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Is Popular Culture Imaginary? Part 2

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Paul Bowman

on 26 November 2015

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Transcript of Is Popular Culture Imaginary? Part 2

Anderson, Benedict (1991),
Imagined Communities:
Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism
– Revised Edition, London: Verso
nationality, or, as one might prefer to put it in view of that word’s multiple significations, nation-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artefacts of a particular kind. (4)
Before addressing the questions raised above, it seems advisable to consider briefly the concept of ‘nation’ and offer a workable definition. Theorists of nationalism have often been perplexed, not to say irritated, by these three paradoxes: (1) The objective modernity of nations to the historian’s eye vs. their subjective antiquity in the eyes of nationalists. (2) The formal universality of nationality as a socio-cultural concept – in the modern world everyone can, should, will ‘have’ a nationality, as he or she ‘has’ a gender - vs. the irremediable particularity of its concrete manifestations, such that, by definition, ‘Greek’ nationality is sui generis. (3) The ‘political’ power of nationalisms vs. their philosophical poverty and even incoherence. (5)
definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. (6)
In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. (6)
The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind. The most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation in the way that it was possible, in certain epochs, for, say, Christians to dream of a wholly Christian planet. (7)
If nation-states are widely conceded to be ‘new’ and ‘historical,’ the nations to which they give political expression always loom out of an immemorial past (11)
the fall of Latin exemplified a larger process in which the sacred communities integrated by old sacred languages were gradually fragmented, pluralized, and territorialized
‘serious’ monarchy lies transverse to all modern conceptions of political life (19)
Kingship organizes everything around a high centre. Its legitimacy derives from divinity, not from populations, who, after all, are subjects, not citizens. In the modern conception, state sovereignty is fully, flatly, and evenly operative over each square centimetre of a legally demarcated territory. But in the older imagining, where states were defined by centres, borders were porous and indistinct, and sovereignties faded imperceptibly into one another. Hence, paradoxically enough, the ease with which pre-modern empires and kingdoms were able to sustain their rule over immensely heterogeneous, and often not even contiguous, populations for long periods of time (19)
the very possibility of imagining the nation only arose historically when, and where, three fundamental cultural conceptions, all of great antiquity, lost their axiomatic grip on men’s minds
The first of these was the idea that a particular script-language offered privileged access to ontological truth, precisely because it was an inseparable part of that truth. It was this idea that called into being the great transcontinental sodalities of Christendom, the Islamic Ummah, and the rest
Second was the belief that society was naturally organized around and under high centres - monarchs who were persons apart from other human beings and who ruled by some form of cosmological (divine) dispensation.
Third was a conception of temporality in which cosmology and history were indistinguishable, the origins of the world and of men essentially identical.
The slow, uneven decline of these interlinked certainties, first in Western Europe, later elsewhere, under the impact of economic change, ‘discoveries’ (social and scientific), and the development of increasingly rapid communications, drove a harsh wedge between cosmology and history. No surprise then that the search was on, so to speak, for a new way of linking fraternity, power and time meaningfully together. Nothing perhaps more precipitated this search, nor made it more fruitful, than print-capitalism, which made it possible for rapidly growing numbers of people to think about themselves, and to relate themselves to others, in profoundly new ways. (36)
Before the age of print, Rome easily won every war against heresy in Western Europe because it always had better internal lines of communication than its challengers. But when in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his theses to the chapel-door in Wittenberg, they were printed up in German translation, and ‘within 15 days [had been] seen in every part of the country.’
print-capitalism created languages-of-power of a kind different from the older administrative vernaculars. Certain dialects inevitably were ‘closer’ to each print-language and dominated their final forms.
High German, the King’s English, and, later, Central Thai, were correspondingly elevated to a new politico-cultural eminence. (Hence the struggles in late-twentieth-century Europe by certain ‘sub-’nationalities to change their subordinate status by breaking firmly into print – and radio.) (45)
