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On Nationalism: Borders and Belonging

January 2021


In an era of resurgent and terrifying ethnic and racial nationalism around the world, how can contemporary writers, artists, and thinkers reimagine the concept of nation itself? What does it mean to belong?


Nations are imagined into existence with real-world consequences. As the scholar Hugh Seton-Watson once wrote, “a nation exists when a significant number of people in a community consider themselves to form a nation, or behave as if they formed one.” National sovereignty is a key component of struggles for self-determination around the world; but once embedded in existing nation-states, it can be warped into an ideology of borders, state repression, and racist, religious, and ethnocentric violence. At the present moment, we are facing what Trinh T. Minh-ha calls an “epoch of global fear”: the idea of a globally interconnected future of interchange and national coexistence, widely shared after the end of the Cold War, has given way to talk of walling off people, rights, and resources to reinforce existing allocations of power and privilege.


Is the proper response to this predicament an argument for open borders and the dismantling of the nation-state? A utopian or futurist aesthetic in which nations have ceased to exist in their present form? Or an aesthetic of decolonization, focused on what Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “abolishing the conditions of voicelessness through having the unheard own their share of the means of representation” in a dominant national culture? In 2022 the Racial Imaginary Institute will bring together participants from many fields to address these questions, and more, at events in New York City, Los Angeles, and other locations to be determined.

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