Of “Discrete Forces” and “Spontaneous Distillations”: Reconsidering Some More General Aspects of Benedict Anderson’s Historical Imagination

This piece is a part of our ongoing series, entitled “Rethinking the Revolutionary Canon.” 

By Dean Kostantaras 

For many scholars, any reference to a “canon” of nationalist studies quickly brings to mind several publications from the 1980s by Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm, and Benedict Anderson. These celebrated works, which are closely identified with the emergence of the modernist perspective on the formation of nations and national consciousness, remain mainstays of graduate course syllabi and continue to be posed as interpretive models against which many contemporary scholars seek to situate or distinguish their own thought. In the words of Caspar Hirschi, “there is no road back to the nationalism studies before 1983, and even the fiercest opponents of the modernists would probably agree that this is for the best.”[1]

The foregoing words of praise notwithstanding, Hirschi expressed reservations about Anderson’s Imagined Communities, the subject of the present essay, that are typical of those found in many historians’ critical responses to the work. These doubts have mainly to do with matters of historical acumen or, more precisely, the author’s imputed failure to meet the expectations of scholarly rigor consonant with disciplinary norms. The result is a book which, in Hirschi’s view, suffers from and perpetuates many “historical misconceptions about European culture and politics before modernity.”[2]Although some additional issues of this nature are raised here, the main intent of the present essay is to invite reflection on Anderson’s notion of “spontaneous distillations” and other more general aspects of his historical vision.

In brief, Anderson presented the nation as a uniquely modern form of imagined community. Unlike those of a premodern character based upon the power of religious and dynastic traditions, the nation constituted a sovereign body of people united on secular grounds. This new way of imagining social bonds was abetted in part by the effects of the Scientific Revolution, one consequence of which was a reconceptualization of time.[3] Anderson referred here to a growing consciousness of “simultaneity,” conveyed in mediums such as novels and newspapers, which disclose a newfound capacity to imagine one’s place in a social body that stretched “horizontally” across time and space. All of these developments converged in an “organic” way to facilitate a new kind of social imagining, the spatial limits of which were determined in most cases by communicative boundaries arising from the “fatality” of linguistic plurality. Although not themselves a product of modernity, these barriers were further defined and reinforced by the spread of print capitalism. It remained for this newly imagined “national” community to be politically mobilized; a feat first accomplished by “creole pioneers.” 

Anderson swiftly passes in this fashion over centuries of history, rendering many a verdict on matters great and small along the way with only an occasional reference to prior works of scholarship. A handful of references to older books thus suffice to undergird the author’s claims regarding the formation of national consciousness in the Americas, while Anderson’s celebrated thesis on print capitalism depends almost wholly on information gleaned from Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s The Coming of the Book.[4] In an early review of the work in the American Historical Review, George Wilson accordingly observed that “in his comprehensive attempt to explain it [nationalism], no single world area… receives deep or prolonged treatment. For most countries the evidence comes from a few secondary sources.” Wilson, a specialist on early modern Japan, expressed particular misgivings over Anderson’s attenuated treatment of the Tokugawa era; a shortcoming which, in his view, promoted a misleading picture of a far too abrupt and fundamental alteration of consciousness in the succeeding years.[5]  

The same can be said for Anderson’s account of developments in early modern Europe. There is, for example, no mention of the uses and popular understandings of the nation or related semantic conventions and correlations in texts from the period. One suspects the omission was at least in part a matter of design; a reflection perhaps of Anderson’s low estimation of previous works of scholarship which tended, in his view, to cherry pick references to such concepts in the past, thus overrepresenting their vintage and importance. The omission also aligns with other aspects of the narrative which suggest the sudden onset of a new way of thinking “at the end of the eighteenth century” brought on by “the spontaneous distillation of a complex ‘crossing’ of discrete historical forces.”[6] Concepts of nation and nation-ness appear therefore to spring inadvertently to mind as byproducts of a confluence of large forces operating “organically,” the very terms themselves coming at once into existence.

The worthy question of what constitutes a “discrete historical force” notwithstanding, Anderson seems to suggest the occurrence of two near simultaneous “spontaneous distillations” in the work, both of which conjured up or thrust the idea of the nation into consciousness. One of these took place in the Americas, where, in addition to print capitalism, the existence of imperial administrative boundaries was a critical factor. In the European case, Anderson stresses the “crossing” of secularization and print capitalism upon a more variegated linguistic landscape.[7] Leaving the problem of this otherwise remarkable coincidence in imaginative outcomes aside, the process unfolds again without any influence from cultural understandings of social bonds or structures that go beyond those of a religious or dynastic character. 

