Thursday, April 8, 2010

Maps & Metaphors of the Collective: What Are "WE"?

The fate of nations is intimately bound up with their powers of reproduction. All nations and all empires first felt decadence gnawing at them when their birth rate fell off. - Benito Mussolini

In reading many different political thinkers from Mill to Mussolini we see that the metaphors that people use to describe their communities ultimately influence how they think about those communities. Nations and societies are often considered as material constructions (We are building our society. The fabric of our nation is fraying). Likewise they are imagined to be organic bodies or collective lifeforms or giant bodies (Our society is sick. We must strengthen our community.)

Watch these images of the process of organic development and decay. Is it any wonder that we get lost in our metaphors? A nation, a society, a community is intangible as a whole. How else are we to speak about it without employing the images drawn from our experience of more delineated "things"? But there is danger here- for a society is NOT a fabric, nor a body nor a building... and yet we speak as if it was and forget that the map is NOT the territory.

The images of groups in synchronized movement (be they Nazi Germans,contemporary American soldiers or Chinese performers at the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics) resemble collective bodies. Each person is, to a certain degree, sublimating his or her individual will to the will of the many- becoming one as a cell becomes part of a colony, a body. Similarly, maps remind us that the boundaries of nations, empires and states are forever in flux... like puddles forming and drying up. Perhaps it is impossible to speak of such things without metaphor.

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