Imagined Communities: A Reflection on a Run

Tonight I went for a run on the north campus of my university. My uncle’s text, which I found when I returned to my car afterward, “OK. Be careful out there,” was more appropriate than he knew. This plot of concrete, grass, buildings, and trees has been stringing together sexual assaults, armed robberies, and discarded weapons over the last few months.

It was 7pm. I changed into my running shoes at my car, set up a run on my iPod (I’m listening to the reflective and plodding Brothers Karamazov at the moment), and took off down the dimly lit, misty road that bisects campus. The area was quiet and empty. As I set my mind to the run and started to find my pace and breath, my attention wandered from the narrator and into that foggy place between anticipation and apprehension.

In puddles of light and stretches of shadow, the setting is prime for the imagination. Like the left-right rhythm of my feet, my mind began to alternate between Brothers and scanning for deep patches of dark. I wasn’t in a state of paranoia–and wouldn’t be–but I adopted the kind of wariness that might nudge you to inanely lock the door of your rural home. Better safe than sorry.

There is a kind of fear involved that is separate from the reptilian, reflexive fear. It is that calculated, rational kind, the planned and planned-for fear that plays on the edge of worry. It’s the fear that anticipates weakness and a loss of control. Also, the socialized aspect of fear exists here. Where? In the odds that the mind weighs. What is the probability that my car will get jacked if I park it here? That my wallet will disappear if I leave it on my work desk? There is nothing disinterested or especially natural about these odds. They are founded on history or, as I will explain, propaganda.

I wound through the campus along uneven sidewalks and roadways, noticing the depth of Winter-Break quiet on the other side of my audiobook. Soon my imagination took over, and I began to wonder what I would do if someone stepped from the dark or ran up alongside me with a knife. First, I talked myself out of the possibility: I’m a grown man with thick thighs and broad shoulders. My gliding shadow cast on a brick wall was confirmation. And my pockets were pretty much empty except for my car keys and my student card. I would throw my keys into the field across the Commons, I decided. And my card is pretty much worthless to anyone. No incentive to chase me.

I was also sure that I would meet any threat with an unusual equanimity, a confounding calm. Without giving the attacker what they really wanted, fear, I would drain their power. I’d shrug and smile for the tensest bits. I also nearly felt a power-up sensation flow to my hands as they recalled my self-defense class from years ago. At one point, I saw myself shatter the attacker’s ribs with a foot to the chest, for a moment caught in the inverted silhouette of a flash: fists up, weight transferring, leg thrust out.

At the end of passing through a long lit corridor under a dorm, I reentered the half-light. That’s when I experienced a change in perception:

I’m the threat!

I’m the trunky, stubbled man running phantom-like in the night mist–and wearing a hoodie, no less. I checked my shadow again and saw abruptly that I was menacing. I didn’t react well to this. It took me a second of shooshing my pride to allow that I am capable of crime. But I’m not anti-social or desperate enough at this point to act. What I understood, however, is that my intentions are not operative in this social dance. Intention is attributed to the perceived menace.

On the sidewalk ahead of me, flanked on one side by an empty field and on the other, an empty parking lot, I perceived a human figure, too far to tell whether it was coming or going. The closer I got, the more I learned: it was short and female, walking with her back to me. I started brainstorming how to lower my threat level as I passed by–should I whistle or say “ding, ding” or “On your left!”? Or should I pad silently up behind her and scare the poop out of her?

My choice was taken when, as I was 150 to 200 feet behind her, she crossed the road diagonally and headed toward the well-lit bus stop at the intersection we were approaching. Because I was moving much quicker than her, she was probably 10 steps from the bus stop on the far side of the road when I passed. I never looked her way, but I decided to also cross the street at the corner just to build the tension. I continued on and was soon out of sight between buildings.

That’s all the information there is from that situation. It’s not much. As I found my way back to my car, I processed her crossing the street. Was that young woman afraid of me? If so, was it correct for her to be? If indeed this person crossed the street because she sensed a menace, she had simply entered into an imagined reality. She had misapplied a socialized probability. My assumption is that she acted on an intuition–really a quick calculation–that was fully inaccurate. In this case, her socialized fear would have stood in for her primal fear and functioned the same.

At the same time, I realized that I had simply ascribed my fear-laced reality to her, committing the fundamental attribution error. Her path may have been routine, and, with some headphones in, she may have been unaware of me altogether. If that was the case, then we have a real problem. By imagining the state of her mind as I did, I was reifying an imaginary I had no evidence for and which I was in that moment unaligned with and, therefore, passively contesting. This interplay of imaginaries is worth considering.

Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities describes his take on the rise of the notion of nationalism. The first thing to understand about his task is that most of us have never wondered about the origin of believing that we are all members of a nation and that somehow such a belief is meaningful. We’re fully, or “unselfconsciously,” submerged in the imaginary of nation-states. This word ‘imaginary’ is a useful one because it stands for those layers of the world that we create and sustain only in our minds. My purpose here is not to discuss nationalism but to borrow Anderson’s essential premise, that people imagine communities. In his work, he has found that pilgrimages and common print language are the prerequisites to imagined communities. During pilgrimages to Mecca or Canterbury, for example, groups of people found upon arrival that the one thing that connected them with the diverse others was a shared worldview. And when spoken languages were mutually unintelligible, they shared the script of the Quran or Bible, whether they were literate or not. Importantly, these others were not a part of their “tribe” (i.e., face-to-face community) and never would be. The devout pilgrim throng entered into imagined community. Later, nations would do the same.

Anderson points to the innovation of the novel and newspaper for the populating of early imagined communities that would become nations. The newspaper provides the cleanest example. Readers would pick up a newspaper aware that others would be reading the same newspaper. Eventually, they would learn that newspapers existed in other places but with content specific to that area. Newspapers were intended for separate audiences that must be nothing but separate communities. The newspaper thus invisibly circumscribed an audience who began to see itself as a community without the need for any real contact between individuals. This sense is what distinguishes the tribe from the imagined community.

We can observe multitudes of similar, more granular examples today. Certainly, religious communities continue to multiply and nations have come and gone but continue to dominate polemics. Borders of nation-states, however, are increasingly permeable, if not for people, then for media and ideas and, consequently, imaginaries. This is what the terms ‘globalization’ and ‘transnationalism’ are getting at. Pop-culture examples might include the international popularity of Hollywood films like Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the spread of cultural products like cos-play and manga. See Karen Risager’s work for more on this “flow.”

At the same time, groups within national borders are drawing more and stouter boundaries around themselves. Think of these boundaries in this way: for any print or visual media with an intended audience, that audience is to some degree imagined. Consider, for instance, the rise of Facebook, Reddit, Pinterest, and online gaming communities. Following or posting with a specific hashtag or visiting a Facebook group can now function as a mini-pilgrimage, and specialized community dialects have proliferated, anything from texting shorthand to Clash of Clans jargon.

As I stretch Anderson’s framework of imagined communities into social and global media and networks, I don’t mean to suggest that the interactions we have with other individuals on online platforms are imaginary. Those interactions are today’s tribal analogs of our face-to-face tribes–they often but not always overlap. However, most of us are aware that on some level the online world is unreal. This is the jarring experience of being spammed by a bot account on Instagram, learning that a crush’s profile photos have been photoshopped, or discovering click farms. We’re then reminded that our online tribes are somewhat contrived, imagined.

With the ability to attend to specific media streams to the exclusion of others–apparently there is now an app to filter Donald Trump out of your online experience–and to add and unfollow people in our social networks, we create borders for our imagined communities that impact the real world. I’ll provide two examples that find individuals in tribal (i.e., face-to-face) encounters. The dynamics are both internal and external and depend on imagined communities. One way to know this is that we are ourselves probably aware of such situations and have been exposed to commentary about them without personally knowing the individuals or the commentators involved. These stories are like segments in the media stream that defines our imagined communities. It’s they that then inform our imaginaries and that weight the probabilities of our daily interactions.

A white couple feels unsafe walking through a “ghetto” neighborhood.

A poor black student feels unwelcome in an affluent, white-dominated school.

Recall my run for a moment. Because I have the ability to vouch for my own intentions tonight, I’ll work hypothetically and assume that I was correct about why the young woman crossed the road. Assume that we have both consumed the same university news, which in part places us within the same imagined community. Assume that the potential of danger impacted our states of mind, behavior and interpretations of each other’s behavior. Assume I would be considered the threat because of my size and gender relative to hers, augmented by my dress and the time of day. For all of the evidence and intuition available to support her choice, her crossing the road remains the product of an imaginary that was, in this case, entirely false. If I’m correct, she is not worthy of criticism. However, in this situation there is a significant warning: what is highly likely should not come to stand for what is true.

Now it’s worth imagining sitting on the steps as the white couple passes by or sitting next to the black student in class. First, understand that the complexity of the situation is compounded by each one’s membership in several imagined communities, some of which do not seem to overlap whatsoever: white-black, poor-rich, rural-urban, male-female, etc. In truth, the imagined communities in these two mundane examples reframe what could be tribal interactions as inter-tribal interactions. However, imagine that your intentions toward the couple or the student are as harmless as mine were tonight. This is not to say that your view of them is not warped by inequitable grand narratives, but you simply feel no malice toward them. Those states of mind I have attributed to them above are simply fabrications based on imaginaries promoted by their imagined communities. This is a problem. These misattributions are taken up by the imagined community as news, spun, and assert themselves onto daily life.

What seems clear is that what becomes “news” or “the gossip” simultaneously assumes–indeed, reifies–the integrity of imagined communities and gains a “truth” quality that grows beyond the “facts” (see Carlson and Schramm-Pate‘s chapter in Beyond Silenced Voices). This is the process of observation becoming interpretation. Think on these next two inflammatory examples:

A white man defends having the confederate flag on his truck.

Another young black man is shot by the police.

These truths, having developed from the facts, incite and reinforce imagined communities. They compel community members to make pilgrimages: to march, to picket, to frequent propagandizing news channels and websites. They exist in shared and exclusive expression available to members only: symbols, accents, vocabulary. Eventually, members accept unselfconsciously that the contours of imagined communities are natural.

The pertinent lesson from Anderson, however, is that nationalism, a concept that seems so natural and fundamental, was, in fact, invented. We do and have done similar inventing ourselves. These inventions, not unlike those of my run, can be as bold as stereotypes and profiling or as subtle as race and gender construction. Of course, I don’t mean that stereotypes and profiles have no basis or that race and gender do not actually (i.e., biologically) exist nor that these constructs have no effect in the world. The point is that they have been lifted to define imagined communities, as in “the White or Black/Brown or Male or Female experience.” When such a homogeneous experience is suggested, it’s done so on the level of an imaginary and to serve or diserve a particular imagined community. Indeed, it could be said that the imagined community is homogenized with such labels, the nuance and exceptions being elided for the sake of the integrity of the imaginary on which a given agenda is based.

I need to be clear. I’m not suggesting that threats are only and always inventions of the mind; they surely have their experiential and historical roots. Nor am I promoting another flavor of blaming the victim. Instead what I mean to say is that social moments of malice and ignorance should be considered no less tolerable or innocuous than those moments when such sentiments do not exist but are presumed to.

Despite their limitations, imagined communities, as Anderson illustrates over and over, are efficacious in making positive change. They establish a greater sense of place and purpose for individuals–Anderson asks us to consider the significance of the tomb of the unknown soldier. The unknown soldier achieves immortality as long as the nation-state exists. Similarly, MLK lives on in the continued pursuit of racial equality, as does Harvey Milk in the Gay Rights movement. These initiatives depend on the actions of people who may never convene except to attend a rally or walk a picket line en masse, pilgrimages reinforced by language, visual, aural, and otherwise. They depend on imagined communities.

However, there is something insidious about those imaginaries that fade into implicitude and become unproblematized filters for our interpretations of life in the tribe and between tribes. It is trouble when those imaginaries invented for us and by us go untested and uncontested and calcify with fear. Because of them, we act on dubiously weighted probabilities and become blind to exceptions and opportunities for redrawing the boundaries of imagined communities. These imaginaries eventually become concrete, co-existing but disagreeing realities.

Inspired by Anderson’s discussion of nationalism, I believe the process of shoring up imagined borders is more sinister than we’d think. Though the two examples I’m about to mention result from a multiplicity of interconnected factors, perhaps these changes in tribal dynamics are partly explained by the invention and curation to which I have referred several times. First, in some cases US neighborhoods are more likely than ever to be segregated by political party. Second, some US public schools are more racially segregated now than they were in the time of Brown V. Board (1954).  Though I cannot claim that with every ‘like’ or ‘subscribe’ an individual is declaring membership to a socio-political entity and results in the redistribution of people groups, the more filtering we do as media consumers and the further we move into online social networks; the deeper we descend into our own imaginations; which are increasingly isolating, stratified and, at the same time, less permeable. Therein is a partial explanation for why a world that is increasingly connected can concurrently become increasingly divided.

What alternatives exist?

It is important for us to keep in mind that while our tribes may have a natural element, the imagined communities that entail us do not. They are inventions of utility or convenience by media and language (remember that I don’t mean The Media nor simply speech). Furthermore, it is worth reflecting on how our media consumption and online social networks position us within today’s panoply of imagined communities. Consider their curated and imagined qualities. What we eat is what we are, even if what we eat isn’t real. Remember that our resulting imagined communities exist because of shared imaginaries that subsist on truths above facts; that they are necessarily reductions of human complexity and plasticity into essentialized and stable narratives. Reflect selfconsciously and critically on the way stories of both inhumanity and compassion are taken up by various imagined communities. How are they spun to reify or challenge the contextual and competing imaginaries?  How are they reduced for the sake of an imaginary’s integrity?

After that, for heaven’s sake! resist believing that what seems to be the case is the case. Let’s give ourselves permission to be wrong. Let’s concede that it’s possible for our imaginaries to lead us astray, as was the case for me during my run and was likely the case for my street-crossing tribe-mate. Moreover, resist believing that what is the case must be the case. Our social inheritance may include fabrications better discarded. For me, the imaginary worth confronting is that one that says the young woman should be afraid of me. Even if I couldn’t have stopped and chatted with her about my intentions, in a way the fact that I went running aware of the risks myself is a mild form of contestation. Our uneventful passing further weakened the imaginary–slightly. In the other less charged examples to which I referred, the form could be a smile or a wave, an invitation to sit at the lunch table, these gestures coming from either side. It could mean choosing courage, the suspension of conclusions, or a healthy measure of self-doubt and allowance for misinterpretation.

I want to claim, finally, that the mundane nature of these interactions is precisely what gives them power. For a moment, the imagined community’s construct of reality is negotiable. When it would have us position the other as an imagined enemy, it would be wrong. Inter-tribe interactions have the potential to reshape the imagined communities that house them, to resituate them as being exchanges among tribe-mates. Indeed, on some level we are all tribe-mates. By elevating and investing in these everyday moments, we create a feedback loop into the sphere of the imagination. By doing so, wherever ill will, ignorance, and fear do exist, we may have established the social elasticity to confront them reasonably, to cast a light on them, to show them their own invented–imagined–selves.


Leave a Reply