For all the hazards of anachronism, the excision of these pre-existing conceptual frameworks and forms of social imagining prevents in turn a consideration of how the new sources of knowledge or forces of change noted by Anderson were refracted through the prism of the same in ways which may have shaped or figured their expression and meaning. This interaction between modern interests and prevailing traditions of thought may nevertheless be observed, to cite an example from the eighteenth century, in the comparativist undertakings of contemporary thinkers—a preoccupation noted in passing by Anderson in his (somewhat chaotic) survey of the Enlightenment. Specifically, in investigating the range and potential origins of the manifest diversity in human customs and cultural attributes, early modern thinkers made great use of the concept of “national characters,” a heuristic device of considerable vintage.[8] If inspired therefore by new problems and concerns, Enlightenment thinkers were not inventing entirely new heuristic devices or modes of analysis. The proliferation of such studies served in turn to greatly elevate the incidence of references to the nation in contemporary letters and, ultimately, its induction into political debates.[9]

Admittedly, to speak of new sources of knowledge and change as acquiring meaning through some effect of their being refracted or channeled through pre-existing cultural understandings may strike some as resorting to language which has the same elusive or indefinite quality as “spontaneous distillation” and “discrete forces.” Still, any work concerned with investigating the nature of “cultural artefacts” and “crossings” necessarily takes on the heavy burden of accounting for the many parties to such transactions.[10] Anderson actually makes things more difficult for himself in the sense that, unlike many modernists, his sights were set on the rise of a new form of mass consciousness rather than the actions of political or cultural elites in leading or constructing a transformation from above—and indeed, the preceding sections have largely dealt with the perspectives of such figures and their roles in the fashioning and spread of the national idea.

To recommend a fuller consideration of how the nation was rendered in earlier sources than found in Imagined Communities does not denote finally any intent to turn back the clock on nationalism studies. The challenge remains of explaining why some ideas or forms of communal imagining took on new meanings, qualities, and salience. If Anderson’s expeditious treatment of the past and past works of scholarship may evoke for some the old adage (or indictment!) that “history is too important to be left to historians,” he certainly broke new ground on this front; something from which historians too, all griping aside, have benefited. 


Dean Kostantaras is an Assistant Professor of History at Northwestern State University. His previous publications include the monographs Infamy and Revolt: The Rise of the National Problem in Modern Greek Thought (2005) and Nationalism and Revolution in Europe, 1763-1848 (2020), and research articles in European History QuarterlyEuropean Review of HistoryNations and NationalismThe Historical Review/La Revue HistoriqueHistory CompassJournal of Early Modern HistoryHistoreinStudies on National Movements, and History: The Journal of the Historical Association.

Further Reading

Bell, David A. “The Unbearable Lightness of Being French: Law, Republicanism and National Identity at the End of the Old Regime.” The American Historical Review 106, 4 (2001): 1215-235.

Davies, Surekha. Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Grafton, Anthony. What Was History? The Art of History in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Hirschi, Caspar. The Origins of Nationalism: An Alternative History from Ancient Rome to Early Modern Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Endnotes:

[1] Caspar Hirschi, The Origins of Nationalism: An Alternative History from Ancient Rome to Early Modern Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, 24.

[2] For all its originality, writes Hirschi, Imagined Communities proffers a “bird’s-eye perspective on modern society” which brings with it “an even more simplified view of pre-modern society.” Hirschi, Origins of Nationalism, 23-24, 29. These criticisms were intended to apply equally to Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism

[3] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of

Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991, 24.

[4] As John Breuilly observes, “The historians who have engaged with Anderson in the most detailed way are those of colonial America… However, this engagement usually concludes by rejecting Anderson’s account.” John Breuilly, “Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: a Symposium,” Nations and Nationalism 22, 4 (2016), 644.

[5] George M. Wilson, review of Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of

Nationalism, by Benedict Anderson, The American Historical Review 90, 4 (1985), 904.

[6] Anderson, Imagined Communities, 4.

[7] Anderson, Imagined Communities, 67.

[8] Reference is made here to authors such as Johann Boemus and Jean Bodin. For additional background, see Anthony Grafton, What Was History? The Art of History in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[9] See, for example: David Bell, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being French: Law, Republicanism and National Identity at the End of the Old Regime.” The American Historical Review 106, 4 (2001): 1215-235.

[10] The author is interested in cultural inheritances, as exemplified by his analysis of the religious provenance of certain attributes of nationhood. However, this investigation is not extended to texts and sources, perhaps again, as noted above, for fear that works which do so, fall inevitably into the trap of overdetermining the outcome (these lapses often referred to today as examples of “methodological nationalism”).

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