Nation as Network. Diaspora, Cyberspace & Citizenship

Online interactions and digital cultures are closely related to many people’s social life and influence it in many ways, yet still, only few ethnographic works have explored this intertwinement of the digital media in daily routines. Bernal’s book begins to fill this gap by focusing on the online unfolding of political debates and how these debates lead to new understandings that have significant consequences for an entire population. Thus, this book is an important contribution to the anthropology of politics in and through digital media.

Victoria Bernal studied the trajectories of Eritrean politics in digital media set up by exiles for nearly two decades. Her ethnography focuses on the emergence and dynamics of three websites “inhabited” (Bernal’s word) by Eritreans from all over the globe. The book begins by exploring how one website (Dehai) became a crucial platform for supporting the efforts of a nascent nation-state and an extensive diaspora especially when, shortly after Eritrean independence, war broke out again.

The emergence of the two other sites (Awate and Asmarino) during the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia coincides with the increasing dissents toward the political elites who made independence possible and the discontentment over of the ways the elites managed the crisis during and after the war. These two websites constituted a key arena for the maturation of the opposition to the radicalization of the Eritrean regime that became subsequently violent and despotic in governing the state and the population in the aftermath of the conflict in 2000. Despite the dire socio-political situation and the violence in Eritrea which polarizes her field of research, Bernal’s ethnography is meticulous and her analytical perspectives are very balanced.

The book demonstrates that the digital media is a complex collection of sites that people not only visit engaging with for many many hours on a daily basis. Webpages, articles and forums are thus much more than a convenient archive for the researcher.  They are places where field research can allow anthropologist to analyze complex cultural and political dynamics unfolding. In a time when research focuses on the social media, it is also important to remember that older types of digital media are also rather social too.

Bernal’s idea that websites are sites of power is certainly this book’s major contribution. Adapting Benedict Anderson’s theory of nation and nationalism (1991) for the digital age, Bernal introduces the concept of infopolitics which she defines as the way “[…] power is exercised and expressed through communication and through control over media, circulation, censorship, and authorization” (p. 8) and that is “especially crucial in the state-diaspora relationship.” (p. 54)

The delineation of Eritrean infopolitics allows readers thus to consider complex political dynamics unfolding online. Bernal shows how websites have embraced and promoted elements of the regime ideology as well as how Eritrean critiques have been surfacing and confronting the political elites’ national discourse.  For instance, she discusses the fascinating case of an online war memorial which allows readers to decipher the fine grained reproduction of a political culture and elements of state power in a subversive anti-regime project aiming at sustaining the burden of Eritrean families who lost relatives during the war.  She also is attentive to the limits of the online dissidence and how the political culture of the regime has been also recast into opposition narratives.  One drawback to these websites is that gender inequality is reproduced, women’s voices are curbed in the political arena.

Bernal’s nuanced analytical perspective enables readers to understand how and to what extent political discussions and debates online constitute a transformative power in Eritrean politics. But perhaps more importantly, her analysis also allows readers to understand how to transcend some common and powerful normative narratives and dichotomies that often still dominate and limit anthropological understanding of the digital (for instance: techno-utopianism vs. clicktivism, real vs. virtual, and so on).  Bernal convincingly argues that technology (specifically the internet) does not take the leading role in the changes she underlines.  Rather, cultural dynamics remain the real game changer in the slow online process of political transformation on the digital media.

While Bernal makes important contributions to the anthropology of politics, digital media, and Eritrean studies, she might have better outlined the connections between the online debates she analyzes and their causes and effects in various offline constituencies. The book could be more clear about how these debates and ideas discussed online influence discussions and actions (beside fundraising) within communities and how they might be constitutive in the formation and the dissolution of political groups. Also it would have been useful if she had explored in more depth the genealogies and trajectories of the values promoted by the dissidents. Bernal does mention influences from US culture and politics in Eritrean digital media debates,  yet she does not provide a theoretical discussion of the impacts and consequences of these influences in the realm of Eritrean politics.

This book is definitely an important read for anyone interested in politics, the diaspora, the digital media. Concepts such as sacrificial and outsourced citizenship and infopolitics developed from the Eritrean context have merit that can be discussed in other cultural and political settings. Bernal’s book shows readers not only that the Internet is a crucial space to observe the future of a nation and state in the making, but it also helps scholars better understand that the internet has become an unavoidable place for a researcher interested in identifying and understanding contemporary social, cultural, and political dynamics thriving in people’s lives.

David Bozzini, Graduate Center CUNY

Bernal, Victoria. Nation as Network. Diaspora, Cyberspace & Citizenship. University of Chicago Press, 2014. Read more at University of Chicago Press.

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