The Influence of Walter Benjamin on Benedict Anderson
Biodata: Anthony Taylor recently completed Honours in Indonesian studies at Monash
University, Australia. He also holds a Bachelor of Laws degree. His research interests include
Indonesian literature, law and politics. His contact email is firstname.lastname@example.org
The influence of Walter Benjamin is clearest in the late Benedict Anderson’s often-cited
theory of nationalism. Anderson argues that the combination of print-capitalism and the
‘fatality of linguistic diversity’ made the origin and spread of nationalism possible. He
interprets nationalism as a cultural phenomenon, not an ideology. In Imagined Communities,
Anderson attempts describe the real historical spread of nationalism without making the
claim that any particular nationalism was original or authentic.
The key texts from which these ideas are drawn are The Work of Art in the Age of
texts, we can see that Benjamin has influenced Anderson’s understanding of the origin and
spread of nationalism through: (1) the importance afforded to print-capitalism; (2) the
linkage between ‘homogenous, empty time’, modernity and nationalism; (3) the image of
the Angel of History.
Following an explanation of these three points of influence, two criticisms of Anderson’s
theory of nationalism that relate to his interpretation of Benjamin are then considered. The
first is that Anderson overuses Benjamin’s concept of aura in explaining the spread of
nationalism, most clearly when he seeks to establish a clear binary between authentic,
“popular” nationalism and inauthentic, “official” State nationalism. The second is that the
idea of nation and modernity should not be as strongly linked as Anderson proposes; there
should be something more emancipatory awaiting us in modernity. I argue that the use of
cosmology in Anderson’s last major work on nationalism, Under Three Flags, is a response to
these criticisms. It demonstrates that Anderson has taken into account the simultaneous
optimism and pessimism that characterises Benjamin (particularly in his attitude towards
Communism). The two criticisms considered were, implicitly, a claim that Anderson had
overemphasised the optimistic or pessimistic side of Benjamin in his treatment of
nationalism. Rather, Anderson acknowledges the relationship of nationalism, politics, State
and modernity to be highly ambiguous.
Keywords: Benedict Anderson, Walter Benjamin, Indonesian Studies, nationalism.
In Language and Power, the late Benedict Anderson acknowledged his scholarly
debt to ‘three Good Germans: Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin and Eric Auerbach, who
helped me think about the modern world’.
This essay will scrutinise Anderson’s
Benedict R. O'G Anderson, Language and Power : Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (Ithaca, N.Y.: Ithaca,
The overarching aim is to
better understand how Benjamin influenced Anderson’s theory of nationalism.
I begin with an overview of Anderson’s theory of nationalism. The theory is
presented in light of Anderson’s later modifications to the original theory in
Following this, I analyse the elements of this theory that
are most obviously inspired by Benjamin’s Mechanical Reproduction and History:
the notion of print-capitalism, the notion of homogenous, empty time and the
image of the Angel of History. Through a focus on these three points of influence,
the broader commonalities between Anderson and Benjamin on questions of
materialism, culture and politics emerge. Finally, I consider some critical responses
to Anderson’s theory of nationalism that relate to the influence of Benjamin on
Anderson. I argue that Anderson’s most recent comment on nationalism, Under
, makes clear both his relative fidelity to Benjamin and his subtle stance
In Imagined Communities, Anderson seeks to define the nation and account for
both the origin and spread of nationalism. For Anderson, the nation is an imagined
political community that is imagined as limited (territorially) and sovereign (State).
It is imagined as a horizontal community regardless of a hierarchical reality.
than a political ideology.
How did nationalism first emerge? For Anderson, ‘print -capitalism’ – the
the nation something imaginable. The growth in markets for print commodities
(particularly the demand for popular language material) undermined the sacredness
of script languages, the legitimacy of international dynastic orders and of
Basically, print-capitalism undermined old ways of
Both found in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (Schocken Books, 2007).
Benedict R. O'G Anderson, Imagined Communities : Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, ed.
Societies American Council of Learned, Rev. ed. ed. (London
New York: London
New York : Verso, 2006). Also Language and Power : Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia. And The Spectre
of Comparisons : Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World (New York
London: New York
London : Verso, 1998).
Under Three Flags : Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination, Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial
Imagined Communities : Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism., 6.
combined with the fact of ‘the fatality of human linguistic diversity’ , not only
the world) a positive possibility.
