Postcolonial Nation-States: Nations without Borders


The Latest in Postcolonial Literature on Nation-States + Transnationalism

Postcolonial nation-states are the subject of the brilliant essay “On Nations Without Borders” by Hamid Dabashi who shows what the transnational trio of Amadeus Mozart, Frederick Nietzsche, and Giannina Braschi has in common.

Excerpts from “Global Middle East into the 21st Century”


University of California Press, 2021

People & Cultures of the Middle EastModern Middle East + The Global Square
ISBN: 9780520295353

On Postcolonial Nation-States


By Hamid Dabashi

Excerpt One

Where does one country start and where does it end for another country to  start?  How much do the current maps of  the  globe,  with  various  countries  having  emerged  in  the  aftermath  of  the  collapse  of  empires  and their colonies, correspond with the lived experiences of people on two sides of a fictional frontier? The fabrication of such fictive frontiers for specific postcolonial nation-states—Iran is here, there is Afghanistan, and then India over there, and back here is Iraq, and so on—are today exposed for the fetishized mythologies that  have  historically  informed  and  animated  their  colonial experiences with European empires. In no particular terms, political or cultural, are postcolonial nation-states,  thus  carved  out  of  an  enduring  geography  of  non-European  worlds,  anywhere  in  the  world  hermetically  sealed  or  claustrophobically  spaced  within  and  unto  themselves.  All these nation-states are deeply informed by and in turn widely influenced in regional and  global  developments  outside  their  recent  and  entirely  porous  borders.  These nations informed  the  world  and  the  world  informed  them  beyond the artificial borders of their postcolonial predicaments—there only for them to be divided in order to be ruled better…

Excerpt Two

(Public Sphere + Postcolonial Nation-States)

Both Edward Said (1935-2003) and Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) confronted and sought to reserve the condition of coloniality, each in their own ways — Said by his critique of the modalities of knowledge production and Fanon by his critique of violence at the root of colonization. Orientalism, as Said argues in his influential book by the same name, was something larger and more upstream in European consciousness than its specific gestation at the service of European colonialism. To the degree that Fanon and Said both paid attention to the larger bourgeois frame of literary or cultural productions, they saw them as entirely subservient to state purposes. Just like Said, but in a different register, Fanon’s poignant critique of violence was equally geared toward the formation of a postcolonial state.

The postcolonial struggles since Fanon’s death, and particularly in the aftermath of the Arab revolutions, are rooted in the calamities of postcolonial tyrannies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The myth of the postcolonial state has resulted in the postpartum blues of the Arab Revolutions. The postcolonial state perpetuates the colonial condition of epistemic violence on alternative worlds.  Critique of the condition of coloniality must therefore transcend the critique of violence -physical or epistemic- definitive to the formation of state power and their ideologies of state-formation, from Islamism to Zionism to Imperialism. There is a paradox in the domain of cultural production that extends from the European bourgeois public sphere to postcolonial parapublic spheres that we must recuperate and theorize. 

In Persophilia: Persian Culture on the Global Scene (2015) and subsequent works on Iran and Palestine, I map out the transnational public sphere and the formation of the postcolonial subject over the past five hundred years from the waning of the last three Muslim empires to waxing of European colonial powers. I bring a global perspective to the bourgeois public sphere of which the German social theorist Jürgen Habermas had only seen its European transformation in this groundbreaking book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. I look at the rise of nations (without states) as the simulacrum of those particular locations where the postcolonial person is formed. Nations become nations independent of the states that lay false claims on them.

My primary concern in Persophilia is not to trace varied aspects of Persian “influences” on European culture in juxtaposition to the usual argument of the so-called “Westernization” of non-European cultures. To me “Westernization ” and “modernization” have a much simpler and more straightforward name: “colonization” of people and their cultures and resources and the abuse of their labor. My concern is with the changing contours and parameters of bourgeois public spheres, in what particular manner they appropriated non-European cultures – Chinese, Indian, Persian, African, and so on – to manufacture the semblance of a worldly consciousness, now that the exchange of labor and capital had already created a global condition of production and consumption.

The evidence for transnational public spheres is of course not limited to Iran or any other particular postcolonial nation-state. It was the very conception of limited space of the postcolonial nation-state, the aftershock of the colonial mapping of the world, that concerns me. Perhaps best evidenced in the case of South African divestment movement and now the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement for Palestine, we see the transnational public sphere generating and sustaining modes of polity (through active solidarity) that are no longer limited to any particular nation-state, or a state apparatus, or nonstate actors.  Predicated on a transnational public sphere over which no state has any enduring power, this active and agile transnational public sphere constitutionally compromises the power of the state over its immediate subjects.

