Home >> Volume 9 (Spring 2009) >> Language and the State >> Melanie Clouser on "Who Sings the Nation State?"

Melanie Clouser on "Who Sings the Nation State?"

Cover of "Who Sings the Nation-State?" Illustration of Man in Black and White

Judith Butler & Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Who Sings the Nation-State?: Language, Politics, Belonging

Seagull Books, 2007
120 pages

Reviewed by Melanie Clouser

This slim volume, Who Sings the Nation-State?, presents a thought-provoking discussion of global states by two of today’s foremost literary scholars. Judith Butler’s discussion of the state occurs first, and occupies the majority of the text. Gayatri Spivak’s response follows, in which she discusses how regional identities replace nationalism. The work concludes with both scholars responding to four questions from colleagues.  Butler’s section opens with a discussion of statelessness and the state of exception, following which she proposes a consideration of political opposition. She presents a case study in which she sees opposition at work through performance. Butler begins by analyzing the term “state,” first offering a rather standard definition: “states are...loci of power.” Then she considers the word “state” in its capacity to indicate both juridical and dispositional dimensions of life (“nation-states” and “states of being”), and she reflects on the relationship between the two senses of state. Finally, she considers that nation-states produce states of individual being (“citizen,” “exile,” “refugee,” “alien”). Butler explores the various implications of the concept of the “state” in light of the work of key theorists including Hannah Arendt and Giorgio Agamben.

Butler reads Arendt in order to discuss the problem of statelessness, a problem she finds under-discussed in academia. She finds that nation-states produce the stateless, the explicitly depoliticized, as a matter of course. Arendt too understood that states necessarily confer statelessness on national minorities. Butler considers Arendt’s theories as marking the beginning of the twentieth century concept of “statelessness.” However, Arendt, writing a half-century ago, must be interpreted carefully in order to figure relevantly in the contemporary era. One limitation of her work, which Butler identifies, is that she saw the private sphere as non-political. One wonders whether living through the sixties and being exposed to the feminist idea that “the personal is political” would have changed her views. Also, Butler points out that Arendt’s theories are limited to refugee/exile situations. The world at that time had yet to see situations such as Guantánamo and Gaza.  

Another theorist that Butler considers is Giorgio Agamben, who has adapted the work of Hannah Arendt to later contexts. His work and that of Carl Schmitt represent the most recent scholarship relating to statelessness. Agamben’s theory of the state of exception shows how constitutions can suspend rights of citizens and residents by giving power to the sovereign. Building on Arendt’s ideas, he concludes that the state exercises power to return some part of a population to a “state” outside of the polity, a state he calls “bare life.” Yet Butler sees statelessness not as bare life, but as jettisoned life, “saturated with power precisely at the moment in which it is deprived of citizenship.” This is perhaps the most provocative idea presented in this volume. Butler here opens a space to show how such subjects could be empowered, without explaining the implications of such a theory. Instead, Butler identifies at this point the motivation for this discussion: “to find post-national forms of political opposition...to address [the problem of statelessness] with some efficacy.”  

Combining the search for political opposition with Arendt’s position that “freedom consists in the exercise of freedom,” Butler turns to the case study of illegal residents’ street demonstrations in spring 2006 in the Los Angeles area. She sees this case as an example of a population of non-citizens exercising freedom through political opposition. This volume’s title extends from the case study because the US national anthem was sung in Spanish, introducing questions of nationhood, belonging, and statelessness. Butler reads this singing of the anthem as a performative utterance: the declaration creates the freedom of expression by exercising it. This performative politics is not, in and of itself, the right of free speech since illegal residents are not granted rights by law. It is the exercise of the right withheld. Butler concludes that “there can be no radical politics of change without performative contradiction.” This argument opens a great opportunity for comparisons with other contexts and complements the work of other scholars. For example, Susan Slyomovics has written of similar political resistance in The Performance of Human Rights in Morocco (2005). Taken together, the work of scholars such as Butler and Slyomovics may provide a way of thinking about political opposition by the disempowered through language and performance.

Spivak responds to Butler’s ideas through a consideration of multi-national states. As a Marxist, she sees capital as becoming global, with the resulting loss of redistributive power for nation-states. She points out that Arendt was thinking of nation and state separately, and that Derrida would later undo the connection between birth and citizenship. Spivak herself follows this deconstruction of genealogy in her recent book Other Asias (2008), discussing the regional cross-hatchings of belonging in which regional identities take the place of nationalisms. For example, “heroes of the humanities” such as Anyidoho, Ndebele, Ngugi, and Soyinka attest to African regionalism, while Eva Morales writes from Latin America. Spivak also identifies several Asian regions. Together, these regions offer an alternative or a complement to the current political structure of nation-states. In response to one question, Spivak and Butler make it clear that they are not advocating an era of post-sovereignty. Post-sovereignty, far from solving problems of statelessness, can lead to imperial practices that endanger the rights of everyone (for example, when a powerful state carries out a war without an official declaration according to international practices). The issue is not sovereignty, but how it is exercised.

This volume focuses more on the language of political opposition by the disempowered than it does on the language of any nation-state. Nevertheless, it offers a thought-provoking discussion of the role of language in contexts of statelessness and in the absence of belonging. It draws on the work of scholars such as Arendt, Agamben, Gramsci, and Foucault to explain hierarchies of power and the effects of sovereignty. It also points toward some implications of globalization and statelessness, exploring the current movement toward regional loci of power. It contributes a new direction for the study of global states by considering the role of resistance at the local level and the increasing importance of regional identities; it also continues the discussion of the decline of the nation-state initiated by the work of Arendt. From the era of the Second Word War to a yet imaginary era that post-dates the nation-state as we know it, Who Sings the Nation-State? offers a comprehensive view of political resistance to the production of subjects without legalrights.