Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities – in comics?

First published in 1983, Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism remains tremendously influential in the Humanities today. In it, the nation is defined as “an imagined political community […]. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members” (p. 6; all page numbers here refer to the 2016 revised edition by Verso). By using the word “imagined”, Anderson emphasises that national consciousness it not something pre-existing that only needs to be “awakened” – it needs to be actively created.

One of the instruments through which a nation can be created is what Anderson calls “print-capitalism”, a system within which e.g. newspapers forge a community out of their readers (pp. 35-36). This process is aided by “the fatality of human linguistic diversity” as readers felt “connected” to their “fellow-readers” due to their sharing the same “language-field”, regardless of their location on the globe (pp. 43-44). Furthermore, newspapers “brought together, on the same page” a variety of commercial, political and cultural news items of regional or local interest, which instilled in readers the feeling that all these things they read about were connected to each other and to the readers themselves, and thus “created an imagined community” (p. 62).

Language itself can facilitate the formation of nations, particularly when the vernacular language in which people speak and write differs from the official language-of-state, as was the case in the various nations of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century (p. 78). Then again, rulers can also be “naturalized” and employ an “official nationalism” in order to culturally homogenify their territory and counter popular national movements (p. 86).

Education is another factor that contributed to the creation of imagined communites; for instance, the colonial subjects of the multiethnic Dutch East Indies “knew that from wherever they had come they still had read the same books and done the same sums” (pp. 121-122). Then there is the complex of “Census, Map, Museum” (ch. 10, pp. 163-185) – devices through which colonial rulers categorised their subjects and at the same time inadvertently helped form their national identities.

Thus Anderson discusses various ways to create nations, but the point is that they need someone to create them. Otherwise, the idea of a particular imagined community would fail to catch on and people would not identify with it as their nation. For our example today, we’re going to examine such failed creations of nations in a comic. While this isn’t going to prove Anderson’s theory right or wrong, it will hopefully illustrate some of his ideas.

Our example is going to be Sarah (沙流羅 sarura, also known in English as The Legend of Mother Sarah), written by Katsuhiro Ōtomo, drawn by Takumi Nagayasu, and originally published from 1990-2004 – more specifically its first (German) volume. In a war-torn future, the eponymous protagonist gets separated from her four children and sets out on an epic quest to reunite with them. The background of this plot is mainly told in a prologue text: there has been a nuclear war which has left Earth uninhabitable. The survivors fled to space colonies. There, scientists developed a bomb to tilt the earth axis, which would slowly cleanse the planet of radiation and eventually allow it to be settled again. This plan split people into a supporting and an opposing faction who called themselves “Epoch” and “Mother Earth”, respectively. The hostilities between these factions led to terrorism and even civil war. The bomb was launched after all, and even though the terrestrial climate is still somewhat hostile, people started returning to the earth’s surface, where the fighting between Epoch and Mother Earth continues. The bone of contention is no longer the use of the bomb, though, but global domination.

Epoch guards against civilians. Detail of p. 19 from Sarah vol. 1 by Katsuhiro Ōtomo and Takumi Nagayasu.

Can Epoch and Mother Earth be regarded as nations in Anderson’s sense? In the very first scene of the manga, which still is a kind of prologue to the actual story, we already see representations of Epoch: while people are fleeing from a space station which is shattered by explosions, they are watched by armed men with the letter E on their hats, helmets and bandanas. The same E logo is crudely painted on walls inside the space station, indicating that Epoch rules this place. The ordinary people, however, do not sport any Epoch signs. They are no so much protected by the Epoch gunmen as controlled, the latter sifting through the crowd looking for enemies. And when a panic breaks out and everyone tries to board the escape shuttles at once, the Epoch men indiscriminately shoot into the crowd to stop them.

A Mother Earth officer. Panel from Sarah vol. 1, p. 73 by Katsuhiro Ōtomo and Takumi Nagayasu.

Then the action shifts to earth in the present day, i.e. some time after the exodus from the space stations. Sarah, accompanying a travelling merchant, reaches a small settlement adjacent to a gigantic mine. The mine is operated by the Mother Earth military, the soldiers being identifiable by small “ME” (plus a winged globe icon) logos on parts of their uniform. The workers in the mine are prisoners of war from Epoch, more clearly marked by large “E”s on their clothing or bare backs.

Epoch prisoners of war guarded by Mother Earth soldiers. Panel from Sarah vol. 1, p. 36 by Katsuhiro Ōtomo and Takumi Nagayasu.

There is a discernible divide between the soldiers overseeing their high-tech mine, and the local populace who farm the land using few machines and live in primitive-looking brick buildings. It is a science-fiction trope that we know from e.g. Star Wars: the common folk are simply trying to get by while there’s a war raging around them which they have not the slightest stake in (but which some of them, of course, ultimately get caught up in). The only link between them is the character Toki, a young man who comes from a farming family but has joined the military. Unlike his stepsister Lucia, Toki hates Epoch and blames them for devastating the earth. Lucia retorts by reminding him of Mother Earth’s constitution, which says war is bad and that “we shall live in harmony with mother earth and preserve its treasures”. Toki dismisses this as idealism that one cannot live by.

The local ‘neutral’ civilian population. Panel from Sarah vol. 1, p. 31 by Katsuhiro Ōtomo and Takumi Nagayasu.

But when Toki and Lucia discover the secret purpose of the mine, the military wants to see both of them dead. The ensuing brutal raid, in which both a soldier and Toki’s and Lucia’s grandfather are shot, epitomises the divide between military and civilians. (In later volumes, we even see tanks firing into crowds.)

Clearly, nation-building has failed in Sarah. The only ones who identify with the nations of Epoch and Mother Earth are soldiers, whereas the civilians don’t seem to have any national identity whatsoever. With the sole (and only temporary) exception of Toki, the soldiers appear not to belong to the folk who settle at the mine. The military rather seems like an occupying force from a distant country, only there to exploit the natural resources and possibly gone again soon.

This should not come as a surprise, as none of Anderson’s nation-forming devices are visible in this manga: no print-capitalist products (except for a pornographic magazine), no ‘naturalised’ rulers, no education, no maps, no census, no museums. And as in many other science-fiction stories, everyone seems to speak the same mother tongue (despite signs of some racial diversity), so that no separate language communities could form within the overall population.

Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog


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