An excerpt from Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities appears in the Oxford reader Nationalism (pp. 89-96). Therein, the collection revisits Anderson’s effort to link print-capitalism’s beginnings with the unconscious construction of national identity.
If we ourselves revisit this effort, it is precisely with an eye to the way in which identity is constructed through linguistic means, particularly in the form of a shared written language. Although this is not the central thrust of Anderson’s work, it remains instructive to examine another form that the identity-language coordination takes.
Anderson is careful to avoid an essentializing, transcendental approach to the complicated history from which modern nation-states, languages and identities emerged. In no way can that history be considered as a methodical, self-aware decision on the part of the language community concerned:
In every instance, the ‘choice’ of language appears as a gradual, unselfconscious, pragmatic, not to say haphazard development. As such, it was utterly different from the self-conscious language policies pursued by nineteenth-century dynasts confronted with the rise of hostile popular linguistic-nationalisms.
If contingency or arbitrariness mars these would-be mythologizing nationalist beginnings, this quality cuts both way. For arbitrary factors led to the adoption of different languages of usage by the people and by the state, a fact which often insulated these populations from one another in that their languages need not directly compete for power-relations. Anderson clarifies:
One clear sign of the difference is that the old administrative languages were just that: languages used by and for officialdoms for their own inner convenience. There was no idea of systematically imposing the language on the dynasts’ various subject populations.
These same unselfconscious, arbitrary factors play still a larger role not just within the nascent nations but without, at the level of human linguistic diversity. The latter proved an essential node in an emerging network of technologies and societal organizations.
What, in a positive sense, made the new communities imaginable was a half-fortuitous, but explosive, interaction between a system of production and productive relations (capitalism), a technology of communications (print), and the fatality of human linguistic diversity. The element of fatality is essential. For whatever superhuman feats capitalism was capable of, it found in death and languages two tenacious adversaries. Particular languages can die or be wiped out, but there was and is no possibility of man’s general linguistic unification. Yet this mutual incomprehensibility was historically of only slight importance until capitalism and print created monoglot mass reading publics.
Communities divided and imaginable on the basis of language became available to everyday thinkers in a way in which they had not during the aegis of Latin and hierarchized access to texts. Linguistic divides which had until that point remained benign came to acquire greater significance with the constitution of a vernacular corpus.
Yet Anderson’s notion of fatality requires further nuance insofar as he wishes to distance himself from certain mythologizing aspects of nationalist ideology:
While it is essential to keep in mind an idea of fatality, in the sense of a general condition of irremediable linguistic diversity, it would be a mistake to equate this fatality with that common element in nationalist ideologies which stresses the primordial fatality of particular languages and their association with particular territorial units.
Over and above this mythologizing element stands the role which concrete economic interests had in shaping a vernacular corpus and in lending that vernacular its particular form. For there was as of yet no great trend towards uniformisation and the creation of a recognizably national language for everyday speakers. Anderson communicates this idea as follows:
In pre-print Europe, and, of course, elsewhere in the world, the diversity of spoken languages, those languages that for their speakers were (and are) the warp and woof of their lives, was immense; so immense, indeed, that had print-capitalism sought to exploit each potential oral vernacular market, it would have remained a capitalism of petty proportions. But these varied idiolects were capable of being assembled, within definite limits, into print-languages far fewer in number. The very arbitrariness of any system of signs for sounds facilitated the assembling process.
If these print-languages were to provide a bridge to the national languages of the present today and the relevant national identities bound up therein, this process found its origins in the efforts of human agents within the different printing houses. How precisely did their efforts translate into the constitution of a linguistically derived national identity?