I like Auroras and Sad Prose and History
Updated: Jul 29, 2021
Pre-Post Disclaimer: This post treks deep into nerd terrain. But also has Taylor Swift.
Oh good you're still here! I've been thinking lately about a book I read in grad school. It's called Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson. I still have the book. Not that you asked, but here is my proof of purchase :
<This is the cover.
Here is Taylor Swift. So talented and tall!
Tay wrote a song called The Lakes, which my teenager got me into. I bought her this sweatshirt:
The Lakes is about a writer or songwriter who longs to escape the cynical demands of the modern world and take refuge in nature and poetry and music and love. She doesn't need my help but you can watch the video here.
Exactly how is Taylor Swift related to Benedict Anderson? One: They're both ballers at their game. Two: History is my sad prose. I like reading it. I read it just to read it. I often do this, for no material or professional or practical reason, only nerd reasons. To wit! I started this blog talking about a historical novel that I spent a year writing and have not sold (on this, read my inaugural post). But to quote TS: "I've come too far to watch some namedropping sleaze tell me what are my words worth." (I'm not suggesting anyone is a sleaze, that's between you and your maker). My only point is, I'll read and write about history while wisteria grows over my bare feet because I've always loved history and especially American history and especially Black history. It's the stuff of love and legend.
I was thinking about Imagined Communities since my first post about the publishing world, and its current changing role in American history and politics. As Benedict Anderson explains in that spritely little book, all modern nations are "imagined" communities because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. So you -- American or a Brit or a Brazilian etc -- feel connected to people who also identify that way, simply because they were also born into the same sovereign state and/or onto the same land mass.
This blew my mind when I first read it. Most of us, I think, see nationalism, patriotism, our national identity, as something REAL and FIXED. But these things are constructed and quite HISTORICAL. Nations were invented and imagined from specific cultural and historical factors of the 18th century. There is an interesting parallel here to race and racism, as well as to biological sex and gender identity, but that's for another post....
So how did this happen? How did the nation-state come to be, and survive, as an entity, after empires fell and languages multiplied? Quick and focused exegesis: Nations and nationalism appeared in the 1700's because of two new institutions. The novel. And the newspaper. BA says before novels were printed and circulated widely, and told stories about characters who lived in the same sovereign space and timeline who did not know each other, regular people -- let's call them "readers" -- didn't ponder other faraway land mass dwellers. People had no idea what their fellow land mass dwellers were up to at any given time, and didn't really care. That's probably a good thing, because otherwise every day would be like a Cloud Atlas fever dream. And yet -- as BA writes -- it was good for nations that this changed because now, when we think of other compatriots, we have "complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity." Long before visual media, stories about ourselves helped us feel warm and fuzzy for one another.
The impact of newspapers is similar, and easier to understand. BA argues (in annoyingly Marxist language, the scourge of academia imho) that while books were the first "mass-produced industrial commodity," the newspaper was "an 'extreme form' of the book, a book sold on colossal scale[.]" Reading the national news was like a "mass ceremony," BA says, "performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull." Each day, each newspaper reader "is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life."
Why is this important? Is it important, for other than nerd reasons? Leave a comment.
I think it is. As people often say, our nation is deeply divided. Nowadays, we increasingly consume different media, read different versions of the truth, read different stories and newspapers and even internets. This is a good thing, from the perspective of freedom and culture and democracy. But the right wing assault on facts and free press and news and science has also contributed to a dissolution of national feeling. And they know it. And they are doing it on purpose. If we no longer share ANY of the same stories and facts, but rather subscribe to entirely different stories and facts -- about our shared past and our national values and the role of racism in founding this country, for example --- we are increasingly a house divided, and resentful. Trumpism entirely benefited from that splintering, and Trumpism made it worse.
I was feeling this recently in an up close and personal way, because I just audio-booked the latest James Patterson/Bill Clinton joint and I was like, LFG America!! I was also like, why can two old white men write characters of color and teen girls? But never mind that. This post is about Taylor Swift and the fate of America. Listen, writing books and articles that represent both our glorious history and our shameful history is not, as the right-wing Quacks would have it, unpatriotic or unAmerican. It's the essence of patriotism. It's the basis of nationhood! But only if we all participate in the reading process. And don't cancel entire fields of study because they are inconvenient to our version of patriotism.
Invasive Vines (the novel I wrote) is the imagining of a community. It's set in 1906 North Carolina. It's a story about our fellow Americans, patriots of bygone days and generations, who worked hard to give us this future. I'm proud to be American because of them.
A red rose grew up out of ice frozen ground, with no one around to tweet it.
(Blogging it, tho, that's different).