Thoughts on Benedict Anderson
London: Verso, 2006 .
Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference.
Princeton: Princeton, 2000.
In setting out to criticize the arguments of a book as influential and as justly celebrated as Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, one is right to proceed cautiously. It is impossible to calculate the value of a book which, in addition to launching a whole series of hotly-contested discourses on the emergence of nationalism, remains after more than two decades the undisputed classic of the field. Yet for all its obvious merits, the foundations upon which Anderson constructs his thesis are far from solid, as reviewing that thesis with the help of Dipesh Chakrabarty will demonstrate.
Nationalism and the West — Anderson’s Contribution
Anderson begins his account by reflecting on the then-recent invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam and the problem that this conflict posed for Marxist historiography. The difficulty lay in the demonstrable lack of proletarian solidarity and obvious national interest motivating the attack—i.e., by an utter inability to justify the action in Marxist-historical terms. Setting aside the thin rationalisations for previous inter-Marxian conflict, the record of violence in and betwixt Marxist régimes plainly shows that a revolutionary consciousness has never taken root in the way foreseen by Marx and Engels, and Anderson sets out to explain the countervailing force upsetting these calculations—that is, nationalism.1 Rightly noting that “since World War II every successful revolution has defined itself in national terms”, Anderson applies an overdue corrective to an ideological blindness affecting, not only Marxists, but Western planners as well.2 Nationalism is, indeed, to be found everywhere in the world to-day, animating states of tremendous cultural and historical diversity.
Acknowledging from the outset that this ubiquitous presence—nations, nationalities, nationalisms—has “proved notoriously difficult to define”, Anderson sets about proposing a new definition: a nation “is an imagined political community… [that is] both inherently limited and sovereign.”3 They are imagined in the sense that they are abstract, in the way that “all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact” are, and in their being specific creations or inventions;4 and they are limited by finite populations and borders, but assumed fully to command what lies within them. But as communities, they are heir to that fraternity shared at the smaller scale of personal (objective) community. In this they have often been imagined to have an ancient or timeless appearance, have exercised an universal jurisdiction—all lands falling under the control of some nation—and, critically, they have come to possess a powerful, magnetic attraction, arousing “deep attachments” in their members despite “their philosophical poverty and even incoherence”.5
But as we will see, these “artefacts” are a peculiar creation of Western European culture, which have simply been universalized in the centuries since first emerging in the Americas. In Anderson’s formulation, the nation depended for its emergence upon three historical factors: secularism, language, and print-capital. Each of these changes was in turn conditioned by the decline of three elements of the Ancien Régime social structure: the fading away of sacred script languages (particularly Latin, but also Greek and Hebrew); the loss of faith in divine monarchy; and the end of “what Benjamin calls Messianic time, a simultaneity of past and future in the instantaneous present.”6 Each of these factors is contingent upon circumstances in the West, and Anderson’s attempt to globalize nationalism on these bases is convincing only in a context of a Western intellectual hegemony. Without digressing needlessly, one might casually note the persistence of Arabic as a “particular script language offer[ing] privileged access to ontological truth”, and perhaps the presence of Hirohito as a living god during the high point of modern Japanese nationalism.7
An expression pioneered by Anderson, ‘print-capital’ refers to the development and profitable exploitation of the written word, as in newspapers and popular novels. Print-capital, and the social-administrative transformation that accompanied it, set the stage for the modern state. Early printing was mostly in Latin, but in the cultural revolution set off by easier access to religious texts (i.e., the Reformation) printing quickly spread to the vernacular.8 This growth of written material helped to stabilize languages and slow the normal course of ‘drift’. This in turn led to the evolution of “languages-of-power”, which, taking advantage of the new technology, hedged out the mostly-spoken and relatively easily-assimilable dialects on the fringes of a given power structure.9 A common vernacular tongue was, according to Anderson, essential in the first phase of nationalist development, and only in later forms could a polyglot nationalism survive. However, despite significant mention of the difficulties in establishing a vernacular in the Habsburg realms, he does not seem to notice the existence of modern nationalism within that empire; even without a true common tongue, there was little shortage of soldiers in the Great War. But finally, with the rise of vernacular printing, especially in the new languages-of-power, sacred script tongues began rapidly to give way, accelerating the conditions for a secular modernity.
