Ben Anderson and Imagined Communities

“I have a relationship to that book as to a daughter who has grown up and run off with a bus driver: I see her occasionally but, really, she has gone her own merry way.”[1]

Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism is the most read books on nationalism and was written in a different way by his writer, “I am probably the only one writing about nationalism who doesn’t think it ugly” said Benedict Anderson. His path breaking contribution is his definition of nation where he presents concepts “imagined communities”.
There are four elements in this concept: Firstly, it is imagined because the members of a nation will never know most of their fellow members;[2] but at the same time they feel recognize each other and share imagined things (culture, belief, and attitude). Secondly, it is imagined as limited.[3] There is no nation imagine themselves would include all the people living on earth. As he said, “To have one nation means there must be another nation against which self-definition can be constructed.” Thirdly, it is imagined as sovereign because, according to Anderson, the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm (Anderson, 1991: 7; original emphasis). Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a horizontal comradeship.[4]

As I read thoroughly his work, I would argue that Anderson wrote his subject in more linguistic approach than other discipline. While he wrote a politic subject and a scholar of international studies, he employed linguistic theories[5] that so far have been influencing heavily studies of anthropology — the main canvas upon which he drew his theory of nationalism.[6]

My conclusion is based on the facts that: first, he is familiar with linguistic theories and in fact he published a book, a couple years after imagined community, on Language and Power: Exploring Political Culture in Indonesia (Cornell University, 1990). Second, he listed, at least, 15 books of literature, language, and novels in the bibliography. Third, the most important one but he never mentions explicitly in his book, is the very concept of “imagined” (not intended to be the same meaning with fiction) would be best understood in the French vocabulary of linguistic, imaginaire.[7] Last but not least, some linguistic terms he uses: especially sign, symbol, memoir (best understood under theory of sign and signer, langue and parole) and some authorities he refers: Foucault and Roland Bartes.

His linguistic-anthropological approach is pervasive from the beginning of his book until the end. Let me refer to some chapters where he was influenced heavily by linguistic approach. In the second chapter, cultural roots (the title was self-explain), he argues that religious community was form of imagined community, and it was the very language that was the basis for this imaginary. He calls it sacred silent language, through which the great global communities of the past were imagined…”[8], and “… the sacred language made such communities as Christendom imaginable…”[9]

The important of sacred language is shown by the fact that once the religious communities lost confidence in the unique sacredness of their languages (the idea that a particular script language offered privileged access to ontological truth), they lost confidence in their ideas about admission to membership in the religious community.

In the same chapter, furthermore, he analyzes three fictions (but he mentioned “four fictions”) to trace the earlier development of nationalism: Noli Me Tengere of Jozé Rizal (the Father of Philipino); El Periquillo Sarniento of José Joaquín Fernandez de Lizardi; and Semarang Hitam of Mas Marco Kartodikromo, an Indonesian nationalist. This analysis is necessarily linguistic, discursive production analysis.

In chapter 5, Old Language, New Models, again he discusses objects related to the history of and use of language. As Anderson himself said, the analysis of this chapter focus on print language. He argues that national print languages were of central ideological and political importance. Here, he mainly refers to the argument developed by Seton-Waston that “the nineteenth century was, in Europe and its peripheries, a golden age of vernacularizing lexicographers, grammarians, philologist, and literatures”. Anderson, then, developed this data to conclude that “The energetic activities of these professional intellectuals were central to the shaping of nineteenth-century European nationalism in complete contrast to the situation in the Americas between 1770 and 1830.” (p.71)

In chapter 6, Official Nationalism and Imperialism, no less than before, he emphasizes the use of language to produce what he called “official nationalism”. He argued that lexicographic revolution in Europe, however, created conviction that languages were personal property of quiet specific groups and that these groups were entitled to their autonomous place in a faternity of equals.[10] It seems, then, justify them to be a special community, a nation.

He then refers to historical events in Europe to describe the important of language to form a kind of nationality. Germanization, Russification, and many cases we can observe the rise of nationalism in Europe.[11] In the same way, did the rise of last wave, chapter 7, nationalism in the colonized countries such as Indonesia where the difference races and hundred languages were unified under “Indonesian” and become one nation.

The most obvious linguistic analysis is on the discussion of census, map, and museum (chapter 10), where semiotical analysis plays important role. Census, map, and museum are symbols, signifier, where beyond this lied signified, and both produce discourse. In this case, census, map, and museum produce discourse of nationalism.

Reading the book, I would argue that Anderson has skillfully used linguistics. For those who are not familiar with linguistics theory and post-structuralism approach, the book may seem unorganized – as one of the student pointed out in the last quarter. But, he really relied on the linguistic and semiotic ways and should be understood on that ways. He is on the right tract to show the relation of nationalism and language through linguistics; and as a matter of act to me, we would be difficult to deal with “imagination” without language, because it is very language the way we think abstractly and imaginarily.

I am more convinced to assume linguistic influence on his work by his typically structuralist statement I cited in the beginning of my paper: his book is his daughter and has gone with bus driver – to put it in structuralism’s linguistic term, the author has been dead. A work, a book, writing, would live once it is produced. The readers of the book will treat them on their own interpretation and understanding. The author intention, not in a few cases, sometimes is not found anymore by the reader (the bus driver who married her).

[1] Interview by Lorenz Khazaleh, translated by Matthew Whiting. Published on as retrieved on Jan 7, 2006 04:50:12 GMT
[2] P. 6
[3] P. 7
[4] Ibid.
[5] Especially Saussurian structuralism (I refer to Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of modern linguistics) that has been developed into structuralism and, then., post-structuralism theories.
[6] He said, “in an anthropological sprit, then, I propose the following definition of nationalism…” pp. 5-6.
[7] In Anderson’s book, we can find in the bibliography one book that may contributes his concept of imagined but he failed to refer in the body page or in the footnote of first time he proposes the use of imagined, that is the book by Hyden White, The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973)

[8] p.14
[9] P.15
[11] pp. 84-89

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