Re-Reading Imagined Communities for the 1000th Time

Some books just stick with you. Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism is one of them. It was one of only two books that I was assigned to read in multiple classes in college. At Om Ben’s memorial service, my colleague Isaac Kramnick called it the “second-most important book ever written by a Cornell faculty member.”* And it’s a standard entry on any syllabus dealing with nationalism and national identity.

I recently assigned Imagined Communities for the N-th time in my own class, and I was struck—once again—by how dense it is. Every time I read it I discover something new, or remark upon a flippant turn of phrase or a spicy footnote that I hadn’t noticed before. This time was no different.

The standard two-word summary of Imagined Communities is “print capitalism.” This is shorthand for Anderson’s argument that the spread of mass literature in vernacular languages, motivated by the capitalist impulse to sell penny dreadfuls to as many people as possible, created the idea of a community united by a common language. But the last two times I re-read Imagined Communities, I was struck more by his focus on the idea of what he and others term “simultaneity.” That is idea of what a reader (or generally, a person) conceives of the temporal dimensions of the social world. Writes Anderson,

What has come to take the place of the mediaeval conception of simultaneity-along-time is, to borrow again from Benjamin, an idea of ‘homogeneous, empty time,’ in which simultaneity is, as it were, transverse, cross-time, marked not by prefiguring and fulfilment, but by temporal coincidence, and measured by clock and calendar.

I won’t pretend to have nailed down what specifically this distinction is,** but the idea is that mass vernacular fiction did not simply create a common experience of people-like-me-reading-things-that-only-we-can-read but also that the nature of the mass market novel shifted people’s cognitive map from a medieval to a modern form. That’s much more than just “print capitalism.”

The other thing that I noted is Anderson’s gleeful recitation of racial epithets, designed to make the point that

it is remarkable how little that dubious entity known as ‘reverse racism’ manifested itself in the anticolonial movements.

He writes in a footnote

I have never heard of an abusive argot word in Indonesian or Javanese for either ‘Dutch’ or ‘white.’ Compare the Anglo-Saxon treasury…

and then goes on to list them. This is wonderfully interesting for two reasons. First off, in his posthumously published memoir, Anderson not only talks about the common “abusive argot word” in Indonesian for “white” (= bule) that everyone knows, but also he claims to have invented it as a derogatory term for Caucasian person.***

Second off, it is interesting because Caroline Hau—a very fine author of both fiction and nonfiction—recently gave a lecture at Cornell entitled “For Whom Are Southeast Asian Studies” in which she urged us to remember the audiences for whom our books are written. In Anderson’s own telling, Imagined Communities is for an English audience. Not English-speaking, but specifically from England. Perhaps that explains why one would argue such an odd and plainly untrue thing? Hard to say. But a Southeast Asian audience would happily supply him with the treasury of colonial racial epithets for colonizers.


* Here is the winner for Kramnick’s most important Cornell faculty book.

** Anderson cites Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis and Walter Benjamin for these ideas.

*** He claims to have coined the term in the 1960s, to be clear, so the timing does not work (Imagined Communities is from 1983). As colorful as that linguistic history might be, I think he is plainly incorrect.