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At Home With Strangers: Urban Life and the Moral Force of Nationalism

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Ben Anderson begins his canonical book on nationalism by describing the crucial sentiment it produces as one of deep camaraderie with people one has never met, or will ever meet. Inhabiting the nation is thus like inhabiting the city – living close to people who are perfect strangers. However, rather than seeking a functional and causal relationship between urban mass culture and nationalism, as Ernest Gellner would have argued, I propose that nationalism gave shape and institutional form to urban life because it provided a medium and categorical schema through which urban life could be interpreted: some were friends and allies (sharing language, color or religion), there were recognizable ‘others’ by way of language, class, color or religion, and there were the real strangers in Simmel’s sense, people who could not be assimilated into known categories and therefore were regarded as dangerous and unsettling.

Drawing on examples from India and Africa, I argue that nationalist and ethnic sentiments often were mobilized against the perceived alienation and moral corruption associated with city life. National and cultural sentiments became the moral force engendering a wide range of urban institutions – housing colonies, clubs, associations, recreational activities, trade unions, political parties – that in various ways addressed and ameliorated the problems and consequences of urban mass society. Unlike Lefebvre’s idea that the ‘right to the city’ is a sentiment and demand that emerges from shared life circumstances in the city, I argue that when ‘the right to the city’ became an real collective sentiment it was always/already captured within a nationalist imagination and attendant ideas of majoritarianism and the rhetoric of autochthony. Nationalism flowered in the city but more often as a divisive factor than as a unifying force.

This talk is part of the CRASSH series.

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