A Review of Imagined Communities, by Benedict Anderson


A review by Aswin Anilkumar, BITS Pilani

A study of Anderson’s seminal publication, Imagined Communities, which introduced his theory of the origin of Nationalism

Motivation

Influenced by political commentary on populist movements sweeping governments across the world, my Self Study Assignment began as an attempt to answer the question, ‘Are Nationalists more likely to be Religious?’. Constructive criticism following the submission of my prelim draft helped me realize that my ideas had not been clearly fleshed out and couldn’t possibly be continued. Upon thinking further, I realized that my ideas had been based on my understanding of Imagined Communities, and a study of my assumptions–in the form of a review of Imagined Communities itself–would make for an interesting project. 

The idea of nations deeply intrigues me. When news of a famous sports victory breaks, millions of people respond simultaneously, cutting across lines of caste, creed, religion, and economic background. When an Indian national is kidnapped abroad, the resources of thousands of citizens not connected by blood or background are marshalled, and the abductee is rescued. 

How do billions of people born in an approximate geographical location manage to feel a mutual empathy for one another? 

The answer is likely, moulding by certain social factors, such as the songs one sings growing up, or even the comics one reads (think Amar Chitra Katha). Hundreds of such factors contrive each second, to establish a sense of oneness with your fellow citizens. The natural question is then, how did these social factors originate? 

These factors could have come to be by the churning and mixing of the currents of history, or perhaps they could have been instituted to meet a specific political end. Our line of inquiry leads us to ask, 

Are they part of a deliberate design? What would then be the rationale for instituting this design? 

These questions form the core of my problematic, and happily, are attempted by Benedict Anderson over the course of Imagined Communities. My review will frame Anderson’s arguments as a response to these questions and analyze their merit with respect to other extant theories. By the conclusion of my work, I hope to acquire a more holistic perspective on these questions as well as their possible answers. 

Summary 

First published in 1983, the book underwent two subsequent revisions in 1991 and 2006. The book initially consisted seven chapters, although the 2006 revision added four new chapters as well as a foreword. This report shall then focus on the seven original chapters. 

The introduction begins by presenting Anderson’s definition of a nation – “An imagined political community, which is both inherently limited and sovereign”. The nation to him, is imagined as limited because even the largest of them have finite bounds beyond which other nations exist. The nation is sovereign because of its independent ability to manage its own affairs. Finally, it is a community because every nation is conceived as a long, horizontal comradeship. 

Chapter One (“Cultural Roots”) ponders the idea of religion, and the differences between Nationalism and Marxism/Capitalism. Anderson argues that the Century of Enlightenment “brought about a dusk” in religious modes of thought, and that Nationalism grew to fill this vacated space, at least partially. To understand how this might be possible, he ponders the purpose of religion, its structure, and its mystical origins, concluding that religion helped answer essential questions about life and death. He also draws attention to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the incongruity of a potential ‘Cenotaph for the fallen Liberal’, finally concluding “neither Marxism nor Liberalism are much concerned with death or immortality.”

Chapters Two and Three (“Origins of National Consciousness”, “Creole Pioneers”) focus respectively on the importance of print capitalism in preparing a base for nationalism to develop, and the role played by Creoles bringing about the first concrete expression of nationalism. Anderson here stresses the growing inaccessibility of Latin, arguing the Humanists’ publishing of classical Latin texts was of little relevance to the commoners. This, coupled with the post-Reformation glut of ecclesiastical texts in the vernacular, pushed Latin further away from the mainstream, and firmly established communities specific to each vernacular language. He also argues Nationalism found its first expression in the Americas, after the Creoles found themselves treated differently from native-born Spaniards. Anderson’s reasoning can be summarized succinctly: ‘If a Creole isn’t Spanish enough (and is hence discriminated), the mainland-born Spaniard must not be … Peruvian/Argentinean/Brazilian enough.’ 

Chapter Five (“Old Languages, New Models”) describes the onset of the age of Nationalism in Europe. Anderson here describes how the ‘nation’ became something capable of being consciously aspired to from early on, using models pioneered in the Americas and France. Anderson also talks about the changing concept of Time: from ‘Messianic’, to ‘Homogeneous and Empty’ time. This change prompted the viewing of Latin, Greek and vernaculars on the same level footing, the prioritization of one’s ‘own language’ by speakers. Kingdoms also fostered a language-based territorialisation, as it disincentivized conquest and the transfer of expertise. 