The growth of print languages (and commodities)
of antiquity, through fixity, to the print language which would be important for
subjective ideas of nation, and created culturally central ‘languages-of-power’.
the key print commodities that made new forms of consciousness and subjectivity
Anderson argues that nationalism, while owing a lot to histo rical forces in
Western Europe, first became a political reality under the leadership of creoles in
the Americas. The glass ceiling faced by talented creoles in the colonies is posited
as a key factor in the development of nationalist opposition alongside the
publication of provincial newspapers.
Opposition to colonialism was what made
nationalism ‘became “modular”’, capable of being transplanted, with varying
degrees of self-consciousness, to a great variety of social terrains, to merge and be
merged with…a wide variety of political and ideological constellations.’
nationalisms and twentieth century anti-colonial nationalisms.
Both the State and popular movements around the world could make use of the
national “model” for their own purposes. In The Spectre of Comparisons, Anderson
argues that collective subjects (including nations) are formed by unb ound serialities
(exemplified by print mediums such as newspapers, and by references to open
categories like “worker” or “citizen”) and by bound serialities (exemplified by the
counting of ethnic categories in a census).
On the one hand, there is popular
unbound seriality is dominant, and on the other is what Anderson calls ‘official’
nationalism, which is promoted by the State and is in line with dominance of the
As well as allowing for analysis of contemporary nationalisms, the
clarification of how we should understand the process by which nationalism
originated and spread. With the notion of seriality, there is no ontological
distinction between the original historical national model and its replicas around
Ibid., 42-3. Note: ‘it would be a mistake to equate this fatality of linguistic diversity with that common
thing is the interplay between fatality, technology and capitalism.’
The Spectre of Comparisons : Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World., 29.
Language and Power : Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia., 95-7.
As a (modern) cultural phenomenon, nations should be
truth (fidelity to the authentic original). This allows for an account of the historical
origins of nationalism in certain locations (Western Europe, the Americas) and in
reaction to certain forces (colonialism) without privileging these historical facts as
constitutive of the authentic nationalism.
The Influence of Benjamin
How is Anderson’s account of nationalism influenced by Benjam in? The key ways in
which Benjamin has influenced Anderson’s understanding of the origin and spread
of nationalism are in: (1) the importance afforded to print -capitalism; (2) the
linkage between ‘homogenous, empty time’, modernity and nationalism; (3) the
image of the Angel of History. Alongside this schema, it should be remembered that
it is Benjamin’s views on materialism, culture and politics in modernity, as a whole,
that inspire Anderson. Nevertheless, I elaborate on these three notions, focusing
heavily on print-capitalism, in a way which hopefully also introduces and explains
the most relevant aspects of Benjamin’s thought.
Anderson’s notion of ‘print-capitalism’ is inspired by Benjamin’s essay on
premise that he is at a sufficient historical distance to reflect on the effect of the
rise of the capitalist mode of production on art. He argues that:
‘For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its
parasitical dependence on ritual’
other technologies that allowed for reproduction, art had possessed a more
significant aura. Aura is that which is ‘authentic’; that part of an object which
cannot be reproduced. In the case of the artistic object, authenticity had its basis in
ritual and religion.
To explain further the disappearance of aura, Benjamin argues
where the art is rarely seen (for example, a religious statue that is mostly kept from
public view), while on the other hand there is the exhibition (in which the public
are encouraged to view the art as much as possible).
Andrew Parker, "Bogeyman: Benedict Anderson's "Derivative" Discourse," Diacritics 29, no. 4 (1999)., 43.
Benjamin, Illuminations., 226.
favours the latter pole significantly, to the extent that, for Benjamin, the quantity
the relationship between author and public, reducing the earlier divide between
the two that was based on the genius or creativity of the author. With high
circulations and publicity of modern forms of art, there are more readers than
before, and more of them, in turn, can become engaged as writers (I will explain
later how this claim is important for Anderson).
In the absence of (religious) aura,
would foster a Communist collective subjectivity. Benjamin concedes that an
alternative course is presented by Fascism,
which seeks to ‘organise the newly
masses strive to eliminate’. Fascism does this by allowing the masses ‘e xpression’
rather than their ‘right’ through the aestheticisation of politics (as opposed to the
politicisation of art); for Benjamin, the artistic glorification of war and military
technology is an important example.
of ‘print is merely a special, though particularly important, case’ of mechanical
reproduction, but one which is not as significant as film
, Anderson, though, wants
meaningful levels of mechanical reproduction as coinciding with the emergence of
Anderson states that ‘at least 20,000,000 books had already been
Essentially, Anderson takes the general trends that Benjamin attributes to
industrial capitalism’s effect on art, and applies it to the impact of print -capitalism
on an earlier cultural world of holy languages and imagined religious communities.
