Thoughts on Imagined Communities on Inauguration day

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.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

13 thoughts on “Thoughts on Imagined Communities on Inauguration day

  1. Thank you Chris for these reflections.

    There’s an online (MIT!) video that addresses the potential fragmentation resulting from digital publics and personalized news. See: Zuckerman’s focus is mostly on how to get people to pay attention to news that they don’t normally look at, and he emphasizes the traditional role of the newspaper editor. The worry here is that editors won’t be able to direct attention the way they once did in the era of the RSS feed. But when I think about these things, I wonder less about newspapers and the internet than about TV (or perhaps radio), since I think national consciousnesses of various sorts long ago migrated to the Evening News… and then to cable news. I don’t know what difference that makes exactly (the intervening importance of TV between newspaper-mediated imagined communities and internet-era imagined communities).

  2. Good point, I often forget about television because I never watch it… which is probably why I don’t understand contemporary nationalism…

    television doesn’t sell out of copies, for one thing 🙂

  3. I wonder if the disquiet about RSS feeds doesn’t come from that sense of a ‘very large number.’ There have always been newspapers where the imagined community of readership explicitly doesn’t coincide with the nation as a whole, such as trade newspapers, or newspapers specific to specific political parties. But that’s still more or less a newspaper-we can imagine a community reading it, and we can imagine that the number of such newspapers can be counted and enumerated.

    In contrast, what’s creepy about RSS feeds is not that you can pick your news, but that each person is picking their news individually. You can have more than one version of the same ‘newspaper’ per person, and no person is reading quite the same original text. I suppose that the number of texts isn’t mathematically infinite, but it is incalculable. This doesn’t imagine community-it imagines the dissolution of community.

    Part of why that’s frightening, I think, is that newspapers also encourage us to ‘go out and do things’-the movie section would be a simple example. (I’m reminded of the phrase ‘the revolution will not be televised’-nobody ever says anything like this about the web.)

    In contrast, the internet threatens to privatize us by providing a whole new definition of linkage between newspapers and media. For one thing, we can just download the thing online, but it seems like there’s little reason to read a movie review off an RSS feed, because there are whole websites dedicated to movie reviews.

  4. All of which I could have put much more clearly by saying:

    A newspaper directs us to other ways of ‘being together’ besides newspapers. Those ways of being together, perhaps, don’t have to be definable as ‘media.’ With the internet, they kind of do: roughly put, watching the demonstration on youtube still means in the end that you failed to show up for it and be counted. (Think of the fact, for example, that we still don’t vote online.)

  5. Nationalist ideals, policies and practices are still very much a reality all over the place. A few recent examples:

    – the Malaysian government telling employers yesterday to sack foreigners not Malaysians if they have to sack anyone during the downturn

    – the other day, the Basque soccer team refusing to play an ‘international’ match unless they are renamed Euskal Herria (the federation wants to retain the name Euskadi)

    – Barack Obama’s inaugural address to the United States of America and ROW (Rest of the World)

    etc etc

    I think too much attention is paid to Anderson’s imagined communities and too little to the empirical actualities of living in states with markedly different universes of cultural practice. I consider states (e.g. Spain, France Malaysia, Turkey) to be the preeminent culture areas of our era. Cross the border from Spain into France – or the other way round – and you’ll see what I mean.

    As we can see clearly in the Spanish case, cultural autonomy is very difficult without political autonomy – or even better, political independence (=territorial sovereignty) which is the aim of many Catalan and Basque nationalists.

  6. saying “post-nationalist” doesn’t imply in my mind that nations don’t still function powerfully as imagined communities. That was my point in drawing attention to it on inauguration day. But…

    1) Anderson says that one of the paradoxes of nationalism is its real power despite its theoretical poverty. Whatever nationalism is, it isn’t rational, and yet it’s incredibly powerful and…

    2) the “post-nationalist” difference comes from the fact that nationalism is no longer a priveliged choice, but one among many. Some people are condemned to only be Italian or Malaysian, but more an more people are malaysian in some contexts, doctors in another, level 70 clerics online, and amateur biologists on the weekend–all of which are facilitated by the multiple forms of “internet capitalism” (on the analogy with “print capitalism”) which are a common feaure of the contemporary.

