Lund reminds us on page 120 that according to Renan, a nation’s originary forgetting must be precisely forgotten, just like Freud’s totemic meal. It is as though the forgetting had to be done again and again, or reenacted again and again. Or as though it were incomplete.
I must read Recuerdos del porvenir, which I never have, and perhaps teach it. Lund says that in the light of the above, the novel and the character Nicolás’ activities are a scandal.
For Renan the nation is both a soul and a daily plebiscite; he arrives at this formulation via a dialectical movement that potentially blunts its (Renan’s narrative of nation’s) critical edge. (121)
One difference between Hegel and Renan is Renan’s much more focused engagement with race. (Note remarks on Hegel and also Kant, 121-22). Renan actually makes a sharp critique of race science in the age of theories of racial purity and the emergent practice of eugenics. He says the association of race and nation is a mistake.
Renan’s ideas about race enable his critique and also weaken its power. He says race only counts as a sort of zoological category, but is irrelevant to political history. Nations do not emerge from races, he says, and race as contributor to nation is not natural and should not be naturalized; it is a fiction. Although races exist as per Kant, nations are racially heterogeneous, hybrid by nature.
This idea repeats Herder’s response to Kant and had already been reiterated by Gobineau. But in him it is a critical one, since it folows on a century of race guided slave debates and in an age of intensifying race science. However, he ignores the fact that the nation-form produces a feeling that may in fact enable the idea of race in the first place: the English race, and so on.
The problem is that Renan’s recourse to race must presuppose the ethnographic argument he wants to displace (125), the pure tribes that would have existed before everything was mixed. Left unconsidered is the fact that the modern idea of race rises within the nation-form. He concludes that advanced nations are superhybrid. Thus he presupposes a prior purity, and preserves an idea of hierarchy — advanced, best.
Now, Renan also believed that the mixing must be forgotten so as to form national solidarity. He reminds us of a forgotten history of contradiction and synthesis, and then asks us to forget about it once again. The strongest nations are the most mixed, but also those who have best forgotten the fragmentation at their origin.
Race for Renan is fluid; it is always being made and unmade. But we cannot outpace race, because even as race is superseded it reappears sentimentally, as a soul. And we also have to remember to forget the violence at the origin of the nation, which is rooted in conquest as Renan recognizes.
And, by the end of the essay, Renan himself forgets forgetting: memory and forgetting becomes memory and sacrifice, and then memory and consent. And in memory and consent we have the “moral consciousness” that is the nation.
So Renan himself raises the issue and finds a way to elide it.