It is in the treatment of religion that Anderson’s thesis is most in need of extension, for whilst he wishes to make use of the new ‘secular’ culture of Europe, what has in fact developed is anything but secular. It is to transformations of religious identity and concept that we must turn, as has been noted by some of Anderson’s followers.10 But within that transformation, at the widening gap betwixt the religious and new-born secular-scientific spheres, came one of the most significant developments in this transition—a subtle change in the ‘apprehension of time’ itself.11 Building on the apocalyptic eschatology of the early Christian communities, mediaeval civilizations had paid little heed to the passing years; all of time was already present and connected in G-d’s plan. Novels and newsprint led the way to a new conception of time, one linking together the many peoples of the earth beneath a single, linear stream with simultaneous action in differing parts. In the memorable phrase Anderson borrowed from Walter Benjamin, we were now to conceive of a ‘homogeneous, empty time’, wherein simultaneity is “transverse, cross-time, marked not by prefiguring and fulfilment, but by temporal coincidence, and measured by clock and calendar.”12 We all, therefore, share a single temporality; we all exist in the same world.
But this world was still ruled according to a ‘stagist’ view of time, a neo-Hegelian view of progress and development. Civilizations that had not evolved the same kind of secularism, or reached the same level of technical brilliance, were treated as ‘immature’ and in need of ‘assistance’. We are concerned here not with the particulars of colonial ideology, but with their basis in the same transitional qualities Anderson is keen to recognize in nationalism, for it is in this realm that Anderson’s ideas become noticeably problematic. It is well and good to note the way in which Western nationalism emerged, and it is vitally important that we understand the nature of that nationalism in order to see how it has fared as a universal model for the world in the centuries since. But that conception maintains, amongst other difficulties, a fundamentally secular view of time and space: What happens to Anderson’s model of secular nationalism when it is applied to a civilization with radically different experiences of religious modernity?
Empty, Homogeneous Time? — The Challenge of Pluralism
Dipesh Chakrabarty, in his tour de force intervention in post-colonial historiography, injects some much-needed pluralism into Anderson’s project. He takes issue with the way ‘imagination’ is used in that author’s title, seeking to “open up the word for further interrogation” and to “breathe heterogeneity” into it by allowing “for the possibility that the field of the political”—in which communities are to be imagined—”is constitutively not singular.”13 His approach involves a kind of anti-modernist stance (though Chakrabarty refuses the post-modernist appellation), drawing heavily on Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, and Foucault. For Chakrabarty, modernity is a Eurocentric metanarrative, which has been presumed to have universal and unquestionable applicability, and which is assumed to take a standard form. His scepticism with regard to such a position means that his intervention will extend well beyond the Marxian discourse that inspired Anderson, though it would be impossible to develop in the absence of such.
The Europe that Chakrabarty wishes to ‘provincialize’ is not a place, but a reified, “imaginary figure that remains deeply embedded in clichéd and shorthand forms in some everyday habits of thought that invariably subtend attempts in the social sciences to address questions of political modernity in South Asia.”14 Although his stated concern and disciplinary background limit his project, it does not hamper his thesis, as the “habits of thought” that he describes occlude opportunities for change in strictly European terms as well. They are found in the unavoidable discourses of modernity—”citizenship, the state, civil society, public sphere, human rights”, and so forth. As Chakrabarty notes, “one simply cannot think of political modernity without these and other related concepts that found a climactic form in the course of the European Enlightenment and the nineteenth century.”15 But as he is also quick to point out, “European thought has a contradictory relationship” to the rest of the world, and he finds that it is “both indispensable and inadequate in helping… to think through the various life practices that constitute the political and the historical” outside of the West.16 Chakrabarty thus engages the entire Western model of political development, and suggests ways in which it can be adapted and modified.
