I have been on a fiction-focused blog-post writing kick as of late and part of that was due to the fact that I was mainly reading fiction over the last month or so. However, after I worked through a number of books in the “To Be Read” pile, I realized that I was missing some non-fiction in my life and turned to the pile of academic/non-fiction books that I have been meaning to read for a while. National History and the World of Nations by Christopher L. Hill (of Comparative Literature and East Asian studies, not of the English historian of Marxism fame!) was near the top of my list because it offers an examination of concepts of national histories in the United States, Japan, and France in and around modernity.
National histories are interesting to me since the political structure that we call nations is such a new construction in history. Yet, most of us go about our daily lives assuming that the scribbled borders on the map have always been there and that we have always existed within this nationally-bounded space when, really, we haven’t. The United States is the most obvious example as the entity that we picture when we think of “the U.S.” came in fits and starts through territorial expansion (of space that was already occupied anyway), purchasing of land from other countries (i.e. the Louisiana Purchase, but again, the land was already occupied by indigenous populations), and the annexation (i.e. Hawai’i was annexed in 1898 and didn’t become a state until 1959). Given all the benefit of the doubt, the United States as a nation, and as the “one nation under God” that so many like to tout, is so irrefutably new that it is crazy to see how deeply imbedded and naturalized the idea of nationhood is in our minds.
Japan is another excellent example of our tendencies to erase the past and assume that the nations that exist now are what they always have been. Historically, both Hokkaido and the Ryūkyū islands were not part of Japan — yet most people cannot (or do not) picture Japan as anything other than that vaguely seahorse-shaped country in the Pacific. Ryūkyū was actually annexed in 1879, while the Meiji government put policy in place to bring Hokkaido under Japanese sovereignty around 1869. For both Japan and the United States, the image of a unified geopolitical space is actually mind-bogglingly new — especially when you consider how tightly so many people grasp to these borders.
From both of these cases, it’s clear that the nation is such a contingent and new thing. Because of that, we have often needed to tell stories about ourselves in order to make sense of the disconnect and this is where national histories come in. National histories, and the idea of nationhood more broadly, began interesting me more after the 2016 election where there was an increase in nationalistic rhetoric being thrown around. There was, suddenly, a lot of talk about going back to “the good old days” and bemoaning how American is no longer “great” — whatever you want that rather empty adjective to stand in for. With so much anxiety about “America” being at the forefront of the news and particularly with the reemergence of a really old-fashioned depiction of “the good old days”, I started thinking about what stories were being told about what America is. What histories were being drawn from that lead people to see the nation as something that has been timeless and naturalized, when it has been a constantly evolving thing.
Since I had a growing interest in what the nation is and, more importantly, what it meant to people, I decided to pick this book up. What intrigued me the most was the focus not on a single nation, or even a comparative look at two nations, but an examination of three nations whose understandings of themselves — and their geopolitical situations — were so vastly different from one another. Yet there is a similar logic to how they tried to frame themselves as a nation in relation to other nations. As Hill writes,
“Transformations in transnational political and economic conditions were shared ground for ideological problems in [the United States and Japan]. Where the threat of imperialism set the terms of debate on the nation in Japan in the 1870s, in the United States the terms of discussion followed from its situation as a settler society. Intellectuals in the two countries faced the same world from different places on the imperial periphery”. — National History and the World of Nations, 85.
In each of these countries there was an anxiety about the stories that they told themselves about themselves and as Hill breaks down the epistemological push behind the new national histories told in the three aforementioned countries, you can see how different they all are — while still functioning under a shared global understanding of what state power should look like in a modern world. I also enjoyed the fact that Hill drew from a number of different literary sources including short stories and novels, but also from texts that were specifically used for educational purposes, such as school primers or “textbooks”. In each of these instances, he breaks down the underlying “ideology” of nationhood and we get to see the different (and often times ill-fitting) parts that make up how many of us view our nations today, which I found fascinating. For example, we can think of the “Make America Great” mindset a further extension of the American exceptionalism that we see in much of the earlier texts. However, when you break down that ideology, you realize that this so-called exceptionalism is simply an example of a “settler mentality”. For any of its unique points, when you look at the United States from a historical perspective (not just mythical), you realize that it is simply one of a number of examples of the same type of settler-based society.
I really enjoyed the text because I felt that there was plenty of context provided for those of us who maybe don’t have as much background in one or two (or three!) of the countries Hill considers. For instance, I have an absolutely minimal understanding of French history, yet I felt like everything I needed to know to truly understand the argument was presented clearly. In general, I found the methodology interesting and the passages on both Japan and the United States, in particular, were very illuminating and caused me to look at a number of my own “naturalized” beliefs about these two spaces I occupy. As an academic text, it was very readable while also presenting important ideas that — fortunately or unfortunately — are still very much talked about now. Highly recommend this one for anyone interested!
*All quoted passages are from Christopher L. Hill, National History and the World of Nations (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008)*