imagined communities by benedict anderson summary

Imagined Communities

The concept of nationalism, according to Benedict Anderson, has never been deeply discussed. There has never been a great thinker treating this concept as thoroughly as other concepts. Anderson suggests that one should not think of nationalism as an ideology like “fascism” or “liberalism”, but to relate it with “kinship” and “religion” in order to understand the similarity that groups of people have and why the territory that they live help one understand the borders that we have nowadays. In order to understand better the concept of nationalism, Anderson starts analyzing the word that is the root of nationalism, which is the word nation. Anderson, then, defines it as “…an imagined political community” that is imagined in both limitation and sovereignty. Anderson uses the word imagined to define nation, because he affirms that even the people from a small community, will not know everyone from that community, or meet them or even hear about them.

The people from this same community will, however, keep in their minds the idea of what they have in common and imagine a common community between them. Anderson goes on and quotes Gellner, who states that “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.” This is important to know, because it makes clearer the idea that a nation, and more specifically, nationalism, are concepts created based on borders that were not previously there and similarities that made people to join one another to become nationalistic, but even though they had common practices, religion or similar territories, they were not necessarily the same group of people. The differences between groups that have little territorial distance from one another were many times forgotten and people started to consider themselves part of the same culture and territory. People became part of the same so called “nation”. Benedict Anderson goes on to talk about how nationalism should be understood and relates it with “cultural roots”, as he calls his second chapter. Nationalism has not to be seen as a logical political ideology, but it has to be based on the many cultural systems that came before it. According to Anderson, nationalism appeared by the time that another three cultural ideas were starting to decrease in importance.

Primarily, there were changes in the realm of religious communities, changes in the dynastic realm and changes in tim. The change in religious communities happened as the result of the exploration of the worlds that were not European. Also, the increase on publishing in vernacular decreased the usage of Latin as a sacred language played a big role to change the communities, and, therefore, the communities were not dependent on a Latin based society that only the few educated people could communicate. The second one, the dynastic realm, started to change the status of the dynasties. During the medieval times, Europe’s states were determined by centers and peripheries. The borders were not certain and were seen as unofficial. The third change was in the view of time. It started to be understood as a “homogenous empty time,” measured in units by the clock and the calendar. This new way of seeing time went on to the idea of the nation, because the nation was also seen as moving steadily forward throughout history. Anderson gives one example to help the reader to understand better: “An American,” for example, “will never meet, or even know the names of more than a handful of his 240,000,000-odd fellow-Americans. He has no idea of what they are up to at any one time.