To do so, he “challenges us to rethink two conceptual gifts of nineteenth-century Europe… One is historicism… the other is the very idea of the political”.17 The first of these must take account of the way time is broached in common usage, for the ‘stagist’ view of time noted above carries the considerable weight of an imperialist origin. Chakrabarty cites two immediate examples: that to imagine the discourse of post-colonialism as following on post-modern / post-structuralist thought is to practice historicism; i.e., to continue the argument “first in the West, and then elsewhere”; and, in critical theories of economics, “nobody sees ‘late capitalism’ as a system whose driving engine may be in the third world.18 The word ‘late’ has very different connotations when applied to the developed countries and to those seen as still ‘developing'”—i.e., they are ‘late’ because they are ‘behind schedule’ in relation to the West.19 The problem lies in the argument’s construction: Does the West represent the way forward, and all other parts of the world are ‘behind’ her in linear time? Or are there as many ways ‘forward’ as there are peoples?
For most theorists hitherto, including (it would appear) Benedict Anderson, and for the economic structures of global capital, the former has been the preferred approach. Chakrabarty sees in such formulae the universalizing tendency of colonial discourse, and draws attention to small details that, under analysis, highlight the underlying assumptions. For example, he quotes E. P. Thompson on one aspect of the modernity project: “Without time-discipline we could not have the insistent energies of the industrial man; and whether this discipline comes in the form of Methodism, or of Stalinism, or of nationalism, it will come to the developing world.” But, even “if Thompson’s prediction were to come true… we would never know for sure whether this condition had come about because [time-discipline] was a genuinely universal, functional characteristic of capital, or whether world capitalism represented a forced globalization of a particular fragment of European history.”20
Questioning the nature of historical time and its flow forces us also to challenge the nature of the political subject constructed within it. “Imaginations of socially just futures for humans usually take the idea of single, homogeneous, and secular historical time for granted. Modern politics is often justified as a story of human sovereignty acted out in the context of a ceaseless unfolding of unitary historical time.”21 But if time is not secular, if spirits and powers are immanent, if one believes they are ‘seeing beyond the real’ in a transcendental sense, then secular historical time may not be a sufficiently complex analytic. Anderson has used the word ‘imagined’ in an “enormously suggestive” form that may be self-evident for Westerners, but is complicated by other ways of perceiving, such as the “divine sight” he describes in Bengali practice. Chakrabarty asserts that Anderson’s use of ‘imagined’ is a “subject-centered category”, whereas “divine sight” does not even require one “to erect a category called ‘the mind'” (here he invokes, for comparison in the Western tradition, Spinoza and Deleuze, both for their immanent ontological theories).22
This may seem, on the surface, to be a rather esoteric point, but it has deep implications for the way in which the political is constructed in modern nationalist discourse, for the Western mode of political thinking more generally, and for the capitalist enterprise itself. “One empirically knows of no society in which humans have existed without gods and spirits accompanying them.”23 Whatever one may feel about the validity of various creeds—or, indeed, of religion itself—any system of thought which consigns the religious to a ‘pre-modern’ oblivion was not designed with human beings in mind. Even in the West, where secularism runs like a mighty current in the ocean of modernity, religion continues to play an omnipresent rôle in public discourse. That religion is generally of the sort accommodated by Western political norms, but not exclusively so24; and the question is far more urgent for cultures in which there exists no historical divide betwixt the spiritual and personal, or in which no division betwixt religion and politics is possible. This last is a persistent problem in Western confrontations with Islamist states and groups, and a subtle critique of their entire Weltanschauung cannot fail to creep into bilateral discussions.
