BOOK REVIEW Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983, 1991, 2006)

andersonAnderson, Benedict R. O’G. Imagined Communities Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. London; New York: Verso, 2006.

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argues that the nation is a new, modern phenomenon. The 17th and 18th century witnessed the demise of previous forms political bodies that were shaped by a sacred language, sacred cosmology and dynastic power, and sense of historical temporality shaped by cosmology. Material conditions and rationalist perception of ‘homogenous empty time’ created the structures where individuals could conceptualize themselves as part of an ‘imagined community.’ The imagined community is one in which members will not know most of their fellow members, is finite with limited boundaries, sovereign power, and a community of fraternal, horizontal comradeship. It is through the emergence of print-capitalism—the technological, mass production of newspapers and the novel and the spread of vernacular print languages—that individuals could think of themselves and relate to others in different ways. This possibility to envision parallel and plural realities connected individuals to other individuals to form a concept of an ‘imagined community.’

Anderson’s second contribution is the historical argument regarding the models of nations and nationalisms. Undermining the idea that the nation was both an essentialist category and of European origins, Anderson argues that the earliest nations and nationalist movements emerged in ‘creole communities’—descendants of white European settlers in the North and South Americas. This model of creole communities offers one of four ‘models’ that come to influence later nationalist movements and ideas of nations. The second model emerges during the late 18th century among the linguistic nationalists, philologists, and scientists who classify and reconstruct the evolution of languages. The third model is one of officoal nationalism and imperialism, seen in Russia, Japan, Thailand, England and Hungary. This form of nationalism is a defensive, conservative response by monarchs to popular and linguistic nationalists. The fourth model of nationalism develops out of the colonial context and institutions of education, bureaucracy, and movement. Anderson argues that in Asia and Africa, the administrative, educated, bilingual intelligentsia came to identify themselves as a colonial, national, and part of a solidarity of power and outside models of nation. It is through the experience of travel and educational access that this intelligentsia gained power and created an imagined community of nationals. In Anderson’s revised later editions, he emphasizes the importance of the colonial context and the role of the census, map, and museum to provide the ‘grammar’ of nationalism and imaginings of dominion—the abstract quantifications of people, symbolic demarcating of political space, and the geneaological conceptions of pasts and heritages.