But he has complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity” (Page 26). If the three previously mentioned changes, the decline of a coherent religious community, the decline of dynasties, and the emergence of homogenous time, created the conditions under which nationalism might have been born, the growth of print-capitalism is what cultivated the beginnings of nationalist consciousness. After the Middle Ages, the communities saw an explosion of book publishing in vernacular languages. A number close to 20,000,000 books had already been printed in Europe by sixteenth century, and as many as 200,000,000 had been published by the seventeenth century, and that happened in part because of the impressive spread of the literature coming from Reformation. An unanticipated result of the logic of capitalism, the beginning of fixed written versions of French, German, and English were “assembled” out of Europe’s dizzying array of spoken languages in this period. In other words, the bottom line was fatal to European linguistic diversity. The new print-languages created unified fields of exchange and communication in a way that offered a new form of a imagined community. However, print-languages themselves did not create the nations. Print-language was a necessary condition for nationalism. The first nations to appear on the world stage were not in Western Europe but were in Latin America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. There are two
primary conditions for Latin American nationalism consciousness: pilgrim Creole functionaries and provincial Creole printmen. The first one, Anderson talks about the role of pilgrim Creole functionaries. Each of the Latin American republics had been an administrative unit from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Using the work of the anthropologist Victor Turner, Anderson argues that Latin American criollo (American-born Spaniard) administrative functionaries’ “created meaning” on their “secular pilgrimages” within their administrative unit and also within colonial Mexico, Venezuela or Chile. Spanish-bornpeninsular viceroys and bishops, who enjoyed a higher status than did the creoles, had a much wider opportunity to go to other places, and could travel from capital to capital, including going to Madrid and back to where they were before. Creole secular pilgrims met travelling companions from the same territory, and developed a consciousness of connectedness that was based on awareness “first with resentment, then with pride,…, of the accident of their American birth” (Pages 56-57). The territorial stretches of creole secular pilgrimages were the blueprint for Latin American nations. These territorial stretches were only imagined as nations, though, with the rise of print-capitalism, especially the newspaper, in both North and South America in the course of the eighteenth century. In Latin America, newspapers were provincial, containing information primarily about the administrative unit it was published in, such as lists of arriving ships, marriages of the wealthy, commodity-prices, and so on. Each newspaper “created an imagined community among a specific assemblage of fellow-readers, to whom these ships, brides, bishops, and prices belonged” (Page 62). These territories traversed by pilgrimage and print led to series of the first national liberation movements in history. They provided a model or prefigure of what the nation should look like. Europe, as Anderson helps the reader to understand, was taking notes in order to apply in their own territory. Nationalism developed in Europe from early eighteen hundreds through early nineteen hundreds. There were two central reasons for this. First, the nation “became something capable of being consciously aspired to from early on” because of models in the Americas ( Page 67). Second, the expansion of print-capitalist markets along the lines of print-languages enabled different pro-nationalistic forms of cultural imagining. Nineteenth-century Europe was a “golden age of
vernacularizing lexicographers, grammarians, philologists, and literateurs” (Page 71). There was nothing short of a “philological-lexicographic revolution” (Page 83). Grammars, dictionaries, translations of classics, and local literature by scholars appeared in their native German, French, English, Swedish, Ukrainian, Czech, Slovene, Serbo-Croat, Bulgarian, Finnish, and Norwegian. These local scholars were “producers for the print-market, and they were linked, via that silent bazaar, to consuming publics” (Page 75). Their consuming publics, as Anderson says, included not only the old nobilities and landed gentries, but also an expanding bourgeoisie. Whereas pre-bourgeoisie ruling class social cohesions were the products of kinship, client-patron relations, and personal loyalties, bourgeoisie reading publics achieved a new kind of imagined solidarity through printed language, and Anderson explains that very well on the following passage: “An illiterate nobility could still act as a nobility. But the bourgeoisie? Here was a class which, figuratively speaking came in being as a class only in so many republications. Factory-owner in Lille was connected to the factory-owner in Lyon only by reverberation. They had no necessary reason to know of one another’s existence; they did not typically marry each other’s daughters or inherit each other’s property. But they did come to visualize in a general way the existence of thousands and thousands like themselves through print language. For an illiterate bourgeoisie is scarcely imaginable. Thus in world-historical terms bourgeoisies were the first classes to achieve solidarities on an essentially imagined basis. But in a nineteenth-century Europe in which Latin had been defeated by vernacular print-capitalism for something like two centuries, these solidarities had an outermost stretch limited by vernacular legibilities. To put it another way, one can sleep with anyone, but one can only read some people’s words.” (Page 77) Europe was filled with new, “vernacularly imagined communities” of bourgeoisie consumers, and once the independence movements in the Americas reached these new vernacular communities in Europe via print, they became “blueprints” of nations, available for the “pirating.” Just as the American nations served as models for European vernacular nations, the vernacular nations, in turn, became models for official nationalisms of the latter half of the nineteenth century. “Such official nationalisms,” according to Anderson, “were conservative, not to
say reactionary, policies, adapted from the model of the largely spontaneous popular nationalism that preceded them” (Page 110). In other words, dynastic groups threatened by exclusion from or marginalization in popular imagined communities willfully merged nation and dynastic empire in order to retain their power, as Anderson explains on the next passage, “A certain inventive legerdemain, was required to permit the empire to appear attractive in national drag” (Page 87). This was the case in Russia, England, and Japan. Other states, such as Siam and Hungary, pursued this model not because they desired to consolidate their power, but because they felt threatened by the spread of nationalisms everywhere else. This process of top-down nationalization was far from not having connections. Cultures that existed peacefully in dynastic realms now were required to wave the flag of their forced nation. Slovaks were to be Magyarized, Indians Anglicized, and Koreans Japanified. The age of high dynasticism was finally brought to an end by the First World War, and the nation-state became the legitimate international norm. At this time, the last wave, as Anderson puts it, of nationalisms crested in the colonial territories of Asia and Africa. It “was in its origins a response to the new-style global imperialism made possible by the achievements of industrial capitalism” (Page 139). The natives of new nations tended to imagine themselves as nationals in centralized and standardized school systems. The schools in turn produced the required subordinate cadres for state and corporate bureaucracies. The orbit of these new educational and administrative pilgrimages delineated the territorial base for the last wave of imagined communities, in places like Batavia, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, Mozambique, and the Philippines. Owing to nationalism’s transformation of routine process, in this period, new nations can be minted that did not have literate masses or even linguistic uniformity. Print, once so important in facilitating imagined communities, could now be left behind In two centuries, nationalism has undergone adaptation to fit different ways of administration systems, economies, and social and cultural structures all over the world. In its extraordinary success, the nation has taken on an understanding naturalism: One can be sure of being American, for example, with the same certainty that he or she knows him or herself to be of a certain gender, color of skin and so on. Because nationality appears to be a given, not a choice, it has about it “a
halo of disinterestedness” (Page 143). And “just for that reason, it can ask for sacrifices” (Page 144). People are willing to die for their country, Anderson argues, because the nation is start to feel that that is something that in its fundamentals, is pure. Yet, like gender and race, nationalism is an invention, and a comparatively recent one. It exists in our minds; in our collective imagining. Anderson, however, adds that just because it is imagined, does not mean it is not real. It is actually the opposite. Nationalism is actually deeply real. Anderson, challenges at another Marxist political theorists. It has no use, Anderson states, to continue to describe nationalism as epiphenomenal, a form of pathology, or an idealistic overlay on material realities. It is fundamentally imagined, but its imaginings have become viscerally materialized in print culture, borders, revolutions, and flags. Anderson goes on on the tenth chapter to talk about census, maps and museum. These three institutions of power deeply shaped the way in which the colonial state imagined its dominion. The census created identities imagined by the classifying mind of the colonial state. The fiction of the census is that everyone is in it, and that everyone has one extremely clear place to be part of. The map also worked on the basis of a clear determined classification. It was designed to demonstrate the antiquity of specific, tightly bounded territorial units. It also served as a logo, instantly recognizable and visible everywhere, that formed a powerful emblem for the anti-colonial nationalism to be born. The museum allowed the state to appear as the guardian of tradition, and this power was enhanced by the reproduction of the symbols of tradition for many times. The last chapter talks about the awareness of being put in secular, serial time, with all its implications of continuity, even though the experience of this continuity is forgotten, and for this reason, the need for a narrative identity is created.’ It is interesting to be aware of the changes that happened throughout history and try to understand how the reasons for the world to be the way it is nowadays. Anderson does a really good job in showing to his readers the history of how the “nations” were organized and explains with very good detail how it developed to the idea of nationalism that the world has today. It is especially interesting to see how much the language influenced this change and that people started to relate and have more affinity with the ones that were close to them and spoke the same
vernacular. Works Cited

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