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Cartography, dualism and identity(1) (I)

Patrick Imbert
The ideology of modernity, originating in the bureaucratic, military, and pedagogical worlds, strategically disseminated a notion of space closely linked to dualistic paradigms considered synonyms such as self/other, within/without, generating exclusion. The famous Droits des peuples à disposer d'eux-mêmes was grounded in this imaginary allowing states to exclude and kill thousands of people


"La identidad nacional -como toda identidad- es un constructo imaginario inacabado e inacabable." (Abril Trigo, Cultura Uruguaya,¿Culturas Linyeras?, p. 23).


1/ Modernity

"A geopolitical imaginary, the map of nation-states, dominates ethical discourse at a global level". From this perspective Michael Shapiro in Violent Cartographies puts into question the official stories which permeate societies based on a
representation of themselves, linked to the belief in an objectivity grounded on narratives, produced by historical and literary canons. These canons have been aiming at building a monosemic consensual society based on the fact that a People had mostly in common what had to be forgotten, for instance the exclusion and killing of thousands of Protestants in France after the nullification of the Édits de Nantes. A new canon was put in place at the time of the Révolution française which tried to reject the dualistic paradigm French/foreigner, but replaced it by barbary/civilisation.

Therefore, the attribution process, that is the attribution
(2) of qualities determining the essence of a person or of a society, was still operating in reference to a stable monosemic world(3) which, as Karl Popper has shown in The Open Society and its Enemies, is the basis of the invention of the modern nation states:"Most of the modern totalitarians are quite unaware that their ideas can be traced back to Plato. But many know of their indebtness to Hegel, and all of them have been brought up in the close atmosphere of Hegelianism. They have been taught to worship the state, history, and the nation.(4)" The barbary/civilization paradigm was the basis of a rationality excluding all those who were not considered to be assimilable (S. Wahnich, 1997), namely Blacks, most colonized people and Natives(5).

This paradigm coupled with the map of nation-
states and the need to forget is what allows to produce and disseminate histories of countries such as France or England which are totally cut from the histories of the former colonies, although these former colonies were seminal in helping the colonial power to develop economically. This development was based on the availability of cheap resources and cheap labour and on the emigration of numerous young people who otherwise would not have had any suitable position at home. Moreover, the barbary/civilization paradigm was based on the valorization of rational beings and many people, among them women, were not considered sufficiently rational. This is one of the reason why Olympe de Gouges who saw the inherent flaws of the Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du citoyen produced a Déclaration des Droits de la Femme, and was beheaded. This means that for more than a century and a half, European nations refering to "universal" or republican ideals, and promoting an ideology aiming at making believe in the natural consensual link established between members of a nation state, denied basic legal, political and often economic rights to half of their populations. This did not prevent these nations to repeatedly call for the defense of the rights of their populations in the numerous wars fought in the XIX and XXth centuries.

The ideology of modernity, originating in the bureaucratic, military, and pedagogical worlds, strategically disseminated a notion of
space closely linked to dualistic paradigms considered synonyms(6) such as self/other, within/without, generating exclusion. The famous Droits des peuples à disposer d'eux-mêmes was grounded in this imaginary allowing states to exclude and kill thousands of people particularly in central Europe, in places such as the Bukowina(7) where this right was the right of many states to deny the qualification of a People to many groups culturally and often physically erased from the map. This geopolitical imaginary, a typical Hegelian way of creating an identity, is based on topographical amnesia. In the geopolitical imaginary, state's apparatuses control the semantics and equate nations with territorial states, although nations have often been suppressed by violent ideological and physical means by these states.

This imaginary is based on a will to impose an
identity, be it individual or social, which denies any domestic fracture. This domestic fracture has many faces. When one considers that the main revolution of the XIXth century is the fact that poor or landless people have been allowed to obtain titles and to be owners, a dynamic which drew millions to the Americas, one can see the contradictory dynamic of Modernity. Change was still rooted in stable entities which led to seek a strong allegiance to a national territory enclosed in geographical borders, while simultaneously denying the possibility to become a legitimate owner of a piece of a territory, as it was the case in many parts of the world. Rootedness was political but not grounded in economic advantages.

The Hegelian imaginary, coupled with the
metaphor of the state as a spatial organism (Hepple: 1992), and with a Darwinian view of life, became an important part of the geopolitical literature of Europe at the end of the XIX and at the beginning of the XXth centuries, and influenced the invention of nations as far as in latin-America as it is demonstrated by the recurence of the paradigm barbary/civilization in Sarmiento's novel entitled Facundo. This imaginary hides under political strategies an ontological desire to assert oneself by seeing alterity as a threat. Thus, the geopolitical imaginary is based on a kind of panic: the vulnerability to alterity. Nation-states try to control this vulnerability by presenting ethics as a value experience, by defining these values, using for this the force of arms, the power of the attribution process (Imbert: 1995), the aesthetic of literature (Readings: 1996) or particular hermeneutic processes. These processes lead to self-fullfiling prophecies and to a dangerous paranoia such as the one which is caricatured in the novel of the Argentinian novelist Marcos Aguinis: La conspiraciòn de los idiotas.

intellectuals, professors and critics, following a European tradition originating in the XIXth century, have been almost totally engaged in the promotion of national literatures and in a conception of the literary text as limited by territorial boundaries(8) (Anderson: 1983). Until recently, the practice of comparative literature has emphasized comparisons between national literatures. However, recent researches (Huggan: 1990) tend to go beyond these a prioris in that they either disclose the narratological elements transcending national boundaries and periodization(9) (themselves used in pedagogical manuals in order to foster a territorial agenda linked to monotopical hermeneutics (Mignolo: 1999) avoiding spatial conceptualization open to a transcultural or hybrid imaginary), or that they focus on ironic dissimilarities which escape the ontological anxiety linked to a national culture. They are able to point out the disjunctive relationships between place and nation and emphasize questions linked either to diversity or difference such as ethnicity(10), class or gender. However, in order to succeed in transcending the Hegelian imaginary,they have to escape from a reterritorialization or from a re-essentialization of ethnicity, a common feature linked to a subtext full of nostalgic overtones from which few researchers of ethnic postcolonial literatures escape.

