I’ve been reading a bit of Ernest Gellner recently, but not this piece excerpted below, which is from the The Warwick Debate between Gellner and his former student Anthony Smith, just before the death of the former.
“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.