2 January 2012

Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson

Nationalism conceived as an imagined community continues to be a driving force in the world today.

Imagined Communities, first published in 1983, prompted a series of investigations into nationalism that embraced several other writers such as Eric Hobsbawm and Ernest Gellner. Of the book itself, there is much discussion on the net, so here I only want to add a few points which were of particular interest to me.

Nation as an imagined community is a gripping idea. The members of these communities (British, Swiss, Indonesian, etc) imagine themselves as part of a family or Gemeinschaft even though it is impossible for them to know one another. The book is an attempt to account for that conception in the modern world.

Anderson traces the first steps towards the development of the nation in Europe. The Middle Ages were nation-free. Allegiance was to king, church and lord and neither language unity (except for the Latin of the elite) nor clearly defined geographical boundaries existed.

Printing changed everything. After the market had been exhausted for Latin texts, publishers sought to exploit the vernacular and in so doing put in train the process of turning some local dialects into literary languages. In parallel, the development of the absolutist state expanded the state bureaucracies, whose officials used the vernacular language which was unified, consolidated and disseminated in printed form across territories.

Anderson comments on the seeming oddity of nationalism taking off first in the New World before exploding in Europe in the French Revolution. In discussing this, the book draws not just on North but in strong measure on South America. The argument is that the colonial officials of these states resented the growing centralised power of their European masters, so the middle rank state bureaucrats in league with commerical interests in the colonies rebelled. Rebellion had nothing to do with either ethnicity or language.

In Europe by the late Nineteenth Century the key promoters of nationalism were the school teacher, civil servant and journalist. Nation increasingly became anchored in an ethnic conception of language. Royalty and aristocracy engineered a new basis for their position: their representation of nation-ness as opposed to loyalty to them through God and tradition.

By the end of the nineteenth century most of Africa and Asia were colonies of European powers. As the state apparatus and commercial organisation expanded the number of administrators grew. European colonialists had their superior position preserved through growing levels of racism. The racist aspect of nationalism expanded.

In ruling their colonies, the imperial powers also imported their own nationalisms, which became templates for the oppressed people of those lands to copy. For instance, the story of the French revolution taught in colonial schools became a ready tool for those fighting for national Independence in Indo-China. Independence movements consolidated the existence of nation states across the globe, however ethnically heterogeneous those states were.

Nationalism did not die with advent of communist regimes after 1917. Revolutionaries consolidated their power within existing state apparatuses. Indeed, Anderson begins his book by focusing on the conflict which broke out in 1979 between two communist “nation” states, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Anderson highlights two features of nationalism which traditionally are overlooked: the map and the museum. Every nation state carves out is territory on the earth and so makes a shape of itself. In fact that shape comes to represent the nation as a shape without marking for rivers, mountains, towns, etc. The museum collects together the images and artefact's of the nation.

Several other features of the book are worthy of comment.

First, Anderson’s argument is distinctive, not just in his characterisation of nationalism and his argument that it is not something which is historically finished, but in the fact that the bulk of his examples are taken not from Europe and North America, but from Latin American and Asia. While this is fully justified given the argument, some of the material calls on historical knowledge which might challenge the “educated amateur.”

The book avoids jargon, though it does overflow with metaphorical language, but it is less flowery than the writing style of his brother Perry. The text is nonetheless easy and enjoyable to read.

Finally, the book ends with a chapter on its own history and an account of its publication and translation around the globe. Against the charge of arrogance, one could certainly excuse Anderson given the influence that his book has had. And strangely, the chapter is interesting to read in its own right.

ANDERSON, Benedict,Imagined Communities, Verso: 1983, 2006.

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