Saturday, February 26, 2011

Benedict Anderson's 1983 work, 'Imagined Communities' influential because it is a fuzzy argument

Missing reading Benedict Anderson's 'Imagined Communities' when it came out in 1983 seems to have its advantages. His final chapter in the 2006 edition of the book, tracing the many translations -- Japanese, Chinese (Taiwan followed by China). Korean, Thai, Indonesian, Serbo-Croat, Russian, Turkish, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, the Dutch, French, Czech, Hungarian, Arabic (Palestine)-- is most interesting. Anderson candidly admits that the international travels of his book would not have been possible if it was written in Indonesian or any other language. He also points out that most of the translations and publications in these languages have been from left-liberals and small publishers with similar political leanings. George Soros, the fund tycoon with democratic commitment, had been responsible for financing the translation of the book along with 100 other social science and humanities titles in Eastern Europe.

What is Anderson's major argument. He is not making any, and he is exploring evidence in different places within a flexible framework. He connects the rise of nationalism in Europe to print-capitalism, where books became easily accessible to a lot of people. Books became democratised and that seems to have the been the first step in spreading political awareness among significantly large populations. Anderson cites interesting statistics of the rise in the number of books published from 15th to 19th centuries. He also looks at the rise of the newspaper and the novel, especially in south-east Asian countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, which had moulded national consciousness in those countries.

The third major point that Anderson makes is that of the creoles, whom he rightly identifies as the whites settled especially in the Americas, rising against the 'metropole' -- in the older language it would have been called the mother country -- who had asserted a national identity which was not based on language as in Europe. The reason was that these white people who were born in the colonies were treated as inferior to those born in England and Spain and Portugal, and that blocked their rise in the power structure of the empire. The people of the 13 colonies spoke English, and the Spanish colonies shared the Spanish language. But that did not prevent them from asserting their political identity and freedom.

He also extends the 'creole' status to Asians in the colonial empires who have been co-opted by the English and the Dutch, who were educated and westernised. But that did not allow them to be accepted in the 'metropole'. For example, the English-educated Indians, the French-educated Vietnamese and Cambodians could not hope to be part of the power structure in London and Paris.

He also shows that in the Asian countries it is the education in the colonial language that helped in forging the national identity and consciousness, along with the novel and the newspaper.

Anderson's explorations and analyses do not clinch the argument about the nature of nationalism but they remain interesting insights in political anthropology.

When he uses 'imagined communities, Anderson is not saying that the national identity is fictional or unreal, because he shows that one of the characteristic features of the idea of nation is that people are willing to die for it. But he leaves it an open-ended thesis.

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