The Origin of the Nation, Imagined Communities

22 09 2009

Today’s TrAIN seminar was with Michael Asbury discussing an essay by B. Anderson titled ‘The Origin of National Consciousness’ in Imagined Communities. Anderson’s essay written in 1983 is almost picking up on Renan’s definition of a nation. Where Renan was revisionist in his definition of nation (a counter-action to the growing popularity of eugenic thought in the 1880s according to Michael), Anderson uses a historiographical methodology to define the nation. Anderson also has the luxury of a century to reflect on Renan’s previous postulations. Influenced by Marxist theories that history is determined by production, Anderson focuses on the advancement of print technology to help him define the origins of a nation.

The essence of the text, as I read it, points to the creation of a print language (as an early mass media) as the catalyst to creating a national consciousness. He broke it down to three main factors.

  1. print created a unified and accessible line of communication among the masses that circumvented regional disconnects that normally happen between spoken dialects.
  2. print gave a permanence to the vernacular “low” language creating and empowering otherwise disconnected communities.
  3. print caused a societal shift by creating languages of power outside of the elite (often inaccessible) administrative Latin

I immediately saw parallels to the lines of communication created by the internet in the last few decades and how it has propelled English as the global vernacular. I’m sure there are many arguments for the proliferation of English around the globe but I find it’s connection to digital media fascinating. Anderson cites modern examples of the Thai government actively discouraging missionaries from providing minority hilltribe groups from with writing systems and publication methods for their own languages. With printed text there is power. Community. Identity. Or so goes Anderson’s argument. I find myself thinking of the militaristic stance the Chinese government has put to firewall the internet and search engines such as Google. I say this with a grain as this is all coming from the popular media that I received from Canada when I was there. I had the good fortune of travelling through China for over a month and found the internet cafe to be quite a ubiquitous institution. These cafes were not set up for foreign backpackers looking to for a cheap way to check their email and skype people back home. These internet cafes were filled with young Chinese mainly gaming and chatting online. Not so different from anything in the west really.  I didn’t however try to google anything contentious like “Tibet”. Maybe I would have felt the weight of big brother if I did… I’m running on another tangent…

To stay on track, Anderson went on to cite factors that caused print media to come to the forefront in the mid 17th century.  At the time the international language of Latin was shifting to a more obscure Ciceronian that was increasingly inaccessible to more and more people. Furthermore, the Reformation, with Martin Luther’s Protestant campaign facilitated by the spread of print immediately created a print-capitalist dynamic (a profit driven creation of books to meet high popular demands of the masses), also caused print media to gain prominence.

The seminar was very stimulating and I appreciated it’s divergence into contemporary art.  Michael showed us some work from a show he curated where artists

Angela Detanico and Rafael Lain created a series works that referenced history, nation and digital media in a very clever way.  The artists created a typeface called “Utopia” that looked more like the pictograms one would find from MS Webdings only they made it open source which spoke to issues inherent in profit based digital products. Furthermore the pictograms were of idealized Brazilian landscapes of Neo Maya (not sure of spelling… will have to google this at some point) the architect who helped build the brand of Brazil the nation from the top down. When used as a functioning typeface, landmarks of beauty are strewn with power lines and gates, the reality of todays urban landscape that Neo Maya may not have envisioned.  Furthermore as a display piece, the artists translated a section of Thomas Moore’s “Utopia” when Rafael describes the landscape of utopia to Moore. The result was a noisy mess of buildings, discordant power lines, and obtrusive gates.  I think they were trying to show a parallel distopia but to me this was in a way beautiful as well.

utopia font

utopia font

The Utopian typography project has a blog too! Read on if you’re interested.

I found this work particularly inspiring in that I appreciate the way “Utopia” has successfully combined several different themes: reality of urbanism/ historical idealism, digital media/ print media and national identity creation. It works on so many levels… it just came to me that another level could be the disconnect between the signifier and the signified. These images of distopic Brazilian landscapes communicate a certain message as long as the viewer understands the context of Neo Maya and his dream of a utopic Brazilian nation. However by making “Utopia” an open source font that coud theoretically be used by anyone in the world, these symbols lose this particular context. Typography, which is generally designed to facilitate communication could now be seen as vehicle for a lack of communication.

Hopefully I can make such elegant connections on my own work. Factors I want to address in my project are the urban landscape, the Philippine diaspora and ultimately finding a way to represent the fluidity of the two through digital media. Some sub-themes that are coming to mind are authenticity of the image (digital manipulation puts into question the validity of the photograph/video as truth) and memory/ loss of memory.(can I somehow represent the changes that happen to the landscape through diaspora in terms of what is lost or forgotten?).