Ben Anderson’s Imagined Communities

Benedict Anderson, who died in December 2015, will be remembered as an important historian of South-East Asia and especially for a series of damning papers that undermined the Indonesian New Order (Suharto) Regime’s account of the 1965 coup that brought Suharto to power, in the course of which roughly 500,000 people, some of them suspected communists, were killed. In the broader academic community, he will also be remembered as a scholar who, as a New York Times headline has it, “saw nations as ‘Imagined’.”(December 14, 2015)
Since I have no specialist knowledge of South-East Asia, I am not in a position to say much about Anderson’s work in this area. Yet, having lived through the initial impact of his Imagined Communities (1982, 1991, 2006) in the 1980s I feel qualified at least to reflect on its extra-ordinary impact.
It would not be unfair to suggest that most historians are suspicious of theoretical argument and conceptual analysis, preferring rather to address their differences by marshalling facts, either introducing hitherto unused material to undermine the arguments of their opponents and/or re-interpreting facts that are not themselves in dispute. Anderson was no exception. His Imagined Communities throws out several imaginative ideas – notably the ‘imagined communities’ of his title and ‘print capitalism’ – but it does not work carefully through their conceptual ramifications. It appeared at a time in which Marxism had been largely abandoned in the British social sciences, where it had once been influential in archeology, history, sociology and, to some extent, in economics. In the social sciences more generally, functionalist analysis was under pressure from several standpoints insisting on the importance of subjective meaning in the explanation of action
Imagined Communities argued that ‘with the ebbing of religious belief…the suffering which belief in part composed did not disappear. Disintegration of paradise: nothing makes fatality more arbitrary. Absurdity of salvation: nothing makes another style of continuity more necessary. What then was required was a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning.’ The great failure of liberalism and Marxism, Anderson suggested, is that they passed over these issues ‘with an impatient silence.’ Nationalism responds to some of the needs that, earlier in Western Christendom, had been met by organised religion. Since they avoided consideration of these needs, liberal and Marxist accounts of nationalism failed to account for its visceral power, the fact that so many have been willing to kill and to die for their nation. In effect, as T. J. Clarke’s glowing review of the 2006 edition points out, Imagined Communities (London Review of Books, September 21, 2006) acknowledges ‘nationalism’s ability to provide answers to the questions that previous religions had made their own. The nation gives form to a shiftless and arbitrary being on earth, it offers a promise of immortality, it is oriented time and again towards – and beyond – the individual’s death.’
While we may question Anderson’s vaguely Nietzschean invocation of the death of God (the ebbing of religious belief), his basic point is undeniable. Not many accounts of nationalism have been particularly interested in its ability to give meaning to the life of its adherents.The question for us is whether this matters. I return to this question below but it is worth noting that, in positing a parallel between Western Christendom and nationalism, Anderson’s discussion of nationalism is no less Eurocentric than the liberal and Marxist accounts that he seeks to displace.

The nation is an imagined community as, in Anderson’s view, any community of more than a few people able to know each other face-to-face must be. It is socially constructed, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as its members. The social construction of the nation was first enabled by print-capitalism, the coming together of capitalism and print technology. Anderson jokingly reduces the argument to a simple formula in a later interview: ‘technology + capitalism + Tower of Babel = nationalism!'(Philippine Studies, 50, 1, 2011 at p.127). While the impact of print-capitalism might be expected to vary according to the legal regulation of what may or may not be published, the practicalities of distribution – a matter not only of waterways, mountains and other natural conditions but also of administrative or geo-political divisions – and how publishing enterprises organise the work of printing, binding and distribution, Anderson nevertheless suggested that print-capitalism promoted two distinct but interconnected developments: first, the standardisation of languages within regions; and second, the publication (of newspapers, books and periodicals) in vernacular, alongside or in place of specialised, elite languages.
“Print language is what invents nationalism, not a particular language per se.” Not only does a shared vernacular language promote a sense of unity amongst its speakers/readers but its printed forms, newspapers especially, are the site of a unifying ritual. Drawing on Hegel’s observation ‘that newspapers serve modern man as a substitute for morning prayers’, Anderson treats the daily paper as the material basis of a paradoxical national ritual:
‘It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion. Furthermore, this ceremony is incessantly repeated at daily or half-daily intervals throughout the calendar.’

There are two elements here: the suggestions, first, that reading the paper induces sense of belonging to something larger than oneself and, second that it has a ritual or ceremonial character. Taking them together, reading the paper serves as a ceremonial enactment of the imagined community of the nation. We might pause to ask at this point what reasons, other than Hegel’s authority, might there be for viewing the impact of ‘national’ newspapers in this light? Who reads these papers and what do they get out of them or read them for – sport, politics, scandal, …? What goes on in the readers’ minds? Why, in particular, should we assume that papers are read by most readers in a ceremonial fashion so that each of them gains a sense of belonging to a community of thousands (or millions) of other readers? If print capitalism offers competing papers to choose from, why should we assume that reading one of these papers promotes a sense of unity with readers of the others?

If Anderson moves too easily from the raw idea of print-capitalism to a confident account of its social repurcussions, what can we say about the idea that the national community is imagined? Why, indeed, should we assume that there is more to communities, like the nation, that are invoked for political or religious reasons than the occasions and effects of their rhetorical invocation? At one level, it seems obvious that people who can be persuaded to see themselves as belonging to a particular nation are likely to have some sense of the nation in question. Yet, even if they give it the same name, should we expect that them all to imagine it in the same way? Is it imagined as a community of those who speak the national language or only those for whom it is their native tongue; of anyone born in or formally ‘naturalised’ into the national territory or only of those whose parents are themselves nationals, etc.? If the nation is imagined in diverse ways by those who believe themselves to be its members – if the nations they imagine are substantially different – in what sense can this nation still be said to be imagined by the people who perceive themselves to be its members? More seriously, if the nation is always imagined, how many of its members – and which members in particular – have to imagine it before the nation can be said to exist? We might think, for example, of national movements that, beginning with a few artists and intellectuals, all proclaiming the existence of the nation, may or may not develop into large scale national political and/or military movements. Should we say that in some cases there was a nation just waiting to be born and that in other cases there was not?

How could Imagined Communities have been so successful? Part of the answer is that it offered something, if not to everybody, then at least to large numbers of potential readers. Despite Anderson’s quasi-religious extension of the concept of ‘print-capitalism’, the term itself was enough to offer Marxist readers a sop that could be read as a materialist foundation while the focus on meaning in his critique of liberal and Marxist accounts of nationalism presented anyone fleeing Marxism with an additional nail to hammer into its coffin. This same focus appealed to those critics of social scientific functionalism who insisted that subjective meaning should be central to the analysis of action while the functionalists could find comfort in the thought that subjective meaning never runs wild in Anderson’s analysis but is confined to its place in the little ceremonies that sustain the nation.
Finally, does it matter if Marxist and liberal accounts of nationalism fail to acknowledge its ability to give meaning to the life of its adherents? Almost certainly not. Nationalism is a difficult enough phenomenon to pin down and we should not be surprised if Marxist and liberal accounts have not succeeded. In this area, as in many others, tossing the death of God into the mix is a recipe for further confusion.

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