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Three Notes on Benedict Anderson

I seem to have locked myself into blogging an annual project: 2013 was reading monographs, last year was solidifying my knowledge of 'minor' Romantics. Partly because Verso decided to hold a timely eBook sale (90% off, which allowed you to pick up classics for virtually nothing), I've decided 2015 is all about theory. My MA was in theory, and my time at Sussex was inevitably theoretical, but despite keeping up an interest the historicist bent of modern Romantic studies has meant I'm far more likely to be reading a periodical from 1807 than the latest French philosophy.

If you look at 2013 and 2014, I usually fall rather embarrassingly short in my goals but - hey, it's New Year - so my rough idea is to read around ten works of theory - from Jacques Rancière to Ernest Laclau - and offer brief notes on them here: more to mark reading and gather thoughts rather than to do anything especially original or sophisticated...although we'll see.

Despite citing Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities in lectures and seminars, I've never actually read it through. So (slightly cheating, obviously, since I've been reading it for a few days), here are some annotations. A caveat for this and all subsequent posts: whilst I'm pretty au fait with continental philosophy, I'm in no way an expert on social or political theory or whatever. These will just be my limited attempts to grapple with the ideas.

1. Language, Print, Capital. At heart, a lot of Imagined Communities is a theory about the rise of the middle-classes. Anderson contends crucially that 'an illiterate bourgeoisie is scarcely imaginable'. Pre-modern ruling classes were small and had concrete cohesion: they spread a web of intermarriage and inheritance across vast and diverse territories. To an extent, blood therefore secured their sense of belonging. The larger body of the bourgeois had no such concrete sense of belonging: 'factory owner is Lille was connected to factory owner in Lyon only by reverberation. They had no necessary reason to know of one another's existence'.

As such, the bourgeois had to 'imagine', represent and negotiate their connections in language. They did so by seizing on the rising print culture that was part of the ascendent commercial market that drove their own wealth and power. Forms like the newspaper and the novel emerged, within the pages of which a common identity, space and history could be depicted.

Why the bourgeois became essentially nationalistic in their own self-image is because that print culture worked in the vernacular languages. The pre-modern linguistic world - large polyglot imperial realms on the one hand, and the existence of a minority but privileged 'sacred' language like Latin on the other - was succeeded by vernaculars like English, French and Spanish. These were the languages seized upon by the modern bourgeois to articulate their identity, and to which that identity was tied. Inclusion and exclusion became marked and bordered by a shared language and culture. Where the language stopped, the imagined community stopped too.

What is interesting - and what Anderson reinforces again and again through the same quotation from San Martín noting that both indigenous people and Spanish speaking revolutionaries may become Peruvian - is that imagined communities are more open than hierarchical ones. In fact, they are fundamentally open: despite the fact that they are spearheaded by the middle-classes, anyone imagined within the space of the nation can become a national.

2. Empty Time (Empty Space). What transformations are brought about when a community is primarily imagined? Some of the most fundamental concern the basic co-ordinates of time and space. Anderson borrows Walter Benjamin's notion of empty, homogenous time to characterise the articulation of the modern nation state. In the pre-modern world, notions of divine providence ensured that history was meta-history, and that everything was connected. Indeed, an event 'now' had always been planned and was implicated in a future too. Prophecy and typology suggested complex patterns of repetition and simultaneity.

The move to empty time abolishes this: secular, rational and scientific time is simply a series of co-ordinates in which things happen, and the modern nation state has to envisage its own present in this empty time. Things that happen (in it, to it, by it) are not connected by any kind of magical or providential affinity, but simply because they occur on a given 'slice' of history. They are linked, but linked in the way that a newspaper constellates the world as it is 'now' through a series of articles and reports linked only by the bare date of issue, rather than linked in the way the Bible might connect and signify events. A plague in India has nothing per se to do with a coronation in Sweden.

