Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, New Edition
In this book Benedict Anderson discusses the imagining and rise of nationalism. He lists several ideological changes that allowed the creation of this concept. First is the loss of the ‘sacred silent languages,’ which held together religious communities that spanned continents. These languages were believed to consist of meaningful symbols of essential truths, and thus transcended culture.
As Anderson points out, it is the relatively new concept of languages as non-privileged collections of arbitrary symbols existing in comparative equality with all other languages, that enabled the concept of sacred languages to wither away, and with it the view of a connected religious community.
The second ‘fundamental cultural conception’ whose loss prefigured the modern concept of nations was that of the hierarchical nature of society, as demonstrated by the anonymous masses apart from and ruled over by the divinely-chosen monarch. Like sacred script, the monarch was viewed as a privileged access to ontological truth. This has been replaced by the view of a culture as consisting of an egalitarian collection of citizens, regardless of the continuation of hierarchies and class differences easily visible within societies today.
A third factor was a new conception of time. Initially time was seen as somehow ‘simultaneous.’ History and cosmology were seen as one and the same; all things existed at once in a divinely pre-ordained and ordered fashion that connected meaningfully the origins of the world with the origin of men. This concept was replaced by the view of time as linearly measurable; a ‘homogenous emptiness’ that is filled with temporal coincidence, as this very sentence structure demonstrates. The conception of the individual moving steadily through time analogued nicely with the concept of the nation, also moving steadily through history.
The sacred scripts, societal hierarchies, and ‘simultaneous’ view of time answered humanity’s need for a sense of connection, continuity, and meaning within life. With the fall from use and belief of these three concepts a new form of community had to be constructed. The answer to this need was greatly facilitated by the arrival and dissemination of both the printing press (which created shared vernacular print-languages) and capitalism (which encouraged the dissemination of the printed products).
The first appearance of the new solution (nationalism) was in the Americas. It was in the Americas that creole populations, sprung from dynastic realms with whom language, culture, and trade were shared, first began to chafe at the conception of themselves as ‘foreign-born,’ as untrustworthy and sometimes despised elements within that very dynastic realm.
Surprisingly the very first such revolutions did not dream of merely moving their capital cities, and thus eliminating their ‘foreign-born’ categorization. Instead they visualized themselves as being separate from the homeland, as autonomous collections of individuals deserving of self-regulation. At this point they were still working out the ramifications of their rupture with the traditions of the past: they still referred to themselves as peoples (“We the People of the United States of America…”) rather than as nations.
However, as Anderson points out, once the concept of the nation had been constructed it was then available for ‘pirating.’ Thus, as dynasties and aristocracies found themselves increasingly marginalized, the idea of the nation-state became a usefully ‘borrowable’ paradigm.
The deliberately modified applications of this template created an ‘official nationalism’ which concealed the discrepancies between nation and dynastic realm even as it applied and enforced a language and a monarchy’s power to a geographic realm that frequently encompassed several culturally distinct, subordinate groups. This mutated form of nationalism also became a policy that justified and encouraged imperialism and the creation of empire outside of one’s ‘traditional’ borders.
Anderson also discusses how the imperialist powers themselves created the very independence movements they struggled to prevent. The imperial educational policies created a bilingual native intelligentsia aware of the historic struggles for independence of the colonial metropoles, while the imperial administrative segregations of geographical areas taught the natives of a geographic area they were a connected political group rather than independent and unconnected cultures.
On the whole Anderson’s book is clearly written and lucidly reasoned. There are, however, two critiques I feel I must make, one of which greatly weakens the thrust of his argument. First, he attempts to demonstrate that selective ‘historical’ memory and forgetting is an integral part of nation creation. I fail to see how his examples adequately demonstrate the validity of his arguments.
Second, Anderson frequently prints long quotations to buttress his reasoning. This is a valid argumentation technique only when the reader can understand them! Anderson worries about poor translations obscuring the thrust of his arguments. In my opinion no translation is worse; to make an unintelligible argument is pointless.