Book Review: Imagined Communities

Imagined Communities, by Benedict Anderson

This book was, in a way, prophetic, as the author commented on the way that nationalism served as a threat for Marxist regimes and ended up unintentionally predicting the fall of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.  The author then, after the fact, returned to this work and made some additions and notes while being gracious about the suggestion that his work was too liberal for the Marxists and too Marxist for the liberals.  I’m not sure exactly who this book is for, but I certainly found it to be an interesting discussion of the way that nationhood involves an imagined community that we feel ourselves connected to, and that is a community in which the way that others treat us is important in forming those identities.  To the extent that our ambitions are thwarted because of where we were born, that locale will attract a great deal of national identity as a result.  The author’s insights in this matter have been used by a great many people who wish to avoid nationalism running amok in states like the United States and Israel, and the author’s use of small states to point out important aspects of nationalism and where it forms and to relate it to religious identity rather than political ideology is a sound one.

This book is a bit more than 200 pages and is divided into eleven chapters.  Te book begins with a preface to the second edition, after which there is an introduction.  The author then examines the cultural roots of nationalism (2) as well as the origins of national consciousness in (where else) the bourgeois of early modern Europe (3).  After that the author discusses the role of Creole pioneers in establishing national identities based on their differential treatment by metropolitan elites in the United States and Latin America (4) as well as the way that old languages and new models were related in turning linguistics into a way of forming national identities (5).  After that the author explores official nationalism and its ambivalent relationship with imperialism where the goals of each were in tension with each other (6) as well as the last wave of national identities that came out of late imperialism (7) in the same way that our contemporary age of nationalism springs out of late socialism.  The author examines the way that patriotism and racism are related to each other in that racism tends to encourage the development of identities (8) and also discusses the importance of having a historical perspective (9).  Finally, the author talks about the key roles of censuses, maps, and museums in establishing and setting national identities (10) as well as the relationship between national identity and the question of remembering and forgetting (11), after which there is a discussion on the travel and traffic of the book’s first edition, a bibliography, and an index.

Speaking personally, I found this to be an excellent work.  The author is not only well-read when it comes to matters of how identity formed historically, and very interested in putting identity politics in a historical perspective where one can see the way that dynasties and ruling elites were or were not able to parlay their power into appeals to the identity of those they ruled.  The author has some marked criticism for large nations which do not pay attention or “listen” to others (like the United States), whom he calls out for  being provincial as a result of their power.  That may be true of American culture as a whole but not of all Americans.  The author notes that multilingual people have always been elites because of their ability to move between cultures and notes that the spread of national identity has always required vernacular languages that the vast majority of people can understand even if they do not read well or at all, and it is quite telling that the Thai government has recognized the problematic identities of its own tribal regions and has forbidden missionaries or others to create literary alphabets for the tribal languages within its area.  Surely nations are aware of the way that subnational identities can quickly spiral out of hand and become national identities of their own, and the author’s discussion of this matter is something that ought to be widely read by those who struggle with the influence of nationalism on international affairs.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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