Specificity Is The Soul Of Narrative Essay

Nationalism and religious life are intricately intertwined in the United States. A “civil religion of the Nones,” if it comes into existence, could portend significant changes in American nationalism.


In her recent Starting Points essay, Sarah L. Houser urges revision to our conception of national identity. Her piece redefines it as a shared “sense of accountability for one’s country,” rather than a common set of beliefs or creed. For several reasons, both internal to the essay and due to differing interpretations of scholarship, I disagree. This essay first offers some critiques of Houser’s “accountability nationalism,” then suggests how a “civil religion of the Nones” may be a more desirable future of nationalism in America.

Houser’s case has three parts. The first is that current conceptions of national identity—either cultural or creedal—are insufficient bases for national attachment. The second is that a common sense of accountability, rooted in citizens’ beliefs that they share in America’s successes and failures, is not only more accurate but also more appropriate. Finally, Houser suggests various implications for individuals joining (or leaving) the American narrative.

There is much to appreciate in Houser’s essay. To begin, attachments based on a common culture do tend toward “us versus them” politics. “They couldn’t possibly understand our way of life! They are licentious, violent, drunkards!” National identities based upon creed may be similarly troublesome: not every citizen agrees with his or her nation’s conception of nationalism, and not all citizens of a nation have the same definitions. Accordingly, a specific and unifying creedal nationalism is difficult to sustain.

After these critiques, Houser puts forward her own theory—accountability nationalism—defined as a shared “sense of accountability for the actions of one’s country. To identify as an American,” she writes, “means to take some sort of ownership in the collective actions of its people, to understand those actions as in some way one’s own.”

Houser argues we should view nations as corporations, entities of which individuals are simply one part. Here her argument is quite procedural: corporations, which choose representatives by established rules, govern in accordance with the rules of the institution. I ought to view America’s successes and failures as my own because national, state, and local institutions have been duly elected and govern in my name.

Yet Dr. Houser adds further parameters, suggesting that accountability nationalism requires government edicts be “recognized as the actions of the whole vis-à-vis other wholes.” National identity is, after all, an imagined community—at some point we must be concerned with how the community is viewed.

By making this move, necessary though it may be, the essay deals not with what is but what should be. In so doing, Dr. Houser must deal more thoroughly with the question of political legitimacy.

It is one thing to argue that the United States Congress acts on behalf of all Americans; it is quite another thing entirely to suggest that when Congress acts I must view myself as in some part responsible for these actions. The first is an objective evaluation, the second is a subjective one.

All Points

Soul Food


Why cooking isn't art

By William Deresiewicz

November 25, 2012



I wrote a piece not long ago about foodism as the new culture. Food, I argued, has replaced art as the object, among the educated class, of aspiration, competition, conversation, veneration. But food, I concluded, is not art, is not narrative or representational, does not express ideas or organize emotions, cannot do what art does and must not be confused with it.

One response, among foodies, was outrage. My argument was shallow, insulting, and too black-and-white. Of course food is art! Even, said one correspondent, narrative art. Imagine a curry, he said, that is made with palm sugar as opposed to the refined variety, thereby localizing the flavor geographically and historically and referencing the whole cultural and technological context in which refinement occurs. Imagine further that the curry is served with mangoes candied with the other kind of sugar, thereby separating and juxtaposing traditional and modern flavors and drawing out “the implicit cultural narrative in an ordered, beautiful way.”

Well, that’s quite a lot of weight to balance on a single point. I can put a spoiler on the back of my Honda—how’s that for a complex cultural-historical-technological reference?—but that doesn’t make it a story. And note how carefully my correspondent had to contrive his example to produce a narrative at all, and only, even then, in the weakest, most indirect, most rudimentary sense—more something the food refers to than actually expresses. If food were really a narrative medium, then all food would be narrative, just as the clumsiest and most simplistic story is. If food were really a narrative medium, it would also be able to speak about anything, to whatever degree of detail and specificity you want—not just, as with the curry, itself. Any made object can, in that sense, “tell a story,” but only about its own making. A tall, green-eyed astronaut fell in love with a lawyer who recently lost her job: when you can cook me a dish that says that—and tell me how you’d change it if the astronaut were dark instead of fair—then we can talk about food as a narrative medium.

Food is ordered: but so are spreadsheets, or even regular sheets, when you make your bed in the morning. Food evokes emotions: but so do sunsets, or train sounds, or the cigarette smell of a bar. Food embodies ideas: but so does everything that’s made. To evoke is not to represent, and to embody is not to express.

Arguments about the nature of art are usually pretty pointless, but to a first approximation, I would say that art is necessarily symbolic. Food can be symbolic, too, but its symbols cannot be combined within a syntax. Pineapples equal hospitality. Apples equal sin. Pineapples plus apples equal fruit salad. Still, music is not exactly symbolic, and mathematics certainly isn’t art. So what makes art what it is? It is spiritual, said another correspondent—a problematic term, but one that points in the right direction. Art addresses the soul. It integrates the sensual, the emotional, and the intellectual into something we call the imaginative, and it does so consistently, as the condition of its existence. It deserves the prestige that it has in our culture, but that prestige itself is the source of the problem. Everybody wants to be an artist now, and takes offense if you call them a craftsperson (a perfectly fine thing to be, in my view, especially since it’s what I’d call myself). But if art is everything, then it is nothing.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.

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