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M. Lane Bruner “Rhetorical Theory and the Critique of National Identity Construction”

Bruner, M. Lane 2005. Rhetorical Theory and the Critique of National Identity Construction. National Identities Vol. 7, No. 3: 309-327

The notion of ‘constraint’ in rhetorical theory today, then, refers to the limits imposed upon individuals by the ways in which those subjects are articulated. Furthermore, these constraints are assumed to be generally inaccessible to the constrained (thus their ideological character) (Shotter & Gergen, 1989, pp. 141 /142). While one can argue that there is no getting fully outside of ideology, one can equally argue that subjects are more or less capable of reflecting on the limits and absences their ideological presuppositions entail. In relation to national identities, discursive limits (constraints) are hegemonic narratives maintained by codes of the unspeakable that seek to maintain fictional, although politically consequential, identities, while transgressions are narrative acts that violate those strategies/codes. (314)

One significant shortcoming of earlier Marxist conceptions was the notion that ideology is imposed by those in control of the modes of production. Instead, ideology is more usefully conceived as competing discourses that congeal into generally accepted ways of thinking about an issue or subject, and institutional practices and ideational constraints are a function of those ‘commonsense’ notions. Thus the rhetorical critique of collective identity is based upon isolating what cannot be said in any given articulation and then assessing the likely political import of that collective amnesia. (316)

[…] public memory is thoroughly political, and it is not so much because events and traditions are completely invented, although sometimes they are, but that history is used. (317)

If, on the one hand, a particular articulation of national identity is polemic, based on power politics, homogenises through xenophobic stereotypes, masks it own politically consequential narrative absences or otherwise uses history for self-interested ends, then it is a regressive form of national identity that demonises or commodifies the other, tends towards violence and inhibits radically honest critique. If, on the other hand, a particular articulation of national identity problematises itself, is based on the universalisation of democracy and human rights, supports constitutional patriotism and eagerly welcomes an interrogation of its own narrative limits, then it is a progressive form of national identity that recognises the other, tends towards communication and encourages radically honest critique. (320-321)

The critical rhetorical approach to national identity critique follows McKerrow’s advice in that it locates articulations of national identity, as well as the contexts for those articulations, and then analyses responses to those articulations to isolate the selective absences they reveal. In doing so, it weakens the unifying potential of egregious articulations in order to maintain their democratic development. By identifying precisely what cannot be said, critics can more precisely ‘diagnose’ a given characterisation of the people. (321)

All identification practices marginalise, but that does not mean that all identification practices marginalise equally or that we can simply do away with identity. Nevertheless, dominant characterisations of national identities oftentimes, if not usually, mask significant social contradictions, marginalise other voices and repress scepticism through the promotion of unity at the expense of radically honest social critique. (321)

To productively destabilise national identity is to destabilise articulations of national identity that naturalise and essentialise what it means to be a hero-patriot. In a post-national world, the hero-patriot is transformed into the critical citizen-subject whose political actions are based on a reflexive understanding of the marginalisations that accompany their necessarily limited and prejudiced subject positions. (322)

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