Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Benedict Anderson (1936-2015 RIP) and the Imagined Nation

Triumph of imagination?

I came late to the work and ideas of Benedict Anderson, who died recently. I became aware of him about the same time as I noticed the vanishing Canadianist.  It seemed that a lot of history professors in Canadian universities who once would have been labelled as Canadianists had become political historians or labour historians or historians of women or whatever. Someone explained to me that after Anderson published Imagined Communities in 1983, scholars and their departments went looking for other labels. They had became less keen on linking their professional identities to something imaginary.

But it seemed to me plausible enough to accept Canada as an imagined community, "a political nation, politically created," as I recall Jack Granatstein saying somewhere. The fact that its coming into existence with its present boundaries and structures was not inevitable or entirely "organic" did not need to mean it was less a nation. Indeed, the question of how it was imagined into being and into continuing existence suddenly seemed more, not less, worthy of study.

So I was happy to see, in this obituary appreciation of Benedict Anderson in the American New Republic, the argument that Anderson admired nationalism's potential to be "an integrative imaginative process that allows us to feel solidarity for strangers."
In an age when it is so common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals (particularly in Europe?) to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and its affinities with racism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love,” Anderson wrote in Imagined Communities. “The cultural products of nationalism—poetry, prose fiction, music, plastic arts—show this love very clearly in thousands of different forms and styles.”
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