Saturday, July 19, 2008

Where do nations come from?: Some comments on Imagined Communities

Image found here.

Note: More sabbatical-project reading.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. Ed. London: Verso, 2006.

It's difficult to overstate the importance of this book to people interested in the question posed in the title of this post--not to mention the questions that arise from the answers to that question. Anderson's book is seminal because, while prior to it there had been any number of historical studies of the emergence of specific nations, no book had addressed what cultural work first had to occur before something like a nation, in our sense of that word, could appear. Anderson's book's position in this discussion, then, is analogous to that of Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel for students of the English novel or, in my own field of American literature, F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance: agree or disagree with it, you have to be familiar with it.

Anderson's first important move is to discuss nationalism not as an ideology but "as if it belonged with 'kinship' and 'religion', rather than with 'liberalism' or 'fascism'" (5). (As one can see, such a move has the effect of rendering the term more neutral in its charge--in the post-war wake of National Socialism's defeat, "nationalism" had become an extraordinarily pejorative term. To be sure, the example of Nazism reveals the potential for horror within nationalism; but, as Anderson's analogous examples of kinship and religion indicate, there is much that is positive contained within a people's sense of itself as a nation.) He then offers this simple definition: "[I]t is an imagined political community--and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign" (6). They are imagined because, within them, no one can possibly know all its other members--yet, despite that, one feels a political (in its broadest sense) link to those other members. They are limited because, no matter how expansive a nation is or wants to be, it always recognizes the existence of other nations beyond its boundaries. And finally, they are sovereign in that the people have some small say in their own governance (6-7).

Before I get into the wonkier stuff, I'd urge you who are the least bit curious about any of this but who don't want to pony up $20 or so for the book to go to the library and read the chapters "Cultural Roots" and "The Origins of National Consciousness." Here, Anderson identifies and discusses those cultural trends that to his mind had to be in place before nationalism could emerge as a political force. All these will be familiar to anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with late-medieval to Renaissance history and culture; what's striking (for me, anyway) is how Anderson can make one see these trends in a new, compelling light as they--the trends--are revealed to also be performing a latent political work that wouldn't fully manifest itself for another 200 years. The crucial trend Anderson identifies is the gradually-waning power of the Church's ability to define the realities of this world on its own terms. Out of that trend emerged the others: the waning of Latin as educated/empowered/priestly Europe's privileged language and its gradual supplanting by vernaculars ("The determinative fact about Latin--aside from its sacrality--was that it was a language of bilinguals. Relatively few were born to speak it and even fewer, one imagines, dreamed in it" [38]); the fading of the notion of the dynasty as the sole legitimate form of governance; and, finally and most fascinating, a movement from what Anderson, referring to Walter Benjamin, calls "Messianic time--a simultaneity of past and future in an instantaneous present" (in other words, the traditionally-Christian way of conceiving how God perceives time) to (in reference to Benjamin again) a sense of time as being "'homogeneous [and] empty,' in which simultaneity is, as it were, transverse, cross-time, marked not by prefiguring and fulfillment, but by temporal coincidence, and measured by clock and calendar" (24). Anderson then notes that "homogeneous, empty time" is also precisely that of the novel-as-genre. I should also note here (though Anderson doesn't) that Mikhail Bakhtin (he of the idea of the chronotope that I mentioned in the previous post) notes precisely these two different senses of time as marking the chief difference between epic and novel.

The chapter "The Origins of National Consciousness," meanwhile, concentrates on the invention of movable type as simultaneously making possible the rapid production of texts and, more crucially, through its products' privileging of vernaculars, gradually turning educated Europeans from a collective who could understand each other via Latin no matter where they lived into linguistically-segregated groupings of monoglots who, now, began to feel connections with other speakers of their vernacular in ways that Latin had not done. From here, it's easy to see how a notion of nation-ness would gradually emerged: first (Anderson nowhere mentions this, but it seems inescapable to conclude otherwise) its prefigurement in the Protestant Reformation--many of the events of which were driven as much by (local) politics as by theology--and the Counterreformation; then in terms of politics.