Chapter Six (“Official Nationalism and Imperialism”) describes how the language revolutions fostered the conviction that languages were, the ‘personal property of specific groups’. The earlier system of Royal Families presiding over diverse ethnic groups (Romanovs over Tatars, Germans and Armenians; Hanoverians over Bengalis and Quebecois) was gradually replaced. In its place, Royal Families scrambled to assert their national credentials, and instituted programs to accelerate the spread of nationalist thought. Anderson makes a specific study of three monarchies over the course of this chapter: Hanoverians (UK), Romanovs (Russia) and Ramas (Thai). Finally, Chapter Seven (“The Last Wave”) describes the gradual spread and the establishment of the nation-state model. 

Originality 

Without a doubt, Imagined Communities remains among the most influential books published in the twentieth century, recognized so even by its critics. Anderson’s biography on the Verso Publications webpage describes his work as the most cited single English-language publication, ever. 

Partha Chatterjee, a renowned post-colonialist scholar, describes Anderson’s most significant theoretical addition as being his attempt to distinguish between nationalism and the politics of ethnicity. Here, Anderson makes a distinction between two kinds of    seriality–bound and unbound. While unbound serialities are vague and uncountable (think classifications like ‘citizen’, ‘intellectual’, ‘student’), bound serialities are finite and countable (think classifications on a government census such as ‘Muslim’, or ‘Keralite). Anderson suggests that the tools of ethnic politics lie in exclusionary, bound serialities. 

Throughout the book, Anderson calls upon great historians of the Marxist line of thought and frames his arguments against Marxist theory. A certain passage in the introduction is then instructive: 

“My sense is that on this topic both Marxist and liberal theory have become etiolated in a late Ptolemaic effort to ‘save the phenomena’; and that a reorientation of perspective in, as it were, a Copernican spirit is urgently required.”

Anderson believed scholars of his time attempted to fit current events within the existing framework of thought, only to miserably fail. He cites examples of wars in Indochina between countries with ‘established revolutionary credentials’, as upsetting Marxist thought, which conceived an inter-national, horizontal comradeship of workers. It is clear he believes the concept of Imagined Communities momentous, and Copernican within the study of Nationalism. A critic must then examine whether the book fulfilled the author’s promise.  

Another significant theme of the book is its pivot to the Americas, as the birthplace of nationalism. Literature on the subject of nationalism had long ascribed its origins to various other factors, including: one deriving from tribal particularisms (Kiernan); derived from a movement of the middle classes (Hobsbawm); consisting elements of a class struggle (Leslie). Anderson instead chose to base the origins of nationalism in the marginalization of the Creoles, who were discriminated in bureaucracy by metropolitan colonials. 

Author 

Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson was born on August 26, 1936 to an English mother and an Irish father. His father worked for the Imperial Maritime Customs Service, which was a tax collection agency in Taiwan. Even though the IMCS was constituted under the authority of the Chinese Central Government during the Qin dynasty, the agency was largely staffed by foreigners at senior levels. Several eminent Sinologists have worked for the IMCS at different times, including Thomas Francis Wade and Edward Bowra. 

In 1941, Anderson’s family relocated to California, before settling in Ireland a few years later. Anderson went on to receive his Classics degree from Cambridge in 1957, before enrolling in Cornell as a graduate student. During his time at Cornell, he published a controversial account of the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66, where half-a-million Indonesians were murdered for supposed links to the Indonesian Communist party. Anderson’s report damaged the credibility of the official narrative, and he was banned from Indonesia until the fall of Suharto in 1998. 

It was America’s protracted war in Vietnam, as well as clashes in Indo-china in the 80s which prompted Anderson’s investigations into the origins of Nationalism. Anderson’s most prominent work include essays on Nationalism in Southeast Asia, several books on language and faith in Indonesia, as well as essays and analyses on a multitude of themes; from a study of the social forces behind a 1976 counter-revolution in Thailand, to an analysis of anarchist ideas on Filipino nationalism.  

