Sendon-postcard© Anne Zahalka, Sendon, from the series Woven Threads, 1997. Fujix digital print, 10cm x 14cm.

Terracewompostcard© Anne Zahalka, Maria, Terrace woman, from the series Woven Threads, 1997. Fujix digital print, 10cm x 14cm.

The text that follows is an excerpt of Charles Lindholm’s Culture and Authenticity (2008) on the issue of Primordial Nationalism


The concept of nationalism as a secular religion owes much to Émile Durkheim, who famously argued that religion consists of”a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them. As I mentioned previously, according to Durkheim, active participation in collective rituals allows individuals to become greater than themselves. Their elevation is not due to any supernatural force commanding and instructing them, but arises because they actually feel the powerful uplifting force generated by the group gathered together for dance, song, and worship. It is a kind of rave theory of the divine, where self-transcendence through participation in the united congregation is the deepest reality human beings can know. For Durkheim, the group is a God who actually exists, as proven by experience.

Many different kinds of collectives – religious, ethnic, political, aesthetic – can provide this experience, but the nation-state is one of the most potent existing today. To accomplish its mission of establishing a sacralized ronnection with its citizens, every emergent nation-state not only selects, codifies, and publicizes indigenous aesthetic productions as concrete expressions of the national soul; it also writes its own history books recalling its mythical origins, designs a distinctive flag-totem, composes an anthem praising itself, establishes holidays, pageants, and pilgrimages celebrating its glorious past, and constructs all the other standard symbols of the nation-state. In each school in every modern nation, children are taught from an early age to re\’ere these symbols and celebrations and to lo\’e their nation as a surrogate family. If this effort succeeds, the nation-state is stabilized and legitimized, and can make a claim for membership in the international community of countries that have already followed the same path. Success is hardly guaranteed, however, as the number of ‘failed states’ shows, nor is the eternal loyalty of the citizenry guaranteed, as the collapse of the Soviet Union demonstrates.

Elma postcard 72dpi© Anne Zahalka, Greetings from Lemlahak, from the series Woven Threads, 1997. Fujix digital print, 10cm x 14cm.

Durkheim argued that the cult of the sacred nation is appealing in the modern era because, when the social world has been desacralized, and roles are without moral significance, then the individual is “no more than a lifeless cog, which an external force sets in motion and impels always in the same direction and in the same fashion.•• Under these alienating circumstances, people feel that their acts, emotions, and relationships have no connection with any fundamental reality. The consequences are high rates of suicide, mental illness, criminality, and other socially destructive behaviors. However, within a healthy and convincing nation-state the individual is redeemed from meaninglessness and can feel the sense of belonging that has been transposed from tribe to nation, from clansman to citizen, from role player to free agent.

This is, of course, an unrealistically idealistic picture of the modern nation-state. But the unifying psychological force of nationalism should not be underestimated. Even when the state’s governmental apparatus itself is disliked and repudiated, the nation, as the sacred half of the nation-state equation, is likely to be conceived as the fount of a unique and authentic collective identity.


If the nation is a refuge from modern anomie, the question then arises as to who has a right to that refuge. One paradigm for citizenship, which makes the socially constructed nation-state appear deeply rooted in nature and history, is that individuals whose forebears were born into the nation all share a primordial identity with those who have the same biological ancestry and therefore the same primeval collective experiences. Those who are outsiders and newcomers can never be wholly accepted, no matter how much they identify with the nation.

Lisa-Postcard© Anne Zahalka, Lisa, from the series Woven Threads, 1997. Fujix digital print, 10cm x 14cm.

Lindapostcard© Anne Zahalka, Linda, from the series Woven Threads, 1997. Fujix digital print, 10cm x 14cm.

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