One of the things I’m…

One of the things I'm trying to be better about this quarter is actually typing up lecture notes. I've never done that before; I've been very much a 'winging it' professor, relying on knowing the material pretty deeply to get it right. But I want to start building up a real library of notes, in part so I don't have to reinvent the wheel every time I teach the class.

This morning, we're going to start by discussing Benedict's Anderson's intro to his theory book, Imagined Communities. This is an example of the kind of notes I mean -- hopefully from the notes, you can get a sense of his argument. (Also, I love this book, and his argument. So it's nice to share.) I probably won't be posting all my lecture notes, because I imagine they're not generally of interest, but a little taste might be fun.

On first glance, this may seem really dry and dull. But I think it was actually this book that led to Arbitrary Passions, because it started me thinking about the nation as an essentially arbitrary creation. Which led to wondering whether love of one's country was equally arbitrary -- and what about love of a person? Is there a difference between love in arranged marriages and love marriages? How about polyamorous love? And so I ended up writing a book, and it all started here.

(God, I sound really geeky, don't I? See, I was reading this theory book, and that's what led me to write my memoir... If the book ever gets published, I'm going to have to come up with a better story to tell at readings...)

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, Introduction Notes

  • since World War II, every successful revolution has defined itself in national terms (the People's Republic of China, the Socialist Republic of Vietname, etc.); almost every year, the U.N. admits new members
  • many 'old nations' find themselves challenged by 'sub'-nationalisms within their borders
  • nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time
  • nation-ness / nationalism are cultural artifacts
  • yet they command profound emotional legitimacy
  • formal universality of nationality as a socio-cultural conept: in the modern world, every human 'has' a nationality, as he or she 'has' a gender (in itself a problematic concept, yet widely accepted)
  • nationalism isn't actually an ideology -- belongs more with 'kinship' and 'religion' rather than with 'liberalism' or 'fascism'
  • proposed definition: the nation is an imagined political community, imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign
    • imagined: members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members (unlike the primordial village), yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion
    • limited: even the largest of them has finite, if elastic boundaries beyond which lie other nations; no nation imagines itself coterminous of mankind -- nationalists do not dream of a day when all members of the human race will join their nation
    • sovereign: autonomous, not controlled by outside forces; the nation is sovereign, no longer divinely-ordained, nor heirarchical dynastic realm; nations dream of being free -- and if under God, directly so (not through a king, etc.)
    • community: the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship (no heirarchy); it is that fraternity that makes it possible for so many millions of people to kill and/or willingly die for such limited imaginings -- all citizens of the nation are equal. I.e., anyone's kid could grow up to be President.

3 thoughts on “One of the things I’m…”

  1. Hi Mary Anne,

    Your post triggered off a reminder of the late famed British novelist, Dame Iris Murdoch, who built a small library stock of a literary novel a year for many years; and they were all bestsellers.

    Her characters featured philosophical themes with Freudian theories and also controversial issues like homosexuality – a touchy subject in the 60s & 70s when she wrote actively, and a fair bit of comic wit. She was especially noted for involving fictitious professors/lecturers/scholars in a series of tragic and comic entanglements that revolved around their lecture notes.

    In fact, in novels like The Philosopher’s Pupil & The Good Apprentice, she turned the pursuit of lecture notes in her thoughtfully sketched-up prose, into a commendable art. 🙂

  2. Oh sorry…there is an error in the first para.
    It should have read, “…who built a small library of literary novels which she wrote….”

  3. Interesting stuff; thanks for posting!

    I’d add a couple of things:

    1. As you noted, gender is also a relatively arbitrary social construct; and also an incredibly important one.

    2. So are a lot of other things about society. Money, for example. Property. Civil rights. Religion, to the non-religious. Even community–I would argue that the imaginedness of nationalism is no more (or less) real than the imaginedness of a sense of community in other communities. Even when you know most of your fellow members, everyone has a different idea in their head of what the community is/means/does.

    Gotta run. Good food for thought.

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