I propose a reconsideration of the whole idea of “sovereignty” to be predicated on national and not state formations; I suggest the very idea of “the national” to be ipso facto transnational or even postnational. If we were to read the formation of the nation as a mode of “collective consciousness” predicated on particular traumatic shared memories (think of Nakbah in the case of Palestine), both the transnational public sphere on which this conception of the nation is formed and the postnational polity toward which it is directed are the compelling parameters of knowledge production, of being, and perforce of consciousness. It is imperative that we look at the transnational public sphere on which such manifestation of Persophilia point to the allegorical circulatory of cultural registers around the globe-and not just in and around Europe.

United States of Banana on Postcolonial Nation-States
(On Postcolonial Literature Nation-States in United States of Banana)

The case of Thus Spoke Zarathustra offers a perfect example of the posthumous adventures of the Persian prophet, long after and far beyond his birth and habitat, in a primarily philosophical domain with profound implications for the twenty-first-century European philosophy.

One particularly powerful gestation of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is via Walter Kaufmann’s groundbreaking translation into English. It came to North America and eventually found its way to an utterly brilliant postcolonial novel, United States of Banana (2011), by the Puerto Rican poet/novelist Giannina Braschi. The story takes place at the Statue of Liberty in Staten Island in New York in post-9/11 America. Hamlet, Zarathustra, and Giannina (the persona of “the author”) have gathered to put their minds together to free the Puerto Rican prisoner Segismundo, who has been jailed there for more than a hundred years by his father, the king of the United States of Banana. Segismundo is ultimately freed, Puerto Rico becomes the fifty-first state of the United States, and all Latin American nationals receive US citizenship and a US passport. With a sublime sense of sarcastic humor and replete with the active anxieties of all immigrants, the novel is a scathing critique of capitalism and its miserable consequences. Hamlet, Zarathustra and Giannina are on a quest not just to liberate the allegorical figure of Segismundo but also to stage the endemic problems of Puerto Rico as a de facto colony of the United States. The novel became highly successful and appeared in multiple other mediums, including film and a graphic novel in Swedish.

Hamid Dabashi

Now put Mozart’s Magic Flute, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Braschi’s United States of Bananas together over the expanse of more than two hundred years and something utterly remarkable appears. Magic Flute was the opera Mozart composed based on a German libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder against the tradition of dominant Italian librettos. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is arguably the most subversive philosophical text of the most iconoclastic European philosophers of the past two hundred years. Braschi’s United States of Banana is one of the most brilliant postcolonial works of fiction in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, savagely critical of the predatory capitalism and its ravages in Puerto Rico and around the globe. What emerges here is that in the most subversive moments of the transnational public sphere that includes Europe but is not limited to Europe, the figure of the Persian prophet is potently portrayed as an icon of wise deliverance. This figure could have been Buddha, Laozi, or any other non-European sage. The question here is not the Iranian provenance of Zoroaster but the manner in which subversive ideas find their way upon the global scene.

Hamid Dabashi
On Nations Without Borders

Why would a Puerto Rican poet/novelist, you may ask, writing in English and living in New York early in the twenty-first century opt for the ancient Persian prophet as a character in her decidedly postcolonial, postmodern, and poststructuralist novel – or why not perhaps is a more potent question. Zoroaster is as definitive to her creative imagination as the other character she invites from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. From his origin in ancient Iran to his Greek and Roman gestations and finally in the aftermath of his active resuscitation on the bourgeois public sphere in Europe by Mozart and Nietzsche, Zoroaster had become a global metaphor by virtue of the very global circulation of labor, raw material,  and capital that has set the engine of human consciousness on a new speed. Allegories travel. They don’t stay home. The world is their home, and allegories mix and match and marry and divorce and live and die and are born again in multiple and unpredictable gestations. 

Further Readings

  • Read more on Transnationalism and Postcolonial Nation-States in Global Middles East.
  • Postcolonial Nation-States are also discussed in Novel Nation: The Bildung of the Postcolonial Nation as Sociological Organism.
  • Postcolonial Nation-States is a sub-topic within Pathways to Postcolonial Nationhood.

Tags: Postcolonial Nation-States, Transnational literature, Zoroaster, Zarathustra,