Bonus Book Review: Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

Welcome back for another helping of Bonus Book Reviews! As you may know from the three previous entries in this mini-series (my reviews of Camilla Townsend’s Fifth Sun, Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, and Julian Baggini’s How the World Thinks can be found here, here, and here), I am part of an online book club which covers one work of scholarly nonfiction each month. Most of the group’s discussion takes place in that online forum, but I do like to offer some longer thoughts on the selected books here on the blog as well.

This month’s selection was the first of our group’s chosen books that I had previously read, making this review a bit different from its predecessors. I originally encountered Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, as so many readers likely have, in graduate school; in my specific case, Anderson was assigned for the first week of the “readings in Latin American history” seminar that I took during the fall semester of the second year of my MA program. Because we read the book for the first week of classes and didn’t have a writing assignment due for it, I (sadly) didn’t take great notes, though I remember finding the book persuasive and insightful, and much of the material seemed familiar to me as I skimmed/read it again this time around.

Image is of the first edition cover; in this review, however, I have relied on the revised edition published by Verso in 2006/2016.

Because it has been a while since that first, significantly more thorough reading of Imagined Communities, I won’t belabor the point too much in this post; there are plenty of substantive reviews available online, and while the book is not flawless, its omnipresence on college syllabi nearly forty years later testifies to its lasting importance in both the humanities and the social sciences. To that end, the symposium published in Nations and Nationalism in 2016, the year after Anderson’s passing (link to the PDF here), is well worth the investment of your time should you choose to dig deeper.

A quick bit of background on the author before we go any further: Benedict Anderson (1936-2015) held the PhD in Government Studies from Cornell, the same institution where he later retired as professor emeritus of International Studies. Though Anderson was undoubtedly an expert on a wide range of locales, as evidenced by the equally wide-ranging Imagined Communities, his primary research focus was southeast Asia, especially Indonesia, a country from which he was barred after working to debunk the Suharto regime’s justifications for anti-Communist crackdowns. An incredibly prolific and influential scholar despite, or perhaps because of, this controversy, Anderson is nevertheless most well known today for Imagined Communities, and the book has been translated into numerous languages over the decades and received a revised/expanded edition in 2006.

At the most basic level, Anderson’s goal in Imagined Communities is, as he writes in the introduction, “to offer some tentative suggestions for a more satisfactory interpretation of the ‘anomaly’ of nationalism.” (p. 4) Defining the nation as “an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign,” (p. 6) Anderson takes care to also clarify these secondary terms before diving into his material in earnest. Misuses of the titular concept by other writers notwithstanding, Anderson does NOT mean that nations are purely figments of the imagination. Rather, he contends, the nation “is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will 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.” (p. 6) Furthermore, the nation is limited because it necessarily includes less than the sum total of all humans, and sovereign because of its origins in the twilight of “the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm.” (p. 7) Finally, even though innumerable internal divisions are present within the nation, it is still imagined as a community which inspires, for good or for ill, high levels of commitment and sacrifice.

Across the following eight chapters (ten in the revised edition) Anderson walks through the steps by which the idea of the nation came into being and drew to itself such a devoted adherence. The overall line of argumentation is quite complex, but a quick and dirty summation might read as follows. Three major cultural conceptions–the idea that Truth was solely accessible through a specific script-language, the belief that societies were to be ruled by divinely selected monarchs, and a particular conception of time which did not distinguish between cosmology and history–gave way and opened up space for new forms of simultaneous community, spurred by print-capitalism, to develop. The confinement of Latin to more esoteric concerns, the Reformation’s prioritization of the accessible written word, and the gradual rise of various vernaculars as the languages of state bureaucracy helped ensure the appearance “of a new form of imagined community, which in its basic morphology set the stage for the modern nation,” (p. 46), even though those communities did not always correspond to political boundaries at first.

Although language did not separate the former American colonies/new American nations from their former European rulers, and although one would be hard-pressed to characterize most of the American revolutions as the fruits of growing middle classes, the American republics which emerged during the final quarter of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th strongly corresponded to earlier administrative units within the larger empires. A second generation of national movements, stretching into the early twentieth century, differed from this first generation in their linguistic foundations (these later movements featured key “national print-languages” (p. 67) unlike their predecessors which retained the Spanish and English of the mother empires) but nevertheless were able to work from playbooks generated by those earlier movements. These outpourings of “popular nationalism” in turn gave rise to instances of “official nationalism,” generally undertaken, as Anderson puts it, as “an anticipatory strategy… by dominant groups which [were] threatened with marginalization or exclusion from an emerging nationally-imagined community.” (p. 101) The pair of World Wars in the first half of the twentieth century did much to establish the nation-state as the new norm, setting the stage for a new postcolonial generation of nationalisms led by well-educated and well-trained intellectuals working outside the administrative spheres of the former colonial governments.

Much, much more could be said about Anderson’s deeply intricate case, but the above, I think, provides enough of a synopsis of the core of Imagined Communities to be intelligible without giving away too much. Later chapters, including the two new chapters Anderson wrote for the revised edition, address a number of related concerns, including the roles that institutions like censuses, maps, and museums have played in recent official nation-building (chapter 10), as well as (in chapter 11) the similarities between more recent instances of nationalist “memory” and “the inner premises and conventions of modern biography and autobiography.” (p. xiv)

I don’t have much to add in terms of evaluation; I am hardly an expert on nationalism, and most of Imagined Communities is set outside of my geographic specialties as well. Still, to this educated nonexpert reader, Anderson’s highlighting of print-capitalism and the roles it played in the formation of national identity seem persuasive. After all, given my work on a religious tradition (the Stone-Campbell Movement) in which periodicals played an outsized role in defining “orthodoxy” and, in turn, the bounds of community, it seems quite plausible to me that a similar process could take place on the much larger national scale, too. In the end, although it is likely no longer the last word in the academic discussion on nationalism, Imagined Communities should remain an important word–perhaps the first one–in that conversation.

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