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Diacritics 29.4 (1999) 128-134

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Anderson's Utopia

Partha Chatterjee

Imagined Communities was, without doubt, one of the most influential books of the late twentieth century. In the years since it was published, as nationalism unexpectedly came to be regarded as an increasingly unresolvable and often dangerous "problem" in world affairs, Benedict Anderson has continued to analyze and reflect on the subject, adding two brilliant chapters to his highly acclaimed book and writing several new essays and lectures. Some of these have been brought together, along with a series of essays on the history and politics of Southeast Asia, in The Spectre of Comparisons. The publication of this volume provides an opportunity for other scholars in the field to reassess the work of, and pay tribute to, a major intellectual of our time.


Theoretically, the most significant addition that Anderson has made to his analysis in Imagined Communities is his attempt to distinguish between nationalism and the politics of ethnicity. He does this by identifying two kinds of seriality that are produced by the modern imaginings of community. One is the unbound seriality of the everyday universals of modern social thought: nations, citizens, revolutionaries, bureaucrats, workers, intellectuals, and so on. The other is the bound seriality of governmentality: the finite totals of enumerable classes of population produced by the modern census and the modern electoral systems. Unbound serialities are typically imagined and narrated by means of the classic instruments of print-capitalism, namely, the newspaper and the novel. They afford the opportunity for individuals to imagine themselves as members of larger than face-to-face solidarities, of choosing to act on behalf of those solidarities, of transcending by an act of political imagination the limits imposed by traditional practices. Unbound serialities are potentially liberating. As Anderson quotes from Pramodeya Ananta Toer's novel Dia Jang Menjerah, which describes such a moment of emancipation experienced by one of its characters:

By now, Is knew the society she was entering. She had found a circle of acquaintances far wider than the circle of her brothers, sisters and parents. She now occupied a defined position in that society: as a woman, as a typist in a government office, as a free individual. She had become a new human being, with new understanding, new tales to tell, new perspectives, new attitudes, new interests--newnesses that she managed to pluck and assemble from her acquaintances. [qtd. in Spectre 41]

Bound serialities, by contrast, can operate only with integers. This implies that for each category of classification, an individual can count only as one or zero, never as a fraction, which in turn means that all partial or mixed affiliations to a category are ruled out. One can only be black or not black, Muslim or not Muslim, tribal or not tribal, never only partially or contextually so. Bound serialities, Anderson suggests, are constricting and perhaps inherently conflictual. They produce the tools of ethnic politics. [End Page 128]

I am not sure that the distinction between bound and unbound seriality, despite its appearance of mathematical precision, is the appropriate way to describe the differences in political modalities that Anderson wants to demarcate. It is not clear why the "unbound" serialities of the nationalist imagination cannot, under specific conditions, produce finite and countable classes. Explaining unbound seriality, Anderson says it is that which "makes the United Nations a normal, wholly unparadoxical institution" [29]. But surely, at any given time, the United Nations can have only a finite number of members. And that is because, with its explicitly laid-down procedures and criteria of membership, the imagining of nationhood has been reduced to the institutional grid of governmentality. Again, if by revolutionaries we mean those who are members of revolutionary political parties, then the number of revolutionaries in a country, or even in the whole world, will also be finite and countable, in the same way that the census claims to provide a figure for, let us say, the number of Hindus in India. It is also not clear in what sense the serialities of governmentality are "bound." The series for Christians or English...