Overrated Book

Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities (1983).

I don't think Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities is overrated, I just think it's overcited and underapplied. I propose a rule for all graduate student dissertations in the new millennium. No one gets to refer to Imagined Communities unless they show in detail how its argument is relevant to the dissertation in question. Anderson has become the most commonly invoked authority of our historiographical era, a replacement in the game of ritual acknowledgment for the Foucault of the 1990s, the Geertz of the 1980s, and the Marx of the 1970s. But most of the bite of Anderson's actual analysis drops out when his argument is simplistically appropriated, as it is by many contributors to the current "memory" industry. If anything, they typically reverse his argument. Many writers use him to back up their claim that communities constitute themselves through memory, neglecting his own conviction that that material developments are as central as ideological ones to the growth of nationalism. And when he does talk about memory, he challenges any account of it that overlooks the concurrent phenomenon of forgetting. Anderson's brilliant essay in trans-national history deserves more respect than it is getting from its uncritically idealistic worshippers.