These differences in basic outlook necessarily force the adaptation of Western modernity to differing contexts—and these alternations often sits poorly with the underlying civilisation, and can leave open wounds for later generations. “Capital brings into every history some of the universal themes of the European Enlightenment, but on inspection the universal turns out to be an empty place holder”, and the particular will need to be accommodated.25 What is generally called the “transition to capitalism” involves an often-painful “process of translation of diverse life-worlds and conceptual horizons about being human into the categories of Enlightenment thought that inhere in the logic of capital.”26 Forced by colonial powers or modern institutions of global capital to assume a direction that it ‘intelligible’ in the West, the colonial subject is nevertheless not on a direct path that will land him at the same ‘level’ of development as his present or former masters; in fact, “this single subject” who is meant to change himself to live in this world “breaks up, on examination, into multiple ways of being human, which makes it impossible for us to reduce this moment to any summary narrative of transition from a premodern stage to modernity.”27 Caught betwixt the value and the logic of modernity, and the insistence of ancient tradition and cultural context, the (post-)colonial subject is in a double-bind; and that, to echo Chakrabarty, is simply a fact of life in “the restless and inescapable politics of historical difference to which global capital consigns us.”28
Fault Lines — Comments and Conclusions
By now we have seen that Benedict Anderson has offered a clever analysis of the origins of nationalism is the West, and we have seen why such a formula would not likely have developed in the same way elsewhere in the world. And, given the colonial past and economically-hierarchical present, the Western model has been pressed upon much of the planet, with varying degrees of success. Dipesh Chakrabarty has suggested that for the regions in which this model is inadequate, a new interpretation should be developed, in dialogue with the intellectual legacy and analytical tools bequeathed to the world by the West. And yet the source of those tools has led to a privileging of European history and thought above all others, forcing a basic engagement with its critical moments and thinkers—as Chakrabarty notes in his introduction, non-Western historians are expected to have assimilated the canon of Western history, but no such reciprocity is on offer. Additionally, the formerly-colonized nations have thus far failed to develop many competing tools that have been adopted by the West (which would help to forge the two-way communication needed for a truly pluralistic academy).29 Chakrabarty notes that “insofar as the academic discourse of history… is concerned, ‘Europe’ remains the sovereign, theoretical subject of all histories”30
With this last in mind, one could argue that—whether guided by Marxian, Hegelian, Christian, or some other set of principles—every major institution of Western domination has been conceived within an inherently teleological model, presenting (and often perceiving) itself as the logical outgrowth of some profound process, fit to be adapted for use anywhere in the world. Chakrabarty quotes Meaghan Morris: “The modern [will continue to be seen] as a known history, something which has already happened elsewhere, and which is to be reproduced, mechanically or otherwise, with a local context.”31 Failure consciously to adapt the useful aspects of Western modernity has led to conflict, and often outright failure in the process of nation-building; and where such values have nevertheless been brought into operation, they have frequently been altered as a result of such conflict.
Put succinctly, the history of nation-states and nationalism is the history of the West. The imposition of that history, and of its ultimate productions, on the entire world has provided, seemingly, a basis for mutual intercourse amongst humans of every race and creed. But as this imposed history is founded on a lie—viz. that the Western experience of secular political development makes sense in any cultural milieu—it is by definition unstable and contested. Chakrabarty’s basic intervention “is to write into the history of modernity the ambivalences, contradictions, the use of force, and the tragedies and ironies that attend it.”32 Urging recognition of the “irreducible pluralities” that inform the “constitutional heterogeneity of the political”, we are to try building into the means of inscribing history a proper mechanism for retention of the contradictions and coercions that created the modern world.33 This “nontotalizing conception of the political” will then presumably open the door to a new kind of history—one that does not, as yet, exist.34
Epilogue — “My Country, Right or Wrong”…?
The need to stick closely to the two texts used in our seminar prevented several features of this analysis from being developed more fully. One of these seemed pertinent enough to warrant a brief exposition here, even if it is now entirely disconnected from the arguments above.
