Reading ‘Imagined Communities’ in Times of Ever Spreading Nationalism

A review of a book like Imagined Communities, written by Benedict Anderson, may seem unnecessary, since it has been published so long ago and has been read by people in numerous countries not only in globally accessible languages but also in native languages. But this book which Anderson self-admittedly never wrote solely for academic purposes, still needs to reach out to many people. This review aims to pick a few threads from this expansive book with many philosophical, political, historical, cultural, sociological threads and contextualise them in present reality, especially in Indian milieu in order to introduce this book to many who would do well to read it.

Benedict Anderson’s seminal work Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism perhaps might not have been more relevant than in the present times. That we are in some extraordinary times where the world is having to deal with the cultural force that is nationalism and its political, social and economic impacts therewith, is hopefully not lost on anyone for or against the concept of nation or nationalism. In such times this book becomes extraordinarily important because even though it was written quite a few years ago (first published in 1983 by Verso Publications (London, New York)), yet it resonates remarkably in present times.

Anderson addresses this concern about the power of the concept of nationalism when he writes “The reality is quite plain: the ‘end of era of nationalism’, so long prophesized, is not remotely in sight.” That the era is now invigorated with more and more self-confessed patriots and nationalists in charge of the administration and governance at the helm in countries across the globe, is quite telling about the relevance of Anderson’s assertion.

The book addresses the deep embedded-ness of nationalism and its cultural and socio-political ramifications in our daily lives. It lends a perspective on one of the most common cultural phenomenon in most countries these days, especially in India, which is the constant clash between people due to the difference in their sensibilities regarding the nation. The idea of “subjective antiquity” of the entity of nation for some runs contrary to the idea of “objective modernity” of the concept of nation for others. 

This antiquity is derived from a need of “continuity”. Anderson remarks that with the decline in religious mode of thinking witnessed in the eighteenth century in western Europe, one of the biggest challenges was to counter the idea of fatality which religion did through its ideas on salvation. Nation then became that secular (yet eternal) entity which loomed out of an “immemorial past” and loomed into a “limitless future” and provided that sought after claim to continuity.

The book picks up a historical thread, which cannot be explained in so many words but the gist of it is that all the classical communities were imagined through a common sacred language linked to a “super-terrestrial order of power” such as Arabic, Chinese, Pali and Latin among others. As different civilisations came into contact with each other and the idea of antiquity of one’s own particular community was shaken, the belief in the unique sacredness of these languages also gave way. At this point in time vernacular languages gained ascendance. The more accessible vernaculars were developed into new print languages. Rising tide of print capitalism took advantage of this and literature in these new languages became a precious capitalist commodity giving rise to new basis of imagining communities.

Anderson explains how this print capitalism aided imagining of nations by citing the rise of two premier products of print- the newspaper and the novel. Using the concept of simultaneity and homogeneous empty time, Anderson goes into the philosophical underpinnings of how communities can be imagined with the help of archetypical characters as well as the act of simultaneous consumption of news and information. These ideas in themselves are important takeaways from the book, subsequently used by various thinkers to espouse their own ideas  about literature, media, politics and philosophy in general even today.

Old ways of thinking, especially with regards to religion were challenged and the rise of vernaculars through print capitalism aided it in a big way. Different languages which were developed in scripts and publicised through print acquired new found and greater importance especially in the imagining of the communities as nations with a common language.

If one happens to read the book, they will find that the overarching theme largely relates to colonial nationalisms (those which grew out of opposition to colonial powers in the respective colonies). Although Anderson uses the historical thread of language, discussed above, to explain the upsurge of nationalisms in colonial contexts, he takes also explains the phenomenon in cases where language alone is not the key defining factor i.e. in case of Creole nationalism (Refer to the book to understand the concept better).

Here he takes another historical thread to elaborate his point which is that of pilgrimage. Just like language, concept of pilgrimage which also evolved during the times of religiosity came to acquire different manifestations in the more secular times. The centralisation of administration led to evolution of processes which demanded transferability of ‘things’ like people, officials, documents etc. and this accompanied with a “single-language-of state” gave rise to “a consciousness of connectedness”.

Besides the elaboration on emergence of creole nationalism this section also illustrates the genealogy of modern day middle class in colonial nations, in terms of its traits, characteristics, makeup and behaviour. The methods employed by colonial powers in subject nations to subjugate the colonial population yet command their loyalty can be traced in this matrix of power relations made up of language and aspirations for upward mobility in administrative services. And in so many ways this also speaks about how present day middle class still derives its politics through this linguistic, bureaucratic power matrix with added structural and circumstantial contingencies.

But the larger point that Anderson wishes to address is why resistance to imperial-colonial powers was largely conceived in most colonies in the language of ‘nations’. He writes, “What I am proposing is that neither economic interest, Liberalism, nor Enlightenment could, or did, create in themselves the kind, or shape, of imagined community to be defended from these regimes’ depredations”. This task as he suggests was accomplished by the national imagery. Even though he made this point with reference to the Creole pioneers in western hemisphere it also applies to non-Western contexts like that of India. Much like in most post-colonial nations, India’s resistance to long continuing imperial domination also came in the form of nationalistic imagination and this can possibly explain the reverence accorded to the national struggle even today. This point is especially reflected in the fact that even in common place celebrations of India’s Republic Day even today, most references are made to independence struggle even though the day is a commemoration of promulgation of India’s constitution.

