Sunday, February 01, 2009

Benedict Anderson

Benedict Anderson has become an important touchstone on nationalism in recent years for his 1983 book Imagined Communities. To a certain extent, the thesis is in the title: Anderson believes that the nation is a community that is 'imagined into existence' by its members. This is because, unlike other communities, in which we actually interact with other members, we never meet the vast majority of other members of the nation. This should sound familiar; the other writers we've discussed agree that the nation is largely imaginary; this seems to be the general academic consensus. Anderson stresses the role of media in creating this imaginary community.

Here, he borrows from previous writers; noteworthy is Marshall McLuhan, who argued that nationalism was produced by the Gutenberg press. Anderson talks about ''print capitalism'', but the argument is the same. Modernity began with the collapse of the legitimacy of the old hierarchal, divinely-legitimized, monarchical dynasties. The widespread communications-and in fact the standardization of languages- made possible by print, allowed people to start speaking in a common discourse, and to imagine themselves as part of a larger community.

You'll note also how many scholars associate nationalism with modernity. I do think we could imagine- certainly!- pre-modern ethnic chauvinism, although perhaps it wouldn't qualify as nationalsm. Also you'll notice that many academics, particularly those dealing with culture, are social constructionists- that is, the subject (here nationalism) doesn't exist objectively; but is instead constructed by various interests in the society; its meaning is always fluid and contested. It's a collective fiction; and larger social forces, like ''print-capitalism'' are evoked to explain where essentially fictional ideas came from.

Social constructionism is on shakier ground when it comes to the psychology of all of this. How did ''print-capitalism'' ever compel people to throw themselves on a landmine for their country? So much nationalist rhetoric seems to spring from either existentialist dread or an outright death instinct. Somehow, for me, when writers talk about nationalism arising from the stress of industrial production, or new kinds of communication, or whatnot, there seems to be something missing. In the worst case scenario, nationalism becomes a sort of madness. Maybe the psychologists need to come back into the discussion.

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