Region: A Tentative Attempt towards Solving the Andersonian Puzzle


Phar Kim Beng

In his book Imagined Communities Benedict Anderson famously affirmed that individuals live in a nation of strangers, and yet they imagine a national communion and are even willing to give up their lives for this nation. The puzzle is why?

Empirically speaking, Anderson is correct. No one person can know all. The social networks of any one individual, in ancient and modern times, have always been wafer thin. Individuals have traditionally identified themselves with their tribes and clans rather than with a larger 'whole'.

Yet, regardless of the size of modern nation-states, with China at more than 1.3 billion people, for instance, nationalism has invariably been strong and virile.

Then with the advent of regionalism, popular waves of Asianism, Africanism and Arabism have surged to the fore. This adds a further dimension to the Andersonian puzzle.

The tentative answer to this puzzle may well lie in the nature of the mind, according to Gelstalt psychology theory.

Instead of seeing things and events in numerous 'breaks', the human mind has the tendency to capture events in their fullness. Thus, dots in the same order are seen as a single line, even though there are no instructions for the mind to make such connection.

The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume may also have something to add concerning the Andersonian puzzle.

According to Hume, our minds make 'mental associations' even before we can see causation. Thus, if a ball drops from the hand that releases it, the 'mind's eye' attributes it to the motion of the hand letting go of the ball. The higher calling of science/empiricism, Hume believes, is to establish the core principles that guide our empirical events. For instance, the ball dropped to the floor due to the prevalence of gravity, never in spite of it.

Thus, if one were to appropriate these mental constructs put forward by Gelstalt theory and by Hume, we have the preliminary indications of a mind that seeks to connect the parts - even when there is no instruction to do so.

In the context of the Andersonian puzzle, we are simultaneously the voluntary agents of nationalism and regionalism, and also the involuntary elements that contribute to their collective emergence. This is because the unique predisposition of our mind pushes us to 'believe' in nationalism and regionalism even when none exists.

That said, as elegant as Anderson's theory may be, it also has its weaknesses.

According to Anderson, the 'imagined' national community began at that point in European history when more people were able to read and access various literatures without having to surmount the difficulties of Latin and Greek.

Along with the arrival of the Gutenburg press in the 15th century enabling people to read the same texts; and the Protestant Reformation bringing critique of church dogma, such factors made possible the organic growth of a 'popular' or national' consciousness. Nonetheless, Anderson failed to explain the simultaneous ubiquitous presence of religious images, idols, and sacraments.

If anything, the predominance of 'imagined community' may well have come through the currency of such pictures and sacred impressions, rather than purely through the wider use of the written word.

Between 13th and 18th centuries, such depictions, though religious in character, were often entwined with the political orders of the day. It is not difficult to find images of a King holding a cross or riding into a battle with a flag emblazoned with such symbols held aloft.

Thus, why people die for the nation? Perhaps it is that the nation is but another form of religion.

Just as it is not surprising to see people willing to die for their god/s or beliefs, it should not be difficult to 'imagine' someone dying for their nation, which they assume to receive god-like sanction.

The more difficult part of the puzzle, however, is what lies behind the appeal of regionalism. Asians, Africans, Arabs, even Europeans, have taken to regionalism in one form or another.

Regionalism for the most part is devoid of religious content, despite the constant assertion, for example, that European Union shares a common Christian background.

Nonetheless, the secret to the power of nationalism, and regionalism, may lie in the extent to which both are able to co-opt the religious consciousness of people.

Pan Arabism has been able to showcase its power because behind it has been Islamism. Behind Europeanism was an early appeal to save the 'West' in light of the destructiveness of World Wars I and II; both waged in the heart of Christendom.

Asianism, however, is different. Its basis may be because many Asian countries have had the ignominy of being colonised. There is, therefore, the joint sharing of pain, which is easily leveraged by politicians into regional aspirations, often for various political ends.

The same phenomenon can be seen today in Latin America, as indicated by the rise of leaders from amongst indigenous peoples in countries like Bolivia, Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador.

To the extent that regions can parlay or leverage on their collective trauma, then regionalism is not difficult to foster; though the extent to which one type of regionalism may lead to violence depends on other potent symbols at work.

So, once again, why do people die for their nations and on occasion regions? The plausible answer could be the fundamental nature of the mind: our minds make connections automatically even when we are not asked to.

The second is the extensive sharing of religious images and beliefs, which make national or regional entities all but a simple extension of the component elements.

The third is due to the common experience of colonisation.

The fourth may well be due to Aristotle's assertion that all human beings are but political animals. They seek communion even in isolation.

In the case of China, even though it does not have any specific common religious imagery, it can latch on to its Century of Humiliation, as the basis of the trajectory for its nationalism, and, by extension, regionalism.

Leading by example is just as appealing to communist China today as it was in Japan when Asian countries looked to it to counter Western imperialism.

In turn, despite its Shinto past, Japan since 1945 does not have strong religious character that is symbolically associated with the modern state. Thus, following its defeat in the Pacific War, its nationalism has been more subdued. But a rise of Japanese nationalism is nevertheless a possibility, especially if threatened by an 'external other' such as North Korea.

South Korea is also threatened by North Korea. But its brand of Korean nationalism is derived from the common, and perpetual trauma, of being divided. In this sense, when Koreans speak of one Asia, they may well be moved by one Korea first; or how one Asia can absorb the idea of one Korea by relinquishing the US and Japan from standing over the peninsula in perpetuity.

Thus, if and when nation-states or regions have all, or any one of the above, elements then the consolidation of the stray fragments are but factors that wait further mobilisation.

As Mussolini once said: 'Now that I have created Italy, I must create Italians'.

In this sense, nationalism and regionalism are but forces that are subject to instrumentalist manipulation. The motive of self-interest is crucial too.

In 1955, fresh from decolonisation, various Asian and African countries saw it proper to convene the Bandung Conference. This event led to the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which continues until today, even in the post-Cold War period.

In 2005, NAM tried to replicate the Bandung Conference. But this time around the event flopped because Asians and Africans have grown economically, emotionally and psychologically apart. The former has taken modernisation with great gusto, while the latter is still unable to adopt it. The difference has led to a continental divergence.

Finally, if one wants to ask why do people die for a nation or region of strangers, one may have to peek into the mind, and the traumas experienced.

When Osama Bin Laden praised the September 11 suicide bombers of, for instance, he referred to the horrible impact of Western domination. He also linked it to the sufferings once experienced by Japanese people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This incident is important because it goes to show that not only do nationalists or regionalists indulge in common empathy across their regions, but terrorists - despite their narrow political aims - are just as capable of feeling such empathies.

Thus, the greater goal of higher education is to help citizens, individuals and humanity understand that they can be part of the larger whole. Nothing should stop them from asserting their freedom of association and belief; but they must not mobilise the 'in group' to go against the 'out-group'. Should they persist, they should be reminded that their beliefs about the solidarity of their larger nation (or region) of 'strangers' are in large measure but a figment of their imaginations.

WATCHPOINT: Religion and strategic self-interest - rather than imagined cultural and historical ties - may well be the more potent mobilising factors in the globalising world of the present and future.


About our company:

AFG Venture Group is an Asia and Australia based corporate advisory and consulting firm with over 20 years experience in creating alliances, relationships and transactions in Australia, South East Asia and India; including a 15 year history of corporate and equities advisory in Australia, undertaking merger, acquisition, divestment, fund raising and consulting for private and public companies.

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