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Assistant Professor, History, Chulalongkorn University
Michael K. Connors
Associate Professor, School of Politics History and International Relations, University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus
Call for Workshop Papers
The myth of the divine or virtuous ruler—the son of heaven, the Buddha reincarnated, the avatar of Vishnu, the descendant of the sun goddess, etc.—is just about as visceral and grounded in lived existence as the imagined community that is the modern nation-state, a form which has become dominant in the postcolonial era. And they largely shared the same technologies of propagation. Yet, these two imaginaries that have competed to organize national life have often been regarded in very different light—the nation-state, and the political projects it was to emulate, being considered the hallmark of an emerging modernity while the monarchy was perceived as an archaic remnant of ancient regimes antithetical to authentic national life. Dividing them, definitionally, is the ‘horizontal comradeship’ of nationalism against the hierarchal order of various royalisms. Nonetheless, in many parts of the Asian continent, there were dedicated attempts—with various degrees of success—to transform the monarchy into a symbolic structure and foundation for culturally conservative nation-states, but no less modern. In a few cases, the myths of the monarchy and the nation-state seemed to complement each other—the nation lending a façade of modernity to the monarchy while the monarchy provided a touch of spirituality to the modern nation—and the transitions were successful. In some other cases, the marriage of myth and modernity appeared unconvincing and the magic of royal nationhood failed to materialize in the long term.
It is important to take into consideration that, in the same way that the modular nation-state was a novel invention – a pastiche of past fragments and innovations within an expanding state apparatus – of the modern era, the monarchies that survived to rule these seemingly modernized regimes must also have been significantly transformed to meet the socio-political and cultural demands of the modern world. But where were the models? The recently published Transnational Histories of Royal Nationhood, examines significant institutional learning across dynasties, mostly within Europe. But if modern monarchies of Asia were also inventions of the 19th and 20th centuries, we must note that they were idiosyncratically framed to different notions of time and articulations of subjecthood/citizenship. And if Asian sovereigns were less entwined than their European counterparts, so perhaps was learning less shared, or was it?
The modern monarchies drew legitimacy from the historical and spiritual narrative of having predated the modern nation and being the essence of the to be produced cultural homogeneity that would be the nation-state fashioned in royal cloth; or legitimacy flowed from being the arbiter of cultural pluralism. In many cases it was the narrative of the archaic monarchy that provided a sense of history for the nation-state. It seemed as though there had always been a royal sovereign and therefore, it would have been more plausible that there had always been the nation-state waiting to mature under the sovereign’s watch. While nationalists wanted a stilted birth forced, monarchists wanted ordered incubation and hatching. The strategies and processes of marrying these two inventions of the modern era to make convincing political entities that are both modern and archaic, both spiritual and scientific, both traditional and innovative at the same time, is undoubtedly much more than a bit intriguing.
Building on the pioneering work of Transnational Histories of Royal Nationhood, but focusing on the Asian histories of royal nationhood from a range of methodological starting points, this workshop seeks to explore the following questions: What were the reasons behind the seeming success of some regimes in the transition from archaic to modern of the royal nation? How was the question of the locus of sovereignty resolved in the face of popular claims? How could the apparent failures of other royalist regimes in Asia be understood in the context of the modern and contemporary eras and were those failures observed and applied as lessons by the survivors? Were there institutional borrowings that suggest a robust global history? How did the successful monarchies maneuver through turbulent periods of external political influence—both the height of colonialism in the 19th century and the Cold War of the mid-to- late-20th century? Does the existence or prior existence of a monarchy impact a society’s ability to liberally democratize or to revolutionize into the norms of the socialist bloc? What is the future for the modern monarchies that remain in this day and age, and what are the prospects for restoration?