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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 2 .


Nations, Identities, Cultures
VY Mudimbe

(Durham: Duke University Press, 1997).
233pp. Index. ISBN 0-8223-2052-5, 43.95;
pb.: ISBN 0-8223-2065-7, 14.95.


Of late the interconnected topics of postcoloniality, identity politics, nationalism and (popular or global) culture have generated considerable interest. V.Y. Mudimbe organized a graduate seminar covering these topics at Duke University in 1993. Each of the eleven chapters in this book was presented as a paper/lecture by one of the invited scholars. In his Introduction, Mudimbe outlines the argument that frames the chapters: "the concepts of exile, the ethnicization of the political, and the recess of the social, as well as their sociopolitical actualizations, go along with the apparent triumph of liberalism, the 'end of history' described by Francis Fukuyama..." (p.2). He articulates three periods of three paradigms of the subordination of the social to the political, in seeking the legitimate political subject and its mutations (popular culture, national culture, class society, civil society, mass culture, and universal culture). In the first period, that of the French Revolution, the state became the nation-state; in the second, the Russian Revolution, class took on the hegemonic role; and in the third, the end of the Soviet bloc, civil society organized the conflict between nation and state, with the ethnicization of the nation. The papers focus either on theory (for example, Bernal's Aryan versus Ancient model of Greek origins, Colas' civil society, Wallerstein's geoculture in the modern world system) or on a completed case study (including MacGaffey's ethnic identity among the BaKongo of Lower Zaire, Letourneau's reinterpretation of Quebecois distinctiveness, Golan's Jewish/Palestinian socio-spatial boundaries, Lahusen's ethnicization of people and nation in Russian and Soviet historical contexts).

This volume exemplifies the point that a good lecture does not necessarily a good chapter make. Mudimbe's Introduction is brief and does not provide a strong enough foundation, given that each chapter is short and the argument not always well-developed (for a book chapter as opposed to a course lecture); each does not connect with another and there is little theoretical framework for each, so they kind of come out of nowhere. Much of what might be interesting (like Linde-Laursen's on the nationalization of daily practices) thus seems merely anecdotal. Cooke and Lahusen make good use of literature in their analyses of nationhood among Lebanese and Russia/Soviet peoples, respectively. I found the case studies even if under-developed better crafted than the theory pieces.


Deborah Pellow, Syracuse University



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