Over the course of his career, Anderson came to be known not only for his work on the origins of Nationalism, but also his examinations of language and power in South-east Asian countries. Anderson’s perspective was unique, because he was unusually sympathetic to the sentiments and customs of locals; He spoke Indonesian, Thai, Tagalog and Javanese. Furthermore, his sons (both adopted) are of Indonesian origin. 

He died in December 2015, whilst completing a translation of his memoir, “A Life Beyond Boundaries”, which was first published in Japanese.

Critique

A critical examination of Anderson’s work, rather than attempt to rebut scattered arguments in his book, must distill the primary chain of the book’s arguments – and attempt to examine this chain. This would be as follows: 

  1. Anderson’s distinction between Nationalism and Marxism/Capitalism, with the supposedly mystical roots of the former. Religious communities being the first imagined communities, in which meaning depended on untranslatable languages and the “non-arbitrariness of the sign”. Priests acting as a conduit to the mystical world, with a religious language acting as a privileged medium. Further, knowledge of the sacred language would be enough to absorb a barbarian into the sacred fold, because then the barbarian also shared the same experience of reality. 

Anderson’s arguments here seem a little contradictory. He argues that the sacred language played a crucial role in building the imagined community, and conceived of sacred languages as ideograms, conveying truth. However, he also concedes that the readers were ‘tiny literate reefs on top of vast illiterate oceans.’ If a sacred language was what solely bound millions of diverse ethnicities across Ummah Islam or European Christianity together, the people must be adept at that language. Presenting a sacred language as the primary bond, while ignoring other socio-economic causes then seems over-simplified.

However, my personal experiences as a Malayali living abroad (while anecdotal) support Anderson’s assertions. My school-mates rarely spoke Arabic, but frequently identified as Qatari. This extended to translating their names (via Google Translate) into Arabic and uploading their Arabic names to their public profiles. They would wave Qatari flags and participate in Qatari National Day parades despite knowing nothing about the Qatari independence movement. During a time when migrant worker abuses were a diplomatic point-of-contention, it was certainly odd to find the workers’ children adoring of Qataris.

Here, the children aspired to become like the wealthy, fashionable Arab locals, and intuitively understood language to be significant. The few children who spoke Arabic, were popular and ‘cool’, because they had access to a completely different culture (“privileged system of representation”, the Arabic-speaking children now analogous to priests).

2. The gradual weakening of Religious Imagined Communities – Anderson’s implication that Religious Communities had to be weakened before National Communities could flourish. The primary agents of this change introduced as print-capitalism and changing conceptions of time. The unself-conscious territorialization of the early European against the political, self-conscious territorialization of Modern Man. 

Anderson goes on to claim that the medieval exploration of the non-European world ‘abruptly widened the cultural and geographic horizon’ and led to the territorialization of faiths. This ignores the centuries of cultural contact between Hellenistic and Oriental empires – from contact via trade in spices, to conquest, and the development of syncretic traditions and empires (Sakas). Considering that Christianity is a syncretic faith borrowed from Greek philosophical thought (and since the Ancient Greeks were in touch with distant empires and cultures) Anderson fails to substantiate how Christianity could have been profoundly affected by cultural contact from burgeoning trade.

3. The colonization of the Americas, and the birth of the Creole community. The subsequent exclusion of the Creoles from bureaucratic ladders of power, and the step-motherly treatment of Spain towards the colonies. American nationalism and its connections with slavery; the Empire co-opting natives. 

Ben Anderson here compares a bureaucratic career to a pilgrimage consisting a spiral, centered around the metropolis – only the most trusted and senior civil servants were given plum posts at the metropolis. However, prevailing dispensations did not trust Creoles. Anderson presents a particularly memorable quote from a Portuguese Franciscan in Goa:

“Even if born of pure white parents [they] have been suckled by Indian ayahs in their infancy and thus had their blood contaminated for life.”

Anderson argues that a step-motherly attitude on the part of the Spanish State fostered feelings of resentment on the part of the Creoles, which eventually crystallized into a form of nationalism. Anderson describes in great detail the fundamental problem the Spanish State grappled with – how do you exploit the educated, powerful class of Creoles while discriminating them? 

