Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Six Degrees of Separation

Essentially, in his book "Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism", Benedict Anderson is showing us a shift away from the sense of community found in small towns and cities where lives where interconnected and focused around religion, to a new sense of community based on the fact that we feel connected with other people in similar situations as us. He says “Beneath the decline of sacred communities, languages and lineages, a fundamental change was taking place in modes of apprehending the world, which, more than anything else, made it possible to “think” the nation.” Here Anderson shows the shift from a focus on divine influence and the close knit communities formed around it to a more philosophical approach which allowed a sense of nationalism to come out in the minds of the people.

Anderson goes on to talk about the fact that prior to the rise of novels and newspapers, the “common” people were not truly able to think for themselves and really grasp the concept of life. Formerly, the “latin-reading clerisy” or intellectual elite were the only ones who could read. These clerisy therefore defined reality for the illiterate people who trusted in their interpretation. This continued through parish priests who were, in essence, the ones who communicated to God on behalf of their congregation. What the priest received from God was what the parishioners must accept as truth. This kept the communities close together because they depended on that face-to-face connection with the priest in order to define their concept of truth and their understanding of reality.

The impact of the novel’s imagined world was that the reader suddenly had the opportunity to “play God” as it were as they read. The reader of the novel is able to sit back and read a story from the perspective of multiple people and see what is going on in each of their minds, even though none of those characters are aware of each other’s thoughts. This new representation of thought and imagination opened up the idea that even though people do not personally know everyone else living in their community or even country, they are all interconnected by their personal ties, and their lives are all interwoven. In this way, the eye’s of society were opened through the novel not only to the consequences of each person’s life affecting another, but also of a new sense of nationalism, that each person in the country truly was connected, even though they may never meet face to face.

Anderson next described the increase of this affect through newspapers in the modern era. Newspapers created a larger imagined world as people began to see the world and realize that just because something disappears from the headlines does not mean that it has ceased to exist. For example, we know that when the newspapers stop reporting about Haiti, that does not mean that Haiti has recovered from poverty. It still exists, even though we do not personally interact with it.

My understanding of nationalism through imagined community in the chapter came when he described the daily “consumption” of newspapers. You read the newspaper once in the morning and you have consumed it, knowing that tomorrow you will consume another one. But you also know that every morning as you read the newspaper, millions of other people are reading the same thing at the same time, even though you are not reading it in the same room as each other, nor do you even know who they are. This creates a sense of community through common action, although separated in distance. This community is not a community in the same way that a church was a community to those in the middle ages. Instead it is a community imagined by us as we relate to others in the world who are similar to us.

His explanation of juxtaposition throughout the chapter reminded me of what we call “6 degrees of separation”, where we claim that every person in the world is separated from everyone else by no more than six degrees. For instance, if you know me, and I know a cousin of mine in Holland, and my cousin goes to school with a student from Britain, and the student in Britain has met Prince William, then you are only four degrees separated from Prince William. We may not be aware of his actions every day, but he wakes up every morning just as you wake up. Even though you do not talk to him every day, he still exists and can be part of your community.

Anderson summed up his explanations for the rise of the imagined community by describing the following three occurrences which led to it:

  • When people lost the idea that truth was only accessible to a certain group of people. For example the fact that only pastors could contact God or only clerisy could interpret philosophy. Novels and newspapers gave everyone the ability to interpret the world around them, to see the progression of time.
  • When people moved away from believing that society revolved around the social elite, such as royalty and those born to be socially affluent. We see this shift in what we have studied this semester when people began to be less concerned with the outward appearance and more concerned with the inward state. Social mobility became a new possibility.
  • When people were no longer bound by the concept of temporality and saw the past, present, and future laid out as a continuous stream, with cause and effect.

How does this affect Mansfield Park, Jane Austen, and the novel? When the novel appeared and allowed people to see the individual, to see themselves through literature, an extended world was opened to them. It brought a new way of seeing the world as connected. For instance, when Sir Thomas goes to Antigua to perform business, the reader sees now how the lives of those in Antigua directly affect the lives of those in Mansfield Park, even though the two communities may never mix and the individuals at Mansfield Park may not be overtly aware of the actions in Antigua. Although residents of the estate which John Yates leaves before arriving at Mansfield Park may never meet the Bertram's, their attempted performance of a play incites the Betrams' interest in theatre, creating a larger community.

Ultimate, community was no longer defined by land and property connected, nor by the direct interaction of individuals centered around a common action. Instead, individuals were now given the opportunity to imagine a larger community by defining their associations through common thought. Individuals began to identify with others not based on a common interaction, but based on new ties.


Moving On said...

Abby, you really wrote a wonderful analysis, but I wanted to make a point or rather express what I understood from this article. I feel like there is a little bit of contradiction in what you're saying, or possibly I'm not understanding it the right way.

You made a point about how Anderson breaks down the article into the the three points and I thought something that was really great that you said was that when people stop living in such an outwardly public state, where they are constantly concerned about what is around them, they can begin to look inside of themselves more. I think that this is a really great point, but I did not take this from the article.

I feel like in the article Anderson was kind of saying just the opposite. I thought he was trying to say that with the possibility of national knowledge of the same literature, it connected people, made them more aware of what was happening outside of themselves, and in a way I would think that would mean people having more concern about the "social elite". Maybe I'm completely off, but what do you think?

Abby Elisabeth said...

Thanks! Yeah, I see what you are saying. The three points I got came from him on the last page of the selection. He numbered them and then explained them.

I think you are definitely right that in the article he is trying to say that this "imagined" community made us more aware of everyone around us, including the elite. What I think he was referring to in his second point, and I probably did not explain well, is the fact that literature made knowledge common and truth opened up to everyone was not limited to those "born into society". He gave the examples of pastors and scholars who essentially held higher positions because they were supposedly divinely granted with exclusive access to those positions. With novels and circulating literature, suddenly everyone had this ability, and you didn't have to be born into a "scholarly elite" family. While it might have made people more aware of what the "socially elite" were doing, it also connected them. I read a book called "The Rise of Silas Lapham" last semester where a lower class family was able to connect in conversation in high class society based on whether or not they had read the latest novels. It provided a base of contact that removed some of the class separation.

With modern media though, I think you are definitely right. We can log on to the internet and see how all the celebrities are dressing and it makes us very aware of our own fashion, etc. But at the same time, we have the same opportunity that they did, and we have the same access to resources. If we really wanted to be an actress, we could. We aren't born into poverty and stuck there because of rigid social class.

Does that make sense?