Benedict Anderson’s book on nationalism is a modern classic (Anderson 2006). Even forty years after it was first published, it is widely referenced and a standard feature on reading lists everywhere. Google Scholar counts around 112,589 citations, a number that should be enough to give you ten or more tenure at a major university. While the book is a brilliant portrayal of the nature of nationalism and deserves its fame, it is most of all the book’s title that has been turned into a meme. Nations are “imagined communities,” we are told. That is, they are not natural, organic or simply given, but the result of an act of creation. Unlike small communities where everyone knows each other, nations have too many members, and the vast majority of them never will and never can meet. Nations exist only because we imagine they exist. They exist in our heads. Nobody has ever seen a nation except “in their minds”.
When we ask how nations are presented, Anderson provides two rather separate explanations. According to the first, most frequently cited report, nations were first introduced using the printing press. The Gutenberg Revolution of the fifteenth century resulted in communities of readers reading the same books at the same time, printed in local languages rather than Latin. Here the nation appeared for the first time. The nation was part of the taken for granted background of the characters in the early novels, but it was also a character in its own right. The nation did things, it acted and interacted with other nations as a character in one piece. And just like a character in a play, readers could rest assured that even if the nation was absent from the plot for a while, sooner or later the nation would reappear. But it was thanks to the newspapers that the nation we first imagined in book printing became a mass phenomenon. In the nineteenth century, the invention of the rotary press enabled the production of newspapers for a mass market, and one of the characters the newspapers constantly wrote about was the nation. There it went to war, concluded treatises, celebrated its anniversaries and remembered its past. Anderson cites Hegel’s description of the reinvented daily ritual of reading the newspaper at the breakfast table. By reading the same newspapers in the same language at the same time, the nation appeared in front of readers at the same time.
But Anderson also has another, very different account of how nations are presented. And this creative act did not take place in Europe, but in America. The nation, he claims at the same time, was first introduced in the colonial service of the Spanish Empire. In order to fill the various administrative positions in their colonies, the Spaniards had to rely on locally recruited staff. As a result, each administrator had to leave their place of birth and take a trip to an administrative center where they interacted with other administrators who had made the same trip. Anderson compares this to a pilgrimage (see Turner 1975). The nation became conceited when these uprooted and displaced officials wondered who they were. Just as pilgrims envision a religious community on their way to Mecca or Santiago de Compostela, they imagined their nation – Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, etc. – as soon as they had gathered in their respective regional capitals.
Although Anderson’s argument about nationalism depends on the idea of imagination, he doesn’t discuss the concept much. He just assumes we know what he’s talking about. As a result, he is relying on a preserved account that is almost certainly flawed. Let’s accept that nations are introduced, in other words, but let’s see if we can better describe what the conception is and how it works. If we rethink the imagination, we have to rethink nationalism.
What’s the idea?
When we imagine something, according to the received wisdom, we make a picture of that something in our mind. Maybe we could talk about the “image theory of the imagination”. This makes the imagination similar to perception. The images are like photos that we store in our brains, and imagining is about retrieving those photos and looking at them. And neurophysiological experiments have given this view some credibility (Farah 1989). When we imagine something, the same areas of the brain are activated in which we actually see something in front of us.
However, there are some problems with this account (Ryle 1949). For one, we often imagine things in other sensory modalities – we introduce ourselves Smells, sounds, a touch, even pain. These are not pictures. And imagination has an emotional effect that image theory alone cannot explain. When we imagine things, we become sad, happy, wistful, or experience a variety of other emotions. In addition, the imagination is a creative force. Somehow the imagination allows us to invent new things, things that no one has seen or heard before. Artists and poets could never do what they do except for the powers of their imaginations. There is also a question of how collective imagination works. After all, we do not imagine many things alone, but together with others. The nation is a prime example. But when we imagine seeing a picture of something, how do we know that we are seeing the same picture as everyone else?
