Kelly's Reviews > Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson
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Oct 21, 10

bookshelves: history, owned, identity-crisis, 20th-century-postwar-to-late, imperialism
Read in October, 2010, read count: 2

UPDATED: Amazing how reading this for a different class brought out a totally different discussion. The last class I read this for was called "Uses of History in International Affairs," and we spent the majority of our time talking about history as an act- history as narrative, history as an agenda, what someone might use these statements for. We were essentially diplomats in discussion, preparing our strategy of attack against the other side's claims. I don't think we discussed the validity of his claims at all, but rather focused on place they had in world events and history and how these ideas could affect our daily lives.

This time, I'm in an international history program, filled with historians. This time we bypassed that discussion entirely, taking it for granted as established and agreed on, and concentrated on dissecting the arguments presented on their structure and substance, in a close analytical read that sought to draw on our knowledge of history to poke holes in his argument. This time, we are being trained to think of ourselves as peers, whose job it is to show the main behind the curtain well... mostly because he's there, to borrow a phrase. It was a trip back to the basics to remind us what these arguments are really about in the end, while also forcing us to question not to accept.

Fascinating experience of the lines drawn between various disciplines and their goals- how the idea that "that's someone else's job" has very real effects in the formation of ideas.

ORIGINAL:Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities may be over twenty five years old now, but that doesn't make it any less relevant, even had he not added on the chapters (as interesting as they were) that he adjusted himself with later on, after the fall of the USSR and later with his new ideas on the topic. (Though I love that he did that- it shows someone who is not content to rest on his laurels and whose ideas about the world were not set by the best-selling status of one book he wrote, and that he refuses to be tied to it. I like watching geniuses continue to change and develop.)

In any case! It is quite relevant- especially since 9/11, as we see that the impact of nationalism hasn't declined in the least, and the attachment that people feel for it is very real and has very real consequences on people's lives. Anderson's basic thesis is that nations are "imagined communities," created in the New World by the creole bourgeoisie of the British and Spanish colonies by the conjunction of print journalism (which allowed groups of people to imagine themselves as a community, through providing the links that bound regions together), language, cultural imprints (such as "sacred script" cultures) and the forces of capitalism. He is writing this book to be useful to Marxist theorists, in order to fill what he feels is the gap in the Marxist analysis of nationalism. But it is by no means only useful to the Marxist or even liberal theorist. The reminder that nationalism is a new phenomenon, and that any pretentious to antiquity by any nation is absolutely ridiculous, and even the whole concept of a nation worth dying for is invented, not something that, as the Abbe Sieyes wrote in the French Revolution (perhaps understandably, he was trying to turn the nation of peasants into Frenchmen) "exists in the state of nature."

Anderson says that nations have three conditions: that they are sovereign, limited, and a community. He talks about how these resulted from the specific time and place that the whole concept was invented, but also how they have been adapted and used throughout the world. One of the major strengths of his book (surely influenced by the period of criticism he was writing in) is its major focus on areas of the world outside of Europe (though many of those areas- as most of the world was- were European colonies): Southeast Asia, Latin America, China, Japan. It is fascinating to watch first the process by which he believes nationalism is formed and then nationalism's journey across time and space to crop up in its many different incarnations as various groups constantly find different uses for it.

This is a book to be read and re-read constantly to remind oneself about questioning some very basic assumptions that a lot of people take for granted, and then questioning why those assumptions exist in the first place. I think this book constantly challenges you to look inward and to figure out what matters to you, how it got to matter to you so much, and how you may or may not have been steered that way by a government, leaders, education, or some other outside force that has nothing to do with "natural" feelings.

I've always had a hugely negative, shuddering reaction to two things: religious fundamentalism and overbearing nationalism. This book helped give me the language (as Anderson would say himself) to better explain why.
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Reading Progress

07/13/2009 page 227
94.58% "I probably should not have read this book in one day straight. My head is spinning just a tad."

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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DoctorM i've taught the book to classes--- it's a favourite of mine.


message 2: by Brad (new)

Brad Dig the two reads, Kelly.


Kelly It was an interesting experience- another demonstration that people take what they need and leave a lot on the cutting floor.


message 4: by Daisy (new) - added it

Daisy just curious---which international history program are you in?


message 5: by Kalliope (new)

Kalliope Yes, I find nationalisms asphyxiating.


Kelly Yes- I think that it is, for the most part, a relic of a certain time and place that helped make sense of a world after God was Dead and the last scaffoldings of society fell/were no longer convincing or adequate.

I understand it in an abstract sense and I can support it, vaguely, in the sense of being interested in ancestry and where you came from or cultural/societal diversity, or being proud of the awesome things about where you live. But in the sense of some mystical, almost religious type cult, no.


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