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All in the mind?

Saturday, July 6, 2024
5 mins

‘Imagined communities’

by Rab Clark

Benedict Anderson's 'Imagined Communities' is a landmark text in understanding nationalism for a few key reasons:

  • Shifts focus to imagination: It challenges the idea that nations are ancient, inherent communities based on shared blood or ethnicity. Instead, Anderson argues nations are "imagined" - a product of shared cultural experiences and a sense of belonging fostered by things like print media and language.

  • New perspective on nationalism: Before 'Imagined Communities' discussions were often stuck on whether nations were natural or invented. Anderson offered a middle ground, acknowledging their constructed nature but emphasizing their real-world power.

  • Highlights the role of media: The book explores how the rise of print capitalism and standardized languages created a sense of shared experience across large populations, fostering national consciousness.

This influential theory of nations has been a cornerstone of understanding nationalism, but it's not without its critiques. Here are some of the main points scholars have raised:

  • Eurocentrism: Critics like Partha Chatterjee argue that Anderson's focus on print capitalism as the driving force behind nationalism overlooks the experiences of former colonies. Their argument is that many anti-colonial movements had their own forms of national identity that weren't simply copies of Western models [What is the intersection of Benedict Anderson's "Imagined Communities" and Hindu Nationalism in India?].

  • Modernity: Some scholars argue that Anderson downplays the role of pre-modern forms of national consciousness. They point out that shared histories, myths, and ethnicities have played a role in national identity even before the rise of print media.

  • Language Focus: Anderson emphasizes the role of a shared language in creating a sense of national identity. Critics argue that this neglects other factors that can be just as important, like religion, ethnicity, or shared experiences of oppression.

  • Imagination: The concept of a shared imagination can be a bit vague. How exactly do people come to imagine themselves as part of a national community? Some scholars argue that this needs to be fleshed out more.

  • Inclusivity: The idea of an imagined community can mask the fact that not everyone within a nation feels equally included. National identities can be exclusionary, and the theory doesn't fully address how this happens.

Despite these criticisms, Anderson's work remains a major contribution to our understanding of nationalism. It highlights the constructed nature of national identity and the role of shared cultural experiences in creating a sense of belonging. However, it's important to consider these critiques when applying his ideas to specific historical contexts.

Update required

We used AI to provide that potted summary of Imagined Communities and criticisms of it. We haven’t even finished reading the book and have found it pretty hard going but it’s a take that one feels obliged to read given that it’s referenced so frequently.

We have no beef with the author. On the contrary, it’s always impressive to read the work of someone with such broad knowledge and it's certainly thought-provoking. But we do have an observation to make which we hope will help stimulate productive discussion…

‘Imagined Communities’ was first published in 1983. There have been several editions since then and Anderson admits that some of his original thesis may have been ‘hasty and superficial’ (See Chapter 10, ‘Census, Map, Museum,’). 

We had a look at the index and found no mention of Cesaire, Fanon, Memmi. Those names will be familiar to those who follow the work of Alf Baird as covered in previous OTS posts and his comments btl on Wings Over Scotland have appeared in (we think) every one of our 34 ‘Not Hitting The Wall’ features.

Is there anyone out there who is familiar with the work of Anderson, Tom Nairn and Baird? (Nairn is mentioned throughout 'Imagined Communities'.) We haven’t the expertise to attempt a synthesis of their work but there must be someone who does. Wouldn’t it make a great subject for a Masters or Phd thesis? Has something along such lines already been published? Anything in the pipeline? We just don’t know.

The timeline of Scotland’s emergence as a ‘nation’ does not align with Anderson’s theory vis-a-vis the proliferation of the printing press. The feelings we have when we see our main independence party - painstakingly constructed over the course of a near-century - being reduced to a penniless and impotent husk in less than a decade are, surely, genuine enough. The pain certainly feels ‘real’.

With the SNP now lying in ruins but support for independence remaining steady at or around the 50% mark, it’s clear that a vacuum exists which must now be filled - relying on the same media models to even acknowledge the existence of the constitutional case (SALVO, Liberation Scotland etc) is pointless, as their treatment of Alba demonstrates. We will now, once again, be expected to toe traditional party boundaries and contain debate within whatever parameters are set by print/broadcast media - it is already clear, less than 24 hours after most results were confirmed, that the main narrative being punted by the mainstream media and political chitterati generally is that 'independence is off the agenda'. If we don't contest this narrative then any meaningful power will simply be passed from one major unionist party to the other for decades to come.

‘Scotland is a nation.’

For the millions of Scots who yearn for independence that is a fact. But we have to be able to state why it’s a ‘fact’ and not just a fervently-held belief. Yes, the work of Benedict Anderson, highly influential as it is, raises questions which must be answered fully and confidently. We believe that post-colonial theory can help us reach findings which strengthen the case for independence, both at home and internationally. The place to start is the link below.

Off-Topic Scotland | Alf Baird: The Determinants of Independence (offtopicscotland.com)

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