Ernest Gellner
Do Nations Have Navels?


NOTE: Ernest Gellner was one of the most important scholars of nationalism. His book, Nations and Nationalism (1983) remains one of the most important books in the field. The quote included here is from the Warwick Debate which was held 24 October 1995. This was an exchange between Gellner and his former student Anthony D. Smith. It was Gellner's final comment on nationalism before his death on 5 November 1995. The entire text of the Warwick Debate is available online at: http://www.lse.ac.uk/Depts/Government/gellner/Warwick0.html.


"The question I'm going to now address myself to of course is: do nations have navels or not? Now the point about Adam's navel of course is not as simple as you might think. It's perfectly possible to imagine a navel-less Adam because navels, once they were engendered by the original process by which they were engendered, perform no further function. I mean you could live navel-less and there is no problem. Now on the other hand there are other aspects of a human organism, supposing creation did occur at a definite date and mankind was suddenly created, which are rather navel-like but which would have to be there anyway in a kind of misleading way. There are all kinds of rhythms; I'm not a physiologist, but there are all kinds of rhythms about one's breathing, about one's digestion, about one's blood-beat, which come in cycles and the cycle has to be continuous. So even if Adam was created at a given date, his blood circulation or his food consumption or his breathing would have to be in a condition such that he'd been going through these cycles anyway, even though he hadn't been, because he had just been created. For instance, I imagine his digestive tract wouldn't function unless it had some sort of content so that he would have signs of a meal, remnants of a meal which in fact he had never had because he had only just been created.

"Now it's the same with nations. How important are these cyclical processes? My main case for modernism that I'm trying to highlight in this debate, is that on the whole the ethnic, the cultural national community, which is such an important part of Anthony's case, is rather like the navel. Some nations have it and some don't and in any case it's inessential. What in a way Anthony is saying is that he is anti-creationist and we have this plethora of navels and they are essential, as he said, and this I think is the crux of the issue between him and me. He says modernism only tells half the story. Well if it tells half the story, that for me is enough, because it means that the additional bits of the story in the other half are redundant. He may not have meant it this way but if the modernist theory accounts for half of 60 per cent or 40 per cent or 30 per cent of the nations this is good for me. There are very, very clear cases of modernism in a sense being true. I mean, take the Estonians. At the beginning of the nineteenth century they didn't even have a name for themselves. They were just referred to as people who lived on the land as opposed to German or Swedish burghers and aristocrats and Russian administrators. They had no ethnonym. They were just a category without any ethnic self-consciousness. Since then they've been brilliantly successful in creating a vibrant culture.(3) This is obviously very much alive in the Ethnographic Museum in Tartu, which has one object for every ten Estonians and there are only a million of them. (The Museum has a collection of 100,000 ethnographic objects). Estonian culture is obviously in no danger although they make a fuss about the Russian minority they've inherited from the Soviet system. It's a very vital and vibrant culture, but, it was created by the kind of modernist process which I then generalise for nationalism and nations in general. And if that kind of account is accepted for some, then the exceptions which are credited to other nations are redundant.

"The central fact seems to me that what has really happened in the modern world is that the role of culture in human life was totally transformed by that cluster of economic and scientific changes which have transformed the world since the seventeenth century. The prime role of culture in agrarian society was to underwrite peoples status and peoples identity. Its role was really to embed their position in a complex, usually hierarchical and relatively stable structure. The world as it is now is one where people have no stable position or structure. They are members of ephemeral professional bureaucracies which are not deeply internalised and which are temporary. They are members of increasingly loose family associations. What really matters is their incorporation and their mastery of high culture; I mean a literate codified culture which permits context-free communication. Their membership of such a community and their accept- ability in it, that is a nation. It is the consequence of the mobility and anonymity of modern society and of the semantic non-physical nature of work that mastery of such culture and acceptability in it is the most valuable possession a man has. It is a precondition of all other privileges and participation. This automatically makes him into a nationalist because if there is non-congruence between the culture in which he is operating and the culture of the surrounding economic, political and educational bureau- cracies, then he is in trouble. He and his off-spring are exposed to sustained humiliation. Moreover, the maintenance of the kind of high culture, the kind of medium in which society operates, is politically precarious and expensive. It is linked to the state as a protector and usually the financier or at the very least the quality controller of the educational process which makes people members of this kind of culture. This is the theory."

Gellner, Ernest and Anthony D. Smith. "The nation: real or imagined?: The Warwick Debates on Nationalism." Nations and Nationalism 2, no. 3 (1996): 357-370. See pages 367-368.

The Warwick Debate is also online.