The ideas born out of the independence movements, suggests Anderson while talking about the Americas, such as nation-states, republican institutions, common citizenships, national flags and anthems etc. came to be identified as diametrically opposites of concepts like dynastic empires, monarchical institutions, absolutisms, subjecthoods etc. Looking at the powerful force of nationalism, even dynasts began to consciously identify themselves as belonging to the nations and in a way lowered their status from being the imperial masters of the nations.

This kind of gesturing of appearing to be one of the nation’s people is an inherited legacy in modern day democracies. A reason why this legacy was inherited in post-colonial nations was that by acknowledging themselves as belonging to the nation dynasties or power-groups initiated the process of building, what Anderson calls, “official nationalisms” (nationalism stretched over official dynasties rather than born out of popular resistance) which were then brought through colonialism in subject nations as well.

The legacy of official nationalism reflects in another way in the nationalistic behaviours of many nations in the post-World-War-II era, which is the “systematic, even Machiavellian, instilling of nationalist ideology through the mass media, the educational system, administrative regulations, and so forth”. The relevance of this point is not lost by any stretch of imagination in India, especially in present times.

Thus, Anderson suggests that, while civil and military educational systems are modelled on official nationalisms; elections, party organisations and cultural celebrations are modelled on popular aspects of nationalism. One feature that got ingrained with the involvement of “official nationalism” in the contemporary nationalism was that it emanated from the state and served the “interests of the state first and foremost”. Hence dissent against state is often termed as treason against nation, to offer one substantive example of this phenomenon.

Yet with all the explanations that Anderson makes available to explain the patterns and models of nationalism in different continents, countries and eras, he still asks one pertinent question, that even if nationalist imaginings are models invented or developed which are emulated elsewhere, “why people are ready to die for these inventions”. To find an answer to this question Anderson evokes the concept of family. According to him both family and nation result in ties born out of sheer chance or destiny and with it comes the idea of there being no motive or interest inherent in these bonds.  He also asserts that while family is increasingly being articulated as a power-structure in itself, this conception is still “certainly foreign to the overwhelming bulk of mankind”. Similarly alternative conceptions about nationalistic imaginings are also alien to vast majority of people, on whose shoulders (that is the majority’s), the idea of patriotism rests.

‘Nationness’ which is an all-pervasive phenomenon is also ingrained in the everyday bigotry according to Anderson. He refers to the derogatory terms used to describe people belonging to certain racial groups which point out a certain physical aspect of their features. Doing so, he says, “erases nation-ness by reducing the adversary to his biological physiognomy”.

This book covers almost every aspect of modern day life and forces the reader to think about it afresh and with a completely new perspective. One such thing is the idea of ‘census’. Amidst all the fanfare with which common people welcome this huge state-sponsored exercise every ten years, census becomes like a celebration of our imagining of the nation. But as Anderson points out “The fiction of the census is that everyone is in it, and that everyone has one-and only one-extremely clear place.”

When this secular notion of quantifying people in various categories evolved, it also encountered problems which were non-secular in nature. Religious affiliation which was the prior form of imagining communities, came back to confront the census due to which the colonies had to make some “messy accommodations”; accommodations that these nations still have to contend with.

Another aspect of imagining nation is the map. Anderson here quotes Thongchai Winichakul who writes “A map merely represents something which already exists objectively ‘there’. In the history…this relationship was reversed. A map anticipated spatial reality, not vice versa. In other words, a map was a model for, rather than a model of, what it purported to represent.” This point is extremely relevant when one looks at all the controversies which arise out of mapping of international boundaries.

Add to it attributing anthropomorphic qualities to the imagining of nation as in case of Indian subcontinent and the complexities become manifold. The image of ‘Bharat Mata’ which originated in India during anti-colonial struggle among some patriotic groups, superimposed on the political map of Indian subcontinent, reifies Anderson’s point about the “logo-map” penetrating deep into the popular imagination as a “powerful emblem for the anticolonial nationalisms being born”. Thus map as well as its anthropomorphic representation both became more than mere representation of reality and turned into a desire and reverence for the anticipated or imagined reality. In many ways it also reified the idea of nation’s antiquity which nationalists hold so dearly. 

With mapping mechanisms like census and maps, the colonial state wished to render everything and everyone visible under its watchful eye and hence under its control. The same apparatus was inherited by the independent post-colonial state and only furthered as evidenced by the modern surveying mechanisms like the biometric identification tools such as Aadhar or Unique Identification System.

This review has dealt with only some of the many arguments, discursive threads and logics which Anderson has discussed in the book. The argumentative narrative of the book, as said in the beginning, is so complex and expansive that discussing it within bounds of one review is quite difficult. Yet the threads taken up in this review have been chosen to highlight some of the foundational aspects of the book which can help a prospective reader to understand the importance of this book.

Nationalism as we are witnessing is a concept, well and alive. In times when popular leaders in different parts of the world are riding the wave of their own versions of nationalisms with their followers following suit, this book lends to us not the definitive explanation of nationalism but rather some possible clues to better understand its genealogy as well as the “morphology of nationalist consciousness” as Anderson had intended.

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