The book’s treatment of Creole Nationalism finds an analogue in India, where there existed a governing class of England-educated Indians, who were placed a rung below Englishmen. The activities of the Indian-Creoles–who founded the first independence organizations–largely conform to Anderson’s theory of Creole nationalism. 

Anderson’s vivid descriptions of the colonial machinery, which barred Creoles from higher administrative power and optimized the state apparatus for resource exploitation, reminds one of conditions in pre-independence India, as well as East Pakistan post-1947. However, a key point of difference lies in Anderson’s description of native participation. In the Americas, the natives defended the imperial power against the revolutionaries, while in Asia, the natives were the revolutionaries. 

4. The nation becomes a model capable of being consciously aspired to, using examples pioneered Americas and France. Print-capitalism leads to the formation of vernacular groups in Europe, who start to ‘own’ their language. Finally, monarchies pioneer an ‘official’ nationalism, which safeguards their hold on power. 

Anderson’s theory comes full circle here. Instead of nationalism being pioneered in Europe and radiating outwards (as was the Eurocentric-diffusionist view) Anderson demonstrates how nationalism came to be adopted in Europe after originating in the Americas. With the demotion in the status of Latin, vernacular languages rose to prominence, and created distinct pools of native speakers. This gradually led to a feeling of speakers ‘owning’ a language, and a sense of community between speakers of the same language formed. Monarchs anxious not to be left behind pushed an agenda of ‘official’ nationalism, instituting nation-building programs such as military conscription and commissioning revisionist history. With the founding of the League of Nations, the nation-state as the only viable model, was formalized. 

Over the course of Imagined Communities, one finds answers to the questions of my problematic. The key factors binding the many millions of a nation, are language and various shared rituals – the reading of a morning paper, or even the act of standing for your national anthem. Why were nations and their various shared rituals instituted? Print-capitalism and disenfranchised Creoles have overlapping roles to play – the nation as conceived by the Creoles was both influenced by, and influencing, publications of the time. A secondary actor here are the various monarchies, who chose to co-opt nationalism to hold on to power. 

The rise of the Internet poses new questions to Ben Anderson’s hypotheses. The Internet has truly democratized publishing, allowing anyone to disseminate information to a global audience. Just as Anderson conceived of newspapers helping bind the citizens of a nascent nation together, it might be internet forums and chat-boards forming the new Imagined Communities. Even the act of hash-tagging (#JeSuisCharlieHebdo, #Metoo) can be compared with Anderson’s descriptions of ritualistic acts building solidarity and affirming the sense of the imagined community. The fact that nations today are gripped by bitter ideological polarization, might be influenced by these trans-national imagined communities. 

Scarily enough, this might be a predictor of the next wave of national re-organization: countries organized by political and ethical philosophy. 

References

  1. Ali, Tariq. Benedict Anderson 1936-2015; https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2393-benedict-anderson-1936-2015. 13 December 2015. 29 October 2018.
  2. Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Edinburgh: Verso, 1983.
  3. Blaut, James M. “The Political Economy of Imperialism: Critical Appraisals.” Ed. Ronald Chilcote. Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999. 127-140. Webpage. 2 November 2018. <http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/10/021.html&gt;.
  4. Chan, Sewell. Benedict Anderson, Scholar Who Saw Nations as ‘Imagined,’ Dies at 79. n.d. 1 11 2018. <https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/15/world/asia/benedict-anderson-scholar-who-saw-nations-as-imagined-dies-at-79.html&gt;.
  5. Chatterjee, Partha. “Anderson’s Utopia.” Diacritics, vol. 29, no. 4, 1999, pp. 128–134. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1566381
  6. “Colonialism and Nationalism in Africa and Europe.” Past & Present (1963): 65-74. JSTOR.
  7. Munro, Andre. Benedict Anderson. 3 June 2013. 27 October 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Benedict-Anderson&gt;.

Walter, Richard. “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Review).” SAIS Review 12.2 (1992): 150-151. Document. 21 October 2018. <https://muse.jhu.edu/article/434234/pdf&gt;

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