Here then is the riddle: why was it precisely creole communities that developed so early conceptions of their nation-ness – well before most of Europe? Why did such colonial provinces, usually containing large, oppressed, non-Spanish-speaking populations, produce creoles who consciously redefined these populations as fellow-nationals? And Spain, to whom they were, in so many ways, attached, as an enemy alien? Why did the Spanish-American Empire, which had existed calmly for almost three centuries, quite suddenly fragment into eighteen separate states? (50)
The success of the Thirteen Colonies’ revolt at the end of the 1770s, and the onset of the French Revolution at the end of the 1780s, did not fail to exert a powerful influence. Nothing confirms this ‘cultural revolution’ more than the pervasive republicanism of the newly independent communities. Nowhere was any serious attempt made to recreate the dynastic principle in the Americas, except in Brazil; even there, it would probably not have been possible without the immigration in 1808 of the Portuguese dynast himself, in flight from Napoleon. (He stayed there for 13 years, and, on returning home, had his son crowned locally as Pedro I of Brazil.) (51)
the accident of birth in the Americas consigned him to subordination
There was nothing to be done about it: he was irremediably a creole. Yet how irrational his exclusion must have seemed!
Nonetheless, hidden inside the irrationality was this logic: born in the Americas, he could not be a true Spaniard; ergo, born in Spain, the peninsular could not be a true American
in principle, they had readily at hand the political, cultural and military means for successfully asserting themselves. They constituted simultaneously a colonial community and an upper class. They were to be economically subjected and exploited, but they were also essential to the stability of the empire. (58)
An illiterate nobility could still act as a nobility. But the bourgeoisie? Here was a class which, figuratively speaking, came into being as a class only in so many replications. Factory-owner in Lille was connected to factory-owner in Lyon only by reverberation. They had no necessary reason to know of one another’s existence; they did not typically marry each other’s daughters or inherit each other’s property. But they did come to visualize in a general way the existence of thousands and thousands like themselves through print-language. For an illiterate bourgeoisie is scarcely imaginable. Thus in world-historical terms bourgeoisies were the first classes to achieve solidarities on an essentially imagined basis. (77)
Out of the American welter came these imagined realities: nation-states, republican institutions, common citizenships, popular sovereignty, national flags and anthems, etc., and the liquidation of their conceptual opposites: dynastic empires, monarchical institutions, absolutisms, subjecthoods, inherited nobilities, serfdoms, ghettoes, and so forth (81)
The lexicographic revolution in Europe, however, created, and gradually spread, the conviction that languages (in Europe at least) were, so to speak, the personal property of quite specific groups – their daily speakers and readers – and moreover that these groups, imagined as communities, were entitled to their autonomous place in a fraternity of equals (84)
in 1834, Babington Macaulay became president of this committee. Declaring that ‘a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia,’ he produced the following year his notorious ‘Minute on Education.’ ... his recommendations went into immediate effect. A thoroughly English educational system was to be introduced which, in Macaulay’s own ineffable words, would create ‘a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect.’ (90-1)
as the [Japanese] empire expanded after 1900, Japanification a la Macaulay was self-consciously pursued as state policy. In the interwar years Koreans, Taiwanese and Manchurians, and, after the outbreak of the Pacific War, Burmese, Indonesians and Filipinos, were subjected to policies for which the European model was an established working practice. And just as in the British Empire, Japanified Koreans, Taiwanese or Burmese had their passages to the metropole absolutely barred. They might speak and read Japanese perfectly, but they would never preside over prefectures in Honshu, or even be posted outside their zones of origin (98-9)
in the new states one sees both a genuine, popular nationalist enthusiasm and a systematic, even Machiavellian, instilling of nationalist ideology through the mass media, the educational system, administrative regulations, and so forth (114)
Print-language is what invents nationalism, not a particular language per se. (134)
Above all, the very idea of ‘nation’ is now nestled firmly in virtually all print-languages; and nation-ness is virtually inseparable from political consciousness. (135)
(a chapel door in Wittenberg)
Paul Bowman
Cardiff University
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