The beginnings of imagined communities

What were the characteristics of the first American newspapers, North or South? They began essentially as appendages of the market. Early gazettes contained — aside from news about the metropole — commercial news (when ships would arrive and  depart, what prices were current for what commodities in what ports), as well as colonial political appointments, marriages of the wealthy, and so forth. In other words, what brought together, on the same page, this marriage with that ship, this price with that bishop, was the very structure of the colonial administration and market-system itself. In this way, the newspaper of Caracas quite naturally, and even apolitically, created an imagined community among a specific assemblage of fellowreaders, to whom these ships, brides, bishops and prices belonged. In time, of course, it was only to be expected that political elements would enter in.

One fertile trait of such newspapers was always their provinciality. A colonial Creole might read a Madrid newspaper if he got the chance (but it would say nothing about his world), but many a peninsular official, living down the same street, would, if he could help it, not read the Caracas production. An asymmetry infinitely replicable in other colonial situations. Another such trait was plurality. The Spanish-American journals that developed towards the end of the eighteenth century were written in full awareness of provincials in worlds parallel to their own. The newspaper-readers of Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and Bogota, even if they did not read each other’s newspapers, were nonetheless quite conscious of their existence. Hence a well-known doubleness in early Spanish-American nationalism, its alternating grand stretch and particularistic localism. The fact that early Mexican nationalists wrote of themselves as nosotros los Americanos and of their country as nuestra America, has been interpreted as revealing the vanity of the local Creoles who, because Mexico was far the most valuable of Spain’s American possessions, saw themselves as the centre of the New World. But, in fact, people all over Spanish America thought of themselves as ‘Americans,’ since this term denoted precisely the shared fatality of extra-Spanish birth.

At the same time, we have seen that the very conception of the newspaper implies the refraction of even ‘world events’ into a specific imagined world of vernacular readers; and also how  important to that imagined community is an idea of steady, solid simultaneity through time. Such a simultaneity the immense stretch of the Spanish American Empire, and the isolation of its component parts, made difficult to imagine. Mexican Creoles might learn months later of developments in Buenos Aires, but it would be through Mexican newspapers, not those of the Rio de la Plata; and the events would appear as ‘similar to’ rather than ‘part of’ events in Mexico.

In this sense, the ‘failure’ of the Spanish-American experience to generate a permanent Spanish-America-wide nationalism reflects both the general level of development of capitalism and technology in the late eighteenth century and the ‘local’ backwardness of Spanish capitalism and technology in relation to the administrative stretch of the empire. (The world-historical era in which each nationalism is born probably has a significant impact on its scope. Is Indian nationalism not inseparable from colonial administrative-market unification, after the Mutiny, by the most formidable and advanced of the imperial powers?)

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities.

Also, the thesis:

What I am proposing is that neither economic interest, Liberalism, nor Enlightenment could, or did, create in themselves the kind, or shape, of imagined community to be defended from these regimes’ depredations; to put it another way, none provided the framework of a new consciousness — the scarcely-seen
periphery of its vision – as opposed to centre-field objects of its admiration or disgust. In accomplishing this specific task, pilgrim Creole functionaries and provincial Creole printmen played the decisive historic role.

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One response to “The beginnings of imagined communities

  1. Pingback: The beginnings of imagined communities | Reaction Times

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