The idea of a qualitative changing arising from a quantitative change comes from Hegel and Marx. Another
Benjamin, Illuminations., 234. More clearly in Reflections, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken
Lunn (and others) have noted that while Benjamin is optimistic in this essay, he was deeply pessimistic
pessimism. Eugene Lunn, Marxism and Modernism (University of California Press, 1982)., 255.
Benjamin, Illuminations., 243.
Ibid., 220. But see Reflections., 225.
Critics of Benjamin pointed out that mechanical reproduction had been around much longer than industrial
and politics to the impact of a pre-industrial/non-industrial capitalism on culture. It is likely, given his brother’s
involvement in Verso/New Left Review, that Benedict Anderson is aware of such criticisms. See Theodor;
Benjamin Adorno, Walter; Bloch, Ernst; Brecht, Bertolt; Lukacs, Georg, Aesthetics and Politics (Verso, 2007).,
108 n5. See also Marc Redfield, "Imagi-Nation: The Imagined Community and the Aesthetics of Mourning,"
Diacritics 29, no. 4 (1999)., 64 n11.
Anderson, Imagined Communities : Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism., 37.
cultural objects and therefore has potential political impact (through changed
consciousness/subjectivity). However, given his own starting points, he finds that it
is not the specific political impact that Benjamin had predicted.
that Marx had pointed to, the loss of ‘aura’ of religious world-views caused by
print-capitalism made a national consciousness possible. Anderson explains (Marx
and) Benjamin’s miscalculation thus: ‘whatever superhuman feats capitalism was
capable of, it found in death and languages two tenacious adversaries’.
religious, to moralise death, and secondly, capitalism has yet to eliminate global
linguistic diversity, which continues to provide a grounding for territorially limited
imaginings. In this way, nationalism is a cultural product of capitalism (but not only
capitalism!), which in some ways has replaced religion (as a secular moralising of
death tied to linguistic diversity). Nevertheless, Benjamin correctly pointed to the
impact of mechanical reproduction on cultural objects and, in turn, the impact in
such a context of culture on politics.
Anderson’s theory about the worldwide spread of nationalism also relies on
Mechanical Reproduction. Since the idea of the nation circulates globally, there is
no “authentic” nationalism. This idea that nationalism is modular or a series of
replicas without an original, mirrors, to some extent, Benjamin’s hope that readers
or viewers of mass produced art would increasingly become “writers” (of nations
for Anderson, of Communism for Benjamin).
Anderson’s view of the State (per his
nationalism seems also to mirror the concern of Benjamin that mass-produced and
circulated art could lead to Communism (meaning genuine participation of the
workers) or Fascism (a State-sponsored spectacle of participation).
The concept of homogenous, empty time that Anderson uses to distinguish
cosmological and modern imaginaries comes from Benjamin’s History:
‘History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the
presence of the now [Jetztzeit].’
In fairness to Benjamin, his references to Fascism suggest he was not blindly optimistic or set in his
Anderson, Imagined Communities : Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism., 43.
Just as Benjamin had, with the benefit of hindsight, sought to critique the “liberal progressive” elements of
Marxian thought, Anderson, looking back at Benjamin, could see Benjamin was overly optimistic (even taking
into account his ambivalence elsewhere) about the link between international Communism and mass art.
Benjamin, Illuminations., 261.
Anderson from considering it.
In History, Benjamin suggests that homogenous,
empty time is the time of capitalism where one moment is equal to and regularly
follows the next (basically, clock time).
Our cultural common sense under
contrasted with a cosmological sense of time in which time is experienced as
passing between important events. For Benjamin, a real sense of history does not
see all moments as equal (revolutionary moments, are more important, for
In History, Benjamin establishes this distinction to critique the idea of
, as he sees it as opening the door to Fascist
progressivism latent in Marx, replacing it with a ‘hope in th e past’
, or in
image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption’.