Discussion Points and Overview

Biography of Author
  • born August 1936 in Kunming China to Anglo Irish father (Imperial martime customs) and English mother, 1941 moved to California
  • B.A. in Classics from Cambridge (brief study with Eric Hobsbawm), Ph.D. from Cornell’s dept of Govnernment studying modern Indonesia under George Kahin
    • ph.d “The Pemuda Revolution:Indonesian Politics 1945-1946
  • banned from Indonesia after his “cornell paper’ (collaborative effort with other grad students/scholars Frederick Bunnell and Ruth McVey, preliminary analysis of the October 1, 1965 coup) regarding political situation in Indonesia during Suharto regime – september 30 movement proposing that coup was internal army affair and not part of communist party of indonesia or President Sukarno—> returned  to Indonesia in 1999
    • “Exile had the advantage of pushing my inquiries back into the nineteenth century, and from everyday politics to the transformations of consciousness that made presently existing Indonesia thinkable”.
  • brother: British historian and political sociologist Perry Anderson (UCLA), identified with New Left Marxists…former editor of New Left Review
  • taught at Cornell in dept of government until retirement in 2002, Professor Emeritus of INternational Studies, Government & Asian studies at Cornell University;publishes on Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines
  • other famous works:
    • 1972- java in a Time of Revolution
    • 1983 Imagined Communities
    • 1990 Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in iNdonesia 
    • 1998 The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia and the World 
Biography of a work: Imagined Communities
  • first published in 1983
  • 1991 edition added sections ch. 10-12…on SEA cases on museums, space, census (classification and serialization—the grammar and language of nationalism)
  • 2006 further editions, particularly of translation (did not know Spanish)
    • shift in argument..nationalism of Asia and Africa not modelled after official nationlsim of dynastic state sof 19th c Europe, but on imaginings of colonial state–> colnonial state provides and reformulates the institutions of the census, map, and museum and profoundly shaped way colnial state imagined its dominion * geography, legitimacy of ancestry
  • main contributions within other fields
    • literary and discourse analysis: social construction of nations, nationalism as a discursive production, as something performed and meanings employed by nationalists, display nation-ness
      • novel, newspaper, and nation as contemporaneous developments
    • spatial:
  • main contenders:
    • Partha Chatterjee aruges that Western conceptions of nationalism dominate even anti-colonial nationalisms (colonization of national imagination)..argues that print capitalism as an argument too simplistic and linear and does not consider asymmetircal power relations of colonial context
    • feminist critique: antionalism as a male phenomenon, understanding fraternity eliding gender, class, race
Imagined Communities – Concepts & Arguments
  • q. how nations are imagined rather than what they imagine themselves as (Peng Cheah)
  • underlying motivations: nationalism as an anomaly in Marxist theory and thus not theorized/conceptualized…Imagined Communities as an effort to reconcile and examine emergence of nationalism historically (through materialist understandings)
    • In 1978 and 1979 wars had taken place between Vietnam, Cambodia and China, but “none of the belligerents had made more than the most perfunctory attempts to justify the bloodshed in terms of a recognisable Marxist theoretical perspective”. This said something about their character: “Since World War Two every successful revolution has defined itself in national terms…and, in so doing, has grounded itself firmly in a territorial and social space inherited from the revolutionary past”.15 But the idea that socialism, or even the transition to socialism, should perpetrate nation_state and nationalism was contrary to all previous Marxist positions. What implications did this have for the Marxist theory of nationalism?
  • “an imagined political community [that is] imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” 6
    • imagined: members will not know most of fellow members
    • limited: finite, elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations (also compared to other communities, it is larger but limited in size)
    • sovereign: part of Enlightenment and Revolution discourse of freedom of the sovereign state
    • community: conceived as deep, horizontal comradeship; fraternity of self-sacrifice “members wil 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.”
  • print capitalism (material conditions…structure under which the imagined community develops and persists)
    • history: sacred scriptural communities and sacred monarchy decline in Europe in 17th century—> revolution in concept of time to ‘homogenous empty time’
    • Erich Auerbach and Walter Benjamin- simultaneity of time and the common language…parallel and synhronous mode of temporality perception of events and sense of space…
    • print-capitalism and  mass produed industry of print and newspaper
      • novels and newspapers making it possible for people to think about thsemlves and relate to others (overthrowing Latin and sacred elite language, Protestantism and vernacular languages)
      • vernacular ‘print language’- benath sacred language and above spoken dialects—> a fixity of communication and identities
    • where is the capitalism in print-capitalism’- creation of a bourgeoisie and wider educated middle class, capitalist relations of production not as alienation but to provide the technologies for community of intelligentsia
      • not a historical materialist development of labor’s alienation…but of chance and accident of technologies, languages, administrative apparatus (e.g. Bahasa Indonesian)
  • models of nationalism:
    • historical development of nationalism: creole pioneers in N. and S. Americas
      • undermining European origins of nationalist politics
      • through colonial, self-adminsitrative territorial units created a sense of sovereign communit yand belonging through provincial newxpapers
    • Asia and Africa 19th/20th century nationalism—> large empires, bilingual intelligentsia and colonial education system
  • russification
  • French Revoljution as concept of revolution
  • Bolshevik revolutionary model
  • nationalisms from the New World* (?)
  • printcapitalism,
  • piracy in the positive, metaphorical sense, vernacularization, and nationalism’s undivorcible marriage to internationalism. (207)
  • provinciality
    • colonial creole reads a Madrid newspaper
    • importance of travel as a unifying experienc,e constructed journey and growing community in early 18th c imperial and 20th c
  • plurality
    • conscious of existence of other newspapers
  • parallelity/coternminous
    • ” This new synchronic novelty could arise historically only when substantial groups of people were in a position to think of themselves as living lives parallel to those of other substantial groups of people – ifnever meeting, yet certainly proceeding along the same trajectory. 188 New world imagine themselves comparable and parable to those in Europe

One thought on “BOOK REVIEW Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983, 1991, 2006)”

  1. Amazing review of the book. You truly have a gift of taking a complicated book on nationalism development and distill it down into a coherent and succinct summary. Best of luck to you on your pursuit of a PHD

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