In a more recent work—The Spectre of Comparison—Anderson makes a significant addition to the argument in Imagined Communities. Dealing with the thorny issue of identity, he develops the language of “two profoundly contrasting types of seriality”, which he calls ‘bound’ and ‘unbound’. Anderson explains the distinction thus: “Unbound seriality, which has its origins in the print market, especially in the newspapers, and in the representations of popular performance, is exemplified by such open-to-the-world plurals as nationalists, anarchists, bureaucrats, and workers… Bound seriality, [by contrast,] has its origins in governmentality, especially in such institutions as the census and elections, and is exemplified by finite series like Asian-Americans, beurs, and Tutsis.”35 This definition accompanies and amplifies his effort to “draw as clear an analytic line as feasible between nationalism and ethnicity.”36 In both of these tasks his approach is seriously misguided.
Unless one is to lapse into metaphysics and postulate an a priori category for every possible bureaucratic distinction, we must face the fact that they are socially constructed—as much so in most cases as the supposedly “liberating” unbound serialities. The process that forms both types of seriality is simple ‘Othering’, one need go no further into psycho-analytic theory than that; identities such as those he describes are all created negatively—that is, through exclusion. One is an anarchist because she is not a statist; a French national because he is not a German. It is possible to change these categories in most cases—and this is an area of the original Imagined Communities thesis that needed work—through such things as emigration, so they must be understood as fluid and consensual. But this is their only substantive difference.
Bound serialities are ostensibly ‘bad’ because they are assigned from the outside, according to conditions one cannot change. Are not the unbound type managed in much the same fashion? Each of his examples of unbound seriality rely upon the consent of others to recognise a chosen status. Likewise each of the examples listed for bound seriality involve artificial designations created by society for its own purposes. We need look only to the Rwandan genocide to see the lack of objective bases—the Tutsis are not a ‘race’ distinct from the Hutus, but the result of an arbitrary distinction forced upon them by European conquerors. This allows, admittedly, for socially-constructed categories of external oppression—but could not the same apply to unbound serialities? Were not anarchists at times persecuted merely because they were anarchists? because someone identified them as anarchists? Are not brutal wars waged betwixt patriots of opposing nationalities? and men gunned down in ‘cold blood’ because they were of the wrong nationality? This is especially problematic when combined with Anderson’s observation of universal applicability—in his words, “everyone can, should, will ‘have’ a nationality, [just] as he or she ‘has’ a gender”37 What of nationalities that are forced upon individuals, such as through conquest and annexation, or the creation of new states?38 Only by neglecting the rôle of state coercion can unbound serialities escape the criticism Anderson levels at ‘ethnic politics’.
The whole distinction betwixt serialities seems informed, more than anything else, by Anderson’s desire to salvage some inherent value in the venerable conception of nationalism—as if the violent excesses of the past two centuries had been undertaken in the name of mere corruptions to their essential purity! In his conclusion to The Spectre of Comparison, Anderson observes that from the perspective of the common man, “no matter what crimes a nation’s government commits and its passing citizenry endorses, My Country is ultimately Good.” He then asks, in these troubled times in which we live, “can such Goodness be profitably discarded?”39 If we are ever to accept the rights of all humans to live as they choose, without their being targeted for destruction on the basis of purely contingent matters such as their place of birth, the answer is an unqualified ‘yes’.
It is arguable that the US government’s failure to perceive the nationalist character of Vietnamese ambitions led to a ‘domino theory’ of engagement that left two million dead.
An interesting rationale for this can be found in evolutionary psychology, which suggests that the maximum number for human social groupings is around 150—any larger and normal social processes can no longer keep order, and hierarchy and violence will emerge. See, e.g.,Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language,Harvard 1998.
He gives an example in High German (e.g.,that of the Habsburg court) and Platt-Deutsch (or, more properly, Niederdeutsch)spoken in the north-western lowlands. As the two are orthographically almost identical, the latter could not compete successfully as a print form.