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Diacritics 29.4 (1999) 20-39

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Anderson and the Novel

Jonathan Culler


Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism has, in the past decade, become a classic of the humanities and social sciences. Any theoretically savvy discussion of nations or of societies of any sort must cite it for its fundamental insight that nations and, as Anderson points out, "all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined" [6]. In retrospect, it seems obvious that nationality, nationness, and nationalism "are cultural artifacts of a particular kind" [4], but this had previously been obscured by intellectuals' sense that nationalism was above all an atavistic passion, an often noxious prejudice of the unenlightened. Imagined Communities both argued that we had better seek to understand it, since "nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time" [3], and gave us a constructivist way of thinking about the phenomenon of nationalism, which becomes more interesting and intellectually more acceptable when we ask how it is created, what discursive, imaginative activities bring particular nationalisms into being and give them their distinctive form. When nationalism was vulgar passion provoked by empirically occurring nations, it was vulnerable to the objection implicitly or explicitly mounted against it: why should I feel more affinity with people who happen to inhabit the country I live in than with others, more like-minded, who happen to have been born in other nations? Anderson neatly turned the tables on us by taking this as a serious question. Why indeed do we feel such affinities? How to explain the fact that people are more willing to make great sacrifices for others of the same nation whom they have never met (and whom they might dislike if they did) than for worthy and unfortunate people elsewhere?

Read today, the introduction to Imagined Communities has the rightness and efficiency of a classic ("why hadn't anyone realized this before?"), as it guides us into the paradoxes of the modern world of nationalism: nations are objectively recent but subjectively antique, even eternal; nations may be messianic, but no nation's citizens imagine that everyone should eventually join their nation. Already here Anderson displays what I take to be the key to his appeal to the nonspecialist: his ability concretely to show us the strangeness of the familiar by judicious comparisons. Try to imagine a "Tomb of the Unknown Marxist or a Cenotaph for fallen Liberals," he suggests. But a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier does not seem risible. Why? "Many different nations have such tombs without feeling any need to specify the nationality of their absent occupants. What else could they be but Germans, American, Argentinians . . . ?" [10]. We are in a sentence or two brought to appreciate the necessity of accounting for a social and cultural phenomenon that comparison and humor highlight.

The second edition of Imagined Communities demonstrates, in a compelling if serendipitous way, just how much we need Anderson to provide such insights, as it takes up what he and his readers had failed to notice in the first edition. There he had quoted Ernest Renan remarking "in his suavely backhanded way," "Or l'essence d'une nation est que tous les individus aient beaucoup de choses en commun, et aussi que tous [End Page 20] aient oubliés bien des choses [in fact the essence of a nation is that all the individuals have many things in common and also that they have all forgotten many things]," with a footnote continuing the quotation: "tout citoyen français doit avoir oublié la Saint-Barthélemy, les massacres du Midi au XIIIe siècle [every French citizen must have forgotten Saint Bartholomew's, the Provence massacres in the thirteenth century]" [6]. In the preface to the second edition Anderson notes, "I had quoted Renan without the slightest understanding of what he had actually said: I had taken as something easily ironical what was in fact utterly bizarre" [xiv]. He calls this a "humiliating recognition" [xiv], which led him to write...