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Bogeyman: Benedict Anderson's "Derivative" Discourse

From: Diacritics
Volume 29, Number 4, Winter 1999
pp. 40-57 | 10.1353/dia.1999.0032

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Diacritics 29.4 (1999) 40-57

Between life and death, nationalism has as its own proper space the experience of haunting. There is no nationalism without some ghost.

-Jacques Derrida, "Onto-Theology of National-Humanism"

Writing a mere decade ago about Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities, Timothy Brennan noted that "with the exception of some recent sociological works which use literary theories, it is rare in English to see 'nation-ness' talked about as an imaginative vision -- as a topic worthy of full fictional realization. . . . Even in the underrepresented branch of Third World English studies, one is likely to find discussions of race and colonialism, but not the 'nation' as such" [47]. If these sentences appear astonishing today -- if over the past ten years we seem to have done little else but regard the nation as an imaginative construction -- our sense of surprise may help to register how rapidly and profoundly Anderson's work has transformed the nature of literary and cultural studies. Viewing the modern nation primarily as an anthropological rather than political category, one that has less inherently to do with ideologies than with kinship, gender, and religion, Anderson argues in Imagined Communities for the irreducibility of material-cultural practices (what he memorably termed "print-capitalism") in creating and sustaining the "imagined community" of a nation whose citizens maintain "deep attachments" to each other in the absence of face-to-face contact: "the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion" [6]. Part of what makes such communities national, Anderson suggests, is a shared experience of simultaneity modeled on the spatio-temporal organization of newspapers and novels, for "these forms provided the technical means for 're-presenting' the kind of imagined community that is the nation" by furnishing their reader-consumers with a "complex gloss on the word 'meanwhile'" [25]. The "old-fashioned novel" especially, through its distinctive structures of address and omniscient point of view, becomes in this schema a "device" for generating a sociologically complex world populated by characters who, even though they "may be largely unaware of each other," nevertheless move together "calendrically through homogeneous, empty time"--a world, in short, that may be considered "a precise analogue of the idea of the nation, which also is conceived as a solid community moving steadily up (or down) history" [25-26]. As Jonathan Culler aptly summarizes in his contribution to this issue, Anderson thus takes the novel to be "a precondition for the nation" [24], "a formal condition of imagining the nation -- a structural condition of possibility" [37]. Such strong emphasis on the novel as "a force for imagining the communities that are nations" certainly helps to explain why Imagined Communities so swiftly and pervasively became doxa in literary study -- even if, as Culler elaborates, some of Anderson's readers have mistaken his argument for a stronger if less defensible version that sees the novel as "a force in shaping or legitimating the nation" [37].

While Anderson's analogy between novel and nation has been put by literary critics to a multitude of creative uses, what has been acknowledged much less commonly is that his literary interests are by no means exhausted by the paradigm for which he is best known. The very title of his most recent book is, significantly as we shall see, a translated quotation from a novel, and he returns repeatedly for insights into the politics of literary form not only to Walter Benjamin but to certain exemplary "nationalist" novelists, José Rizal and Pramoedya Ananta Toer first and foremost. Where The Spectre of Comparisons is unusual in containing chapter-length readings of literary works (several of them reprinted from the earlier Language and Power), Imagined Communities was no stranger to detailed discussions of fiction. We may be struck, in fact, by the extent to which Anderson's theoretical and historical studies locate themselves persistently over time with reference to "literature" and its various cognate terms. Much though not all of this work will seem traditional in...



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