AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Anthony D. Smith. Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 1991, 226 pp.
The biblical story of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11) could be interpreted as a mythical description of the origin of nations. According to the story, at this early stage in human history, the world was inhabited by one people who spoke one language until, in their vanity, human beings challenged the limits of their ability and joined together to build a tower reaching up to heaven. Angry and apprehensive about this expansion of human powers, and about the conceit it conveyed, God said:
Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this
they begin to do and now nothing will be withheld from them, which they
schemed to do. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language,
that they may not understand one another's speech (Genesis 11:6-7)
Thus God scattered human beings across the face of the earth, and they divided into nations.
According to this origin myth, the birth of nations is also the beginning of multiplicity and diversity; national experiences are, therefore, particular and universal at the same time. The universal national narrative enfolds itself in many forms; thus there is more than one exodus, one divine redemption, or one moment of liberation for all humankind. Liberation and self-determination are universal experiences, but each nation encounters them its own particular way. This is the essence of the reiterative view of nationalism.(1)
Most nationalists, however, tend to repress the knowledge that their nation is but a reiteration of a worldwide phenomenon. Ignoring the striking analogies among the processes leading to the creation of different nations, they tend to emphasize the particular. Social scientists, however, do the opposite. They reach beyond particularistic discourses and expose the similarities among different national narratives to produce various typologies of national movements. The authors of the books reviewed here make a significant contribution to the sociology and history of nationalism by exploring the interrelations between the patterns of development of different national movements. Liah Greenfeld, in her interesting book, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, surveys the chronological development of five different national movements, starting with sixteenth-century England, and continuing through mid-seventeenth-century France, Russia during the second half of the eighteenth century, late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Germany, and the United States during the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. The national evolution of these societies, she argues, represents a coherent, though exceedingly complex process. Since these five nations shared the same social space, the mutual influences among them are evident.
The tendency of national movements to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors is also made evident in Benedict Anderson's book, Imagined Communities. Anderson, wishing to break away from the conceit of European scholars "that everything important in the modern world originated in Europe" (p. xiii), turns our attention to the Americas and provides us with a fascinating account of the development of nationalism in that part of the world. National movements in the Americas, he argues, have shared some features with their European predecessors yet there have been marked differences. First, "language was not an element that differentiated them [Brazil and the United States] from their respective metropolis" (p. 47). Second, unlike European nationalism, which promoted the induction of the lower classes into the political world, in the cases of Venezuela, Mexico, and Peru, it was "the fear of the lower class political mobilization that played a key role in spurring the drive for independence from Madrid" (p.48).
The riddle, Anderson argues, is "Why was it precisely creole communities that developed so early conceptions of the nation-ness--well before most of Europe?" (p. 50). The two new chapters included in the second edition attempt to solve the riddle. They demonstrate how three institutions--the census, maps, and museums--shaped the way in which colonies and the independent states that followed them imagined their domain.
These chapters raise the questions that lie at the heart of National Identity by Anthony Smith: How do nations emerge? What holds them together? What accounts for the intensity and scope of national feelings? We cannot begin to understand the power and appeal of nationalism as a political force, Smith argues, "without grounding our analysis in a wider perspective whose focus is national identity treated as a collective phenomenon" (p. vii).
All three authors are fascinated by the mysterious vitality of nationalism. Why does nationalism provide the most compelling identity myth in the modern world? Why and how can it motivate individuals? Why does every successful revolution since World War II define itself in nationalist terms? But before turning to discuss these issues, one must struggle with definitions: What does the term nation mean? In what ways is it distinct, if at all, from closely related terms like state, people, and ethnic group.
An inquiry into the nature of these terms will reveal an irony hovering over the study of nationalism: the more we struggle to provide an adequate definition of nation, and the more we learn about the emergence of nations and about the origins and the development of nationalism, the less credible is the nationalist image of nations as homogeneous, natural, and continuous communities of common fate and descent. Yet, it is precisely this image that nurtures the unique power of nationalism.
NATION: IN SEARCH OF A DEFINITION
A nation, Anderson argues,
is an imagined political community--and imagined as both inherently limited
and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest
nations will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even
hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives an image of their community.
Anderson carefully distinguishes his definition from Ernest Gellner's claim that nationalism "invents nations where they do not exist."(2) Gellner, he argues, is so anxious to show that nationalism masquerades under false pretenses that he equates invention with fabrication and falsity rather than with imaging and creation, thus implying that there are true communities that can be advantageously compared to nations. Communities, however, are to be distinguished "not by their falsity/ genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined" (p. 6).
Anderson's definition is important because it emphasizes the central role played by the image of a nation in creating a national reality. Nevertheless, this definition raises two theoretical difficulties that undermine its usefulness. The first and most serious relates to Anderson's use of the term imagined. Anderson argues that a nation is an imagined community because it is impossible for all its members to engage in face-to-face contact with all fellow members at all times. Hence, members can only perceive the nation as a whole by referring to the image of it that they have construed in their own minds. But this use of the term seems trivial and uninformative because all human associations, even if no larger than families or primordial villages, could, according to this definition, be considered imagined communities. For instance, it is highly unlikely that any lecturer at Tel-Aviv University will ever have the opportunity to engage in face-to-face relationships with all other members of the university--faculty, staff, and students. The university as a community, not an institution, thus would only be an image members carry in their minds. Would this criterion be sufficient to turn the university into an imagined community?
Consider an even more problematic example. I know all the members of my extended family, and I have had, at one point or another, intimate face-to-face contact with most of them. They are not, however, physically present in my room while I write this review. Some are at work or at school, some are traveling abroad, one new member I have yet to meet, and I have spoken only briefly with my cousin's new spouse. Hence, at this very moment, my view of my family as a whole depends on an image that exists in my mind. According to Anderson's definition then, my family is no less an imagined community than the nation I belong to.
Moreover, the image of my family as a whole has been formed not only through face-to-face encounters with its present members, but also through my awareness of the existence of former generations as well as future ones. It includes personal recollections of personal incidents related to the family, as well as collective memories of events I know of but have never experienced. Hence, even if all members of my family were …