Anderson puts the notion of the empty time of modernity to his own use.
as homogenous and empty that was not accounted for by Marxist theory, including
Benjamin never located nationalism in the category of cultural ideas
categorisation, he argues that the imagining of events as taking place
simultaneously in time, rather than allegorically (as part of a cosmological
experience of time) constituted ‘a fundamental change…in modes of apprehending
the world, which, more than anything else, made it possible to ‘think’ the nation’.
present as a ‘simultaneity of past and future’ – ‘something close to what Benjamin
calls Messianic time’
to a consciousness that saw time as horizontal, flat, a series
Eugene Lunn argues that while Mechanical Reproduction was overly optimistic, most of Benjamin’s other
views. See Lunn, Marxism and Modernism., 223. Habermas (and others) consider his views as unsynthesisable,
see generally Jurgen Habermas, "Consciousness-Raising or Redemptive Criticism: The Contemporaneity of
Walter Benjamin," New German Critique 17 (1979).
Benjamin, Illuminations., 258-261.
His critique is directed at the German Social Democrats. Ibid., 260.
Lunn, Marxism and Modernism., 228. This position made Benjamin more like an anarchistic Nietzsche; this is
something of a return to his intellectual roots.
Benjamin, Illuminations., 254 and 260.
This is why Anderson quotes Tom Nairn, ‘The theory of nationalism represents Marxism’s great historical
failure’, at the beginning of Imagined Communities. Anderson, Imagined Communities : Reflections on the
Origin and Spread of Nationalism., 3.
Here Anderson is also drawing heavily on Eric Auerbach. His unreferenced example of the importance of
from Erich Auerbach, Mimesis, trans. William Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013)., 180.
temporal coincidence. The formal features of the novel and newspaper, two key
print commodities, promoted a sense of flat, progressive time. Thus, they
contributed to the breakdown of cosmological imaginings. In contrast to Benjamin’s
pessimism towards the “progress” of homogenous, empty time, Anderson finds a
silver lining in its facilitation of the imagining of egalitarian communities.
The metaphor of the Angel of History also comes from Benjamin’s History.
Anderson quotes the ninth theses in closing Imagined Communities, and also begins
with a quote from it in the most recent introduction to Imagined Communities.
redeeming the past in the face of homogenous, empty time, while the Angel can be
understood as a loss of that hope: it is the idea of progress as piles of ‘wreckage
In choosing to conclude with the Angel, Anderson suggests he is
same way. From the ‘wreckage’, he salvages nationalism. In the following sections I
further consider, in light of criticisms of Anderson, the way in which the use of the
Angel reveals that Anderson’s stance towards Benjamin, and to nationalism, is more
subtle than some critics would have it, and perhaps what this initial explanation can
I now consider two criticisms of Anderson that relate to his reading of Benjamin.
The first criticism is that Anderson sometimes stretches the application of
Benjamin’s views on aura (namely, that when cultural objects are mass produced
and circulated, they lose aura, or, authenticity) too far in explaining both the
spread of nationalism and the maintenance of contemporary nationalism through
bound and unbound serialities.
For Redfield, Anderson’s use of this idea too
He believes that overstating the aura-less nature of official
Anderson, Imagined Communities : Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism., xi and 161-2. ‘His
keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the
dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his
wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the
future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we
call progress.’, Benjamin, Illuminations., 257-8.
John Kelly, "Time and the Global: Against the Homogenous, Empty Communities in Contemporary Social
I agree with Harootunian that while Anderson has used other metaphors to explain the manner in which nationalism
of the original. H.D. Harootunian, "Ghostly Comparisons: Anderson's Telescope," Diacritics 29, no. 4 (1999)., 140.
Marc Redfield, "Imagi-Nation: The Imagined Community and the Aesthetics of Mourning," ibid., 72.
nationalist cultural objects does not do justice to the ambiva lent relations between
but intertwined, suggesting that Anderson would also accept a level of
Nevertheless, Redfield may also be right that Anderson at times
empty time to nationalism.
Kelly, for example, argues that while Anderson begins
Greater emphasis on Messianic time, since it ruptures
is taken to be Anderson’s overly positive stance towards the nation. Kelly believes
that Anderson’s decision to drop Benjamin’s Messianism (against the nation) plays
into the hands of the status quo - the ‘fictional global genealogy of American
seriality, and therefore, to Anderson’s hopes (‘utopian’ according to Chatterjee) for
popular nationalism against official nationalism.
Chatterjee argues that the real
ethnicity) with global capitalism and its utopian time (the imaginary time of capital
that makes markets, prices and nations possible).
