One of my classes (re)read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities today. Several of the students (none of whom can be quite old enough to have voted against Bush once, and certainly not twice) sagely recalled the last time they had read it, as if we lived in a different world. Maybe we do, I thought, and I felt like doing the same, since it seems an appropriate book to have read on this day of all. Ergo…
When I was in graduate school at MIT, I remember hearing a talk about a project to digitize newspapers, shortly before this became a widespread reality. An important part of this demo, or talk, or whatever it was, was the claim that what digital newspapers would allow would be the customization of news–an early intimation of the RSS feed–allowing individuals to tailor the kind of news that made up their newspaper so that they could ignore all that other arbitrary stuff cluttering up their world and focus only on the things they really cared about. I also remember that
people in the room were genuinely troubled by this; the argument went something like… maybe it is a good thing that people are confronted with news they don’t necessarily want to see, news that is important but that might be excluded by an algorithm whose purpose is to weed out anything unfamiliar.
I remember being unconvinced by these anxieties, but also unable to put my finger on why, exactly, they seemed so unconvincing. Reading Anderson this time round triggered this memory because of his focus on how newspapers, as part of print-capitalism, contribute to the imagined community that is a nation. What makes newspapers central to nationalism is twofold: first, the arbitrary juxtaposition of stories (famine in Mali one day, sports in the US the next, an inauguration the third) creates the imagination of a community united in “homogenous empty time” such that “if Mali disappears from the pages of the New York Times after two days of famine reportage, this does not mean that Mali has disappeared or that famine has wiped out all its citizens. The novelistic format of the newspaper assures them that somewhere out there the ‘character’ Mali moves along quietly, awaiting its next reappearance in the plot”(33). Second, the production of newspapers as a reliable commodity whose form is familiar (“one-day bestsellers” he calls them) means that large numbers of people “imagine” the same world, and expect others to be imagining it with them.
What makes the digitization of news significant then, and the advent of personalized news feeds and RSS readers troubling, is that it is now possible to imagine that my version of the New York Times is not the same as your version. Or more generally, that my sources for news are giving me an entirely different picture of the same phenomena or events or issues than yours. As such what is troubling is not that I fail to be confronted with things I don’t necessarily want to see (as the critiques of personalized news suggested), but that we can no longer imagine ourselves to all (“all” in the sense of a national public) be reading (or not reading) the same newspaper. Instead, we have introduced the possibility for a very large number of partially overlapping imagined communities. Pluralism? Perhaps. Certainly a successor to the mass consciousness of high-nationalism in the late 19th, early 20th century.
A similar issue was raised for me concerning Anderson’s analysis of language and its role in the constitution of modern nationalism. Capitalism and print created “monoglot mass reading publics.” The “fatality” (a confusing term, I think) of linguistic diversity seems to suggest that Anderson thinks these monoglot publics centralized around sovereign states; which is to say, the familiar story of the rise of official languages (High German, the Academie Francaise) is intimately tied to the power of these nationalist imaginary communities. This fact is buttressed by a strange footnote (no. 19 in Chapter 3): “We still have no giant multinationals in the world of publishing.” The point of which seems to be that monoglot reading publics are so important to national power that a multinational publishing corporation is an impossibility, unlike, say a multinational oil company.
Remember that this is published in 1983; the claim seems a strange one, since corporations like Springer, Elsevier and others clearly have been multinationals for at least as long as they have been publishing, simply setting up shop in many nations and working in many languages. But it also seems odd given Anderson’s careful attention to “Creole Pioneers” as part of the foundation of nationalism. What is strange is Anderson’s seeming failure to recognize English as a global creole. Multinational publishers are, perhaps, the harbingers and laboratories of post-nationalism, giving form to Englishes and Spanishes whose power is not tied to any particular sovereign entity… not even a colonial one in the terms of Anderson’s theory. Perhaps I’m a poor reader of Anderson, or perhaps this is all old news, but it’s made me wonder if there isn’t a way to get at post-nationalism… which is to say, new forms of imagined communities (and I naturally care about such things cough recursive publics cough) that are not nationalisms of the 19th century variety.
One last thing I found fascinating on re-reading Anderson, was his use of the term “piracy” to describe how the “model” of independent national states (typified by France and America) was ported around the globe. Naturally the language of piracy, remixing, re-using or porting has renewed salience today. Anderson’s concern with the “modulation” of practices that make up nationalism is one that I think could bear further abstraction and specification. Even if nations and nationalism are no longer a goal, the creation of imagined communities through practices that give form to shared time (a periodicity of interaction) and meaning to shared stories and narratives is something that continues, and continues to create forms for adoption and modification. All this on the day that a new president is inaugurated who speaks a pragmatic idiom of nationalism that is both a call for a change and an appeal to ‘timeless’ truths.