Benedict Anderson’s book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, was very difficult for me to understand or comprehend. In fact, I think I might have spent more time looking for resources to help in this process than I did reading the book. Thanks to Trisha, this quote helped set the stage for this book for me: “Anderson’s most famous work, Imagined Communities, emerged from the crucible of Indonesian history. How do diverse nations like Indonesia, made up of many languages and ethnicities, hold together? Why do they sometimes fall apart? What keeps people in large nations from killing each other and why does national cohesion sometime fail? These weren’t abstract questions for Anderson, but were instead born out of lived immersion in Indonesian history.” This helped clear up the purpose and background for the book so I could begin to unpackaged it enough to write a half-way intelligent blog about it (not sure if this happened or not).
Anderson “believes that a nation is a community socially constructed, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group.” I think this idea of the origin of nationalism being something that people in communities have imagined is fascinating. This is why it took me so long to understand this concept and wrap my brain around it. It was very abstract and confusing to me until I came across the following quote: “Take national anthems, for example, sung on national holidays. No matter how banal the words and mediocre the tunes, there is in this singing an experience of simultaneity. At precisely such moments, people wholly unknown to each other utter the same verses to the same melody. The image: unisonance.” Of course I had to look that last word up since it is not recognized by the spell check dictionary. Thefreedictionary.com defines it as “the state or quality of agreeing or being identical in sound” This caused me to begin to understand the concept of a group of people unknown to one another uniting around a shared experience celebrating their nation.
Having experienced this phenomenon many times, I am often taken back by the power of the united voices singing with strong patriotism and the emotion evoked in many due to the power of the words of this Star-Spangled Banner…
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bomb bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
It has brought me to tears watching members of the military sing this with an entirely different conviction because they have been or know the brave men and women who have defended this land of the free we call America! As Anderson says, “Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.” This quote actually made sense to me and resonated with my understanding of nationalism. It is also interesting to me that for most people in this country, the only time our national anthem is sung is at a large sporting event that people are attending as a fan of the sport or team, but end up showing themselves as a fan of this great country. For this, I am grateful we have created this as a traditional start to most athletic contests.
After trying to read this book, I can partially agree with Anthony Reid when he states, “this is a splendid book to read-engaging, imaginative, sweeping, relevant, humane. It should be put in the hands of students, for despite the array of learning it never wraps up an argument but challenges and provokes to further questions.” I can’t quite agree with the splendid book to read part or that is was humane, but I definitely can say it was imaginative and did not wrap up much of anything for me, and left me with many more questions. I would also say that my vocabulary has been increased and my skills in researching an author and book have been honed.