The real, those customs and
Anderson’s views stem from his one sided view of modernity, one which
emphasises the dominance of homogenous, empty time.
The fact that not many commentators on Imagined Communities read this volume is also noted in Pheng
Anderson is most probably aware, and takes account, of criticisms of Benjamin’s Mechanical Reproduction
theory as easily generalisable; perhaps this applies to Anderson also. Lunn, Marxism and Modernism., 140.
In a longer essay I would elaborate how the first criticism and second criticism are complementary and
For a useful definition of modernity see Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity (Durham: Duke University
Kelly, "Time and the Global: Against the Homogenous, Empty Communities in Contemporary Social Theory.",
particularly related to Benjamin, however. In contrast, Redfield sees Anderson as part of a Romantic tradition
that sees the nation as willed: Redfield, "Imagi-Nation: The Imagined Community and the Aesthetics of
Partha Chatterjee, "Anderson's Utopia," ibid., 130.
See generally ibid.
claims (and we can extend this scepticism to Kelly).
and modernity’, by assuming identity between capitalism and modernity.
However, as Anderson stresses, death and linguistic diversity cannot be subsumed
misunderstands or does not engage clearly with this point, only remaining hopeful
that capitalism will undercut postcolonial nationalism, making room for an
“authentic” alternative. However, capitalism destroys authenticity but has also
allowed for the ‘spectre of comparisons’ in which anticolonial nationalism
Anderson himself offers something of a response to Chatterjee and Kelly,
counterpoint to his decision to place the Angel of History at the end of Imagined
followed until now and to which critics such as Kelly responded to). Anderson
introduces the text as ‘political astronomy’ aiming to make connections between
various anti-colonial nationalisms and European anarchism of the belle epoque.
This is a cosmological approach, demonstrating Anderson’s willingness to engage
prefiguring of our own time: in our contemporary era of globalisation, according to
Anderson, anarchism is again dominant on the Left.
The title of the text makes
Against Kelly and Chatterjee, Anderson makes clear that he is not adverse to non -
nationalist politics as they seem to think, but rather is suspicious of the State and
and is willing to make use of Benjaminian cosmological
in the process. The real line of cleavage that remains, then,
nationalism but on the nature and (Left) political usefulness of the State.
H.D. Harootunian, "Ghostly Comparisons: Anderson's Telescope," ibid. See also Andrew Parker, "Bogeyman:
H.D. Harootunian, "Ghostly Comparisons: Anderson's Telescope," ibid., 141.
Anderson, Under Three Flags : Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination., 1-2 and 5.
‘It remains only to say that if readers find in this text a number of parallels and resonances with our own
time, they will not be mistaken’. Ibid., 7-8.
The Spectre of Comparisons : Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World., 29.
See Lunn n31 above regarding Benjamin’s own anarchistic tendencies.
I take this phrase from Habermas, "Consciousness-Raising or Redemptive Criticism: The Contemporaneity of
Anderson seems to be aware of Benjamin’s own anarchistic outlook, perhaps more than the critics.
In formulating his theory of nationalism, Anderson remains remarkably true to the
spirit of the two texts by Benjamin that I have focused on in this essay: Mechanical
with Benjamin in which capitalism destroys religious imagin aries (or aura) and
allows for new cultural meaning. The “optimistic” Benjamin was hopeful that new
cultural meaning would be of political significance (for Communism). Analytically,
Anderson sides more with this Benjamin, albeit moving the analysis to pre -
industrial print-capitalism. As a result of this shift in focus, Anderson sees
nationalism (rather than Communism), as a cultural product of fatality (death,
language), capitalism and technology, which comes to be of political significance.
Meanwhile, the “pessimistic” Benjamin was aware that the processes allowing for
his optimistic view of mechanical reproduction were undercutting the thrust of
Communism through the cultural idea of progress. Kelly comments that ‘the nation
first commands Anderson’s attention as the killer of a utopian political aesthetic
[Communism]’ and reveals this utopia as fantasy.
In a sense, while Anderson
the same. Benjamin offered redemptive criticism as a way out of the idea of
progress. Anderson, while certainly eliciting a preference for the Angel of History
over Messianism, does not ignore this option of redemptive criticism as much as
some critics would have it.
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———. Language and Power : Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia. Ithaca, N.Y.: Ithaca, N.Y. :
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———. The Spectre of Comparisons : Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World. New York
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———. Under Three Flags : Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination. Anarchism and the Anti-
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