Review: Imagined Communities

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[Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised Edition. London: Verso, 2006. (Original edition published in 1983.)]

A quirky book that takes as one of its starting points the historically lousy job that the liberal and marxist traditions had done of theorizing nationalism, Imagined Communities became a widely-read classic with the revival of scholarly and popular attention to the topic that occurred in the 1990s. Anderson’s tendency to make shorthand references to people and events that assume a familiarity with European history that most of us in North America lack, and his tendency to include quotations in languages other than English without providing translations, are occasional irritants, but the combination of lively writing and a grounded, innovative approach makes this book still worth reading three decades after its original publication.

To say that nations are “imagined communities” gets at the idea that we will never meet the vast majority of people with whom we share that identification, and there are huge differences amongst us along any number of axes, yet we still manage to imagine ourselves as shared members of the same collective entity: the nation. And nationalism is best approached not by treating it as a political ideology like certain other ‘-isms’ such as liberalism or marxism, but as deeply intertwined with the nation as a social form – it’s an attachment to that form and to that way of imagining human collectivity.

Previously dominant forms of collective imagining included the religious community – Christendom, the Umma, etc. – and the old dynastic realm, which was both socially organized and imagined much differently from the contemporary nation-state. The nation and corresponding attachments emerged, Anderson argues, through the conjunction of shifts in how we see time and the social world, the emergence of print technology, the increased importance of vernacular languages, and the imperatives of capitalism. He writes, “What, in a positive sense, made the new communities imaginable was a half-fortuitous, but explosive, interaction between a system of production and productive relations (capitalism), a technology of communication (print), and the fatality of human linguistic diversity” (42-3).

Though many scholars before and since this book treat Europe as the home of nationalism, Anderson points out that it first emerged in the Americas in the rebellions of creole elites in Latin America and the future United States against the empires from which they sprang. While, in the Latin examples, the tightening grip of Madrid and the emergence of liberal ideas played a role in creating the conditions for rebellion against the empire, they were not themselves sufficient. Creole elites in each Spanish jurisdiction shared common experiences, common journeys through space and through social contexts and institutions, and common limitations of their roles within the empire, which created shared consciousness and a shared commonsense about a ‘naturally’ existing “we” clearly distinct from the imperial core despite shared language and culture. As well, the emergent newspapers created a widely-shared social ritual that also organized people’s consciousness and sense of belonging in ways that not only built a “we” that corresponded to the existing imperial administrative units but also helped to cement a new notion of the social world as discrete social units moving through linear, ‘empty’ time.

The next form of nationalism to emerge was popular nationalism in Europe, starting from about 1820. Certain shifts making this possible hard already largely occurred. For instance, a sense of ongoing social transition over time – that is, a sense of history – emerged in Europe during the Enlightenment. During the same era, the encounters of European explorers and traders with peoples on other continents normalized the idea of humanity as plural. These helped to make it plausible that at a later moment it would become conceivable to see the natural form of global social organization as being different national units moving forward in parallel. Additionally, language had become an object of study, particularly of historical study, and the languages that had held together the previous religious imaginaries – Latin, in the Western European case – came to be seen as just one more language among many and their sacred place was eroded. For purely practical reasons, empires came to take up vernacular languages for their administration rather than Latin.

In this context, both the model of nationalism from the Americas plus the example of the French Revolution could be taken up and adapted in popular ways in Europe. In the Americas, nationalism did not emphasize shared and distinct language in defining a nation, as both the empire and the colonies which rebelled shared the same tongue. In Europe, much popular nationalism was organized around vernacular languages and deliberate efforts to create national print-languages as part of forging linguistic minorities in the continent’s polyglot imperial territories into nations. Capital-driven print technology played a major role in this, as did the efforts of language-oriented scholars. This helped forge reading publics, which at the time were some mix (depending on the area) of nobility, landholders, professional, bureaucrats, and capitalists. In the Americas, at least at first, there was no particular effort to use nationalism to inspire lower-class investment in the national projects, whereas this was true from the start in Europe.

Partly in reaction to the rise of popular nationalisms, and the corresponding emergence of a sense that linguistic national communities should exist autonomously in a collection of equals, the imperial entities of Europe countered with official nationalisms of their own as deliberate policy. From the start, as a “willed merger of nation and dynastic empire” (86), these official nationalisms always contained a tension between the particular emerging (but often concealed) nation at the heart of the empire and the larger imperial project, but they still often had a major impact in shaping the practices and consciousness of those subject to them.

