Blogging as an Imagined Community

In early 2006, I completed a class on American Intellectual History, where the first book I read was Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. The course – an independent study course where I worked directly with a mentor to define its content and purpose – was intended to give me a beginning understanding of some of the theory of intellectual history and the different ways it can be approached. Anderson’s book describes the emergence of the idea of a nation as a imagined construct, and his book covers an incredible amount of intellectual territory.

As I was reading the book, I made several notes at the time about blogging as an imagined community, and have since discovered that at least a few others have considered that idea also. One notable essay along these lines is Imagining the Blogosphere: An Introduction to the Imagined Community of Instant Publishing by Graham Lampa – which does a fine job of describing blogging in terms of Anderson’s thesis.

There were a few finer points in Anderson’s book, however, that I found compelling to consider with respect to blogging, and potentially worth exploring from the perspective of intellectual history. Anderson anchors much of his thesis around the impact of the emergence of print publishing, and the spread of newly published material to masses of people as a result of the logic of market capitalism. Anderson goes on to relate this to changes in concepts of time, specifically describing how the conceptual experience of time changed to one where we grasp the idea that there is a distinct past and present, and more importantly that there are people engaging in actions, and events taking place, outside our (approximately) immediate perceptual awareness. Anderson states, as an example:

An American will never meet, or even know the names of [most] of his fellow Americans. He has no idea what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity. – pg. 26

Anderson goes on to explain this by describing the experience of reading a newspaper, in which all the news stories are connected first by coincidence of time, and second by their immediate obsolescence:

The obsolescence of the newspaper on the morrow of its printing … creates this extraordinary mass ceremony: the almost precisely simultaneous consumption (“imagining”) of the newspaper-as-fiction. We know that particular morning and evening editions will overwhelmingly be consumed between this hour and that, only on this day, not that…. The significance of this mass ceremony … is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion. Furthermore, this ceremony is incessantly repeated at daily or half-daily intervals throughout the calendar. What more vivid figure for the secular, historically clocked, imagined community can be envisioned? At the same time, the newspaper reader, observing exact replicas of his own paper being consumed by his subway, barbershop, or residential neighbors, is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life. – pg. 35

If you find these ideas difficult – as I did at first – try to imagine not having an awareness of simultaneous activity. That is, try to imagine how differently you would look at the world, if you didn’t have an awareness of a distinct past and present, and of human beings engaged in simultaneous activity. While you won’t really achieve that state of mind, you might begin to grasp what sort of intellectual revolution occurred in human thought for the shift toward this awareness to take hold.

As Anderson also describes, this intellectual revolution occurred within a historical context where existing social and political power structures began to crumble. Blogging is often described as democratizing, in the sense that it moves some control over information from traditional institutions to anybody who has enough interest, and takes enough time, to post their thoughts on a web site. While there are certainly questions to be raised about the efficacy or value of the information on a typical blog site, the fact that blogs even exist – and that they are written and managed by individuals usually working on their own – has implications for human intellectual development that, I think, have yet to be considered. Their potential influence is dramatic; the potential of that influence to effect political, cultural, and social change is also dramatic. And if Anderson’s thesis is true, or even mostly true, then they even have the potential – at least partly because of their immediacy and the speed with which information now travels – to permanently alter some elements of the way human beings think.

In the Middle of Things

I’ve been puzzling for about a week now about what first entry I would write for this blog. I acquired the domain name afewgoodpens.com well over a year ago, just after finishing an introductory web design class I took through Empire State College – and feeling all giddy about the possibility of designing and maintaining my own site. The giddiness faded after a while, when I realized there was no way I’d be able to create and keep up with a full-fledged site. I kept the domain name anyway (because I liked it and it meant something to me), cranked up this WordPress site, and just recently got around to playing with it some. I still have a lot of work still to do to customize these pages the way I want (the banner pic’s pretty nice, eh?), but more on that in another post.

What cranked me up to write this entry tonight was this e-mail message I received from the Humanities and Social Sciences Network’s Intellectual History list (http://www.h-net.org/~ideas/). I subscribe to about a dozen H-net lists, but read only occasionally and seldom respond – simply because work and my classes leave me very little time to write the kind of thoughtful responses with attentive follow-up that lists of that caliber deserve.

Nevertheless, this message from Tim Lacy decrying the decline of intellectual history as a distinct and independent discipline got my attention, and I’ve read it several times. He has published the full text of the e-mail on his blog, here:

U.S. Intellectual History: A Call To Action

And he has a related post here:

Follow-Up On The “Call To Action”

As brief background, let me just say that I returned to school about five years ago, as an adult student who already had a full-time career, to pursue a bachelor’s degree in historical studies. I have nine classes to go – including one called Science and Technology in Western Culture that starts in two days – at which point I intend to continue in a master’s program. Over the past year, my classes have started becoming more advanced; my last three were intellectual history classes: one on American intellectual history, one on American modernism, and one on historiography. I read about twenty books for the three classes, and the classes exposed me for the first time in my life to Benedict Anderson, David Noble, George Mosse, Matthew Frye Jacobsen, and Jackson Lears. Along with the historiography class, reading these amazing writers has given me at least some beginning grasp of the intellectual issues historians face when trying to make sense of the interactions between history, society, culture, politics, economics, and philosophy. The ability of these writers to cross disciplines and integrate them into a coherent narrative kept me up late many nights, wide-eyed no matter how tired I was, marveling at their skills.

It is in that sense that Tim’s posts caught my eye. I wondered – especially while taking the historiography class – what was the current state of intellectual history. Taking a look at that was way beyond the scope of an undergraduate class, so I didn’t really pursue it – other than to “back-pocket” my thoughts for another time. The narrative that the classes provided me with, however, suggested that intellectual history was probably in something of a deconstruction period – where it was breaking down to a lower level of detail, disintegrating somewhat, presumably (at least in the theories buzzing around in my head) to be reformed and reintegrated in a higher, more abstract form over the next generation or so.

Tim’s posts seem to confirm the deconstruction phase; though, of course, that’s only one source. And without further study it’s impossible to determine if that deconstruction is temporary (as I optimistically want to believe it is), or a more general reflection of American anti-intellectualism that Tim concerns himself with in the linked posts and several other posts on his blog. Intellectual trends take place and change over such long periods of time, it may not be possible to even get a good fix on the current state. We’re right in the middle of it; yet being right in the middle of things – and feeling a certain discontent over what we see around us – is often what we need to spur us into action.