In a Pomegranate Chandelier

T.J. Clark

  • Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson
    Verso, 240 pp, £12.99, September 2006, ISBN 1 84467 086 4
  • Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination by Benedict Anderson
    Verso, 224 pp, £14.99, January 2006, ISBN 1 84467 037 6

Writers only pretend to be embarrassed at the small fame a book sometimes brings them, but there is nothing assumed about the irritation they can feel at having a new line of argument, and a universe of unfamiliar examples, reduced to a single phrase. Great titles are especially dangerous. Imagined Communities is one of the greatest, and I shall be arguing that the cluster of concepts it sums up deserves still to be central to our thinking about the world. But it is understandable, and touching, that the first footnote to Benedict Anderson’s afterword to his new edition should read, in explanation of the trimming of the title in his text: ‘Aside from the advantages of brevity, IC restfully occludes a pair of words from which the vampires of banality have by now sucked almost all the blood.’

Night has fallen, and I gather my cloak about me. Part of the force of Imagined Communities as a title – as an idea – comes from the way the two words immediately set the reader wondering whether they are meant as oxymoronic, and if they are, with what degree of irony or regret. The words bring to mind the true strangeness, but also the centrality, of the human will to be connected with others ‘of one’s kind’ whom one will never meet, and never know. Connected with them in the present, by blood or language or difference from a common enemy (or combinations of all three); and connected through time by a shared belonging to something that seems to emerge from a steadier, thicker, more grounded past and be on its way to an indestructible, maybe redeeming future.

Anderson is the very opposite of an atheist in the face of this religion; or, if he is an unbeliever – and one senses in all of his writings an extraordinary final outsidedness to the worlds he has studied and clearly often loves – it is very much in Santayana’s spirit, with the old philosopher’s ‘There is no God and Mary is His mother.’ For the first move in Imagined Communities is of sympathy, and therefore a full recognition of nationalism’s ability to provide answers to the questions that previous religions had made their own. The nation gives form to a shiftless and arbitrary being on earth, it offers a promise of immortality, it is oriented time and again towards – and beyond – the individual’s death. ‘With the ebbing of religious belief’ – Anderson was writing in 1983 – ‘the suffering which belief in part composed did not disappear. Disintegration of paradise: nothing makes fatality more arbitrary. Absurdity of salvation: nothing makes another style of continuity more necessary. What then was required was a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning.’ For a moment again it is hard to be sure of the tone here. ‘Composed’ is an interesting choice of word. The syntax that follows is lapidary, but brutal. There is a tension in the sentences, which I think is productive in Anderson’s work as a whole; he is sometimes accused of being a Romantic, yet I hear Diderot constantly debating in his pages with Rousseau and Herder; but nonetheless it is sympathy – a determination to pose the question of nation at the level of creaturely pain and vulnerability and fear of the grave – that prevails. ‘The great weakness of all evolutionary/ progressive styles of thought,’ he writes, ‘not excluding Marxism, is that such questions are answered with impatient silence.’

‘Not excluding Marxism’. The fascination of Anderson’s approach lies in the way the initial leap of understanding in 1983 was made to coexist with a strong (Marxist) commitment to materialist explanation. In many of his books – and again, currently, in Under Three Flags – he becomes, necessarily, a teller of particular national histories and a recorder of all the unlikely things that went to make a ‘Filipino’ or an ‘Indonesian’. But in the beginning, what Anderson wanted to clarify (and keep hold of in subsequent storytelling) were the conditions of production of imagined communities of the new kind. What technologies of representation did they depend on? And who did the representing? From what classes and professions did nationalists come, and how did their particular interests and social styles inflect the great thing represented? How did the invention of the printing press and the imperatives of early European capitalism interact to make nations possible? If there was such a thing as ‘print capitalism’ – such a contingent, but in the end decisive and creative thing – then exactly what were its effects on the vernacular languages, on the segmentation of elites and non-elites, on the look of the map and the sense of belonging to a bounded place? Are not nations always, from the start, one moment in a complex drive to explore and exploit the totality of the globe – to make a new world-system? So that nationalism and internationalism, or Gemeinschaft and globalisation, go together. The pioneers of nationhood were the Creole elites created in the Americas by Spanish and British colonialism. Europe, when its time of nation-forming came, pirated New World models without a second thought. ‘Long-distance nationalism’ is a term Anderson has used lately to characterise the new claims to identity – ethnic, religious, fiercely convinced of the pains of exile – born of the latest waves of migration and diaspora. But all nationalisms are long-distance, as we shall see in Under Three Flags. What differs is their willingness to recognise the fact.