And in any case, image theory could never explain what we see when we see a nation. Nations are not things, after all, and pictures cannot be taken of them. Precisely because they do not exist, they have to introduce themselves. Their existence must be evoked. Compare the way we conjure up the existence of other entities that don’t exist, such as: B. the characters that appear in novels. Rather than showing us the actual characteristics of a person, it’s more like allowing someone to introduce themselves to us. In a well-told story, the reader will feel this presence quite noticeably, and there is no need to provide a detailed account of what the person looks like (Brosch 2017). Only when we are asked to do so, for example when we are confronted with a film version of a book, do we translate this perceived presence into clearer features. The leading actor is “much smaller than we imagined”, you could say, or “we never imagined the leading lady as a redhead”.
Instead of conjuring up images, the imagination conjures up experiences (Jansen 2009). An image only takes a snapshot of an event, but an experience occurs simultaneously in all sensory modalities. Experiences affect our bodies as much or more than our minds, and they require us to move. Having an experience means dealing with the situations we find ourselves in. It makes experiences feel a certain way. It feels like a certain way of immersing yourself in water, walking on a mountain trail, or biting into a ripe fig. When we imagine ourselves referring to these experiences, what we imagine becomes meaningful to us. This explains our instinctive and often overwhelming resistance to the idea of certain things (Gendler 2000). For example, let’s not imagine torturing babies. But why not in a way? The horrors we imagine don’t happen, we just imagine them. But even if we just introduce ourselves, we feel guilty. Guilty, that is, through the associations that the imagination gives rise to, the experiences it evokes, and the feelings associated with those experiences. We flinch, recoil and shudder.
In addition, experiences have a dimension of time that mere images lack. Experiences are dynamic. The situations we find ourselves in unfold; they imply a “further more” or an “on the other hand”. Experiences always take place in relation to something that might arise. And it is striking that these expectations are known to different parts of the body. The feelings are in “our bowels” or in “our bones”; We have “eyes in the back of our minds”, thoughts “in the back of our minds” and words “on the tongue”. It is through such anticipations that the creative process advances (Gendlin 1992). We follow our guesses and come up with new things. We add words to a poem or paint a picture with brushstrokes until the imagination is exhausted.
For example, imagine what the Grand Bazaar looks like in Istanbul. If you’ve been there it’s easy to do. You remember the old Ottoman buildings, the smells, all the people, the beautiful carpets, the fake brand names and the overly friendly shopkeepers. But even if you’ve never been there, you can imagine what the Grand Bazaar looks like since you’ve seen movies and read books about bazaars in distant lands. You can imagine this information as you too have experiences with old buildings, unfamiliar smells, crowded places, fake brand names, etc. It is therefore difficult to imagine things that we could in principle have no experience of, what it is like to be a bat (Nagel 1974). Humans may share some experiences with bats, but probably not that many.
Another problem concerns collective acts of imagination. We often imagine things with others. Nations are an example. This means that we not only imagine the same things as other people, but we also do them together. The only question is how this is done. This is a problem for the image theory of the imagination, but it is a problem for any theory that limits the imagination to the individual mind. In order to be able to imagine something together with others, we have to move out of our skulls. We need to understand collective experiences (Szanto 2017).
Think about what happens when a group of children play “hospital”. One of them becomes a doctor, another becomes a patient, and there may also be nurses and affected family members. Some chairs turn into a doctor’s office and a bed becomes an operating room. We introduce ourselves in the process of pretending (Walton 1990). That is, the imagination unfolds as a result of the game, it is part of the logic of the activity itself and not something that is represented in individual minds. Props are crucial here. With the help of dolls, hobby horses, snow forts, toy trucks, mud cakes and many other things, children manifest in physical space what they imagine together. Props facilitate, coordinate and guide the imagination and show participants how the game should go on. The props primarily ask to be activated. The doll wants to speak; the toy truck wants to go somewhere; The snow fortress must be conquered or defended. By sharing props, moving them, and walking with them, we imagine things with others. New possibilities are constantly opening up. That’s what makes playing and pretending to be fun.
