Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Imagined Networks in the Novel

Benedict Anderson’s text on the ‘Apprehension of Time’ in Imagined Communities includes a “time chart” of events that might occur within the narrative of an eighteenth century novel (25).  This chart is included to help demonstrate the way in which the novel includes different characters which are related to one another, although they don’t know each other.  According to Anderson, these abstract connections, between apparent strangers, construct within the reader a concept of what an imagined community is, or could be.  As Anderson writes of the worlds within the novels:

“These societies are sociological entities of such firm and stable reality that their members can be described as  passing each other on the street without ever becoming acquainted, and still be connected”(25).

The last clause (“and still be connected”) is what gives me pause, as it is not clear to me why or how they are connected, except through the conception of the reader.  Their connection via the omniscience of the reader is logical, but Anderson is clear that this is a second, separate point.  Thus, according the Anderson, there seems to be an assumption that the connections between the ‘separated’ characters within the constructed societies rely on an undeniable, natural connection between all characters within the novel, simply by nature of their being in a singular society in a singular novel. 

While it seems true that the eighteenth century novel demonstrated ways in which imagined communities could be conceived, it seems to me that the readers would have to have a preexisting proclivity towards understanding society in this way to even conceive of these ‘separate’ characters as being related simply through their existence in the same society.  The imagined society, as demonstrated here by Anderson, seems to rely on an imagined network (of friends of friends, of having mutual acquaintances with strangers, etc.) that could not possibly be entirely created within the confines of the novel, but must have existed already within the lives of the readers.  While it seems to me that the eighteenth century novel played a part in the development of the idea of a society through these imagined networks, it also seems that the novels existence in the historical context of urbanization (and thus no longer living in the small-town or country atmosphere) is essential to the development and change in the western perception of time with regard to the novel.

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