This is a cruel summary of some tremendous chapters, full of convincing fact. Reading them again in 2006 is an unsettling experience, because it begins to dawn on one that several of Anderson’s key analytic co-ordinates may have altered in form – and altered in relation to one another – even in the brief period since he first laid them out. This would be very remarkable if true, because the structures he pointed to as generative of nations have survived (through various recastings) for five centuries or thereabouts. Take ‘print capitalism’, especially considered in relation to the production of imagined solidarities and kinds of being-through-time. If we were to say that the last 25 years have seen the implanting and diffusion of a ‘screen capitalism’ – one in which print and image and map and diagram are made available to individual users in what seems an equalised and immensely speeded-up field of symbolic production – would that lead us to make connections between the new technics (with its old driving force) and the coming into being of new imagined communities that now put the nation under pressure? ‘We Are All Hizbullah,’ as they say in Jakarta and Grosvenor Square. I chose to write ‘the coming into being of new communities’, but of course it might be – the new communities believe it to be, and work to convince us of their belief – that what we are witnessing is the coming back into being of the old: the very ‘old’ on which Anderson’s original Marxist analysis turned. For it was axiomatic with him that the religious community – he has some unforgettable pages on the subject, working with ideas from Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre – was the model of togetherness that the nation displaced. Or whose historical authority – whose productivity and plausibility – the nation took up into itself.

I am not a partisan of the idea that the age of the nation-state is at an end. Nor do I think that screen capitalism is on its way to assembling human totalities of an utterly unprecedented kind. So let me put the argument cautiously. It seems to me that a complex rejigging of the balance of forces between nation and ummah, nation and congregation, nation and jihad, nation and chosen people, is underway in many parts of the world – and not only under the banner of Islam. And this has something to do with the new opportunities offered by screen capitalism. Of course, it has just as much to do with the ruin of actual secular national projects in the context of Cold War, resource imperialism, the attentions of the IMF. But actual shipwreck could have elicited no more than despair and anomie. These exist, no doubt, but also elation, inventiveness, ruthlessness, dedication to death. Certain religions believe they are once again a productive, history-making force. They look on the nation as a dead carapace, which one day soon they may make armed and animate again. Or they may discard it, in favour of other unities. The relation of Hizbullah to Lebanon – ‘a non-state within a non-state’, as its supporters are fond of saying – is to be generalised. (Perhaps a better formulation from our point of view would be ‘a non-nation within a nation all too typical of the breed’.)

We shall see. Even Lebanon may rise from the dead. Those who made it a nation may make it so again. But something fundamental is happening. A shuffling and grating of imagined communities is taking place. And this is connected, as I say, with the arrival of a new technics of representation. Imagined Communities gives us the beginning of a way to think about just such matters, in its treatment of the effect of print capitalism on the day-to-day imagining of those things called ‘languages’, and its reflections on the role of the newspaper and the novel. ‘In a rather special sense, the book was the first modern-style mass-produced industrial commodity.’ ‘The newspaper is merely an extreme form of the book, a book sold on a colossal scale, but of ephemeral popularity. Might we say: one-day bestsellers?’ After reading Anderson, one never opens the paper over breakfast without somehow remembering:

The significance of this mass ceremony – Hegel observed that newspapers serve modern man as a substitute for morning prayers – is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion. Furthermore, this ceremony is incessantly repeated at daily or half-daily intervals throughout the calendar. What more vivid figure for the secular, historically clocked, imagined community can be envisioned?