The final form of nationalism that Anderson identifies was that in the emerging, postcolonial states in the 20th century. Postcolonial nationalisms, he says, were generally a mix of populist enthusiasm and careful calculation by the newly sovereign states. The postcolonial states inherited a great deal from the colonial states they succeeded, not just geographic scope but also the journies of education and administration in which elite consciousness was formed and the various categories and practices instilled under empires which formed consciousnesses that continued into the post-imperial period. He traces the colonial emergence of technologies like the census, the map, and the museum for developing totalizing observation and classification in the colonies and the connection of an abstracted narrative claiming continuity with the distant past, all of which carried over in various ways into postcolonial state practices.

Anderson also points out that even revolutionary seizure of the state, as in the Soviet Union or China or Vietnam, tends to result in those who seize it having their choices and their path to a large degree conditioned by the already-existing state form. One of the many ways this is true is with respect to nation and nationalism. He uses this to explain what at the time of the original writing was the emerging phenomenon of war between actually-existing socialist states that looked much like any other inter-state wars.

There’s lots to like, here. Lots of the arguments Anderson makes are plausible. The emergence of a new social form and related imaginative identification through the accidental conjunction of certain changes sounds plausible. The emergence of shared consciousness and shared imagination through shared practices also sounds realistic. The modularization and adaptation of the social form once it exists in the world also sounds very life-like. In addition, one theme that emerged in my recently-completed class in postcolonial theory is that many postcolonial theorists posit a role for the novel in the shaping of consciousness without saying much about how that might happen, whereas Anderson generally connects texts to changes in consciousness through particular kinds of practices. All of that said, though, he stops short of doing the work necessary to demonstrate that this is what did happen. Certainly the correspondence between elite journeys in the Spanish colonies in the Americas, and later in different ways in European colonies in Africa and Asia, and the actual national attachments that emerged (with no other real correspondence to pre-colonial social organization or imagination) is a strong enough correlation that we should take it seriously. But there must be ways to document this emergence more thoroughly in terms of the shifts of consciousness observable among the people involved.

I have a few other quibbles as well. For instance, he has a short chapter presenting a theory of racism, and basically arguing that it isn’t as inherent to nationalism as many left and liberal European intellectuals of the 1970s and 1980s would have argued. He points out that the organization of racial oppression bears more resemblance to the organization of class oppression than it does to the organization of nation and of national sentiment, and argues that instances of racism and nationalism being integrated are an imperial imposition and not inherent to the national form. I think there are some reasonable points here – the relationship between racism and class oppression, for instance – but I think it drastically underestimates the persistence of race as a feature of national identification in former imperial centres and in former settler colonies like Canada.

Related to that, I think much more needs to be said about the interplay of capacity to imagine self as part of a nation and one’s place within the social relations that constitute that nation. How are subordination within and exclusion from nations socially organized, and how does that relate to how they are imagined?

It is intriguing to think about how these ideas might relate to Canada, something he does not mention at all but the sort of thing I’m going to be thinking about rather a lot in the next few months. It seems like the emergence of an English-dominated Canadian nation and nationalism is in some ways quite distinct from any other in the Americas in that it involved a gradual, mutual separation from the imperial core rather than a more contentious break. My sense is that many of the Canadian founding elites were not creole, unlike in the U.S. and Latin America, but were born in the metropole. The Canadian state was also to a certain extent created as a distinct and no-longer-purely-colonial entity for imperial administrative and political convenience rather than any kind of overwhelming local pressure that it be so. I think these things might help explain the odd juxtaposition of pseudo-national consciousness that was clearly integrated into and subordinate to, at least in its dominant strand, an unapologetic imperial consciousness for almost a century. That was not displaced by a more clearly national consciousness until the 1960s.

In any case, this is an important book for me to have read – well, re-read, actually – as I move into what is going to be a fairly heavy reading course organized around thinking critically about English Canadian nationalism. I was initially a bit resistant to the idea of reading something I’ve already read, but am now convinced it was a good idea, and would certainly recommend engagement with Anderson’s work to anyone trying to think about such questions.

[Scott Neigh is a parent, activist, and writer based in Sudbury, Ontario. This post originally appeared on his personal blog, as have many other book reviews. Scott has two books of Canadian history entered through the words of activists coming out in late 2012.]

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