Imagined Communities

Anderson, Benedict. 2006 [1983]. Imagined Communities. London: Verso.

Anderson is first and foremost trying to account for nationalism from a Marxist perspective, citing for instance the conundrum of internecine strife in the Marxist region of Indochina in the late 1970s. He recognizes the incredible power of nationalism to mobilize solidarities and affinities between strangers and between physically unlike others. The paradox, of course, is that nationalism can conjure solidarities across social-geographic difference, while at the same time creating new divisions and fissures both within and across borders. There’s also the stickler of how it often works in racist ways—a point Anderson problematically underplays.

Historically, he claims that nationalism first built on extant means of solidarity: religion. But then secularized these means of conjuring solidarities (e.g. scared languages) and imagined community. Time plays a big role in the possibility of a national imagined community. Anderson borrows from Benjamin to talk about “homogenous empty time” in which people can think of events and themselves as simultaneous with that and those of people that they don’t know and who they can’t see. Anderson shows how newspapers (“one-day best sellers”) instilled this perception among people. They saw the front page, and a nation was interpellated in their minds by hailing to them what is important to you (local news) and what is important to you that happened elsewhere (international) news for your own (national) interest. He mentions the novel as producing similar effects through different narrative means.

This importance of the printed-word leads him to take very seriously—perhaps too seriously—the tandem forces of print and capitalism, or what he dubs “print-capitalism,” in producing nationalism. I’m in no way doubting that print-capitalism was an ideal vehicle for conjuring imagined communities and their proliferation, but he does seem to over-stretch the point sometimes. He points particularly to the force that print-capitalism played in the standardization of particular languages that displaced local vernaculars. Again, this began with religious motivations (the Reformation, Martin Luther’s new Bible, for e.g.), but it quickly took on a force and momentum of its own. “These fellow-readers, to whom they were connected through print, formed, in their secular, particular, visible invisibility, the embryo of the nationally imagined community”  (21).

He goes through the reasons of why Latin America emerged as the source of nationalism, which was spurred on—even constituted—by the wars for Independence: an educated intelligentsia, who had in fact lived and studied in Europe; ideas of the enlightenment; the geographies of the Spanish Empire, a weak dispersed one over a mass of geographically isolated places, the denial of inter-trade between colonies, and the fear of internal revolts, which led elites to prefer war with Spain rather than against internal subversives (especially slaves and indigenous). Local elites also had a glass ceiling, being able to rise only to certain positions of power. Print allowed for these seething factors to be articulated into action.

“To see how administrative units could, over time, come to be conceived as fatherlands, not merely in the Americas but in other parts of the world, one has to look at the ways in which administrative organizations create meaning” (53). I really like this notion of administrative units creating meaning, and shared language is one of the most powerful ways of creating an imagined community. Toward the end of the book he offers one big corrective by acknowledging the role of the colonial state in fostering nationalism (cf. Goswami’s “Producing India”; he uses “Siam Mapped”), by showing that not all was imported from Europe and that many forms of conjuring nationalism were homegrown strategies.

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