Who imagines nations?

I remain surprised by the continuing success of Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities ([1983] 1991). When it is was first brought to my attention I thought that there was not much there since, “everybody knew, or should know” that something like “nationalism” was a cultural construction, appearing at a certain point in time, with antecedents of course, and an ongoing evolution. While many political actors of the past two centuries have asserted that, say, “France” is an entity with full ontological reality, any anthropologist, steeped in the critique of “religion,” “social structure,” etc., would work from the stance that 1) “nation” is a native term among certain populations at a certain time and that 2) “nation” should not be reified any more than terms like “taboo,” “totem,” “caste,” etc. This would then lead to research into the actual deployment of “nation” in performances of all types, and particularly in all attempts by the States which claim “nation” to impose certain matters on recalcitrant populations, both inside and outside the boundaries imagined as those of “France,” “Germany,” or …

Recent anthropological theoretical developments would add that nationalism, to the extent that we take the metaphor of “construction” seriously, needs to be repaired, if not re-constructed, on an ongoing basis given 1) inevitable flaws in the construction and 2) the wearing down of the construction as people’s experiences with the deployment of the term will inevitably lead them to transform it in their local practices. As Lévi-Strauss put is in his inimitable way ,all systems of classification (and nationalism certainly is one) “tend to be dismantled like a palace swept away upon the flood, whose parts, through the effect of currents and stagnant waters, obstacles and straits, come to combined in a manner other than that intended by the architect” ([1962] 1966: 232). Thus the State must continually teach [nation] if [nation] is to be a thing with hoped-for consequences. In my own life, I started being taught France as a pupil in the elementary schools of 1950s France that still used books published in the 1930s and earlier. We were taught, again and again, that while France was eternal (or at least 2000 years old…), it only got to be was it was to be because of the heroic acts of individuals and kings, many of whom otherwise horrible fellows. There was Pépin-le-Bref, Jeanne d’Arc, Louis XI, Louis XIV. And there was the terrible genius of those who, in 1793, defeated the “Girondins” who were arguing for a decentralized France with semi-autonomous provinces. They lost their heads as the “Jacobins” won and established the centralized France the Third Republic eventually perfected (as I was taught even though we were then in the Fourth Republic soon to be replaced by the Fifth). I suspect that those who wrote the textbooks were specifically guided, and carefully watched,
by generations of government ministers. I am sure they expected us, pupils, to do more than repeat what we were being taught in the ongoing examinations of our “knowledge.” They must also have expected that we would accept this teaching as, we were told, our grand-uncles had done when they went singing to their death in 1914-18 to the greater glory of the French nation.

However, in the 1950s, many, if not most, pupils of French schools learned something else: nationalism had led to the deaths of too many Europeans over the earlier half century. What now was being taught, by the media and many if not most politicians as well probably by school children (and most probably teachers also) among each other, was the need to join the effort of the few who, in the late 1940s, had starting constructing something that would not be ‘France’ anymore. That which was being constructed had no name or category–or rather it had many from the “European Coal and Steel Community” to the “European Economic Community’ to what is now the “European Union.” Note the shift from ‘Community’ to ‘Union’. I am sure there was a lot of “discourse” around that!
Whatever “it” may now be, this construction is 1) not a nation, 2) very much an act of imagination leading to the constitutions of a massive assemblage of things (laws, regulations, etc.), 3) so consequential in the life of the five hundred million people it has now caught that they keep contesting this or that law or regulation. Contestation then leads to responses by those with authority to gently oblige, and maybe even coerce, the people by further entangling them in ties more and more difficult to cut (just ask the British!).

All that seems obvious to me. It may have been obvious to Anderson too who notes in passing that there are those who see nationalism as a “pathology” (p. 5) and who fear all attempts at reifying it as a concept of universal significance with political consequences about the future organization of human beings. As a political actor myself, I share these fears and will argue that any who read Anderson positively must not dismiss them. But the anthropological problem is elsewhere: Anderson is never clear as to the “subjects” who constructed nationalism. He shifts from the passive voice “the nation is imagined” (p. 7) with no indication as who is doing the imagining, to—and this is worse from my point of view—the active voice where “nations imagine themselves” (p. 7). Those who, in France, recently started using the French flag as a way to contest French State policy are imagining. The State and media who criticized them as “right-wing white nationalists” are also imagining actively and consequentially. This acrimonious “conversation” that is anything but peaceful has to be the focus of anthropological research.

“Nation” can be an index to a set of performances (discourses, etc.) but it cannot be treated as an actor (though perhaps Latour might argue otherwise, but more subtly). Anthropologists, particularly, when working among populations where the assemblage of stuff “nation” indexes (or is icon for) is still alive, must specify who is speaking, to whom, in order to achieve what, etc. Anthropologists, particularly, must be attuned that the imagination of nation has always be contested and resisted. In France, one could still find Girondins in the late 19th century fighting a loosing battles against those who were making France with all the policing authority of the State to, for example, coerce French citizens to speak French. And anthropologists who work in contemporary Europe cannot ignore the paradoxical imagination of the “European Union” as something that may not be named (unless it is as the “Schengen Area” to which one is “welcomed” when landing at the Paris airports).
Some of the more marginal actors in the European ideological revolt against nationalism did make the argument, and continue to make it, that Europe should indeed “imagine” itself as such—that is, very actively, produce the texts, discourses, symbols and rituals that might eventually convince the 500 million that they are indeed one. See de Rougemont (1968 [1966] and Varenne (1993) for more on this.
The grammatical subject of the acts, the “we” who act, all but act-ively disappear France, Germany, etc., from much State displays is, of course, very much a State subject, acting through its authorized agents, imagining itself threatened by the lingering nationalism of the only groups that may be politely criticized by State agencies, the media, etc., those who in France or Germany claim the reality of the “French” or the “Germans” against the claims not only of those who have moved into Europe more or less recently but also of those who know lead the [EU] and, with great bureaucratic efficiency, control the writing of the text books, design curricula and pedagogies, fund performances and displays.

Coda (added on October 10, 2019)

To paraphrase Latour: “[nations] are not silent things, but rather tha provisional product of a constant uproar made by the millions of contradictory voices about what is a [nation] and who pertains to what” (2005: 31)


Anderson, Benedict   1991     Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Revised Edition.. New York: Verso. (First published in 1983)

Latour, Bruno 2005 Reassembling the social. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lévi–Strauss, Claude   1966 [1962]     The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rougemont, Dennis de   1968 [1966]     The idea of Europe. New York: Macmillan.

Varenne, Hervé   1993     “The question of European nationalism.” in Cultural change and the new Europe.. Edited by T. Wilson and M. E. Smith. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. pp. 223-240

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