Sunday, September 23, 2012

Intellectuals and Revolutions

One thing I found particularly thought provoking about Imagined Communities was Anderson’s reoccurring argument that education and universities were a principal force behind the development of nationalism. In a sense, I found this argument counterintuitive – after all, philosophy, mathematics, science, etc., are generally undertaken with the aim of developing universal ideas that are not bounded by borders or national identities. Certainly, Anderson’s argument in Chapter 7, about the nation-building role of educational infrastructure and bureaucratic pilgrimages, was very convincing. More challenging, however, is his assertion in Chapter 5 that the move towards nationalism was led by linguists, philosophers, and historians, who created national universities that promoted vernacular languages. Anderson may still be right here, but my initial reaction was that these types of institutions might be more likely to foster internationalism rather than harden allegiances to the national imagined community.

I suppose my hesitation to accept this argument may be informed by a general attitude of distrust that I have always had towards nationalism. But this book challenged that conception. In his introduction, Anderson eloquently sums up the source of this distrust, writing, “unlike some other isms, nationalism has never produced its own grand thinkers: no Hobbeses, Toquevilles, Marxes of Webers.  This ‘emptiness’ easily gives rise… to a certain condescension” (5). Instead, Anderson argues, “it would… make things easier if one considered [nationalism] as if it belonged with ‘kinship’ or ‘religion,’ rather than with ‘liberalism or ‘fascism.’”

I thought this argument was particularly well illustrated by Anderson’s discussion of the revolutions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As Anderson and many historians have pointed out, it is reductive to consider the many revolutions of this period as motivated by similar ambitions and elements in society. Rather, these revolutions ran the gamut from progressive to deeply conservative. As Anderson describes in Chapter 4, a great number of the revolutions in the Americas were actually oriented towards preserving the past, often in the form of a slaveholding society. On the other hand, some revolutions of this period were oriented towards a more utopian project of building a new future, with the French Revolution being the most notable example. Ultimately, this comparison of revolutions helped me understand Anderson’s point that nationalism is not a fully developed political ideology. Rather, for a multitude of contingent reasons, nationalism emerged towards the end of the eighteenth century as an increasing fact of life and a popular vehicle for political activity.

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