As my example of the newspaper suggests, it is modern print that provides the medium through which empty time can be negotiated. (Indeed, the shift from the concrete connections of aristocratic blood to imagined connections of bourgeois discourse is not unlike the shift from the concrete connections of providence to the abstracted connections of empty time: language and discourse is needed to marshall the latter, whereas the former have 'intrinsic' meaning and order). So, for Anderson, the novel from the eighteenth century onwards works to render time and history intelligible in the modern nation state. In a novel, a series of actors can move on and past each other - perhaps never meeting, or affecting each other - but their stories are intertwined. Not because they bear any real connection or their histories have any especial kinship, but because they exist and move within the same social plane of the novel. This plotting of 'meanwhile', of chance/coincidence, and of linkage within empty time, helps provide a model for national self-understanding.

Interestingly, I think a similar thing appears to happen with space if we look at Anderson's (added to later edition's) chapter 'Census, Map, Museum'. Pre-modern geography did not do border and space in the way we understand it: maps had no mathematical sense of scale, offering merely practical advice on journeys, way-marks and marching times; borders might only be marked by individual, irregularly placed stones and posts that suggested the limits of power 'flung' horizontally from a administrative centre. In the same way that community and time became abstracted, space eventually did too. As governments classified and categorised their territories in ways more 'imagined' than 'real', then the spaces of sovereignty lost that embedding in 'practical', horizontal activity like marching across a landscape or squaring off against a rival at a particular river crossing. Instead, cartography created a potent visual representation of a nation: 'boundaries as segments of a continuous map-line corresponding to nothing visible on the ground, but demarcating an exclusive sovereignty wedged between other sovereignties.'

3. Diversity of Nationalisms. One of Anderson's stated aims is to move away from the Eurocentric understandings of nationalism. Indeed, against what Anderson calls the 'indictment of all anti-colonial nationalisms outside Europe as '"derivative discourses"', the book specifically notes that nationalism occurs first not in Europe but against Europe. His analysis of 'creole' nationalisms in the Americas is crucial and distinctive. Of course, one may have noticed a problem here: if pace (1) nationalism is inextricable from vernacular languages, then how can the first nationalisms have been born in struggles against colonial masters (England in North America; Spain in the South) who precisely spoke the same vernacular? The answer is spatial: the very functionaries of empire who spoke the vernacular found their spatial worlds, organised through secular 'pilgrimages', distinctly limited. They may have made trips back to the metropole, but they could not be 'at home' there, nor would they be relocated to administer territories different to their place of birth (unlike English or Spanish administrators). At 'the apex of his looping climb, the highest administrative centre to which he could be assigned, was the capital of the imperial administrative unit in which he found himself'. On these journeys, the functionary would find fellow travellers who also suffered the same constricted spatial paths - 'the shared fatality of trans-Atlantic birth'. It was this fatality, this modelling of space, which meant that the 'creole' elites ultimately rebelled against the metropole, and the first nations of North and South America mirrored the colonial spaces of previous imperial units.

The separate modelling of creole and European nationalisms is only one part of Anderson's heterogeneous picture. Along with the first American nationalisms, the French Revolution is seen as something of a clean rupture which could not be repeated: the French could refigure their entire calendar, start at zero, whereas all subsequent European revolutions were fated to some extent to see the French as an originating precedent. Equally important, but very different, are the 'official nationalisms' of the nineteenth century, which Anderson traces as a protective response by fading dynastic regimes to harness the vernacular nationalisms to their own ends, thereby transforming previously 'vertical' and hierarchical arrangements of power into horizontal ones. This meant minimising the ployglot, a process of enculturation that Anderson terms 'Russification' in deference to its Czarist manifestation. This, in turn, had unpredictable effects.

Nationalism works differently, for Anderson, at different points in time and in different global contexts. But this is the point. Because nationalisms are imaginary - because they are discursive entities, articulated in language and existing as sign sets in empty time and empty space, they are reproducible. They can be pirated. They are diverse: the rhetoric of nation can be spliced, copied, reiterated, re-contextualised. And this perhaps is central to one of Anderson's other analytic goals. Why, if nationalism is so obviously a fiction, why does it have such a powerful emotional reach, prompting people to fight and die for it in a way that they never would for other large administrative units? Well, perhaps, because it a fiction. It is a language: a rich and infinitely flexible one.

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