Review of “National Identities and Communications Technologies” by Mark Poster

In this article Poster examines the process of globalization through the lens of culture. He is specifically interested in examining how cultural globalization and digital mediums intersect with the nation-state’s competencies.

Decentralized networks have existed in some fashion or another for decades, but the Internet is more developed than the telephone or any other analogue system because it avoids circuit-switched technologies and private ownership. Whereas the telephone was limited in the number of people that could be simultaneously broadcast to, the Internet is designed for mass communication and is insensitive to the loss of particular nodes. As a facet of the digital environment all information on the ‘net has the advantage “virtually costless copying, storing, editing, and distribution” (235).

A central element of Poster’s argument is his distinction between analogue and digital cultural artifacts – analogue artifacts exist in a particular jurisdiction and, as a result of being material constructs, are inherently challenging to duplicate. In contrast, digital artifacts are inherently designed to be shared. Digitized items’ duplicability causes them to escape the laws that traditionally protect cultural items – culture is currently undergoing a shift from the status of being precious, rare, and protected to the status of being precious, common, and naturally unprotected by their digital form. Moreover, the ease of transferring digital cultural items across jurisdictions limits the nation-state’s ability to stem the flow of culture, subsequently preventing the nation-state from developing a localized national culture. Poster notes that on the Internet,

A digital message – text, voice, or even moving image – travels autonomously to its destination without regard to instituted points of control. In these ways, digital culture becomes detached from the powers of the nation, moving globally at the speed of light (assuming enough bandwidth) in an unregulated sphere of communication. The change in the material form of culture from analogue to digital in principle enables information to bypass existing national relationships of force (236).

Nation and Nationalist

The nation is a modern creation that has a series of ‘common’ characteristics. Specifically, its creation:

  • Involved the transition from monarchs and subject-sovereign relationships to legitimized governments and citizen-sovereign relationships;
  • Involved establishing itself as a bureaucratic body that governs a particular (and legally delimited) geography and population;
  • Involved its assertion that sovereignty is maintained by resisting external forces that try to undermine the nation’s political stability.

Nationalism involves citizens adopting and internalizing common creation myths and ‘thick’ bonds to assert political solidarity and maintain national identities; while Poster later uses some of Habermas’ early writings as a pathway to critique Habermasian thought he does not draw on Habermas’ later works to explicate the development of the modern nation-state. This means that his argument from this point on are somewhat ambiguous, which weaken his later accounts of culture because it is not wholly evident what culture’s role is – does it act as a rallying standard or does it instead articulate particular elements of a pluralistic nation-state to raise awareness of the distinctiveness in the pluralistic citizenry that, despite its plurality, is united in citizen-solidarity. We cannot know.

Imprinting the Nation

Print was used by early nations to articulate the voices of the sovereign and citizenry – because of the press was instrumental in these articulations it was critical that it remain free of coercion to establish and maintain the earnest voices of all discursive participants. Vocal discourse was subordinated to print so that large groups could engage with the sovereign, be aware of the sovereign’s intentions, and of their actions. Poster notes during his explication of Habermas’ position, that;

National identity must not be referred back to an ontological foundation of reason, against which it is found lacking, but analyzed as a construction of the subject in regimes of rationality formed through the media. Only in this way can one raise the question of national identity as a historical problem in relation to which new forms of collective subjects may be seen emerging in relation to new media (237).

While for Habermas print is not as successful a medium for discourse as speech is, Poster only focuses on Habermas’ ideal speech situation and ignores the role of ethical-political discourse. Without a balanced account of Habermas’ argument he sides with Benedict Anderson’s argument that national unity could only have occurred with the mediation of print technology. It is only by examining print that individuals can recognize the nation as being united – isolated speech acts cannot comprehensively display this national presence. Poster’s final critique of Habermas stems from his distinction between imagined and mediated national identities. Imagined national identities imply that they revolve around a model of consciousness (which is in line with Habermas’ own thinking), and Poster believes that by moving to ‘mediations’ national identities can be examined according to the articulations or technologies of power in each medium (which he alludes to being in line with Foucault’s analysis of the nation-state).

Print mediums privileged particular interpretations of how the nation-state was created – the illiterate and poor usually lacked access to the common mediums that constructed the nation, preventing them from directly informing how the national identity was formed. The nation’s myths were consequently developed by particular groups and classes. Despite this, the ability to contact the editor and have letters published allowed for a vibrant area of critique and discourse, where citizens were exposed to arguments, values, and attitudes that they might otherwise not recognize as being within the pluralistic-unity. In the process of arguing back and forth, citizens recognized themselves as existing within a particular locality, with particular common values and traditions, and generally asserted the supremacy of the nation-state. While the print medium could establish particular notions of the nation because of their restrictive locality this is changing as digital information flows extend localities beyond the nation-state’s borders to all that can participate in digital landscapes.

Electronic Embodiment and the Globe

While print may have caused individuals to realize the nation-state’s lack of grounding, it more commonly located individuals in a particular spaces. The excesses of fantasy, rhetoric, and imagination were contained in the modern subjective position of rational figures that were autonomous, stable, and self-centered.

The shift to a global communicative structure severely alters how text and culture identify the subject. In a universally interconnected environment there is no longer a sense of localization, and increasingly one of alienation as divergent value structures impact each other. The tendency to deessentialize identity in globalized situations leads some theorists such as Stuart Hall to propose that individuals will become multiple-subjects that are planetary and homogenous (238). The Internet’s dislocating effects, with its ability to change communication from local to global, also reintroduces machines into culture as never before. While previous cultural transmissions demanded tools of some sort, to even access tools in a digital environment a computer must mediate access to them – the Internet reconstructs the basic elements of human culture because culture changes from machines being extensions of humanity to being required to realize what humanity is – cybernetics are essential to examine the truths of humanity itself.

While print had the effect of excluding those that were neither literate nor wealthy the Internet, with its perfect capacity to censor, can become more exclusive than print ever was – discourses that constitute the new political culture will be crafted by an even more exclusive elite than in the era of print. This seems to suggest/imply that the nation-state may suffer – it may be washed away in the face of oncoming political discourses that overrule its supremacy. Poster makes the important note that the nation-state is not a fixed identity – it can adapt to the changing times and changing mediums of cultural transmissions.

I find Poster’s attitudes and arguments interesting but, as I mentioned earlier, without a clear delineation about the actual use/effect of cultural transmissions I’m uncertain how digitization will affect culture, in the sense that I’m uncertain how currently existing culture will be affected, and the actual shapes and textures of future cultural artifacts. I agree with Poster’s estimation that it will likely change, but I’m uncertain as to what the real consequences of this change will be. Moreover, without clearly focusing his cultural lens the final analysis concerning the nation-state’s sovereignty is questionable because it becomes a possible, rather than a necessary, conclusion, weakening the clear philosophical insight that dominated the earliest parts of his article.