Alain de Botton on Imagined Communities

alain de botton photo

Alain de Botton by Chris Boland via Flickr

“It is so hard to get to know a nation.  Even the smallest countries have so many people in them that no individual could hope to meet up with more than a fraction of them across a highly sociable lifetime… We are therefore left to form impressions of our communities in indirect ways, in our imaginations rather than in actuality, and we do so with the help of two tools in particular… The first of these is architecture…  The second tool with which we get to know the character of others is, of course, the news.  It is the news that introduces us to a far wider range of human beings than we could ever meet in person, and over that time, through the stories it runs and the way it comments on them, forms an idea in our minds about the kind of country we live in.”
-Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual

I have been slowly making my way through Alain de Botton’s The News, which is wonderful, and which I highly recommend.  This quote is, to me, one of the first really provocative ideas in the book.

The idea seems to owe a lot to Benedict Anderson’s landmark book Imagined Communities, which theorizes that nations are held together by mythologies that tie vast groups of people who will never meet face to face.  That social construction–the nation as a body with which individuals identify–can be used to mobilize disperse communities to common action.

Unlike Anderson, de Botton’s goal in this (brief) section is not to explain nationalism, but rather to describe the mechanisms by which such imagined communities are created.  As I was driving to work last week, I was mulling over the two things that de Botton thinks allow us to make conclusions about the people in our community we will never meet: architecture and the news.

My first inclination was to agree.  On my thirty-minute drive to work, I can quickly get a sense of the rapidly shifting demographics of the neighborhoods as I drive through: east Hollywood, Beverly Hills, the west side of Los Angeles.

And, it seems perfectly reasonable that the news provides a sort of baseline expectation of what the world is like, and that someone who gets his news from KPCC (a local NPR station) is going to have subtly different assumptions about his neighbors than someone who reads the L.A. Times, for instance.

I was then jarred from my reverie by some boneheaded vehicular maneuver in front of me.

I realized that my main interaction with people who I will most likely never meet is in traffic, where I spend a depressing percentage of my day, and which definitely, definitely, definitely shapes my expectations and understanding of my fellow Angelenos, probably more than any other single factor.  It’s a more immediate, more personal interaction than driving through a neighborhood or passively consuming the news.  And the way I feel about the place where I live and the people who live here with me is very different when I step out of the car after an hour of rush hour traffic than it is when I, say, step off the subway after an extended delay in service.

This is an alarming thought.

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