Friday, February 27, 2009

Imagined Communities

Imagined Communities, by Benedict Anderson
1983, 256 pp.

It has been said that the best thing about Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities is its title. That may be a slight overstatement, but what is at least certain is that the worst thing about it is its argument. The author, who is the brother of the prominent Marxist literary critic Perry Anderson, is a cosmopolitan intellectual with a specialty in Southeast Asia, and who addressed this book in the mid-1980's to his fellow Marxists in an effort to build a Marxist response to nationalism. The study of nationalism was then (and mostly still is) dominated by the "historicist" or "modernist" school of thought, exemplified by Ernst Gellner and partially Anthony D. Smith, who posited that nationalism is an inherently modern phenomenon, inextricably tied to the rise of industrial capitalism. Anderson takes that formulation a step further: his argument is that nationalism came about due to the rise of "print-capitalism." In his view, the marketing of mass print to monoglot populations necessitated the development of distinct vernacular languages, which entrenched and codified those languages, and the shared consumption of print matter in them created an imaginary sense of solidarity (the titular "imagined communities") which is the basis for nationalism.

It's a charming premise, but unfortunately one utterly unacquainted with history. Mass printing owes its origin mainly to Herr Gutenberg, who started work on his printing press in 1436. The technique of bookmaking was still essentially the same 300 years later: the next big break came in 1810 with a steam-powered machine. While it is certainly a pleasant pastime and party game to blame everything that has ever happened on capitalism (or if you happen to be Noam Chomsky or Naomi Klein, it is a pleasant source of tenure, lecture fees, book royalties, star-struck collegiate acolytes, and adoring documentaries) but sadly for that project, capitalism is not now, nor has it ever been eternal. The safest date to pin on the origin of capitalism is the final repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. Even then, the passage of the Joint Stock Companies Act didn't come until 1856, nor the first free trade agreement until the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty of 1860, and even then we can speak intelligently about capitalism between Britain and France, but not the entire world. Its intellectual origins cannot possibly be placed any earlier than Adam Smith's 1776 insurgency against the dominance of mercantilism, and generalized capitalism (as opposed to one or two capitalist systems in a sea of mercantilism) simply isn't possible to assert before about 1871. Even then, the rise of capitalism and the spread of the print market did not entail a general rise in literacy. At the time of the Corn Laws, about 35-40% of English citizens were illiterate, and England was the very center of global capitalism. The argument simply is not sustainable.

It is surprising that a Marxist would attempt to theorize about nationalism in this way. Imagined Communities contains not one mention of Rosa Luxemburg, despite the fact that she wrote an entire volume on the subject, and conducted a long-running intellectual grenade-throwing match with Lenin on the issue of Polish nationalism. Rather than draw on her provocative ideas, Anderson spends two chapters essentially summarizing a book about the history of books, which does indeed sound quite interesting, but which is not a theory of nationalism. Indeed, as Ernst Haas wrote in a 1986 review, Anderson writes as though nobody has ever done work on nationalism before: he ignores Deutsch on the relation between identity and socio-economic change, Hayes on the contrast between Western and Eastern nationalism, Emerson on Third World nationalism, tons of statistical studies, and J.L. Talmon's already existing Marxist analyses. The book goes especially to hell in the last half, once Anderson has introduced his square-peg theory and sets about trying to cram it into the round hole of the facts. First Anderson tries to explain revolutions in the Americas, which were conducted against home countries with the same language and culture as the rebels. Then he tries to tackle European nationalism after the fall of the monarchies in 1918, then the wave of Third World nationalism which followed the Second World War, and finally frames the book with an attempt to deal with the rabid nationalism of ostensibly "Marxist" states. Plainly none of these phenomena are the same, and under the banner of his attempt at a general theory, Anderson forces himself into some awkward theoretical calisthenics to try and explain them away. He does not succeed. His latter chapters trying to deal with the role of racism in imperial and nationalist projects and talking up the importance of maps and museums are truly dreadful. The book ends with an utterly unsavory chapter about how difficult it is to be so successful and widely published.

Anderson's prose style is a blocky mixture of High Pedant and Sonorous Academic. It is somewhat fitting that the book boasts a quote from The Nation on the front cover which uses the word "exegesis," despite the fact that there is no text of nationalism being analyzed therein. Anderson is the sort of person who never writes "capital city" when he can use "metropole" instead, or "similar" instead of "isomorphic." Sometimes the fat, turgid river of his prose washes up a real gem of a sentence like one about how theories of nationalism are "etiolated in a late Ptolemaic effort to 'save the phenomena'; and that a reorientation of perspective in, as it were, a Copernican spirit is urgently required." That thoroughly superfluous semicolon is almost endearing. Less charming is Anderson's habit of leaving quotes in foreign languages untranslated. The first pieces of raw French are startling, though when they are footnoted to another, larger block of French, things begin to seem amiss. The French is followed by German, which is forgivable, then Tagalog, which is not, then Vietnamese and Indonesian, which ought to be grounds for prosecution. I will readily admit that even I am prone to habitually adumbrating recondite ipsedixitisms, apropos of eleutheromania, but the goal in academic writing in particular and in advancing an argument in general is to be lapidary, not eristic.

All of this is not to say the book is without merit. Much of it is quite stimulating, particularly when Anderson warms up his specialist knowledge of Southeast Asia. His discussion of the intellectual poverty of nationalism is interesting, as is his view that nationalism is "the middle class intelligentsia inviting the masses into history." He references a number of books which sound fascinating, and he is obviously a deeply read, well-traveled, and generally fascinating fellow. If the reader views Imagined Communities as an interesting chap ruminating on the topic of nationalism, it can be a pleasant experience, but as a serious argument, a work of scholarship, or a historical analysis, it is a failure.

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