Anderson's other important move--and the one that begins to explain why I'm reading and writing about this book--is that he locates the origins of nationalism not in Europe, as had been assumed by his predecessors, but in the Americas: specifically, not just in the American Revolution but also in the nearly-simultaneously-occurring wars for independence from Spain and France around the turn of the 18th-19th centuries that very self-consciously modelled themselves politically on the American example. Just as happened in American literature, in Latin America there appeared an explosion of literary works that in various ways attempted to articulate what it meant to be a [name of your new nation here]--and recall Anderson's noting the coincidence of the emergence of the novel-as-genre as accompanying the emergence of modern nationalisms. Using these observations their starting points, a whole slew of books, led by the example of Doris Sommer's Foundational Fictions: The National Romance of Latin America, examine the novels and other literature that emerged in the decades following these revolutions--many of which have as their protagonists men and women of different ethnicities who fall in love with each other--and posit that the work these novels perform is not (or not entirely) "artistic" in intent. Instead, their goal is, as Sommer's book's title states, to help these new states define themselves as inhabited by new peoples. It's no mistake, after all, that the authors of these works were more often than not also bureaucrats in these new governments. Put in Andersonian terms, they are purposefully intended to help these new communities imagine themselves, with the state dictating the terms of the imagining.

Well, yes. Sort of. I think.

Not just wonkiness but vaguely-formulated wonkiness follows.

I've read and thought a fair amount about how the Powers That Be in what are now what we call Latin America tried, on the one hand, to pretend that there was no essential difference between these colonies and themselves and yet, as I posted on here, produced an enormous variety of visual and textual rhetorics whose intents were to try to account precisely for the differences they found themselves immersed in. In these matters, the state's acountings always lagged far behind realities as racial comminglings became ever more complex in the Latin American colonies. To my mind, the byzantine casta-painting charts of the Mexicans and racial charts from the French colonies are, in the end, less testimonies to the desire to catalogue than Sisyphean exercises in futility. I didn't quite say in my post on Reading Columbus that one way of thinking about the mixture of rhetorics in the Columbian texts might be that they are an example of a recurring feature of the literature of the Americas: the seeking out of a language that will make sense of something for which a vocabulary barely exists, if at all. These various pictorial and textual catalogues of racial combinations are other examples of that same seeking out.

Sure: I can certainly see that the state has a vested interest in controlling how it gets defined; what I have more trouble buying, though, is that after 300 years of latent and, at times, not-so-latent anxiety about these new racial combinations and their implications on down the road, the state--even this new one--would suddenly be comfortable with presenting a vision of its people's future as a mixed-race one. The region's fascination, from the mid-19th century until well into the 20th, with applying the principles of eugenics to shape such things political institutions and educational systems suggests a continuing ambivalence about all this. Never mind that it was precisely not that vision but the actuality of a mixed-race present that gave at least partial form to these particular imagined communities. And therein lies my point of disagreement with Sommer's basic argument. I think.


R. Sherman said...

I thinks its fairly obvious to see how the idea of nation states developed. In Europe, anyway, as the power of the familial alliances began to break down, there was nothing left but the connection of language. Stated differently, this was merely "tribal" affinity writ large.

What I find interesting, (and the book is now lodged on my Amazon wish list, BTW) is the thought that this process started in the Americas. It would seem that the "All Men Are Created Equal" part of our declaration of nationhood, pretty much sounds the death knell for nations based on tribal affinity.

Stated differently, there ain't no tribes anymore. It's just us trying to be happy.

I've read a lot lately about the failure of Europe to assimilate immigrants and the common refrain among said immigrants, even second or third generation is "We can never be Dutch, Swedish, German, whatever.

Without waving the flag too much, our society allows immigrants to retain their own identity while still being "American" because all that requires is subscribing to an idea.

Heckuva thing to base a nation on.


John B. said...

Without waving the flag too much, our society allows immigrants to retain their own identity while still being "American" because all that requires is subscribing to an idea.

