Whose Imagined Community? by Partha Chatterjee — A Summary

Partha Chatterjee, “Whose Imagined Community?” In The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (New Jersey: Princeton University Pres, 1993), pp. 3–13.

The miscarriage of nationalism in the postcolonial states during the 1970s — by distressing ethnic politics as well as corrupt, fractious, and often brutal regimes — has tarnished the legacy of nationalism. Nationalism is now seen as a “problem” and has consequently been made a subject of general debate.

This recent genealogy of the idea explains why nationalism is now viewed as a dark, elemental, unpredictable force of primordial nature threatening the orderly calm of civilized life.

In this time, colonial historians have been debating “what had become of the idea and who was responsible for it.” It is from these debates that emerged Benedict Anderson’s subtle and original observation that “nations were not the determinate products of given sociological conditions such as language or race or religion [but that] they had been, in Europe and everywhere else in the world, imagined into existence”.

This “imagined community” took concrete shape through, amongst others, the institutions of “print-capitalism”, that nexus of the technology of the printing press and the economy of the capitalist market “which made it possible for rapidly growing numbers of people to think about themselves, and to relate themselves to others, in profoundly new ways”. The historical experience of nationalism in the West had then supplied “modular” forms from which nationalist elites in Asia and Africa had chosen the ones they liked.

No surprise then that the search was on, so to speak, for a new way of linking fraternity, power and time meaningfully together. Nothing perhaps more precipitated this search, nor made it more fruitful, than print-capitalism, which made it possible for rapidly growing numbers of people to think about themselves, and to relate themselves to others, in profoundly new ways.

The key to situating ‘official nationalism’ — willed merger of nation and dynastic empire — is to remember that it developed after, and in reaction to, the popular national movements proliferating in Europe since the 1 820s. If these nationalisms were modelled on American and French histories, so now they became modular in tum. It was only that a certain inventive legerdemain was required to permit the empire to appear attractive in national drag.

[T]wentieth-century nationalisms have, as I have been arguing, a profoundly modular character. They can, and do, draw on more than a century and a half of human experience and three earlier models of nationalism. Nationalist leaders are thus in a position consciously to deploy civil and military educational systems modelled on official nationalism’s; elections, party organizations, and cultural celebrations modelled on the popular nationalisms of ninteenth-century Europe; and the citizen-republican idea brought into the world by the Americas.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism [1983], Revised Edition (London: Verso, 2006), pp. 36; 87; 135.

“[But] if nationalisms in the rest of the world have to choose their imagined community from certain “modular” forms already made available to them by Europe and the Americas, what do they have left to imagine?” This objection is made because the nationalist imagination in Asia and Africa are premised on a difference from and not on an identity with the western models of nationalism.

For this assertion to make sense, the standard nationalist theory of nationalism as which sees it solely as a political movement — beginning with the establishment of the Indian National Congress in 1885 after on a decade of “preparation” which in turn was built upon the reform movements of the previous five decades — must be dismantled. This standard theory of nationalist history necessarily converges with Anderson’s formulations.

Anticolonial nationalism creates its own domain of sovereignty in the spiritual sphere of colonial society before it begins its political battle in the material domain. In the material domain — the domain of the “outside” — of the economy, statecraft, science and technology, the West is superior and must be emulated. But in the spiritual domain — the “inner” domain — which marks cultural identity, colonial distinctness must be preserved.

The implications are many. For one, nationalism claims sovereignty in the spiritual domain. So, while the initial phase of the social reform period in India witnessed appeals to colonial authority to effect change, in the later phase, there was strong resistance to interventions by the colonial state. This later phase is the period of nationalism. This does not imply that the spiritual domain is left unchanged. It is, in fact, here that nationalism launches its “most powerful, creative, and historically significant project: to fashion a “modern” national culture that is nevertheless not Western. If the nation is an imagined community, then this is where it is brought into being (emphasis added).”

Some areas of the spiritual domain nationalism transforms will be examined with illustrations from Bengal.

Consider language. While the impact of print-capitalism is unheralded, it does not imply a simple transposition of European patterns or standards to the development of the “national” language in the colonies. It is the colonial state that introduced the English language and commissions printed books in Bengali. Closely on the heels of such development, the bilingual elite through an “institutional network of printing presses, publishing houses, newspapers, magazines, and literary societies” tried to provide its mother tongue with the requisites of a language for a “modern” culture.

While modern European languages and literature shaped the critical discourse, their conventions were considered inappropriate to judge Bengali literary productions. For example, in drama, it was not the conventions of Shakespeare but those from Sanksrit drama that would succeed on the Calcutta stage. Mainstream public theatre inspired by Western conventions is clearly distinguished from “folk theatre”. As another example, consider novels. Bengali novelists preferred the “direct recording of living speech” to the “disciplined forms of authorial prose” in an attempt to find an “artistic truthfulness” which made it “necessary to escape, as often as possible, the rigidities of [modern] prose”.

The assertion of difference was most dramatic in the realm of the family. The criticism of the Indian traditions and the reliance on the agency of colonial masters in the early reform period gave way to a rejection of outside intervention in the nationalists. Only the nation, it came to be argued, could have the right to intervene in such an essential aspect of cultural identity as the family.

In the material domain, nationalism begins by “inserting itself into a new public sphere constituted by the processes and forms of the modern”. It had to overcome the subordination arising out of the strategy of the “rule of colonial difference” — the preservation of the alienness of the ruling group which was pursued by the colonial state. Ironically, nationalism had to, in this domain, insist on abolishing this rule of colonial difference. Overtime, the domain became more extensive and morphed into the postcolonial state which, in India at least, was built on the idea of the modern liberal-democratic state.

But while the nationalist elite presided over a field constituted by the distinction between the spiritual and the material, the postcolonial state presides over the field constituted by the distinction between the private and the public. The modern liberal-democratic postcolonial state, in accordance with liberal ideology, seeks to protect the inviolability of private selves which means it has to remain indifferent to the concrete differences between private selves marked by race, language, religion, class, caste, and so forth, differences towards which the nationalist elite could not remain indifferent.

“The result is that autonomous forms of imagination of the community were, and continue to be, overwhelmed and swamped by the history of the postcolonial state. Here lies the root of our postcolonial misery: not in our inability to think out new forms of the modern community but in our surrender to the old forms of the modern state.”

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