Narrating Communities: Invented Traditions and Values

Posted Wednesday December 1, 2010 by John Gunders in |

It’s the CSAA conference next week, and this is the paper that I will be delivering. It’s an early investigation into a larger project that I’m starting to work on, so any comments or suggestions are welcome.

All I have to do now is write the paper…

Zygmunt Bauman describes the way that the quest for the ‘perfect community’ is always a search for the unobtainable: it is either an unrecoverable past, or an idealised future. Worse, community—which is an image of both security and freedom—can offer us only one of these goals: we can have security from the dangerous forces outside only by giving up some, or most, of our freedoms. We can have freedom, but only by sacrificing most of what distinguishes the community. As an abstract ideal, the ‘real’ community can only ever be, to use Benedict Anderson’s term, ‘imagined.’

But the beauty of an imagined community is that it doesn’t need to worry too much about the practicalities of balancing those contradictory tensions at the core of the concept. Assumptions can be made, prejudices elided, and, as Hobsbawm notes, traditions can be invented. In this way, the image of a community is constructed, drawing on the values and beliefs of the dominant group, and threatening expulsion to anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the dominant ideology.

In this paper I look at a number of imagined historical communities that in varying ways create an image of the ideal that Bauman described. From examples of cookbooks that try to create the impression of a community where none really existed, to historical reconstructions that literalise a particular political or historical view, I will consider the assumptions, the exclusions, and the inventions behind these attempts at community in order to examine the underlying values that motivate the constructions of these imagined communities. In this way, I hope to start an exploration of the way in which values are already encoded in material productions that form a significant part of our cultural memory.

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