  7. May I propose that anthropologists start paying comparative attention not only to dubious social constructions such as ‘nations’ but also to actual sovereign states – also known by the useful and uncontroversial term ‘countries’ – and their unique universes of cultural practice.

    Since we’re on the subject of Spain – what is Spain? Well, the conventional received wisdom in anthropology has told us since the 1980s that Spain (or France, the US, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, etc.) is an ‘imagined community’. OK, that may be the case, I will not dispute it here. But surely there is far more to say and to research on this matter? At the very least, we can also agree that Spain is also:

    (1) a sovereign state with a territory of over 500,000 sq. km. and a population of roughly 45 million
    (2) a multiplex network of road, railways, ports, airports, telecommunications, finance, etc. with a few hubs (Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao)
    (3) a cultural space with a widely shared lingua franca (Spanish) to run the multiplex network and a number of other weaker languages (their more committed speaker struggling to resist the formidable strength of Spanish)
    and dialects
    (4)a country with a material culture, fashion, cuisine, nightlife, etc, that is distinctive from that of neighbouring countries: Morocco, Portugal and France.

  8. ”the ‘post-nationalist’ difference comes from the fact that nationalism is no longer a priveliged choice, but one among many.”

    I think we should acknowledge that, just as it is easier to live in a post-racial America if you’re white, some individuals have more choice to exercise in your post-nationalist scenario. Being a Swedish citizen is not equivalent to being a Nicaraguan citizen, for example.

  9. To follow on from MTBradley’s comment, we shouldn’t conflate being a national of state X with being a nationalist. For example, most left-wing Germans today are wary of nationalism in all its forms, including the Basque variety which they would have supported only a few decades ago (when Franco was still around). But whatever their ideology, all born and bred Germans of German descent are culturally German through and through. Yes, they have consumed their fair share of American pop culture but in German not French ways. Es ist einfach so, und kann nicht anders sein. There is no opting out of your own cultural upbringing or habitus, not even for a German or Somali or Spanish youngster pretending to be a North Korean granny on Second Life.

  10. John,

    I like your point that ‘national’ and ‘nationalism’ are not synonyms. Somewhat related, I think, is what I see as a common shortcoming in the application of the Imagined Communities concept, that of a failure to consider unit of analysis.

    I would disagree somewhat with your suggestion that there is no opting out of your cultural upbringing or habitus. I think there is some cultural variability on that count. (To paraphrase an Indonesian friend, “The Javanese work hard on making foreigners Javanese.”) Irving Hallowell published an excellent article pertinent to the issue:

  11. Ah, but here we’re moving onto the question of cultural adoption -of adopting and being adopted into another culture – which still doesn’t get you over the cultural upbringing hurdle.

    To reiterate, my point is that the culture you acquired when growing up cannot be undone because it is woven into your habitus for the rest of your life. You can reject your Bugis or Minangkabau or Dayak or Melayu upbringing and ‘become’ Javanese as an adult (e.g. when marrying into a traditionalist Javanese family), adopt a Javanese name and learn as best you can the difficult Javanese language, even go as far as rewriting your biography and inventing a Javanese upbringing, but that doesn’t undo your personal cultural history as a non-Javanese. Your cultural competence (Bourdieu) will still be that of a non-Javanese working hard at becoming Javanese.

  12. Did you hand code that course website? It’s really quite impressive. I’ve been looking for a way to present class information in that way. I’ve been thwarted by my admittedly limited knowledge. Any suggestions on software/tutorials for posting course info and syllabi online? Thanks in advance!

Comments are closed.