Reflections On ‘Imagined Communities’ – I: Children And Humanity

In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, New York, 2006, pp. 10-11), Benedict Anderson writes:

[R]eligious thought also responds to obscure intimations of immortality, generally by transforming fatality into continuity (karma, original sin, etc.). In this way, it concerns itself with the links between the dead and yet unborn, the mystery of re-generation. Who experiences their child’s conception and birth without dimly apprehending a combined connectedness, fortuity, and fatality in a language of ‘continuity’?

During the time that my wife became pregnant with our daughter, gave birth to her, and began the long process of rearing her, I began to be aware of an entirely novel sensation as I walked the streets of this city, took the subway to my various destinations, and taught classes to my always-diverse student population: all around me were strangers, their personal histories entirely unknown to me, and yet, I knew something–which felt deeply significant–about them.

I’m not the first parent to report this, and I won’t be the last. (Anderson wouldn’t be making that claim above if I was.) It’s almost a cliché really. Have a kid, and come to realize how you are caught up in the cycles of life and death, how all humans had parents, how they were born naked, helpless, and hapless, how we owe our present lives to the nurturing care provided by others (admittedly, not all of us lucked out in the sweepstakes of loving and attentive parental care), how we all come to be and pass away, how we add a link to the ‘continuity’ of existence.

For all of that supposed banality, my sensations did not feel in the least tired or retreaded; there was a novelty to my experience of them. There were new emotions at play: a warm benevolence of a kind; a peculiar melancholia too, when I would see the unfortunate and the downtrodden, their luck having long run out. I felt in possession of a new vision of sorts: almost as if in the case of every human that I encountered, I could run the film of their time here on earth backwards, all the way back to their first appearance on this stage. I had seen pregnant women before; I had seen countless photos of newborn babies (and even held and cuddled several); but my partner’s pregnancy and the presence of my own child–a mortal from the moment of her birth–told me my place in the world was now different for having gained a connection with not just the community of parents, but indeed with all who had been babies once. That is, with the entire human community, past, present, and perhaps even that of a not-too-radically reconfigured-by-science-and-technology future. A wholly imagined community.

Note: This post kicks off what should be a series of riffs on passages drawn from Anderson’s Imagined Communities. There will be no attempt to provide systematic exegesis (not that I ever have done that here): just brief comments on sections I found provocative or entertaining.

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