The consciousness that the equation between nation and state is the basic principle of the
modern state and of its capacity to generate both genocides and oblivion leads nowadays to a renewed critical understanding of relations of domination (Soja: 1989) and of locatedness, and its correlated terms: position, mapping, liminal space, spaces of contention, centre/margin, global/local(11).

(1) University Research Chair Holder: "Canada: Social and Cultural Goals in a Knowledge Based Society." Director of a SSHRC funded project (2002-2005) (program of the new economy) with D. Castillo-Durante (Ottawa), A. Colin (Pittsburgh, USA), A. Rizzo (Rìo Cuarto, Argentine): «Les discours économiques transnationaux et la mondialisation dans les médias et les textes de vulgarisation au Canada en comparaison avec l'Amérique latine: déplacements culturels et économiques»
web site:


(2) "Le processus d'attribution", in Les discours du Nouveau Monde au XIXe siècle au Canada français et en Amérique latine/Los discursos del Nuevo Mundo en el siglo XIX en el Canada francofono y en América latina,Ottawa, Legas, 1995, p.43-60.

(3) Except in the United States as it is exclaimed by Sarmiento, the Argentinian writer who visited europe, Canada and the USA in 1848 and who later became president of Argentina: "The Yankee is a born proprietor... he does not say that he is poor but that he is poor right now or that he has been unlucky, or that times are bad." (M.A. Rockland, Travels, p.166).

(4) vol. 2, p. 31.

(5) Shapiro gives examples of this situation when showing the transformation of Wampun into money and the influence of the Dutch on intertribal Indian commerce in the Americas (10), a transformation which led to the denial of Indian collectivities as legitimate, because they did not recognize property as a sedentary way to use space. This denial, which has been regularly uttered by J. S. Mill, Lamartine and Sarmiento, demonstrates the participation of literatures in the constitution and displacement of nations and in an imaginary based on dualism and exclusion.

(6) It is this very synonymity which is at the root of exclusion. If self/other and within/without are not synonyms such as in a Levinasian perspective, otherness can be set within, a dynamic which changes the relationship towards alterity.

(7) Amy Colin, Im Gegenlicht des Todes: Poetik der jüdischen Identität in der multikulturellen Bukowina, München, Fink Verlag, 2000.

(8) A reason why nobody mentions Amadis de Gaule as the most important book of the time in literary anthologies.

(9) See: P. Imbert, «Sémiotique, littérature et politique: pauvre mais propre», Semiotica, 67, 3/4, 1987, p. 245-263.

(10) See for instance Romain Gary, La vie devant soi, or a recent autobiographical essay entitled Nord perdu, written by Nancy Huston, an Anglo-Canadian bilingual (French/English) writer who lives in Paris with her spouse Tzvetan Todorov.

(11) See: M. Grillo, S. Berti, A. Rizzo, Discursos locales: lo nuevo y lo viejo, lo público y lo privado, Universidad Nacional de Río Cuarto, (Argentina), 1998; and also Keith, Michael and Pile, Steve (1993) Place and the Politics of Identity. New York: Routledge.


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Bhabha, Homi (1984) "Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse" in October: 28: Spring: 125-133.

Amy Colin, Im Gegenlicht des Todes: Poetik der jüdischen Identität in der multikulturellen Bukowina, München, Fink Verlag, 2000.

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Foucault, Michel (1989) "Friendship as a Way of Life" in Foucault Live (ed. Sylvère Lotringer). New York: Semiotext[e]: 209.

Gary, Romain (1976) La Vie devant soi, Paris, Folio.

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Grillo, M. Berti, S. Rizzo, A. (1998) Discursos locales: lo nuevo y lo viejo, lo público y lo privado, Rìo Cuarto, Universidad Nacional de Río Cuarto, (Argentina).

Hepple, Leslie W. (1992) "Metaphor, Geopolitical Discourse and the Military in South America", in Barnes, Trevor J.; Duncan, James S. Writing Worlds: discourse, text and metaphor in the representation of landscape. London and New York: Routledge.

Huggan, Graham (1990) "Decolonizing the Map: Post-Colonialism, Post-Structuralism and the Cartographic Connection" in Adam, Ian; Tiffin, Helen Past the last Post. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

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Imbert, Patrick (1995) "Le processus d'attribution" in Les discours du Nouveau-Monde au XIXè siècle au Canada français et en Amérique latine/ Los discursos del Nuevo Mundo en el siglo XIX en el Canadá francófono y en América latina, Couillard/Imbert, ed.). Ottawa: Legas: 43-60.

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Imbert, Patrick (1998) The Permanent Transition. Frankfurt/Madrid: Vervuert/Iberoamericana.

Joy, Morny (1995) "Multiculturalism and Margins of Intolerance", in C. Pizanas and J. Frideres, Freedom within the Margins. Calgary: Detselig.

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Kis Danilo (1991) The Encyclopedia of the Dead, New York, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

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Levinas, Emile (1969) Totality and Infinity: an Essay of Exteriority. Pittsburgh: Duquesne U.P.

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H.Schwartz and S. Ray), Oxford, Blackwell.

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