You will notice that the crucial form of words here is ‘vivid figure for’ rather than ‘effective cause of’. But not only literary critics and media buffs have leapt to the conclusion that Anderson’s argument in the end exceeds his careful (Marxist) framing. Well yes, print capitalism is a function of capitalism, and newspapers and novels issue from – and are informed and altered by – an evolving bourgeois culture in which the styles of individuality and citizenship are very far from being created out of words on a page alone. No newspapers without clubs and coffee houses, no novels (or not the novels we have) without the great vagaries of class. Nonetheless, the question of technical, representational efficacity – the bias of certain means and relations of symbolic production towards some forms of imagined identity in preference to others – will not go away. Do we think that the novel and the newspaper were more effective, for instance, at generating nationhood than class consciousness? (A hard question, I know, since bourgeoisie and nationality are so much transforms of one another.) If so, why? For reasons wholly, or even largely, independent of the nature of the apparatus in each case?

I do not think so. Hegel’s world-historical sarcasm rings in my ears; and it too, in 2006, threatens to turn back on those (like me) who wish it were still true. For newspapers are less and less a substitute for anything, and in much of the world morning prayers are no longer to be substituted for by any such private (public) form of representation. Screen capitalism is dissolving the very structure of private (public) being-together. It is wrecking the quiet simultaneity of clock-time. Atrocity happens NOW. The ‘now’ that language inevitably conjures away into repeatability and abstraction, the image preserves for ever in what seems to be its mere being. The event on the screen is unique and eternal. It belongs again to God or Satan. The website and the cellphone video are paths to the sacred. Morning prayer is everywhere.

Of course this imagined community is counterfactual, and interfered with at every point by the realities of the secular world. But insofar as those realities turn on death and humiliation, they feed the imaginary as opposed to undermining it. Especially when ‘nation’ presents itself, by contrast, as humiliation personified. When nation can no longer lay claim to death – when it cedes death to its new-old opponent – a form of life has grown old.

Under Three Flags is a study of the forces that went to make the imagined community of the Philippines. This means it is fiercely, movingly local, concentrated on a handful of remarkable men and fateful years, but also expansively – at times bewilderingly – global. Things begin in 1887, in Berlin and Manila, with two brilliant young ‘Filipinos’ bringing out books on opposite sides of the world: an astonishing first novel of colonial life, and a massive study of island customs and forms of words. The former was Noli me tangere, the latter El folk-lore filipino. The author of the novel (shivering in Bismarck’s capital) was José Rizal, aged 25; that of the folklore compendium Isabelo de los Reyes, two years Rizal’s junior. Rizal had nine years to live. He was executed in the public square in Manila in 1896, at the hands of Spaniards by then fighting off a national uprising. Isabelo was jailed the same year, and subsequently shipped off to Spain. He spent a year in the torture chambers of Montjuich, and had to wait out the bloodbath of US ‘liberation’, returning in 1901 to found the Unión Obrera Democrática – putting into practice ideas of anarchist and syndicalist organisation learned in Barcelona. In 1887 he had prided himself on being a scientist, with parts of his book already published in German in Globus and Ausland. When he went back to Manila in 1901 his small travelling library centred on Aquinas and Voltaire, Proudhon and the Bible, Darwin and Marx, Kropotkin and Malatesta.

