Analysis of Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities
by kaytay

The origins of national consciousness are various and interconnected, as was demonstrated by an impressive range of examples in Imagined Communities. The most extensive theory proposed by Anderson involves a strong link between language, print-capitalism, and nationalism. In addition to addressing several important historical developments that made this link possible, in the following pages I will attempt to clarify the exact role and definition of “capitalism” as it applies to the spread of nationalism in a variety of contexts.

According to Anderson, “the esotericization of Latin, the Reformation, and the haphazard development of administrative vernaculars” (42) lead to the widespread and accepted use of languages other than Latin in print. Prior to this diversification, only those who were able to read Latin were capable of sharing any sort of solidarity beyond their immediate surroundings through the written word. Due to the nature of Latin and its connection to the Church, the consciousness it aroused in its readers was mainly that of worldwide Christendom, a universal community without boundaries. However, once religion began to decline in popularity, combined with the alienation of the Latin language due to the topics it was associated with, the door was opened to the possibility of other means of interaction. Once Latin had been dethroned as the sole language of printed communication, a new sort of national consciousness was possible through the use of material printed in the so-called “vernacular” languages. With the availability of non-Latin material, there was a massive increase in the percentage of the European population able to consume printed material. New readers became aware of a world outside of their immediate sight that, nonetheless, existed; there were thousands of other people reading the same material that was in front of them, experiencing the same things. This mental connection formed an imagined community.

As Francis Bacon said, print has changed “the appearance of the world,” (37). The publishing industry expanded along with the rest of Europe’s economy in the sixteenth century, leading to a wider circulation of printed material among literate Europeans. The availability of information profoundly affected many aspects of society over the coming centuries, including Latin’s downfall and the significant effects of the subsequent linguistic diversification of the written print language that took place.

However, the key concept tying everything together was print-capitalism. While solidarity could not have been achieved without mass-produced printed material available to a literate public, according to Anderson the absence of capitalism would have made the other factors irrelevant. This was demonstrated in China, where printing was first invented possibly 500 years before its appearance in Europe. Unlike Europe, there was hardly any major effect on Chinese society in regards to nationalism as a direct result of the invention. Anderson claims that the difference between the situations in Europe and Asia can be explained by the lack of capitalism (44). Contrary to this claim, it is evident that some form of print-capitalism existed in the Ming and Qing Dynasties; there was extensive trade and circulation of materials. However, unlike in Europe, the novel, a genre whose narrative provided readers with an omniscient understanding of the plot as well as the ability to perceive simultaneity in their own surroundings, was not a known genre in China, nor was classical Chinese dethroned as a result of printed vernaculars. This suggests that perhaps the genre and contents of printed material, as well as the role of a dominant language, are the deciding factors in the formation of a national consciousness in this situation, as opposed to the mere existence or non-existence of print-capitalism as Anderson claims.

That’s not to say that there was no sense of nationalism in Asia. Another interesting link between language and the imagined community can be found in the French colony of Vietnam. France implemented a system of education aimed at breaking the links between Vietnam and China, which was attempted through the adoption of a romanized phonetic script in place of using Chinese characters to write the Vietnamese language. The French hoped to “eliminate the Chinese language and simultaneously to isolate Vietnam from its heritage and to neutralize the traditional elite” (126). However, by supplying the Vietnamese population with this new language education, the French had inadvertently helped to create Vietnamese national solidarity with the new script as the focal point.

One might have expected that the French would have realized that, if their aim had been to “produce a carefully calibrated quantum of French-speaking and French-writing Indochinese to serve as a politically reliable, grateful, and acculturated indigenous elite,” (126) it might have been a better idea to stick with teaching the French language in lieu of creating and promoting a new script for the Vietnamese language. One might have expected that the French, as Europeans with the knowledge of the power of written vernaculars in their cultural heritage, should have foreseen the potential consequence of their actions. Nonetheless, this new Vietnamese solidarity was a “disagreeable surprise” (128) to the French.

This brings us back to the question of print-capitalism. In Vietnam, there was a new script that had become the popular medium of communication, which appears to have led to a strong national consciousness, but was there capitalism present in the equation? Based on Anderson’s initial claim, the answer should be yes. Despite my lack of prior knowledge regarding Vietnam, I would say there was most likely a lack of capitalism during French colonization. The examples of China and Vietnam reinforce the idea that elements other than print-capitalism and language play decisive roles in the formation of a national consciousness. However, the fact remains that these two factors, in various combinations, were unquestionably important in the creation of an imagined community in a variety of countries all over the world.