Sunday, January 15, 2012

Steven Mock's "Symbols of Defeat in the Construction of National Identity"

Steven J. Mock teaches political science at the University of Waterloo.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Symbols of Defeat in the Construction of National Identity, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Symbols of Defeat in the Construction of National Identity raises a point that, though not original, must be stressed before one embarks on study whose primary source material is myth: that there is no such thing as the “most authentic” version of a myth, and wasting time searching for such an animal is counterproductive.

Myths are essentially narratives, fictional or factual, with social significance. As social systems change constantly, so too will the mythologies that underpin them. Thus if we find divergent or even contradictory versions of a myth, it is less important to query which should be privileged as the oldest, the most factually accurate, or the most popular, than it is to examine what social changes or cleavages these different versions reflect in terms of the interests and needs to which they speak.

Indeed, the search for the “most authentic” tends to reveal more about the searcher than about the object of study, for one cannot help but measure this nebulous standard against contemporary values and priorities. Difficult as it is to see through the eyes of someone in the past living in a radically different social context, mythic texts tend to be interpreted through the prism of the present.

This was certainly the case during periods of nation-building, when nationalist scholars mined the cultural histories of their ethnic communities for those relics that best reflected the authentic national character. Invariably, the relics deemed most authentic were those that spoke to modern national values: images that stressed the antiquity and durability of the group; narratives that elevated past periods of sovereignty as Golden Ages; and texts supporting the often dubious assumption that a yearning for self-determination was a dominant and continuous factor of the group consciousness throughout its history.

Curiously, images of the group’s defeat and subjugation also tended to prominent among those elevated by nationalists to the status of “most authentic”, indicating an ambivalence toward ethnic history that this book aims to dissect.
Learn more about Symbols of Defeat in the Construction of National Identity at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue