Published on November 25th, 2013 |
by Mark Bou Mansour
From Benedict Anderson to Marshall McLuhan: Nationalism and How Memes Could Prevent World War 3
Ninety-five years ago this month, the armed hostilities of World War I came to an end with the signing of the Armistice of Compiègne between the Allies and Germany. World War I exposed to the world the horrors of industrialized war and the conclusions of hyper-nationalism, a fate which would repeat itself with a greater fury fueled by ideological warfare in 20 years’ time. Can we, today in the age of the internet, envision such a global war happening again?
Destroying itself twice in the 20thcentury, the possibility of Europe at total war with itself in the 21st century seems unlikely to most people –Infinity Ward excluded. There are many reasons that can be listed; the structure of the EU, the memory of the world wars, the interconnectivity of the world market, the trend of military size reductions among developed states, the shift in the nature of warfare, the still present possibility of mutually assured destruction via nuclear war. Another factor we’re going to consider listing in this week’s blog is the possible challenging of nationalism.
Last week we looked at the influence of the internet and digital devices on the relationship between citizens and their government through the ideas of Michael Foucault. What we didn’t look at, however, is how the internet expands beyond borders and so expands interaction and exchange beyond state boundaries. Is the internet’s reach beyond borders bringing about new communities that stretch beyond the nation?
The debate on the relevance and efficacy of nationalism today is far from being settled. The recognition, however, that economic and political ties have expanded beyond state boundaries is undeniable, as is the recognition of social and cultural identities expanding beyond direct geographical and ethno-centric boundaries. As tends to happen in academia, there’s a wild orgy of terms to describe these processes: globalization, regionalization, transnationalism, internationalism, supranationalism, post-nationalism. We’re going to approach this topic by starting way back, with the internet’s ancestor –the printing press.
Social theorist and post-colonial pop sensation Benedict Anderson has put forth a great theory addressing the origin of nations in his widely-praised book Imagined Communities. Anderson argues that nations are not communities in the traditional sense because “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (Anderson, 224). As such, the community and the affinity of its members that is perceived by the individual is an imagined community and affinity, or a socially constructed one.
Nations, moreover, are different from religious communities which can also be understood as socially constructed communities. The critical difference between these two is in the structure of the relationships between the community members. Nations, Anderson specifies, are sovereign. Formulating during a period in history where the belief that the only source of authority originated from external divinity was being challenged by ideas that held the human being to be a source of authority based on inherent nature and self-evident rights, the sovereignty of the nation is perceived as inherent in and of itself. This not only establishes the legitimacy of a nation in face of other nations, but also, importantly, establishes the nation internally as a horizontal community where, despite socio-economic inequalities, all members are united by a deep horizontal comradeship. A child may be born unequal in wealth and status in comparison to other members of her nation, but she is born equally British. This relationship based on horizontality is what strongly distinguishes the nation from preceding types of communities; the shift from a religious community to a nation marks the shift from subjects to citizens. Now that we have our definition of a nation, we can ask: how did the nation come to be imagined?
Anderson’s answer is print capitalism. 150 years after the invention of the Gutenberg press, and around 425 years before 50 Shades of Grey, the markets for books, which were restricted to Latin, had become saturated. To keep business running, new, much larger, markets were sought –those of the vernacular. This process was supported, and to an extent preceded, by religious reformations, specifically Protestantism, which reproduced religious texts in the language of the locals. Print capitalism, however, due to the massive scale of its production, made it possible for speakers of a same language, who could not converse before because of the differences in their dialects, to communicate with each other via print. Because books could last for generations, print capitalism also slowed the rate at which languages changed, making it so that the language used decades ago was very similar to that used in the present. In effect, print capitalism in the 16th and 17th century consolidated the speakers of a language by overcoming the differences in their dialects and by creating a sense of continuity over time. This created what Anderson refers to as ‘language-fields’, or geographic areas in which inhabitants could communicate and identify with individuals who lived far away or who they would never even meet. Here we see how membership to an imagined community is formed, and how print media can determine the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’. But how did print capitalism cast membership as horizontal? Let’s get meta-physical.
Anderson argues that the imagining of the nation could not happen without a fundamentally new perception of time. Whereas members of a religious community perceived time as related to divine providence, where the past, present and future were all connected to a deity and so were all merged into one, individuals of the 18th century came to perceive time as ‘homogenous, empty time’, a notion Anderson borrows from German philosopher Walter Benjamin. Homogenous, empty time is time as we perceive it today; time of empty, linear, calendrical days which we all simultaneously act in and occupy; time in which the past, present, and future are laid out flat horizontally in a line and distinguished from one another. The perception of homogenous, linear time, Anderson theorizes, was induced, although not exclusively, by two important inventions brought forth by print capitalism in the 18th century; the novel and the newspaper.
The novel presented narratives to readers in a new way which emphasized simultaneity. Novels now told stories of fictitious members of real societies simultaneously carrying out their own sequence of events -character A walked to the market, B talked to C in a dining room, and D arrived at port, all unaware of each other’s existence yet tuned to the same clocked, calendrical time conjured up in the mind of the reader. The flow of the world constructed in 18th century novels mirrored the world imagined and experienced by the individual of the 18th century. Newspapers, on the other hand, were not only a catalogue of local and global events happening simultaneously in calendrical days. They were in themselves a social practice unique to homogenous, empty time.
Every morning in silent ceremony, Anderson explains, each individual reading the latest print would sense, or imagine, herself in communion with her fellow citizens as they all read the latest news about their community, identifying with individuals she would never meet or know. The relationship experienced here between individuals was temporally horizontal; all members of a nation occupied the same temporal plane. Whereas members of a religious community where related through their relationship to the same deity, they were related as subjects to a higher holy being above, members of a nation where related through their simultaneous movement through linear empty time. Hence why the shift from religious community to nation is a shift from vertical relationships to horizontal relationships. Importantly, because time was perceived as linear, it became possible for ideas of progress and notions of forward movement through history to develop. Thus, the mission of a nation to progress and move forward became a new purpose uniting members of a nation not just with one another but with their national ancestors and descendants. In effect, print capitalism induced the forming of nations by consolidating locals of a geography with a common antiquated language and with a simultaneous experience of moving forward through homogenous, linear time.
Does the internet function in the same ways mass print did to create global imagined communities? Meme culture can seem to indicate so. The internet has created a new language of memes which not only takes procrastination to a whole new level but also overcomes differences in spoken and written languages. Memes and rage comics can be found in several languages, effectively communicating stories about real life experiences. Not only do memes and rage comics allow individuals from across the globe to communicate with each other, it presents the story communicated as a universal experience, further strengthening identification among individuals from different nations. Like novels, they communicate stories about real individuals in real societies simultaneously living out their lives. Amplifying the effects of reading a newspaper, the act of communicating through memes itself is immediately simultaneous, allowing you to see the post rise and drop in popularity, as well as view and engage in live conversations about the post. It’s no surprise that many user-generated content websites, like reddit and Tickld, have dynamic self-conscious communities. But is it so simple? Do new media technologies just carry on the developments of print media? Or are new currents underway today?
Marshal McLuhan argues the latter. McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher, media guru and intellectual celebrity who you can’t help have a love-hate relationship with. McLuhan is known for coining the phrase “the medium is the message”, popularizing the notion of “the global village”, and for pretty much revolutionizing the way we look at media’s role in shaping human societies. He’s also known for his “eccentric” writing style which leaves you wondering whether you just read the most mind-blowing idea ever or something that should be backdropped with really high guy. McLuhan, who is credited with quotes such as “diaper spelled backwards is repaid. Think about it” and “I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say”, is also credited with predicting the internet thirty years before its commercialization.
In his game-changing book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, which we don’t have space be give justice here, McLuhan studies the way technology for documenting and communicating has influenced human cognition and societal structures throughout history from pre-alphabetic human tribes to the electronic age. He argues that electronic media, through its instantaneous movement of information across the world, has shrunk the globe, bringing all matters of social and political function under our awareness and so heightening our sense of responsibility. Electronic media has rendered the world into a “global village”, argues McLuhan, and the next medium –which we can say today is digital media- would continue that process by extending our consciousness across the globe.
McLuhan’s logic works well in describing our world today; we are not only conscious of events happening across the world, we react to them as well. When natural disaster strikes a country, world-wide relief efforts respond. When human rights are violated by a state, demonstrations are held at that state’s embassies in other countries. And when an internet craze comes along, the world Harlem shakes, then looks back in shame wondering where it all went wrong. In such a world, the horrors of a world war and mass genocide cannot go without resistance. The world becomes a tribe beating to the same drum, and although disagreements and conflicts exist, the disassociation, alienation, fear and hatred of people from other countries needed for a full-out global war cannot foster in a world interconnected by the internet. This change is captured wonderfully in this video by Ronny Edry who started the We Love You – Israel & Iran campaign back in 2012.
At this point we can see what appears as a trajectory from print media to digital media. Print media consolidated geographic areas into imagined communities via language and by fostering a perception of simultaneous movement through linear time. Digital media shrinks and consolidates even larger geographic areas, arguably the whole world, via the language of the internet, simultaneity of online activity, and instantaneous sharing of information and context. The internet, however, goes beyond this. The reason McLuhan argues that new currents are underway is because he holds that electronic and digital media stem off from the trajectory initiated by print media and the book. This new direction is the major development challenging nationalism.
The wide-spread use of the book as a medium following the rise of the printing press, argues McLuhan, shaped human cognition into a visual-linear mode of thinking. Ideas and stories were communicated line by line. This had the effect of externalizing thought into a visible organized structure ordered by grammatical rules and conventions, thus making thought and cognition more objectively critiqueable, calculable, and logically linear. By emphasizing the visual and calculable, the sensuous and emotional become under emphasized and discredited as subjective. Human cognition becomes mechanical. Thus, McLuhan explains, print technology made possible the trends of the modern period such as capitalism, democracy, individualism, and, surprise surprise, nationalism. Thus, the development of linearity in human experience and perception which we have been finding recurrent in our examination so far –linearity in relationships, in time, and now in cognition- and which made possible the notions of competition, progress, and the nation, can be traced back to the proliferation of the printing press. And it is this linearity, McLuhan contends, which is being challenged by the proliferation of electronic and digital media.
The wide-spread use of electronic media as a medium induces a step away from linear cognition. The constant bombardment of stimuli we are exposed to whether on our computers, phones, or tablets not only bring about a revitalizing of the audio-oral but also train us in web-like cognition with multi-tasking awareness. While adults criticize youngsters today for short-attention spans and lack of concentrated focus, what goes unnoticed are youngsters capacities to carry out several activities at once –chatting on several social services, listening to playlists, downloading content, working on a school assignment, following the latest tweets, and texting from their phones. Whereas the book required the reader to focus her attention from line to line, the internet requires the user to branch out her concentration like an inter-linked web.
The internet, thus, challenges nationalism not just by expanding communities beyond borders, but –just as the shift from religious community to the nation involved a metaphysical shift- by shifting experience to non-linearity. As linearity is undermined so are notions of nationalism, national or ideological historical progress, and ultimately the notion of a global war as socio-politico-economic advancement.
Looking at memes, we can see that rather than continuing the practices initiated by the novel and newspaper, the meme is actually a social practice of non-linearity. Memes disrupt linear writing, with the structure of the superimposed text dictated and interrupted by images and not solely grammatical rules. The meaning of the meme is not contained within itself but comes from being inter-weaved with other memes, other people, and other events. And, most importantly, the meme is not a silent ceremony, but one which involves millions of users branching out and making themselves heard -voting, sharing, linking, posting, and commenting- through a giant web connecting them to people beyond borders and across the world. That is how memes could help prevent World War 3, or at least that’s what you can tell yourself next time you’re avoiding work. You’re welcome.
What would a world, then, shaped by non-linearity look like? How will the next imagined community, perhaps a global community, be structured? What kind of purpose or meaning can communities attain from a non-linear outlook? This blog has been a lengthy one, and there are a lot of points to talk about. Shrink the world further by letting us all hear what you think @catch21p or in the comments section below.
Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. (1991). Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (Revised and extended. ed.). London: Verso
Food for Thought
Benedict Anderson lecture on government secrecy and the information age:
Imagined Communities and Media:
Marshal McLuhan lecture on his major ideas (Part 1):
Debate between Marshall McLuhan and Norman Mailer on violence and electronic media:
Not convinced the internet is changing how we think? Here’s a page with views from all sides of the debate:
Major Works by Benedict Anderson
Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983)
Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (1990)
Major Works by Marshal McLuhan:
The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.