E Pluribus Nullus

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

E pluribus unum – “out of many, one”

In sitting down to write this, my third blog entry for gnovis, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on a theme I addressed in my first post: that of national identity. Specifically, I want to consider the varying constructions of American national identity—that is, perceptions of what defines ‘true’ Americanism or constitutes true ‘American-ness’—and the role these constructions play in military recruitment materials.

Benedict Anderson notes that “the great wars of this century are extraordinary not so much in the unprecedented scale on which they permit people to kill, as in the colossal numbers persuaded to lay down their lives” (1983: 144). While a willingness to sacrifice for one’s country is regarded as one of the supreme displays of patriotism, it is a fairly alarming phenomenon. For nationality to subvert the fundamental human imperative of self-preservation requires, presumably, a tremendous amount of persuasive capital.

It is here that the precarious position of military recruitment propaganda is made understandable. Such materials often require the visual manifestation of specific social and cultural elements which, for community cohesion’s sake, might be better left unstated. What, for example, does an American look like? What cultural cues most evoke “America” and American-ness, and are strong enough to precipitate that citizenry’s readiness for self-sacrifice? To answer these questions is to be narrowly inclusive and broadly alienating: for every American who identifies with a particular cue, there are surely many who do not.

Anderson’s notion of the imagined national community accounts for the precise disparities raised by these considerations: The nation is imagined, he holds, “because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their [vastly different] fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (1983: 6). It is the allowance for ambiguity, then, which sustains The Nation and which is denied in military recruitment propaganda. In an effort to incite citizenries, such materials often make manifest the hopelessly diverse and otherwise only imaginable qualities of communal America. In so doing, they abandon the ambiguity which enables its perceived (or readily perceivable) universality.

The ‘imagined community’ model is also useful for understanding the necessary contradiction of the American national community, whose members are conceived of, somehow, as being at once intrinsically bound and irreconcilably diverse. Indeed, to the extent that any nation defines its sameness in terms of its diversity, in terms of its willingness to regard that which distinguishes its members as the very thing which unites them, how could it be anything other than imagined? In a community which conceives of itself in impossibly inclusive terms, to concretize that community is to alienate it; to distill it is to reduce it.

This begs a couple of important questions: For instance, is an ‘imaginable’ community more conducive to national unity than a ‘manifested’ community? Indeed, in a definitively diverse society, is imagination as opposed to manifestation a necessary condition for patriotic sacrifice? And what bearing do imagined versus manifested communities have on the effectiveness of military recruitment materials? Do some characterizations work better than others? Do conditions change over time?

These are among the themes I hope to explore in future installments of this blog. While I doubt that any authoritative analysis will result, my hunch is that a commitment to earnest exploration will yield added understanding where once there was less.