Review: Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson

Cover of the first German edition, courtesy of Campus Fachbuch

I heard about this book around the time I was starting to form my own ideas about why people identify themselves as Americans, Porteños, Quebecois—and why other people don’t. Essentially, what does it take to convince people that they belong to a group? Why did US citizens identify more with their states than their nation, in the early 19th century? When does state building fail, and when does it succeed? Imagined Communities does not examine those specific questions, but it effectively answers them, and provides a whole bunch of tools for understanding nationalism, and, I ‘unno, separatist movements like the one that is happening right now. Might be worth picking up now for that reason.

The central conceit of Imagined Communities is that nationalism, even the concept of clearly delineated nations as the ultimate form of legitimacy, is recent, and that it was only possible with the rise of print capitalism. When reading newspapers based in Venezuela, inhabitants of the country could imagine other “Venezuelans” reading the same text as them, reading about the same political appointments, the same market changes, the same marriages of nobility. This “imagined community” is the nation. Of course, there are other imagined communities (Anderson describes religious community as the greatest precursor to national community), but because of the insularity of nations, and a host of other factors which he delineates in the book, this imagined community becomes one that people are willing to die for.

I read the latest (final? ultimate?) edition of the book, published in 2006, which includes two more chapters than the 1983 version has, and an afterword describing the “Geo-biography” of the book—an interesting read about the various political groups that have associated themselves with the text throughout the past few decades, and pushed for its translation into various languages.

Anderson presents his arguments well, mainly by taking multiple historical case studies and thoroughly interrogating them, pulling out what can be pulled out from them, and what common attributes they share. With maybe one or two small exceptions, I rarely felt that any of his assertions were overly cute or poorly founded (the only one that comes to mind is some trivial thing about the transition from Anno Domini to AD/BC … hardly the keystone of his thesis.) More than just being presented well, many of the concepts he presents I found totally astounding. What Anderson is explaining is a phenomenon that is at the core of how we understand the world—by which I mean, the world. Earth. The globe. The people in it. Where we are in it. So, necessarily, when he pulls back the curtain, it’s a bit of a trip. Even I, someone who’s long felt that American-ness is bullshit, and that I am principally a citizen of Earth, or a human, was astounded with little revelations throughout the book. Here are some:

“Almost every year the United Nations admits new members. And many ‘old nations,’ once thought fully consolidated, find themselves challenged by ‘sub’-nationalisms within their borders—nationalisms which, naturally, dream of shedding this sub-ness one happy day. The reality is quite plain: the ‘end of the era of nationalism,’ so long prophesied, is not remotely in sight. Indeed, nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time.” (3)

“Figuring the Virgin Mary with ‘Semitic’ features or ‘first-century’ costumes … was unimaginable because the mediaeval Christian mind had no conception of history as an endless chain of cause and effect or of radical separations between past and present … Bloch concludes that as soon as medieval men ‘gave themselves up to meditation, nothing was farther from their thoughts than the prospect of a long future for a young and vigorous human race.'” (23)

“The horizon is clearly bounded: it is that of colonial Mexico. Nothing assures us of this sociological solidity more than the succession of plurals. For they conjure up a social space full of comparable prisons, none in itself of any unique importance, but all representative (in their simultaneous, separate existence) of the oppressiveness of this colony. (Contrast prisons in the Bible. They are never imagined as typical of this or that society. Each, like the one where Salome was bewitched by John the Baptist, is magically alone.)” (30)

If these passages aren’t making you stop and really think for a moment, then (unless you are already familiar with this kind sociological/historical discourse) I guarantee you something in this book will.

And hopefully these passages illustrate how well written the book is. It doesn’t devolve into wretched academic-ese, or even throw much jargon at the reader. Anderson writes in a high register, but he actually has a very firm grasp on what he is saying. He even manages to pull off some surprisingly striking metaphors.

One of the most interesting, and delightful, aspects of this book is Anderson’s voice. It seems as though he is discovering, and marveling at these historical events right along with you. His quotes are peppered with [sic]s that more often than not serve more to say, “really, it says that!” than to clarify that a spelling error is being faithfully reproduced. And the book is full of wry remarks that point out the absurdity or hypocrisy of certain situations. For instance: “Nonetheless, in themselves, market-zones, ‘natural’-geographic or politico-administrative, do not create attachments. Who will willingly die for Comecon or the EEC?” (53) At another point, he quotes the final lines of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s “All That is Gone”—in the original Indonesian. Offering no translation (which is his point—that these words will be inaccessible, “closed,” to English-readers), the footnote to the quote reads, “Still, listen to them! I have adapted the current spelling to accord with current convention and to make the quotation completely phonetic.” (148)

Finally, the book is admirably international. Anderson uses historical examples from Europe, but also heavily relies upon historical events in Latin America, the Fillipines, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and India. The book is light on (though it doesn’t totally ignore) Africa and the Middle East, but Anderson’s expertise was in Indochina and the Malay Archipelago, so it’s understandable. As well, Anderson uses untranslated quotes in French and Spanish, but also Tagalog, and Indonesian. Maybe others would be bothered by this, but I found it charming, even though I could understand the French only scarcely, and the Tagalog and Indonesian not at all. I like polylingualism though, I like that a book which dissects the artifice of nationalism can not be fully read by a person who only knows their country’s official language—and again, it gives the sense that we are sifting through these books together with Anderson.

In all, it’s a fantastic book for so many reasons—it’s thorough, it’s readable, it complicates rather simplifies. I’m sure I’ll return to it as I continue to consider these ideas myself, and when doing world-building for stories. I think everyone should read it, though I’d especially recommend it to writers of fantasy and sci-fi. So often medieval fantasies feel bizarrely modern because of the very ideas that IC rejects—maps are clearly drawn, with precise borders. People are either citizens of this “country” (what now?) or that, and strongly identify as such. Imagined Communities demonstrates the absurdity of this type of writing, and creates a framework through which to critique it, to improve it, to avoid the myth of nationhood as being eternal, and comprehend something much more complicated, and much more fascinating.

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