“National identity through prototypes and metaphors: the case of “Romanianness” (Razvan Sibii)

Journal of Global Initiatives: Policy, Pedagogy, Perspective, vol. 6, no. 2 New Perspectives on Contemporary Romanian Society, April 2012


The last country God created was Romania. Realizing that he still had a lot of riches left over from the other countries, He let Romania have more natural treasures than anybody else. Seeing this, Saint Peter asked in surprise: “My Lord, why are you giving this country more riches than you’ve given to any other?” “Don’t you worry,” said the Lord, “Just wait ‘till you see the people I will put in charge of those riches!…”

Whether Saint Peter was eventually satisfied with Romania’s condition, we do not know. What this paper does investigate, however, is what God meant by his promise: exactly what kind of people did he end up putting in Romania? Questioning the deity is a complicated (if not risky) enterprise; instead, this study turns its inquisitive gaze on the Romanians themselves. Who do they, themselves, think God put in Romania? Or, more to the point, what does the Romanian narrative of national identity look like and how has it changed over the recent decades? Mapping the coordinates of a phenomenon as complex and, oftentimes, ambiguous, as the Romanian identity discourse is an inherently perilous proposition: no amount of description and interpretation (however skillful and innovative) can achieve a complete account of an entire weltanschauung. As a result, this paper limits itself to offering a fragmentary, partly digested story about the manner in which the perceived, informal Romanian national idea (i.e., “Romanianness”) is put together. I use the word “informal” to differentiate a perceived “Romanianness” from the formal, heavily ideological, elite-originated notion of”Romanianism.”

The general aim of my investigation can be further clarified, I believe, with the use of a well-recognized anecdote involving a judicial take on the very sensitive issue of obscenity. In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court was called on to judge whether a certain motion picture could be deemed “obscene.” Predictably, the justices had a difficult time grappling with the definition of the term-a matter of obvious importance in this case. In his written opinion, Associate Justice Potter Stewart confessed his inability to provide an “intelligible” definition of the word. However, he still felt reasonably comfortable making his ruling on whether the film had obscene elements in it, because, he said, he still had one way of conceptualizing obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” Although Justice Stewart later reportedly reconsidered the validity of his method, the phrase quickly became folklore.

For the purposes of this paper, I believe an analogy could be established between the judge’s operationalization of obscenity and the Romanians’ handling of “national identity.” Based on both personal interactions and a growing body of literature, I find that the concept of “Romanian identity” is indeed as hard to define as obscenity. ” I am Romanian,” say millions of individuals, of all ages, genders, classes, professions, and geographical locations. But what does that mean, concretely? I have asked this question numerous times and have more often than not extracted an answer in the vein of Justice Stewart’s opinion. When pressed on what exactly it is that makes Romania, my interlocutors (and I include here various authors of written texts) often answer: “I can ‘t give you a clear definition of what a Romanian is, but I know it when I see it.” It is this statement that I seek to interrogate in this thesis: If one knows Romania when one sees Romania, what exactly is one looking at? What are some of the instances that one can observe and use to determine that one is in the presence of Romania?