Like all Anderson’s books since 1983, this one aims to put the aphoristic clarities of Imagined Communities under pressure. ‘Nation’ is a comparative concept by its very nature, and studying any one nation involves putting it into a firmament of similar-but-different. The earlier book was marvellous at this. Its great map of types and apparatuses and models and kinds of copying made many things clear. But it was a map, and for the Anderson of recent years its object of study looks, in retrospect, too much like a firmament, not an archipelago. The stars in the 1983 sky were apparently stationary, and therefore too beautiful. ‘Such is the Chaldean elegance of the comparative method, which … allowed me once to juxtapose “Japanese” nationalism with “Hungarian”, “Venezuelan” with “American”, and “Indonesian” with “Swiss”. Each shining with its own separate, steady, unitary light.’ Is it possible to write a history of nations, then, that stays true to the original astronomical impulse – Anderson is more and more convinced that no one nation’s history makes sense except in the broadest, most world-encompassing optic – but has its particular nationalisms be hybrid through and through, and always on the move? This is the new book’s question.

The Philippines in the 1890s ought to provide a good testing ground for non-Chaldean astronomy because in them the unique and the world-historical are so vividly face to face. Rizal looms over the tragic scene: he is its voice, its victim, its epitome of death and resurrection. The paradox of national language is writ large: Rizal’s great verses of farewell to his homeland in 1896 are written, like his novels, in exquisite Spanish, though they were very quickly rendered into Tagalog. (The translator was Andrés Bonifacio, leader of the Most Illustrious, Most Respectable League of the Sons-and-Daughters of the People. When he had heard, months earlier, of Rizal’s decision not to join what he saw as a premature revolution, he had exploded in anger at the novelist’s cowardice. Bonifacio in turn survived until May 1897. He was executed for treason to the revolution by a rival nationalist leader.) Over the next century the poem was translated into 49 Philippine languages.

This book is one of several in which Anderson has taken the measure of Rizal as Father of the Nation, and of his literary achievement. Noli me tangere is in many ways the very model of anti-colonial realism, conjuring the space and time of Spanish-ruled Manila with easy, sardonic confidence. It is anti-clerical, satiric, erotic, melodramatic – and it establishes its ‘reader’ (its Illustrious Son-or-Daughter of the People) with all the certainty of Fielding or Stendhal. Already in Imagined Communities, Rizal’s first book is Anderson’s preferred example of all that a novel’s way of world-making can do, and what the mass ceremony of its reading (through the years) made thinkable. But Rizal presents a problem, which a large part of Under Three Flags is intended to solve. Four years after Noli me tangere, a second and final novel by Rizal appeared, with the untranslatable title El filibusterismo, published in the grimness of Ghent. (‘Revolutionary buccaneering’ is about as close as English can get, and nothing will quite dispel the image of bores in the Senate.) The book is a sequel to the earlier story, but a bizarre and catastrophic one. The dead hero of Noli me tangere reappears, resurrected, hiding behind a pair of dark blue spectacles, and sets off this time to drag the whole of Philippine elite society into the abyss. They are to be blown to pieces finally, at a lavish wedding feast in Manila, by a bomb concealed in a pomegranate chandelier. The police get the whiff of nitroglycerine just in time. The hero is mortally wounded, and dies, talking to the end, on a lonely beach.

I have to take on faith from Anderson that El filibusterismo, like many another late 19th-century novel, has immensely more aesthetic energy than its silly story would suggest. And Under Three Flags certainly succeeds in placing the novel and its author in a world of late 1880s literature and politics. By 1891, Rizal read German and French as well as a smattering of English. He had lived in Paris, Berlin and London. Madrid he looked down on as backward and parochial. El filibusterismo has a French vaudeville outfit turning up in Manila, a local Chinese planning to set up a consulate, and a Yankee called Mr Leeds. ‘The book is littered with casual references to Egypt, Poland, Peru, Germany, Russia, Cuba, Persia, the Carolines, Ceylon, the Moluccas, Libya, France, China and Japan.’

This casually (but chaotically) international frame of reference is important, because it dovetails with Anderson’s whole sense of the last years of the century as witnessing ‘the onset of what one could call early globalisation’.

