In the spirit of Laitin’s seminal works on language and nation-building, Dan Alexe’s 2015 book attempts an innovative multi-layered deconstruction (at least in Romanian audiences) of mainstream as well as hetorodox mythologies of Romanian nationalism. The author’s intensive focus on language, with analytic tool-kits that pertain to linguistics, gravitates around the idea of a fluid linguistic and national identity, thus following a growing fashionable trend that transcends nationalism studies (for instance on nationalism see – Petrov and Ryazanova-Clarke 2015; on social policy evolution see Beland & Petersen 2014). Without explicitly making any general theoretical claims, the volume in essence strikes at the heart of methodological nationalism.
Presentation of the book’s main components
On the already complicated tapestry of Romanian post-communist nationalism (for overviews see Iordachi & Trencsenyi 2003, Delcea 2014), Dan Alexe rightly observes that a very particular and peculiar branch of protocronism – the Dacian obsession – has been slowly growing in terms of public exposure. Under the guise of “honest historians who seek historical truth”, proponents of the narrative project the immanent nature of the Romanian nation to pre-Roman Thracian tribes. The “argumentation” takes de bonna fide and at face value all ancient Greek and Roman sources vis-a-vis the plethora of Dacian tribes spread across not just on modern Romania’s territory, but in its neighborhoods as well, essentially postulating a modern-day nation-style cultural homogeneity. The narrative, as Alexe rightly points out, is not new but brings together re-hashed arguments that spread from the “historical rights” discussions of the 19th century (from the beginings of Romanian historiography and the “Transylvanian question”), to the ethno-nationalist pathos of the Ceausescu regime. The author goes to great lenghts (at time the language is a bit obscure for readers not trained in linguistics) in drawing parallels with the extreme linguistic diversity from the Caucasus to prove that linguistic-cultural homogeneity does not “occur naturally”. In the absence of Dacian writting (despite the protochronists’ best efforts to prove otherwise), Alexe goes point by point using comparisons with similar ancient areas (such as the Caucasus) to deconstruct the idea that a unified Dacian language stood as a basis for Latin (especially masterful and interesting is the discussion on differentiating between modern linguistic borrowing and common roots, which shows the deep connection between Albanian and the multiple dialects of the Dacian tribes).
Outside this primary aim, Alexe’s book offers a rather eclectic selection of arguments concerning myths (in the widest possible sense) of the orthodox nationalist discourse. Here I disagree with most Romanian reviewers who have dubbed the book a “hodge-podge” – granted, some chapters are outside the central thread of a historical-linguistic inquiry, but this does not take away the coherence of an argument which follows consistently the idea of a “new nation syndrome” (Petrescu 2007). Particularly noteworthy is that the author shows the two-way connection – not just on the Romanian identity, but from it to other emmerging identities in its vicinity. This becomes most obvious when Alexe discusses with fine irony the supposed “paternity” of certain myths and the role of “national poets”. The underlying message is that perceptions of incomplete nationhood prompt the state into full-on action towards “completing identity” (Brubaker 1996). The occasional lengthy sections with technical analysis must not obscur, as it has done to some reviewers, that Alexe strives to replace the certainty of protochronism with plausible inter-disciplinary hypotheses for future analysis. The author’s heavy ironical tone, which might seem categorical, is clearly just a stylistic tool (similar I would argue to the omission of a large linguistics bibliography which would greatly restrict mass appeal).
The plethora of examples that seem to have nothing in common with the core of the book (refuting the Dacian obsession), do in fact raise implicit points (albeit in a rather unstructured manner) about banal nationalism. What Alexe is hinting at is that in the murky waters of post-communist transition, cultural reproduction represents an important point of stability and cohesion (similar point to Paraianu in Trecnsenyi et al. 2001 ). It is precisely in this line of thought that the de-mystification of Vama Veche, as a public symbol of quasi-resistance under communism, is juxtaposed to a chapter about a highly mediatized Romanian public figure and his discourse on orthodoxy as an integral component of the “Romanian soul”. With such examples Alexe intends to leave the confines of what he rightly points out is a rather limited group – the Dacian-maniacs, entering into mainstream, orthodox nationalist mythologies. The heart of the matter is not just the media with its reification of a perennial “Romanian identity”, but a public education system that stuck very closely to the idea of mass-producing “good Romanians with a love of country and past” (further elaborations in Nalin 2002, Delcea 2014). While official discourses in post-communist Romania claimed a radical break with ethno-centric nationalism, social and political realities (such as an out of the blue 1998-1999 scandal around alternative history textbooks that were not outwardly “anti-Hungarian”), were very much still geared towards reifying the nation.
On the whole, Dan Alexe’s book is a thought-provoking deconstruction of methodological nationalism and grand architecture type arguments. While the volume could have benefited from some in-between passages to either better explain some theoretical points on nationalism, or to create better consistency of examples, it is beyond any shadow of a doubt that Alexe offers a nicely woven deconstruction narrative. Heavy irony and at times common day language (vulgar as a specific stylistic tool where needed) create a nice counter-balance to technical sections. Granted, some of the finer points are sometimes difficult to spot, but this does not imply that the author himself is meandering and cherry-picking examples to support mere personal opinions (as some reviewers suggest, mostly those “honest historians” – in the sense of Delcea 2014). Rather, as suggested above, Alexe is merely speaking out, violently and sharply, with hypothesis for further research, against the immovable certainties of protochronism.
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