Transnationality, the Postnational Turn, and Indigenous Identity

Main street Imugan with barangay hall. Ground zero for some important conversations about belonging, identity, and nationality. 

Main street Imugan with barangay hall. Ground zero for some important conversations about belonging, identity, and nationality. 

Music research today has caught up some of the realities of the 21st century in that increasingly, researchers and writers attempt to recognize both the relative uselessness of talking about a person's nationality and the great deal of insight available through looking into digital communities and musical hybridity. We talk about the "Postnational Turn" today much like we talked about anthropology's "Reflexive Turn" in the 1970's. Finally we have shed some of the scales from our eyes and can see the a bit more truth. With the Reflexive Turn, of course, it was that our own emotions, reactions, and feelings can't but influence our interpretation of the world. We see that our frame of reference must fall short, can only fall short, and can never successfully achieve any sort of objectivity. 

We must be postnational. We have moved beyond and above.

Now, as we swing round this Postnational Turn, we again feel scales fly from our eyes as we corner. Of course we can't talk about nationality with any sort of meaningfulness when increasingly the internet provides many of our communities, our spaces (to belabor that word just a bit more). Of course nationality can't speak for all of us sharing a passport cover, a birthplace, a dialect, a government. Of course nationality can't define the parameters of experience for immigrants, emigrants, nomads, refugees, and Third Culture Kids. We must be postnational. We have moved beyond and above. Map the transnational identities and communities and see the optimism of a global arena for creating ourselves and our tribes. 

I love it. I really do. But I also cringe at our shortsightedness. Postnationality is a step in the right direction, certainly. I would love for our criteria of belonging to have to do with something other than chance of birth. However, the hubris of the "post-" grates on me. Postnation, yes, but for how long, in the entire span of human existence, has the nation even meant what it means today? The nation as primary identifier and common reference point seems to be, generously, two millenia old out of dozens, if you point to the Roman Empire as the proto-nation, which is highly arguable. The nation as both signifier of an identity (as predefined, rigidly bounded, singular state of existence bestowed at birth) and locus of power, and with clear and carefully monitored borders, is far newer, perhaps only five centuries old, perhaps less. The nation as it exists in the collective imagination is more around five decades old, born out of the cold war and built on the foundations of a singular, unchallengeable military and economic system combined with a singular understanding of identity that is more defined by what it is against or opposite of (US vs. USSR, communism vs. capitalism, Christianity vs. secularism...). I believe it is this nation that we speak of when we talk about postnationality. Have we in five decades both built, enjoyed, critiqued, and finally moved beyond nationality? 

Have we in five decades both built, enjoyed, critiqued, and finally moved beyond nationality?

Let me step back for a moment. In my MA thesis research, I spent time with an Indigenous People's Group in the mountain region of the Philippines, doing research on music and identity, primarily focusing on the transmission of tradition between generations and the interplay of that with the Philippine national project. I came to believe, through those interactions, that we can't speak meaningfully about identity as a fixed reality, even at the very micro-level individual level, and that especially in Indigenous communities, to think of identity as singular is misleading. In fact, I believe that the term "identity" itself is overwrought to the point of near meaninglessness and that we would be better served as ethnologists to think in terms of multiple citizenships (credit where credit is due to Aihwa Ong's idea of flexible citizenships). 

One can have allegiances and common ground with any number of communities real or online. Travel for study, work, or more urgent pressures only expands the web of connections that one person has. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, I found that indigenous communities are very adept at mobilizing the various connections they have - citizenships, if you will allow me - to make their way through the world around them and advocate for the rights of themselves and their communities. As in my research, where being Filipino, Ifugao, Ilokano-speakers, Ikalahan, members of x family, and on and on and on, were variously highlighted or downplayed in order to open pathways for village advocacy or simply to make one's way through the world, these citizenships are not fixed, not singular, and certainly not imagined. They are a real multiplicity of connections and most importantly, are used creatively and powerfully. 

In historic terms, are we post- nationality or is nationality in fact an anomaly?

In light of this, I wonder how we can speak meaningfully of postnationality, and ultimately find my argument located at two points. First, the idea of "post-" being an adequate prefix is highly questionable, and not only for semantic reasons. The idea of nationality in its current form is so new, it is almost ironic that we are already talking about postnationality. But more importantly, nationality is what amounts to a blip along the long history of indigenous cultures. An often dangerous, even catastrophic blip, but a blip nonetheless. In historic terms, are we post- nationality or is nationality in fact an anomaly? 

And second, the idea of now moving beyond nationality to focus on communities located on other planes can be appealing, but it can also ignore the very real lived experiences of the violent policing of nationality for refugees, asylum seekers, and economic migrants. What I mean by this is that nationality is still very current for the subaltern. Beyond a wish for a postnational future where borders no longer separate life and death, to say that we have moved beyond concerns about nationality or that nationality no longer means what it did is in part true, but only for some, and is of primary importance for many in the world right now. As long as nationality is policed as it is today, I do not believe that postnationality can be seen as anything more than a trend in the social sciences or for the lucky few who either were born into or successfully achieved nationality in a place of relative peace and security, where we are relatively free to see and seek out communities that flourish outside of the nation. 

Finally, I propose that we consider extranationality as a better term. Where postnationality sees the move as linear and progressive, extranationality both recognizes the reality of the still current issue of nationality and nods to the fact that nationality itself is that "blip" on the screen of human existence. It reflects the possibility for a huge realm of citizenships and affiliations outside of the nation - a reality for many Indigenous Peoples, nomadic groups, and refugees. It is a both/and of terms, encompassing both the optimistic view of a future without policed nationality and of free movement and also the harsher realist's view of the possible future of deepening divisions along national lines and across borders. Through the lens of extranationality, we can account for a wider range of experiences, a broader interpretation of realities, and a more creative imagination of futures. 


* Required reading: 

Corona I and Madrid A, Postnational Musical Identities (Lexington Books 2008)

Knudsen, Jan Sverre, "Music of the Multiethnic Minority: A Postnational Perspective" Music & Arts in Action, Vol. 3 No. 3. 77-91, 2011. 

Ong A, Flexible Citizenship (Duke University Press 1999)