After some throat-clearing Benedict Anderson opens his oft-cited Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism with the assertion that “nation-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artefacts of a particular kind.” (4) We might expect, then, that his next section on “Concepts and Definitions” will explain this particular kind of artefacts, and he does, eventually, but he first shares three “paradoxes” that “often” befuddle theorists of nationalism. First, nations are objectively modern entities (to historians) but subjectively narrated as ancient (by nationalists). Second, though clearly a modern entity with a clear historical genealogy, nationality is assumed to be a sui generis and universal category (everyone has a nationality). Third, nations are stupendously powerful entities but theories of nationalism are stupefyingly weak. (5)

In other words, Anderson prefaces and offsets his famous definition of the nation with an affective situation that is both inherently unsolvable and (as he states) “perplexing.” To study the nation is to feel oneself split between the limit of what the nation is and the unlimited feelings swirling around it, and between what a nation successfully does, in all of its complexity and force, and how a nation fails to be conceived in a logically satisfying manner. To study nationalism, he seems to imply, is to try and keep one’s [rational] head while sinking into an emotional mire.

Just turn the page and we will find the well-known pages that spell out Anderson’s famous definition of the nation as “an imagined political community–and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” (6)

But just prior to those lines, he comments further on those three baffling paradoxes by offering another equally common tendency, this time a tendency that is “unconscious” and apparently applicable to any “one,” whether historian or nationalist. Let me provide the entire short paragraph:

“Part of the difficulty is that one tends unconsciously to hypostasize the existence of Nationalism-with-a-big-N (rather as one might Age-with-a-capital-A) and then to classify ‘it’ as an ideology. (Note that if everyone has an age, Age is merely an analytical expression.) It would, I think, make things easier if one treated it [nationalism] as if it belonged with ‘kinship’ and ‘religion’, rather than with ‘liberalism’ or ‘fascism’.” (5)

What can it possibly mean to compare nationalism to religion or kinship? Scholars tend to find the salient contrast in ideology. Anderson positions nationalism, they say, as a diffuse structure of human experience and not a specific ideology. This short paragraph does seem to say just this. But the larger context provided by the preceding paragraph, in which, under the heading “concepts and definitions,” Anderson delineated the bizarre paradoxes that persistently swirl around the rhetoric, history, and theorization of nationism suggests that nationalism is hard to study precisely because its filaments get swept up in perverse ideological claims that are stubbornly emotional.

Anderson stunningly does not elaborate. To me, Anderson’s opening paragraphs posit that the imagined community of a nation is constituted, like religion or kinship, through a projected sense of belonging generated by events, affects, and habitual dispositions rather than through principled norms and actions. Nation and fascism, religion and liberalism, kinship and communism: all of these aggregate strong affects and yield poignant stories, but the first of each pair inheres a blurry, aleatory quality that is missing from the second.

It seems to me that Anderson is suggesting that whereas we align ourselves (or not) with fascism, we dispose ourselves (or not) to this motley group as “kin”; that whereas we align ourselves (or not) with liberalism, we feel ourselves to be Buddhist or Jewish (or not). And finally, whereas we align ourselves (or not) with communism, we are interpellated by the acts and assumptions of national identity (or not).

I see Anderson suggesting here a real problem, and that is that nationalism functions phenomenologically as a diffuse affective economy that binds us to one another through events, habits, dispositions, and (yes) the imagined communities disseminated by print media, while its very diffusion and ambiguities position it as ripe fodder for discursive ideological poaching. Ditto for kinship and religion.

In discussions of Anderson this doubled-edge of nationalism is not stressed enough. Public media–like print media and now like digital media and social media–enable “ways of being” to feel themselves in continuity with discontinuous persons, places, and institutions. This feeling, this expansion of a way of being and this accrual and sedimentation of particular habits is a social fact that is shared by all of us, even though the particular claims we use as ballast, logic, or/and justification for these feelings function ideologically to separate us. More and more often, now, this separation is violent, even lethal.

Is it at all possible today, on this Monday after the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, to separate U.S. nationalism from fascism or from fascism’s current opposite, liberalism? When we have a leader such as Trump, can we even hear the difference between “we all have national feelings” and “I am a nationalist?” I’m not sure.

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