Eddie Izzard & Michael Billig: A Friendship to the End

I’m going to express these ideas in a conference at some point (what can I say? I’m a rebel without a cause), but I wanted to draw your attention to some of the astonishing parallels between the work of cross-dressing comedian Eddie Izzard and prolific scholar Michael Billig.

To wit, Billig tells us:

The central thesis… is that, in the established nations, there is a continual ‘flagging’, or reminding, of nationhood. The established nations are those states that have confidence in their own continuity, and that, particularly, are part of what is conventionally described as ‘the West’. The political leaders of such nations – whether France, the USA, the United Kingdom or New Zealand – are not typically termed ‘nationalists’… In so many little ways, the citizenry are daily reminded of their national place in a world of nations. However, this reminding is so familiar, so continual, that it is not consciously registered as reminding. The metonymic image of banal nationalism is not a flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building.

National identity embraces all these forgotten reminders. Consequently, an identity is to be found in the embodied habits of social life. Such habits include those of thinking and using language. To have a national identity is to possess ways of talking about nationhood. …. Having a national identity also involves being situated physically, legally, socially, as well as emotionally: typically, it means being situated within a homeland, which itself is situated within the world of nations. And, only if people believe that they have national identities, will such homelands, and the world of national homelands, be reproduced.

… Because the concept of nationalism has been restricted to exotic and passionate exemplars, the routine and familiar forms of nationalism have been overlooked. In this case, ‘our’ daily nationalism slips from attention. There is a growing body of opinion that nation-states are declining. Nationalism, or so it is said, is no longer a major force: globalization is the order of the day. But a reminder is necessary. Nationhood is still being reproduced: it can still call for ultimate sacrifices; and, daily, its symbols and assumptions are flagged. (1995 excerpt courtesy of The Nationalism Project)

And, from Izzard:

We stole countries with the cunning use of flags. Just sail around the world and stick a flag in. “I claim India for Britain!”

They’re going “You can’t claim us, we live here! Five hundred million of us!”

“Do you have a flag…?”

“What? We don’t need a flag, this is our home, you bastards.”

“No flag, no country, you can’t have one! Those are the rules… that I just made up!… and I’m backing it up with this gun, that was lent to me from the National Rifle Association.”

(1998 excerpt courtesy of YouTube)

I think we can agree that they’re saying more or less the same thing – one of them is just saying it in a dress. We (the people!) deploy flags in all sorts of absurd capacities. As an academic personality, Billig offers the example of the American flag on display at gas stations. What do you suppose the implicit message is there? Likewise, through his ranting comic personality, Izzard expresses the (b)latent absurdity of colonialism, particularly the role flags play in colonial endeavors. Put together, these excerpts will doubtless make for a scintillating class discussion of banal nationalism, humor as a coping mechanism for contemporary society, and just how good does he look in those fishnet stockings?

PS Their names show up in the same book! One’s an author and one’s an appendix entry – I’ll let you figure out who’s who.

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