Imagined Communities is a classic work of theory, but not necessarily one that is especially widely read among literary studies students (in my experience, at least. This is a bit weird to me, especially considering how focused Benedict Anderson is on language and the role of material texts in providing a mooring point for citizenship as identity.
There is a special kind of contemporaneous community which language alone suggests – above all in the form of poetry and songs. Take national anthems, for example, sung on national holidays. No matter how banal the words and mediocre the tunes, there is in this singing an experience of simultaneity. At precisely such moments, people wholly unknown to each other utter the same verses to the same melody. The image: unisonance. (167)
There is a pleasure in singing national anthems. An affective connection that allows us to imagine ourselves as mutually Canadian – something that feels more meaningful than being part of a community that has shared knowledge of a single song. I’ve been thinking about how I might teach Imagined Communities and my (maybe unreasonable) impulse is that most students are going to be more likely to find pop culture examples more accessible/relatable than historical examples. Cultural texts that unite fan communities or generational groups might be based on a connection that has a bit more substance than the national one, and it seems more reasonable to make further assumptions about a person’s identity or experiences based on the former than the later. I don’t want to argue that nationalism and fannishness are completely equivalent, but I think pop culture might also be an illuminating example of how texts can create imagined communities.
I need to find something that reliably evokes childhood nostalgia for 18 year olds, but a good example for people closer to their mid-twenties in Canada (maybe not including Quebec) seems to be either the Fresh Prince theme song or “Don’t Put it in your Mouth.” I have yet to be in a situation where someone brings either of these things up where everyone doesn’t seem able and willing to do an impromptu group performance. If I were teaching, I’d like to actually get students to sing, and then to ask them to try to answer some questions:
How did it make them feel to sing together?
How do they feel about The Fresh Prince/Concerned Children’s Advertisers generally?
Are the feelings about these two things completely related?
Is there anyone who didn’t know the words? How did that make them feel?
What does it imply to have some people who know this song and some who don’t? Can we assume there are any other substantial differences between these groups?
I think these questions could help students to start to think about the disconnect between the connection a text allows them to imagine or feel (I think I tend to read Anderson as more interested in affect/emotion than he even is himself) and what the actual basis for that connection is. From there I think it could be possible to talk about the historical movement from loyalty to church and king to loyalty towards a country itself, and what it means in the present to feel connected to people you have never met before. While Anderson is focused on print cultures’ role in the historical development of nationalism as well as current nationalistic texts (like anthems or tombs dedicated to “unknown soldiers”), I think we could talk about subcultures developing around contemporary media.
Anderson argues that the rise of regional periodicals in the “new world” allowed people, for the first time, to imagine a new kind of connection to strangers. Knowing that they were all receiving, at the same time, the same information allows people to imagine themselves as sharing a part in some kind of larger narrative; this is why Anderson likens the rise of national sentiment to the structure of the novel.
To look at this in terms of popular culture, things like this list (25 Ways to Tell You’re A Kid of the ’90s) harness simultaneity to try to imply something about a deeper community connection. Presumably a list of “25 Commodities That Produced Greater Capital 20 Years Ago” would not be quite as viral. We can make generalizations about people who were children in the ’90s or Star Trek fans (they both might tend to be more liberal than average, for example). To a certain degree we can generalize about national identity as well. The affective mutuality of being Canadian or a “Nineties Kid” seems to be better captured by a novelistic narrative coherency, though, than a moderate statistical chance of similarity, especially given the ability of people who are atypical within these groups to still feel a connection.
Anderson’s ideas are very important for fan studies because they show how communities arise out of shared texts. This is pretty obvious, but his emphasis on simultaneity raises some important questions as well. It seems to me that large and active fan communities are more likely to arise around periodical texts, like TV shows or serialized comics, than around solitary texts, like films or graphic novels (or even groups of these single texts, like all of a single creator’s work). I’m not going to try to defend this assumption further today, but if it does have something to do with fan simultaneity and not just the volume of a text, I think this might provide some insight on why tagging spoilers is such a fan cultural norm – it prevents fans from feeling excluded by still allowing participation in some areas while shielding them from the areas where they cannot feel connection. (This essay on being too poor to buy games but feeling belonging through watching Lets Play videos is a great illustration of this.) It also occurs to me that fannish impulses around single “cult” films might align themselves around simultaneity in other ways: Rocky Horror fandom has become more about spatially and temporally specific experience than the film itself, and I often hear people referring to where and when they first saw a film (Star Wars, for example) the same way we refer to moments supposed to unite a national memory (like 9/11 or the lunar landing).
Anderson’s ideas are really important to literary studies of both fannish and non-fannish texts, though, because he allows us to reorient ourselves to the importance of the text itself. Rather than being a screen for the illusory nature of nationality, texts like the national anthem become all the more meaningful because (as open as it must remain) it is a channel through which multitudinous and seemingly contradictory nationalistic impulses must flow. Any text that people are able to imagine themselves and others around may be chosen for something specific to the text itself, but to the degree that people are also able to organize around an arbitrary text the specifics of that text must contribute to shaping that community (Anderson talks about regional dialects, but other aspects of power dynamics encoded in texts seem just as relevant).