Imagined Nation

01. July 2011

Excerpt from 'The Stifling Effect of Ethnic Enclaves'

Written April 2009

Such an analysis of an enclave’s reactions in respect to assimilation warrants us to question whether immigrants in both the Jewish community and Chinatown are irresponsible in their resistance of assimilation and acculturation. But more poignantly, we must question whether they are, in the very act of their resistance, in fact being acculturated into American society. In order to answer this question we must not look at the enclaves, but rather at their host societies. The United States of America is, as we are so often reminded, a nation dependent on immigrants. In the case of New York City, the epicenter of this paper’s claim, immigrants and non-native New Yorkers make up the majority of the city’s eight million inhabitants. The city is composed of layers of individual resident’s influences and homes. In New York, people create the community they require out of elements in their past. In ‘City Limits’, an essay by Colson Whitehead, the idea that an individual’s idea of New York — what it was, how its changed, its potential — all creates individual New Yorks: “You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now… there are eight million naked cities in this naked city” (4). Whitehead’s theory that experiencing New York is an individual experience is challenged by Benedict Anderson’s theory on imagined communities. Anderson, a scholar and professor at Cornell University, claims that the concept of ‘community’ is largely created in the realm of our imaginations as an expression of our need as individuals to be united in a group.

Yet the paradox of requiring a nation still stands: “the formal universality of nationality as a sociocultural concept — in the modern world everyone can, should, will ‘have’ a nationality, as he or she ‘has’ a gender — vs. the irremediable particularity of its concrete manifestations, such that, by definition ‘Greek’ nationality is sui generis” (5). In addressing this paradox, Anderson argues that it is in imaging a community that it exists and that a nation is no more than “an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (6). Judith Butler expands on this theory in relation to her assessment of vulnerability as a basis in human behavior. Speaking of the simultaneous desire for autonomy and dependence, she poses a question: “is this not another way of imagining community, one in which we are alike only in having this condition separately and so having in common a condition that cannot be thought without difference?” (27). The natural desire to be both autonomous, but united in our autonomy is further revealed in the natural resistance to assimilation within decisively strong cultures. To assimilate into a society is a Darwinian survival instinct engrained into the human psyche, yet in modern societies assimilation often equates a dissociation with heritage and cultural identity. As community creatures that form connections through shared memories, heritage and history (and the culture it establishes) we are very susceptible to threats to our culture. Cultural identity is a form of citizenship in its own right:

The collectively forged images, histories, and narratives that place, displace, and replace individuals in relation to the national polity — powerfully shapes who the citizenry is… the nation… require[s] a national culture in the integration of the differentiated peoples and social spaces that make up “America,” a national culture, broadly cast yet singularly engaging, that can inspire diverse individuals to identify with the national project. (Lowe 7)

We become citizens through culture. It is in our collective history and “the imagined equivalences and identifications through which the individual invents lived relationships with the national collective… it is through culture that the subject becomes, acts, and speaks itself as “American”” (Lowe 8). When an immigrant with fresh perspective is introduced into an environment such as America that has a strong indoctrination of what culture is and should be, the faults within the system are revealed. While the ‘immigrant’ can be a tool manipulated within a society to demonstrate the superiority of the national identity, it can also form a critique on the larger society: “the cultural productions emerging out of the contradictions of immigrant marginality displace the fiction of reconciliation, disrupt the myth of national identity by revealing its gaps and fissures, and intervene in the narrative of national development that would illegitimately locate the “immigrant” before history” (Lowe 11). The gaps and fissure within American society reveal the nations attempt at being a homogenous society in which every citizen shares the same cultural identity. Yet variations in culture, memory, and heritage are an important tool in creating a successful nation. Lowe asserts that we must us culture to identify the flaws within a nation, not as a form of destruction, but in consolatory manner: “it is through culture… that we conceive and enact new subjects and practices in antagonism to the regulatory locus of the citizen-subject, by way of culture that we can question those modes of government” (18). The act of questioning one’s government is testament to the foundation of America’s government in the Bill of Rights. As a culture we are able to, and in modern years encouraged to incite our democratic right to question our governments and the way in which our society acts.

As a nation, America also relies on collective memory to bolster heritage and form a strong public unity. Ephraim Sicher, who has written extensively on the effect of the Holocaust on community and memory with special regard to the second generation, attests to the nations requirement of a national memory: “the invention of memory… is characteristic of an American search for a heritage to bolster common values in a diverse multiculturalism, as well as to recoup the nation’s founding fathers’ lost ideals of liberty and human rights… though it is also a symptom of the revision of the past to serve the different needs of various groups wishing to adapt national and personal origins to changing political and global paradigms” (58). Community is determined by memory, yet memory is determined within a community. This paradox is exemplified in the cases of absent memory (in which “invention replaces recall” (Sicher 63)) as well as in post memory (in which a memory is powerful in its “connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation.”(57)) and how both types of memory are strengthened through stories. Fiction and stories allows the mind to process and imagine something our own absent memory is unable to handle thus infinitely expanding the lexicon of experiences we hold within our memories. In her discussion on ‘action’, Arendt speaks of the differences between a history and a story. History, without an author, does not form a permanent mark in the collective memory of a community unless it is transformed into a story: “the real story in which we are engaged… has no visible or invisible maker because it is not made. The only “somebody” it reveals is its hero” (186). By examining the actions of the hero, however, we are able to determine ‘who’ he is (as opposed to the ‘what’ that is revealed through examination of what he leaves behind as artifacts of the history of his life). It is through stories that we are able to identify ourselves as heroes within our own narrative. In looking at the memories of our actions we are able to assess ourselves as a society, a community, and a culture.

The vita activa, or actively engaged human life, is dependent on action, which in course is dependent on interaction. Without interaction within the public sphere, there is no polis and no society. Yet in regards to the ethnic enclaves, how do we define the public sphere? If we are to consider both the host society and the isolated communities public spheres we must assume that they each contain unique interactions, memories, communities, culture and history that is comparable but entirely independent of one another. Yet, as it seems we should, we consider the host society a public sphere and the ethnic enclave the private sphere, we are able to identify the problems that are faced. Lack of assimilation, language barriers, strict social constructs that do not allow for integration are all direct results of the distinction and separation of the private and public sphere. In order for the hierarchy within the private sphere to be effective, a certain proponent of the community must extend out into public polis. In Arendt’s writings, it is only through interaction that one, a community is developed, and two, power (or the potential for power) is formed. Without assimilation and acculturation, or in their simplest names, communication and relation, the private sphere is ineffective as a microcosm of the public sphere. Remaining within the private sphere, as living within the isolation of an ethnic enclave equates to, is essentially living within a past that has yet to be formed into a story. It is impossible to know who you are as a citizen of a stifled community unless the story is told and in order for the story to be told there must be interaction with the host society. Whether it is the community created by physically living in unassimilated isolation or that that is created by psychologically reliving parents and family hardships, the concept of remembering and identifying with the past is an important step in immigrating. As a transition ethnic enclaves are an excellent environment in which to gain ethnic capital. Yet without the intent to integrate and move on, such a community isolates, limits development and is mentally unhealthy to stay within.

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