. Nations are outside the social bond. The nation wills. It’s will is the supreme will.

The nation — like god — is the origin of all things — super-natural: divine. The nation is pre-political: natural, before construction. There are no limits to the sovereignty of the nation. The nation is unbound: has charisma. It is transcendental, collective individual: thy will be done. If one lays claim to the nation, one has a voice. One is given a voice. Can get away with just about anything.