Another Question Raised by Benedict Anderson: What Makes an Idea Exciting for You?

What makes Benedict Anderson a scholar of such surpassing stature is that he transcends the challenges to his ideas. His ideas are so much a part of the mental furniture of the age—like “banality of evil,” “imagined communities” is now part of a larger lingua franca—that they lie beyond right and wrong. Confronted with his work, we move into a different sphere of engagement with him. Where the question is less whether his ideas are correct than whether and how they grab you. For many people, it’s clear that Anderson’s ideas have and continue to have a hold on them. I’ve never felt that way. On a Facebook thread related to my earlier post, I commented that it was the work of Benedict Anderson’s brother Perry Anderson that had a gravitational pull on me. The question for me that’s raised by someone like Benedict Anderson is: Why does an idea stick to you, why does it grab you? When I read Imagined Communities, I thought: I get it, makes sense, I see its innovations in context. But that was about it for me; the insight felt somehow small. It didn’t and doesn’t excite me in the same way as other ideas do. I realize how odd this is: entire generations of scholars have had the opposite reaction. Obviously some part—perhaps a good part—of this is personal and biographical. There are a lot of people who read my endless series of posts on Hannah Arendt and think, God, what is he on about? (I know, they’ve told me.) But when you’re dealing with such a mass phenomenon as Imagined Communities, the question of its devotees and—well, not exactly its detractors; more like its non-enthusiasts, and not because we think it’s wrong, but because it doesn’t move us—ceases to be merely biographical or personal. It raises fascinating issues (to me, at least) of how ideas seize people’s minds, capture their attention, and never let go. Or don’t. And, again, not because of their rightness or wrongness, but because of…what?


  1. J. Otto Pohl December 13, 2015 at 12:22 pm | #

    I think it is because the ideas in Imagined Communities while simple are quite important in how modern nationalism is constructed that his short and easy to read (most academics are not) book became so important. I would say the same about Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism and the idea of the Nazis importing colonial technologies back into Europe. If you are going to assign a book on the theory of nationalism that college students including grad students can understand and find interesting Anderson is going going to be high on the list.

  2. Kevin Gannon December 13, 2015 at 12:41 pm | #

    For me, I was struggling with how to conceptualize “nationalism” in a way that made sense with the research I was doing on disunion movements and secessionism. What Imagined Communities did for me was to provide a language to articulate what I felt was the deeply contingent and conditional nature of nationalism, its ability to be plural instead of singular–and much of the theory I’d read didn’t capture that as brilliantly as Anderson. If nationalism is an imagined community, anyone who “imagined” could articulate a nationalist vision. So instead of nationalism, it was nationalisms at play. And that helped me frame the dynamism and conflict I was finding in early US “nationalism(s)” in a way that resonated with the evidence I was working with and the sense that I had of the problem.

  3. Ruben Flores December 13, 2015 at 3:44 pm | #

    Through my graduate training I found Angel Rama’s The Lettered City and Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems so important on the relationship between communication and the nation/empire that I was never particularly moved one way or the other by Imagined Communities. This is not to say that IC is not an important installment in our thinking or to ridicule in any way those who find Anderson important or canonical. By contrast, Arendt and Adorno seem uberoriginal, especially their meditations on the failures of the public.

  4. cynicalatheist December 13, 2015 at 4:14 pm | #

    When a thinker is bedeviled by the same questions as the student, that seems to create excitement. Nietzsche and La Rochefoucauld asked what individuality means and what the self is, and I found that fascinating even when their conclusions seemed spurious. Descartes asked how a person could prove they really existed – I had never shared this obsession so found it hard to care about his arguments.

  5. BrianS. December 13, 2015 at 5:24 pm | #

    “….they lie beyond right and wrong. Confronted with [Anderson’s] work, we move into a different sphere of engagement with him. Where the question is less whether his ideas are correct than whether and how they grab you.”

    “Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.”
    B. Anderson, Imagined Communities, introduction.

  6. Roqeuntin December 13, 2015 at 7:30 pm | #

    I have almost no exposure to Benedict Anderson, but as regards the question what makes an idea exciting for you, it’s something really difficult to pin down. I’d use a musical metaphor, in that there is a whole social context to a person that makes certain texts and ideas harmoniously resonate with him or her. It has nothing to do with the truth or reality of them, people spend much of their lives viewing and reading fictitious works after all, but a kind of resonance with the circumstances of the person and the time. When we are talking about why ideas are appealing in the grand sense, something like Hegel’s Zeitgeist or Weltgeist is appropriate. I don’t have time to find it, but there’s a portion of The Introduction to the Philosophy of History where he describes why certain people become historical figures and how it is a function of the Weltgeist merging with their own or something along those lines.

    Just because something is true or accurate does not make it appealing. There are accurate observations we spend our entire lives ignoring and avoiding because they, conversely, do not resonate. They are either too unpleasant to contemplate and repressed/avoided or pose conflicts and threats to our understanding of the world (contradictions in the Hegelian sense) which we are not prepared to grapple with.

  7. Joel in Oakland December 14, 2015 at 10:50 am | #

    My guess is that a significant part of the appeal (or lack thereof) comes from one’s Pattern Recognition system, which is dominated by neural networks controlled by the brain’s so-called Right hemisphere which operate un- or semi-consciously, hence the term intuition, as contrasted with more analytical cognition. (Daniel Kahnemen calls them Fast and Slow Thinking in order to avoid the baggage that comes with terms like “right brain” and ‘unconscious” and to underscore that both hemispheres are involved in both processes).

    Emotion is also strongly controlled by the same Fast Thinking/Right Hemisphere systems also involved in threat vs. reward responses – anxiety/irritation vs. satisfaction/exhilaration.

    The “analytical” neural networks play a major role in getting one to the point of “Yes, that makes sense.” The reward/threat networks dominate the emotional charge of the response “Wow! That really makes sense!”

    On a more concrete level, I’m sure you have a highly tuned pattern recognition networks (i.e. values) for tone/voice (despite – or because of – conventional constraints of academic writing), for how theses are laid out, for how the sentences flow, and probably about whose work is being invoked and built upon. And then there’s the (perhaps even more important) matter of what bases are *not* being touched. That’s a start, anyway.

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