Adults also like to pretend to be playing games, of course, and they also use props to do so. The nation is one such game (Bottici 2014). The nation is introduced when we play with maps, flags, kitchens, costumes, Uncle Sam and Moder Sveas, borders, institutions, hymns and many other things. In these games, too, props trigger movements. The national anthem makes children march up and down a school playground, and an audience stands up, hand in heart, to begin the start of a football game. The flag unites people in processions at national celebrations, leads soldiers to war, and drapes their coffins when they return. With props like this, we all pay attention to the same thing in the same way and do it together. And we move in a coordinated manner. So we come to share experiences. The collective imagination is something we do in other words, and the nation is introduced when we remember shared experiences of doing something. A community arises through community, ie, seen etymologically, through a “common service”.
These experiences are not pictures, and the movements required for the games are not a representation to anyone. Rather, imagination is based on our bodies and the way bodies deal with the situations they find themselves in. So imagining something feels a certain way; it is to give something meaning. Hence the feeling of indignation when a meddling adult treats a banana as a fruit rather than a phone, or when a skeptic of nationalism treats a flag as a rag on a stick. “You can’t eat our phone,” the immediate answer is, “and you are profaning our flag.” “Show some respect!” So show some respect for the meanings set by our collective games of imagination.
Here, too, a neurophysiology is at work. When bodies close together move in a coordinated manner, a number of physiological processes are synchronized, including breathing and heartbeat, blood pressure, gastric and endocrine processes (Weinstein et al. 2016; Wiltermuth and Heath 2009; Pearce et al. 2016). This in turn leads to a synchronization of various psychological and cognitive processes and states. People who sing, pray or row a boat together are more likely to empathize with one another and appreciate each other’s opinions. It is even more likely that they will think about the same things in similar ways. When we move together, we lose ourselves in the interaction and lose ourselves. We gain the feeling of being part of the whole group (McNeill 1995; Ehrenreich 2007). We are one, we share each other’s burdens and joys. As soon as the movement stops and the group disperses, this sensation quickly dissipates, but what remains – in our body, if not in our mind – is the memory of what happened. It is memories like these that we refer to when imagining our collective selves.
A more demanding Anderson
The problem with Anderson’s portrayal of the imagination is that it’s way too cerebral, too much in the head; It’s about mental representations and cultural interpretations. Like everything in the 1980s, nationalism should be “a text”. According to Anderson, the nation literally came into being. But that’s not how communities come into being. One surely imagines the nation is safe, but the imagination arises when people do things together and play with their respective props. For example: The first to campaign for a united Germany were Friedrich Ludwig Jahn and his students, but Turner, as they were called, read very little (Kohn 1949). They were more likely to do gymnastics. The Germany they imagined was born through physical exercise. And this has been the history of nationalism ever since – from Gandhi’s salt march in India to Mao Zedong’s long march in China to the Arirang mass games in North Korea (Terry and Wood 2015; Roy 2006). May 17th every year syttende may, all Norwegians dress up in their most beautiful form, follow this scolecorpswho have favourited high school marching bands, waving the flags and singing the national anthem. It actually looks pretty silly, but it makes a lot of sense if you’re Norwegian.
Anderson, in his brief reference to Hegel, suggests a ritual aspect of the imagination Bon mot about reading newspapers as a form of morning prayer, but reading newspapers is not enough for a shared experience. No bodies meet and no muscles connect. Anderson’s second report on the Imagination – which he places in Latin America – is a great improvement in this regard, however. People are actually moving here – young men who move to provincial capitals to pursue a career. There must have been all sorts of occasions when these officers were in the same place at the same time, doing something together. Anderson should have said a lot more about it. He compares these migrations to pilgrimages, but this only shows how underdeveloped even Anderson’s second theory of the imagination is. This career building journey is a pilgrimage in a metaphorical sense only, and again all the imagination is happening in the minds of individuals. During an actual pilgrimage, people move together to Santiago de Compostela, circling the Kaaba seven times counterclockwise, wearing similar clothing, singing or praying together. This is how a religious community is presented. The nation is presented in a very similar way. It’s a shame Anderson doesn’t talk about it.
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