So naturally, when it was suggested that i read this book as a theoretical framework to use re: my bachelor's thesis, i was resigned. "Time to finally read that book," i thought, assuming that for most intents and purposes i'd already read it.*
I was completely wrong.
This is the single-most cited line: the nation "is an imagined political community - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign."** Perhaps an author will also cite one of the explanations for all of those words: limited, for instance, in that nation is a concept that inherently selects a small section of humankind under its purview, and assigns the rest to other nations; or imagined in the sense that "nation" allows someone to consider those s/he's never met as co-nationals. And all this is fine and dandy, and has become accepted terminology, etc. but it's all just terminological groundwork. It's a priori, and it's not the point of the book.
Imagined Communities is an attempt to understand the mechanisms which gave rise to the phenomenon thus defined, and which allowed its spread. It's an attempt to do so mostly from the Marxist tradition, albeit with a New Left bent. It's somewhat aimed at demystification, insofar as a historical account of a phenomenon inherently denaturalizes the phenomenon, but that's not its primary purpose; in fact, it's somewhat more positive towards nations that one might think.
Anderson identifies three fundamental structural conditions for the rise of the nation.
The first is the least fleshed out, and the least convincing, although a central enough plank to modernization narratives: the decline of universality through a decline of eternity. Belief in eternity provided (in timeless medieval culture) a way to connect events together and give them meaning; and this meaning belonged to a universally valid framework guaranteed by its possession of eternity. By contrast, the modern world is characterized by "homogeneous, empty time" in which events happen simultaneously with no connection on the level of meaning. This, among other things, allows for the conception of a "limited" community coexisting (in simultaneity) with other limited communities. Anderson cites the novel and the newspaper as forms of cultural production reflecting this important shift.
The second is the arrival of print-capitalism in Western Europe.*** Capitalist printers, seeking to sell ever-greater numbers of books, outgrew the Latin-literate segment of the population and moved to producing books in the vernacular. Here as elsewhere Anderson stresses the interplay between fatality and arbitrariness: the fact of linguistic diversity is fatality, the specific language distribution arbitrary. So, to maximize readership, eventually print-languages developed which could be relatively read by speakers of closely related vernaculars, in as broad a net as could be cast: print-French, for instance, in the langue-d'oïl language zone, or print-English in Enland and lowland Scotland. These print-languages "created unified fields of exchange and communication below Latin and above the spoken vernaculars"**** and over time, given the relative infrequency of translation, created common points of reference for speakers of all the spoken vernaculars under a print-language umbrella. This argument, incidentally, leans very heavily on an Annales-school book, L'Apparition du livre by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, which i have not read but clearly should.
The third condition comes along with a bit of a polemic, for Anderson argues that it was met first in the creole communities of the New World: what became the USA, Peru, Brazil, etc. It is the existence of geographically bounded administrative pilgrimages. By administrative pilgrimage, he means the movement of state officials from a post in a market town, to administrative post in a larger center, to administrative post in a larger center... This pilgrimage, as it developed in the early-modern state, has two crucial characteristics. First, it is "spiraling," meaning that one doesn't typically move up from a small town to its larger center but to a place at the next administrative level elsewhere on the network, unmooring the administrative class from local loyalties. Second, the spiraling is not total: metropolitans (peninsulares) can move through the levels of colonial administration, from Lima to Mexico, then end up at top jobs in Madrid, but white colonial subjects (criollos) typically can not only not expect to get top jobs in Madrid but also in a colonial administrative zone outside their own.
With these two factors, members of the administrative classes developed a "consciousness of connectedness" with other criollos from their administrative unit (say, the viceroyalty of New Spain), which they did not share with criollos from elsewhere in the empire and which was defined over against people born in the Metropole.*' And so they developed a sense of themselves as Peruvian, Venezuelan, etc. (or Pennsylvanian or Virginian) and as American-not-European; their experiences gave a real meaning to the somewhat-arbitrary administrative boundaries of vast empires; and they were key players of independence movements.
Educational pilgrimages, typically in close parallel, were also key.
Under these three key conditions, Anderson argues, a sense of nationalism arose more or less organically, first and foremost in the New World. Nationalism quickly became modular, however, with other groups coming to view nation-status as something to aspire to. And some of the factors that had led to the creation of nations became constituent parts of nationhood (e.g. bounded administrative territory, common (preferably unique) print-language, national education systems and presses...). Anderson discusses two different groups: nationalist revolutionaries, individuals among linguistic "minorities" like Magyars or Catalans, who self-consciously sought to promote their vernaculars to the status of "legitimate" print-languages so as to claim nationhood;**' and imperial states who imposed "official nationalisms" as defensive mechanisms against the potentially destructive nationalisms of their lower classes, through processes like Russification - compulsory language teaching in particular - and the invention of a "national" mythos for such awkward constructs as Great Britain or the Russian Empire - or, even more awkwardly, the British Empire.***'
The line between the two is not, however, especially easy to draw, especially in "the last wave." A great example is the imposition of "bahasa Indonesia," an artificial administrative pidgin of the Dutch East Indies, as the "national" language of a new thing called Indonesia; an "official," state-imposed form of nationalism, but also the self-conscious nationalism of a revolutionary group, arising organically from the life experiences of the bureaucratic class - who naturally used Bahasa Indonesia to talk to each other.
Overall, i found this argument extremely convincing. More convincing than most arguments i've heard that claims to condense 3-500 years of global history in 200 pages. Perhaps a great part of its explanatory power is that it does assign a great place to contingency: nationalism feeds on itself, features that are originally arbitrary become self-consciously sought as part of a model to replicate. I also greatly appreciate that the movement of ideas in this account goes both from the bottom up and from the top down. That said, like any historical account, i don't doubt that much of it might be called into question - dating eras in particular is something all of us enjoy playing at too much to ever agree to any "first."
Also, was it useful to my project? Not really.
** Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 2006), 6. Page numbers, incidentally, are substantially the same in the 1991 edition.
*** Print-capitalism and not merely print: Anderson points out that print in China and Korea did not have the same effect, because it was not deployed by actors interested in maximizing their sales of a mass-produced commodity. Ibid., 44.
*' Ibid., 56.
**' Chapter 5, "Old Languages, New Models," ibid., 67-82
***' Chapter 6, "Official Nationalism and Imperialism," ibid., 83-111.