The near-simultaneity of the last nationalist insurrection in the New World (Cuba, 1895) and the first in Asia (the Philippines, 1896) was no serendipity. Natives of the last important remnants of the Spanish empire, Cubans … and Filipinos did not merely read about each other, but had crucial personal connections and, up to a point, co-ordinated their actions – the first time in world history that such transglobal co-ordination became possible.

And – final sign of the new age – both revolutions were eventually beaten senseless by Theodore Roosevelt’s big stick.

Over the new interconnectedness of the world-system (this is Anderson’s final and pervasive point) loomed an image of a different kind of internationalism, suitably mobile, intent on taking advantage of the new technologies of round-the-globe communication, and ready to make revolution under any and every banner. To wit, anarchism – and pre-eminently, for a while, the anarchism of ‘propaganda by the deed’. Table 1 of Under Three Flags (Anderson is ever the political scientist) is a year-by-year chart of assassinations from 1894 to 1914, with victim, place and method, assassin’s identity, nationality and political orientation. ‘The assassins, some of whom could well be described as early suicide bombers, understood themselves as acting for a world audience of news agencies, newspapers, religious progressives, working-class and peasant organisations.’ You will notice that El filibusterismo appeared three years before the chart gets going. It is ‘proleptic’, says Anderson. A little uneasy, this. But he has no trouble showing that Rizal would have read much, and met many with dynamite already on their minds.

Anderson is clearly sympathetic to anarchist internationalism, and he makes the case for propaganda by the deed’s emergence from a texture of desperate struggles, in which the balance of brutality always lay, overwhelmingly, with the forces of civilisation. The list of victims in his table elicits few tears. But I have to say – again, the fact of my reading this book in the summer of 2006 may have much to do with this – that the table as a whole seems a chronicle of futility, from which anarchism never completely recovered. (It had made a spectacle of itself, one might say; and unmaking spectacle is a long process.) Anderson admires the Cuban creole Fernando Tárrida, whom Rizal just missed meeting in Barcelona, and has a special liking for Tárrida’s ‘Anarchism without Adjectives’. I see his point. Hyphens in politics are often the mark of watering down. But anarcho-syndicalism, when it came, was certainly better than anarcho-symbolism, or anarcho-decadence or anarcho-martyrology. It was a necessary antidote to the previous Isadora-Duncan-with-blood. Isabelo’s Unión Obrera Democrática sounds to have been anarcho-syndicalist to the letter.

This disagreement is shadowed, as I say, by the futilities of the present. Some of the points Anderson makes about the animating force of anarchism within nationalism, and about the strange networks by which both spread in the 1890s, are persuasive, and some less so. He has a hard time getting anarchism within a thousand miles of José Martí. I agree finally, but with a shudder, that this fin de siècle reminds us that nationalism regularly thrives on doom. Apocalypse is one of its modes. No better time for the making of nations than a time when nations are broken. Out of the shards will be made the genuine article, and the maker – the breaker – will be the Nation in its true, transfigured guise.

Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms;

And with thee will I break in pieces the horse and his rider; and with thee will I break in pieces the chariot and his rider;

With thee also will I break in pieces man and woman; and with thee will I break in pieces old and young; and with thee will I break in pieces the young man and the maid;

I will also break in pieces with thee the shepherd and his flock; and with thee will I break in pieces the husbandman and his yoke of oxen; and with thee will I break in pieces captains and rulers.

The last ‘also’ is hard to bear: it reminds me of a Stalinist bureaucrat making sure he has ticked off all the class enemies. The Authorised Version’s English seems to have no trouble with the sixth-century BC sentiments. Don’t chosenness and nationhood go together through the ages? And aren’t nations regularly assembled from the materials Jeremiah reviews? (I got to the Old Testament via Thomas Hardy’s great poem written in 1915.) Not nations alone, of course. I am not meaning to make nationalism, in the finish, the sole demon of history. But I see writers with whom I enormously sympathise turning to ‘nation’ lately as a last refuge, it seems, from the storm. I study my Bible and El filibusterismo, and still wonder where the storm comes from.