Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Imagining Communities

Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities is a very popular text in academia these days. The quick and dirty of his argument is this: nationalism does not exist in nature, but is something we create.

There are problems with this argument, of course, not least of which is language. Language carries culture - hence the reason I grew up reading stories of King Arthur instead of Roland or Siegfried, in spite of being of German ancestry and living nowhere near England. Nevertheless, Anderson's argument has certain strengths. We can, in fact, observe the historical process of certain people and institutions deciding that these stories or that composer or this social custom belongs to a "nation", whereas a decade before people might not have believed that. The Brothers Grimm are an excellent example of this process of collecting, selecting and disseminating cultural norms. (Yes, the same even happens with language, where certain constructions or terms take on a connotation of being more "American" or "German" or what have you.)

Historically, nationalism has a bad name. These imagined communities have often committed horrible crimes in the name of their superior "race" or "civilization". While the Nazis are perhaps the most glaring example of this phenomenon, they are by no means the only one. Thus, it comes as little surprise that there is a kind of condescension in the use of Anderson's term, "imagined communities" as if to say, "You invented this category of 'nation' and now you ascribe messianic qualities to it, committing great crimes in its name. How idolatrous!"

But why, I wonder, must it be that way? Could imagining a community be a good thing? There would have to be a certain honesty about it, of course. The imaginer must admit that this is indeed a creation and not something natural. Nevertheless, it might be done in such a way as to conform to Nature, as best we understand it. And just because we have imagined it need not mean it is evil, or ought not be made actual.

Imagining a community was, I suppose, what I was trying to do when attempting to flesh out a canon. Add to such a canon of literature some major composers, a few holidays, and you've got yourself a community (if not necessarily a nation). As with the literature, such traditions need not be invented; there are plenty of existing traditions to coopt.

If this all sounds a little too grand, let me point out that this project is - or ought to be - something all people interested in culture are seeking to do, though the terms above are rarely used. Those working in cultural fields seek to form good Americans or good Catholics or nuanced thinkers or sensitive human beings or responsible citizens. Moreover, there is almost always a communal dimension to this work, bringing such people into dialogue with one another. That is, in a sense, the task of this blog.

PS: I realize that one important aspect of nationalism has been ignored here, the tendency to define "us" over and against "them". This tendency has been at the heart of many of nationalism's moral failures. If we are to rehabilitate the notion of imagined communities, this is definitely something we should work to avoid. However, while excluding certain people on the basis of race or place of birth or the like is absurd, I think we might rightly place ourselves in opposition to certain ideas: we are not wicked, we are not unjust, we are not self-serving, we are not short-sighted, etc. As the theologians know well, sometimes it is easier to define what a thing is not than to define what a thing is.
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