To read a text is to make sense of the context in which it was written, the debates it sought to engage with and contribute to, and to interpret society as it existed and was understood at a time period.
Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities must be placed within the larger debates on Nationalism that predate Anderson and further follow his footsteps. Broadly, there are two schools of thought within nationalism: (i) primordial and (ii) modernist schools.
The primordial school, often associated with Edward Shils, Clifford Geertz, and Anthony D. Smith, argues that national or ethnic identities are “fixed, natural, and ancient”. They argue that each individual, irrespective of the social context and the historical process, has a single inborn ethnic identity, largely resulting in the “bond of blood” relationship.
As Clifford Geertz, a proponent of “thick descriptions”, notes: group identities are natural to individuals rather than arising from socialisation. One of the leading theoretical works of primordial scholarship is Anthony D. Smith’s 1986 work The Ethnic Origins of Nations.
A modernist school of thought challenged these arguments on nationalism in the 1980s. These scholars, from Gellner to Anderson to Hobsbawm to Brass, looked at identities as imagined, created, instrumental, purposive, and arising from socialisation. Some of the writings that arose at the time are as follows: Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (1983), Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983), and Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism since 1188 (1990).
The major argument of these scholars was that nationalism was a modern concept and that it arose due to modernisation–due to the introduction of railways, industries, and print media–in the late 18th century.
Anderson’s Imagined Communities must be understood within the context of the work engaging with the larger debates on nation and nation-state in the early 1980s. Furthermore, as Anderson points out, 1983 was an important year to be studied.
It was the year of the war between communist states Vietnam and Cambodia, which debunked the logic of communist international solidarity–and increased nationalist fervour between countries. Anderson’s imagined communities must be further contextualised in this context.
Nation as Imagined Communities
Benedict Anderson notes that nations are both emotional and cultural phenomena arising from complex historical circumstances rather than those that existed in concrete forms. Anderson defines a nation as an “imagined political community”–imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.
Imagined because even when the members of the smallest nation on the earth will not–ever–know one another, they will still feel they belong to one another. In their minds, as Anderson notes, “lives the image of their communion.”
Limited because each country has its own boundaries, beyond which lie other countries. Every nation has its jurisdiction. No nation on the earth can ever claim to represent itself as the total humankind (except if it were the United States of America! :P).
Each state has its own customs, traditions, map, food habits, lifestyle, and religious practices (although many of these aspects of societies have been further captured–and population made similar–by the behemoth mobile applications like Tiktok and Instagram reels).
Sovereign because there is no other way around to regulate people. Therefore, the nations imagine themselves to govern themselves. However, it is a hoax. As Pareto would claim, you are always controlled by the elites–who are in circulation.
Community because, despite all the inequality that persists, I get to hate my government as much as the rich dude sitting elsewhere in India. So, yeah, it makes for a great community.
Creation of nationalism and nation-states towards the end of the eighteenth century was a spontaneous distillation of a complex “crossing” of discrete historical forces; but that once created, they become “modular” capable of being transplanted, with varying degree of self-consciousness, to a great variety of social terrains, to merge and be merged with a correspondingly wide variety of political and ideological constellations.(Anderson 1983)
National Consciousness, Nationalism, and Imagined Communities
Anderson’s work deals with multiple aspects of what makes a nation and what makes a nation. For instance, he discusses how nations create an imaginary of an “unknown soldier”–to legitimise willingness to die for an abstract entity. Anderson asks: “How does an imagined community become so real in the minds of its members to render such sacrifice unquestionable and even expected? The unknown soldier becomes a nationalistic sentiment. It does not represent a mere person but an ideal–to be aspired for.
Further, the memorialisation of an unknown soldier induces what is seen as patriotism. If one were to practically think of memorials, such as the India Gate (which is built in memory of Indian soldiers of World War I), they do not contain buried dead bodies of the soldiers. They merely act as symbols. They enact a national belonging.
With the decline of religion and the emergence of vernacular languages–and their standardisation through the printing press–came nationalism. The imagination of a political community began to emerge due to the vernacular press.
The development of “print-as-commodity” – enabled communities of the type “horizontal-secular, transverse-time”. The “newspaper as a cultural product” began constructing an imagined community for its readers.
As these printed texts, newspapers, and pamphlets began to percolate through large sections of society, what Anderson refers to as “print capitalism” emerged an understanding of a sense of belonging. Further, print capitalism contributed to the standardisation of languages, leading to the sharpening of dialects.
Through the rise of “print capitalism”, Anderson adds that national consciousness began to form. For Anderson, the print languages laid the basis for national consciousness in three distinct ways: first, they “created unified fields of exchange and communication between spoken vernacular”.
The English, French, and German – who found it otherwise difficult to converse with one another – could now connect and comprehend each other via print and paper.
From the Americas to Europe to Asia and Africa
Anderson discusses the nationalist movements led by “creole classes”–local-born persons of Spanish dissent–in Latin American societies. Since they shared the same language and cultural practices with European imperial rulers, they could easily revolt against the European colonisers and form new nations.
With the establishment of nation-states in the Americas, Anderson notes that between 1820 and 1920, new nationalist republics began to dot all over Europe–replacing old monarchies with new nation-states.
Yes, according to Anderson, language played a critical role in the process. Finally, Anderson turns to the “last wave” of nationalism in Africa and Asia after World War II. Young and revolutionary elites of the colonised societies now began to challenge the colonial empire and sought to create new nation-states.
With the end of the Second World War, the British Empire began to withdraw from its former colonies, transferring–almost in volatility–the power to the new postcolonial elites.
In much the same way, since the end of the eighteenth century nationalism has undergone a process of modulation and adaptation, according to different eras, political regimes, economies and social structures. The ‘imagined community’ has, as a result, spread out to every conceivable contemporary society.(Anderson 1983)
In a later addition to the work, Anderson adds “Census, Map, [and] Museum” as playing a crucial role in shaping postcolonial nation-states (largely in Southeast Asia). Drawing on the Foucauldian concept of “governmentality” and from the writings of postcolonial scholars, Anderson looks at how colonial census and maps further caused the “systematic quantification” of people to divide society.
Maps and museums further led to the formation of symbols of national identity while turning “living history into a series of dead artefacts”. All of the census, maps and museums “profoundly shaped the way in which the colonial state imagined its domination–the nature of humans it ruled, geography, and legitimacy of its ancestry”.
Book for discussion: Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and the Spread of Nationalism, by Benedict Anderson, published in 1983.
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