30 October 2009

Notes: Imagined Communities

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verson, 2006.

I’ve let a little too much time go by to write a really cohesive summary of Anderson’s text, so I’ll settle for a list of main points which I find particularly intriguing for my line of research.

According to Anderson, there are three basic paradoxes to the idea of the nation: 1. that nations are objectively new, but nationalists claim (subjectively, though they wouldn’t acknowledge that) antiquity; 2. that there is a universality to the idea of nationality in that everyone has a nationality, just as everyone has a gender; however, each nationality is itself sui generis; and 3. nationalism has great political power even though it has philosophical paucity.
o I’m particularly interested in the supposed antiquity of nation states and how that might translate to the origins of other kinds of communities and social classes.  Are all communities or social classes built on some sense of their own antiquity?  Particularly newly developed communities/classes?  I’m reminded of Mormonism and its claim to Biblical origins in order to authenticate itself.  

Andersons’ definition of nation: “it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.  It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (6).
o I’m curious how this idea of members of a community never meeting could be translated to members of a community never actually knowing other community members.  In other words, a member of a community could be acquainted with other community members, but not actually known by them.  To what extent must a community be premised on knowledge deeper than superficial acquaintance?  Anderson clearly argues that members of a community need not even have an acquaintance (he says that the difference between communities is not a matter of “falsity/genuineness” but rather the “style” in which they are imagined), but in some communities (think religious congregation, local members of a particular social class, etc.) there will be that acquaintance.  How does the presence of acquaintance but the absence of knowledge affect Anderson’s theory?

In explaining the community of Christendom, Anderson asserts that the “juxtaposition of cosmic-universal and the mundane-particular” meant that, no matter how far-spread the community was, it presented itself variously but also as a replication of the self.  In other words, even as various pockets of Christianity had their own particular character, they perceived of themselves as representative of their larger community—they conceived of other pockets of Christianity as being “replications of themselves” (23).
o I’m curious about this idea of a subsection of a community perceiving other subsections as replications of the self.  Does this apply at an individual level also?  Does one individual perceive other individual members of their community as reflections or replications of herself?  And if so, what happens when that replication/reflection is proven false?  (compare this idea to what Anderson has to say about Creoles originating the nationalist movements of America)

Anderson pays a lot of attention to the role print-capitalism and print-languages play in the rise of nationalism.  He argues that without print-languages, nationalism would not have developed as it did.  Specifically print-languages had three major effects: 1. they created a language of exchange that existed between Latin (the official language of church and state) and vernaculars; 2. it fixed language, which helped establish the perceived antiquity of that language (and antiquity was a vital element of nationalism); and 3. it privileged certain languages, creating new languages of power granting certain classes more authority than others.  Anderson also places a lot of emphasis on the fatality of language—in the assumed inevitability of a given language as a language of power.  And, more importantly, the fatality of “human language diversity”; because there is a necessary diversity of human languages (while certain languages may die or transform, it’s impossible for all of humanity to share one language), there is a coexisting necessary diversity of human communities.  If language becomes the organizing principle of human communities (and Anderson argues it does), and languages are necessarily diverse, then there must be a corresponding diversity of communities.  

Where previously states had been organized vertically based on a divine head (either God or divinely sanctioned ruler), nations were horizontally organized based on shared language, specifically print-language.  The upper classes, especially heads of state, had forged bonds through marriage; the new bourgeoisie (which Anderson argues was the first imagined community) forged bonds through shared print materials.  This new community formation through print-language radically altered the way national communities were understood, since there were now defined boundaries (under the old vertical organization, Anderson argues that boundaries were porous and relatively unimportant as marital alliances regularly shifted those boundaries).  As Anderson puts it, “one can sleep with anyone, but one can only read some people’s words” (77).

Anderson argues that it was Creole populations (Creole meaning people of European descent who shared cultural and linguistic characteristics with those in the metropole) that fomented successful national rebellions in the Americas, not native populations.  Where the Europeans were able to control native populations through disease, education, arms, government, religious novelty, etc., the Creoles had all of these things in common with the Europeans.  As such, they were situated to successfully challenge the Europeans.  
o I’m curious how this relates to the above idea about reflection/replication.  What moves someone who is arguably of the same community (shared language, education, religion, government, etc.) to make such a radical break?  In some way, it is the sameness within a community but between different factions of the community that threatens it, where utter difference could not.  

Anderson asserts that when a state adopts a vernacular as its official language, doing so suggests a connection of kinship between the ruler of the state and his subjects.  Accordingly, it becomes possible for the subjects of the state to perceive of their ruler as a representative of themselves and therefore as capable of becoming a traitor of his fellow citizens.

“Or, l’essence d’une nation est que tous les individus aient beaucoup de choses en commun et aussi que tous aient oublie bien des choses. . . . Tout citoyen francais doit avoir oublie  la Saint-Barthelemy, les massacres du Midi au XIIIe siècle” (199, quoting Renan).  
o my translation: “the essence of a nation is that all the individuals have many things in common and also that all have forgotten many things. . . . All French citizens must have forgotten St. Barthelemy, the massacures of midnight in the 13th century.”
o What is it that members of a community must forget?  According to Anderson’s interpretation of Renan, they must forget the difference that exists in their past in order to embrace past atrocities as reassuringly “fratricidal”—as family disputes, rather than as wars waged between radically different people.  There has to be a patina of sameness—of a priori nationality and nation-ness—in order for a nation to continue to exist.  Accordingly, members of a nation must forget that at the heart of their allegedly shared existence (because they must remember the past atrocities; they must simply forget the difference inherent in them) there is impurity.

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