Benedict Anderson Kicks Off Social Theory Group


The work of Benedict Anderson has long been a staple of history and anthropology classes. His 1983 book, Imagined Communities, capped academic debates about nationalism that had been raging for decades. Circumventing the Marxist rhetoric that had become orthodox in academia by that time, it dared to discuss nationalism in literary terms, such as “narrative” and “imagination”. It was not surprising, then, that an interdisciplinary pioneer like Anderson was asked to kick off the law school’s new Social Theory Working Group on October 15th. Though it was not immediately clear to Anderson that his work might contribute to legal scholarship, several of his recent theories appeared widely applicable.

The name of the Social Theory Working Group evokes such intellectual forbears as the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, New York’s New School for Social Research, and the granddaddy of them all, the University of Frankfurt’s Institute for Social Research, best known for its connection with the Frankfurt School of philosophers and theorists. Part literary and part truly social scientific, such centers have characteristically excelled at producing ideas that might have fallen through the cracks elsewhere.

In this vein, the Social Theory Working Group, supported by the Program on Law and Social Thought, the European Law Research Center, and funds provided by Dean Kagan, exists alongside a number of unconventional interdisciplinary programs overseen by Professor Janet Halley, including last year’s Book Trouble seminars and the Law and the Arts Initiative.

For much of Anderson’s talk on “Books and Censuses: The Market and the State in the Evolution of Nationalism,” however, the innovative, interdisciplinary veneer wore thin. Anderson spent considerable time discussing the nuances of his magnum opus’ creation, now nearly a quarter-century past. The listener was treated to an overview of debates among British Marxist intellectuals in the 1970s, a discussion of Anderson’s pioneering research into extra-European nationalism, and a detailed exegesis of the influence on Anderson of the German literary critics Walter Benjamin and Erich Auerbach.

Only when Anderson began to address some long-gestating criticisms of his work did one begin to discern a context for the discussion of how law might shape the nation as an “imagined community”. Indeed, much of his career over the last two decades has been spent simply refining Imagined Communities. When he wrote the book, Anderson claimed, he was “young enough to think I could make a theoretical breakthrough…but realized I didn’t know enough”. His self-critiques paled in comparison to those offered by others. “It is helpful,” Anderson said, “that [most authors] actually die before they find out what is said about them”.

Anderson’s initial work had emphasized the market, particularly the market for books, as a vehicle for the dissemination of ideology. Responding to critics who claimed he failed to note the state’s significant role in the creation of ideas about the nation, he endeavored, in a 1991 postscript to Imagined Communities, to show how tools at the disposal of governments, including censuses, maps, and state museums, could come to define ideas of national identity. The national idea, Anderson thus suggested, might develop from policies cemented under the aegis of law.

Anderson’s address concluded with some new ideas that take the nexus between law and nationalism even further. He noted, for one, that minority rights were often granted within the context of legal language emphasizing nationality. The Supreme Court, he observed, would deliberately assert the rights of American gays, for example, rather than gays in general.

He claimed, moreover, that despite the notion that citizenship is “asexual” (citizens call each other “brother and sister” and nothing more), dual citizenship stems from the tension between women’s independent rights to citizenship and the claims exerted upon such women when they marry citizens of other states. He noted that it took until the feminist 1970s for the Supreme Court to rule that Americans who fought for Israel in 1948-9 could retain dual citizenship.

There was potential for Anderson to come across novel critiques at Harvard Law School as well. Social Theory Working Group events are meant to involve students in “engagements” with such theorists. Before each session, a selection of each author’s texts are assigned to aid in these discussions. Despite Anderson’s fruitful observations, however, he faced few truly novel or incisive questions in the time that followed. This was unfortunate. The more the world draws out what Benedict Anderson does not know, it seems, the more likely it is to gain from another of his novel insights.