Benedict Anderson, author of Imagined Communities, defines a nation as “an imagined political community” (6). Why imagined? “[B]ecause the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (6).
In the 1988 documentary Cannibal Tours, in which Papua New Guinea is explored by a few tourists, a native man discusses the history of his island and how life has changed since the arrival of white people. He refers to the white tourists as ghosts due to their pale skin, explaining that the European visitors look like the spirits of their deceased ancestors (and noting that New Guineans don’t actually believe that the tourists are ghosts). In so doing, the man groups himself with all of the other villages, acknowledging that referring to tourists as ghosts is a nation-wide practice: We think this way; we refer to you in this way. While the interviewee could not actually know if every single person native to Papua New Guinea speaks of tourists in the manner described, he recognizes this tendency as a cultural practice, one tiny, detailed element of what it means to be a native member of the nation of Papua New Guinea.
Conversely, the interviewee conveys a hazy notion of the differences between the nations of Europe when he compares them to different villages, given that Europeans from different countries see themselves as quite separate from one another with disparate bloodlines and heritages. This interview in Cannibal Tours illustrates that even as we create for ourselves an imagined community united by similarity, we naturally see our own communities in a more complex light. We indirectly realize their imagined nature by breaking the largest community that we identify with into smaller sub-components, often governed by geographical boundaries to give these otherwise arbitrary lines tangibility. For example, members of the European Union break their community down into separate countries: Germany, Spain, France, Sweden, etc., but to the interviewee from Papua New Guinea, they’re all just white people. On the other hand, an average white European might look at someone from Rwanda, for example, and only find themselves capable of noting that the person is black, or perhaps African based on accent or style of dress. Even if they could correctly guess the person’s country, Rwandans further distinguish themselves by three separate races, including the Hutus and Tutsis, distinctions that led to genocide in 1994. When each imagined community creates a detailed-but-still-unified “us” vs. a less-detailed but still unified “them”, it forms the basis of stereotyping – the oversimplification and dehumanization of the other, a somewhat ironic practice considering that in order to see our own communities as unified, we must still oversimplify our own differences to a certain extent.
Furthermore, imagined communities extend beyond literal nation-states. Bill Nichols notes in the eighth chapter of Introduction to Documentary that “all identities are provisional in their construction and political in their implications” (182). By Anderson’s definition, then, all women, for example, are a type of imagined ‘nation.’ In creating such a broad categorization, we witness the sheer impossibility of pinning down, speaking for, or representing such a massive group of people, and yet, as Anderson’s definition suggests, this is what we do when we create the idea of a ‘nation’ in our minds – we affirm to ourselves that there is a large majority of people who are like us – who look, think, act, and believe as we do – and because so many people think as we do, we must be right. Breaking down the psychological process of imagining ourselves part of a community explains why the concept of gender fluidity, for example, is unnerving to many people, even if those accused of androgynous behavior are simply stretching arbitrary norms constructed in order to form a unified societal identity – norms such as ‘women wear dresses and men do not.’ Paris is Burning (1990) illustrates the negative consequences that those who perform in drag may experience for breaking the popular societal belief that women and men should be easily distinguishable from one another – if this belief forms a part of our nation’s overall identity and defines the sub-identities of individuals in that nation, then when such a belief is challenged, it may appear to some that the nation’s identity and thus the nation itself is threatened. A member of that nation may feel that because most women and men in their society are distinguishable from each other, an androgynous person is “wrong.”
One could argue that the primary representative of most Western nations is a white, straight, male property owner. Any other identity, in the words of Nichols, “has a contingent, political dimension to it” and “runs counter to any notion of a fixed or essentialized group identity” (182). Thus in Cannibal Tours, a likely unintentional but reflexive tendency of the filmmaker might be explained as the ‘other-ing’ of a group of people he sees as separate from his own political community of white men: white women. Throughout the film, the camera regularly focuses on the midsections of the female tourists, sometimes panning slowly, other times zooming in. While it could be argued that the cinematographer was simply mocking the tourists’ obsession with their own body images, there is no male equivalent in the syntax of camera-movement – such panning and zooming on a male body would seem both novel and bizarre. Thus even the German community of tourists is (perhaps accidentally) fractured into political sub-components – male and female: The former receives the chance to represent themselves and their communities in full detail – both through thoughts and full physical presence – where as the latter community is often reduced to an objectified (oversimplified) image of body parts.
Thus one’s own communities versus another’s are imagined in differing amounts of depth; Paris Is Burning and Cannibal Tours respectively illustrate that people are often repulsed and confused by differences within one’s own community and unaware of the complexities of another’s.
Anderson, Benedict. “Imagined Communities.” Rebels-Library.org, rebels- library.org/files/imagined_communities.pdf.
Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary, 3rd ed., Indiana University Press, 2017.