antoinette burton
Introduction: On the Inadequacy and the
Indispensability of the Nation
By now it is practically axiomatic that obituaries of the nation are premature.∞
Less readily accepted is Etienne Balibar’s contention that ‘‘in a sense, every
modern nation is a product of colonization,’’ let alone Frantz Fanon’s simple
but eloquent formula: ‘‘Europe is literally the creation of the Third World.’’≤
After the Imperial Turn grapples with precisely these crosscurrents. For even
as claims about the durability of the nation multiply in response to postcolo-
nial critique and regimes of globalization, evidence of the constitutive impact
of modern European imperialism on metropolitan politics and society ac-
cumulates in scholarship, in academic jobs, and hence in North American
classrooms, raising questions about the coherence, presumed originality, and
boundedness of the modern, Western, Euro-American nation as a historical
form. At first glance, such ‘‘cross-talk’’ may appear to be nothing more than a
paradoxical by-product of the collision of the nation-state with global capital-
ism at the end of the twentieth century. But to dismiss the continued vigor of
the nation in an era of postcoloniality merely as an ironic counterpoint to
narratives of European postmodernity is to remain complicit with the staging
of historical time through which the West has traditionally managed ‘‘the
rest.’’≥ In the first instance, historians of the early modern period, and especially
of China and other Eastern political economies before 1800, have cast doubt
on the newness of the global idea, giving lie to the notion that globalization is
either a uniquely modern or an originally Western phenomenon. Their work
does more than write Asia back into the history of Western civilization or
update hidebound histories of Western supremacy. It challenges ‘‘modernity,’’
and the modern European nation with it, as the originary site of transnational
streams and global influences.∂ Equally significant for our purposes are the
ways in which Enlightenment claims not just about the universality but also
the originality of ‘‘European’’ ideas and practices of justice, social order, and
domesticity have been subject to interrogation in recent years.∑ The work of
Dipesh Chakrabarty has been especially important in this regard because of its
insistence on the role of modern imperialism in shaping not just European
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