Yes--and a fellow named Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur, in "What Is an American?" (the most famous of his Letters from an American Farmer (1782) put it in precisely those terms. But it's a tricky balancing act, what we've pulled off here. Speaking personally, I think there are times when the louder, more boorish proponents of such things as English Only or the racial/ethnic profiling of airline passengers forget such things. Not that speaking English isn't in fact an important skill to possess in this country or that security isn't important, but surely its proponents can frame these debates with an eye to (and respect for) the basic fact about the American version of nationalism that you note.

By the way: I couldn't work it into the post, but over at In Medias Res my friend Russell has a post up that addresses, indirectly, issues of language and how they inform the dynamics of a state's polity.

R. Sherman said...

Thanks for pointing out the In Medias Res link. I've got a draft on these issues sitting in the Blogger Ether waiting for an appropriate time to publish. Basically, I started writing it when Arnold Schwarzenegger made remarks last year about learning English.

I feel the time may coming.


dd said...

Hmmm. Have you heard of this new film? It sounds like it might be an interesting bridge between your time in Mobile and themes written about here -

"The Order of Myths." Beautifully shot by Michael Simmonds and expertly edited by Brown, Michael Taylor and Geoffrey Richman, the film examines the time-honored tradition of Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, where celebrations remain segregated between white and black residents.

John B. said...

Ms. Diva,
I don't know it, but I'll be sure to look for it. I loved going to the parades when I lived in Mobile.

New Orleans Mardi Gras is also segregated. Much of the reason for that is that, well, the cities themselves remain segregated--along the parade routes downtown in Mobile, people tend to gather in those areas closest to where they live. The krewes (the organizations that build the floats and parade) are basically segregated as well. This last has led to tensions among the krewes regarding parade times and routes but, so far as I know, not among the crowds. But: that word "segregation." I'm not thrilled that the conditions exist that I've described above, but neither should people get the impression that every Mardi Gras is some sort of racial powderkeg waiting to go off. When my children were very young, I felt no hesitation at all about taking them to the parades; it so happened that the routes closest for us happened to have predominantly African-American crowds, and we were never less than warmly, genuinely welcomed as we joined them. People even offered us food off their grills.

Social segregation in the Deep South remains a fact, and it grieves me that that is so. If the experience of my children and their friends is any indication, that is slowly beginning to change. But I often thought--and think--of Mardi Gras, because of its origins, its public sanction, the way the city essentially does nothing else but go to the parades for a week before Fat Tuesday, as a time when people can get a glimpse of what a less-segregated South looks like and, just maybe, like what they see.

zunguzungu said...

Have you read Ed White's "Early American Nations as Imagined Communities"? I'd recommend it; I think he's very smart about the ways that BA's thesis fails to fit the actual history of the early American colonies; one of his most cogent points, I think, is that there are a broad variety of categories of affiliation between family and nation, and (he goes into more detail in his book) these categories of affiliation were in many ways much more politically important than nation.

My personal problem with Anderson's thesis is that there is so little distinction between lived categories like "nation" as people define them, and a thing like the state which organizes people (and the nation) for very different purposes. Much of Anderson is indispensable, as you say, but for me, the next step is a narrative of the nation that doesn't simply assume its inevitability once other bonds are broken; Anderson often fails to take into account all the different ways that people do tend to organize themselves (all the non-national ways) as well as the reasons why alternatives like that got pushed aside in the regions he looks at (and for me, that explanation starts with the state).

John B. said...

Thanks for stopping by and for the heads-up on White. There's another book out there that also takes on Anderson relative to the circumstances of the Americas, Beyond Imagined Communities, edited by Sara Castro-Klaren. Also, in its own way, I'm in the middle of a book on Mexican casta paintings that makes the argument that these paintings do not start out as, but end up being, affirmations of mestizaje as that which makes New Spain distinct from and its own way as legitimate as the mother country itself. All that is territory that Anderson sort of glances at indirectly. I'll be posting on all that on down the road.
Thanks again.