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

Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson
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Aug 18, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: nationalism, philosophy, state-formation, better-late-than-never
Read from August 18 to September 10, 2011

A few points that resonated:

1. Imagined Communities (IC) is a thoroughly modernist reading of nationalism(s), classifying their constructions into 4 types in chronological order: the original creole citizen-republican nationalisms in the Americas, European 'populist' vernaculars, the notoriously conservative 'official nationalisms' of dynastic rulers, and the polymorphous nationalist movements of Asia and Africa. Each wave has contributed to successive types by being copied and adapted to suit new political contigencies. (Hobsbawm has made similar but less systematic distinctions between these 4 types prior to the publication of IC's initial 1983 edition (eg. see Age of Capital)). Presumably, part of IC's novelty in the 1980s lay in its single-minded dissection of print-capitalism's historical significance as well as the idea that circuits of pilgrimages (mostly once religious, now more bureaucratic and educational) could help to build the ideological foundations of new nations. More personally relevant - the substantial emphasis on Southeast Asia's states as richly textured empirical examples to be studied in comparative perspective with others outside the region.

2. While IC is, on one level, a genealogy of successive varieties of nationalisms which are distinctly modern and non-primordial, it also clearly inserts itself into a number of other debates which do not necessarily have anything to do with nationalism (the 2006 Verso english paperback edition notes some of these debates in the coda section entitled 'Travel and Traffic'). For instance, with regard to the perennial arguments over ideas vs. materialism, two out of three of the key broad factors responsible for the rise of nationalism(s) are in areas at the heart of Marxist and structuralist historical thought: capitalism's search for new markets, and state-building (the third broad factor being changes in print-language itself). In short, tracing out the history of political thought and discourse matters, but in Anderson's interpretation, materialism + statist politics are still the deeper founts of change for his chosen topic.

3. The book strongly argues against the notion that the modern idea of nationhood was 'born' in the France of 1789 (as is claimed by, amongst other books, http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/70..., pp. 26-28). Its origins are instead much more indeterminate, possibly earlier on the old continent: Hungary's Magyars in the 1780s, albeit no doubt less internationally influential than that of revolutionary France. More importantly, Anderson places very strong weightage on the view that non-European citizen-republican 'nationalisms' (Latin America 1810, North America's Thirteen Colonies 1776 onwards) influenced Europe's; transmitted back via print-capitalism, no less. At the very least this downplays the purported singular significance of the French Revolution for subsequent nationalisms in 19th Century Europe.(80-82)

4. Chapter 10's examination of the colonial state's triumvirate of instruments used to govern, dominate and instill political authority (the census, map and museum), have immediate parallels with James Scott's extended polemic concerning the oversimplifying, high modernist state (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20...). However, neither book investigates whether today's international political economy is currently perpetuating and reinforcing new forms of neo-colonial interventions by stronger states and capitals, and what effects these have on weaker states around the world, not to mention the latter's own nation-building projects.

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